Thursday, October 18, 2012
Kenneth Lee’s ‘SWEET SPOT’ Hits Home
Kenneth Lee’s ‘SWEET SPOT’ Hits Home
by Michael T. Steffen
While reading through Kenneth Lee’s recent book SWEET SPOT, my reader’s eye couldn’t leave the poem on page 32, “Final Diagnosis”—wondering again and again what kind of weight and seriousness the collection might have taken on had this poem been the first and titular poem, so profound the implications of genuine self-examination presented by the opening strophes:
Biopsy, anterior cervix: Moderate Dysplasia
sent Katherine McCloud for a conization
(removal of the core while leaving the apple)
which may have prevented a possible cancer
but later was blamed for the miscarriage
of a possibly beautiful daughter.
At 9:15 one Tuesday morning
I had deemed her nuclei too densely packed,
their shapes somewhat irregular
and their chromatin too coarse and darkly staining.
So Mary Ann McCloud was never born.
Though Lee in fact is a pathologist and Professor of Pathology, and the poem may well be an honest confession, the potential reach it has as metaphor is breathtaking. As metaphor the poet, that microcosmic god of imagination, makes decisions on future life to be or not to be. And, what is more, in doing so, he comes much later in life to question those decisions, wondering—
Had they been a little less crowded,
a little smoother, a little more powdery-looking,
I might have called them “mildly dysplastic,”
avoiding the procedure, and Mary Ann
would now be the mother of three.
And maybe they would be, were I to look
at that slide again, after thirty more years
of looking at them.
Lee goes on to summarize his practice in the lab, moving from familiar to technical vocabulary, using anaphora to close the poem very aptly with a wide statement that generalizes the pains any of us take on our paths to better knowing:
Thirty more years
deciding what’s fine and what’s coarse,
what’s granular, smudgy, bubbly,
what’s myxoid or hyaline,
cuboidal, columnar or flat.
Thirty more years of honing this art,
of coming to know a thing by what it’s not.
Magnetized under this moment, much of the rest of the book, recalling pristine moments of a life richly allowed, fond and endearing, takes on more poignancy—might have served as a reminder, had he dispersed the handful of “medical” poems throughout the chronologically linear sequence, how those special moments of our lives forever share a border with death, which ultimately gives our lives their meaning.
The title Lee has chosen, SWEET SPOT (not to be confused with the spot of joy on the cheek of Browning’s Duchess!) refers to the mid part of a baseball bat, that zero thick of the pine ideally a batter veers the bat into a pitch with, taken from the poem “Ground Rule Triple”
(page 11), another from the poet’s personal history:
That summer saw the end of pick-up stickball;
chasing the flies thenceforth was supervised.
So I learned to fear the flubbing of a grounder,
flailed at laughing fast-balls flying past.
But once one came in fat and I connected,
met it in the sweet spot, sent it a mile.
It bounced into the woods (we didn’t have a fence)
and they gave me a ground rule triple…
As the title for the book, symbolically this sweet spot associates, I think, with what we call the “soft spot” in one’s heart, the innocent fondness with which most of these poems go about reminiscing. To this extent, the poem chosen to open the book, “309 Griggs Avenue,” is both exemplary and charged with incipience, already displaying the poet’s familiar yet separate consciousness as a cosmogenic agent, or
…master of the linoleum.
I roam there with a wooden brindle cow,
a bright red fire truck, a small giraffe.
Like pale blue streams the liquid hours run…
The objects here so effortlessly placed from the poet’s childhood memory (cow, fire truck, giraffe, streams of hours) gleam associatively for nearly all there is surrounding any of us: providence, danger, endearment and the magic of time’s machinery.
Lee sustains this quality of consciousness throughout a book that demonstrates awareness of craft with keen turns of phrase. A home-made kite is “fractious,” ripples on a lake “nacreous,”
a Christmas tree with a Keatsian epithet “still-unravished.” A new bicycle’s fenders make “twin convex mirrors holding the whole neighborhood.”
SWEET SPOT by Kenneth Lee
can be purchased for $17.00
from Antrim House