Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Briar Patch Selected Poems & Translations By J. Kates

The Briar Patch

Selected Poems & Translations

By J. Kates

Hobblebush Books

Brookline, New Hampshire


ISBN: 978-0-9845921-8-0

99 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

These poems by J. Kates pay attention in an unblinking way to the human condition. Their sometimes prickly, sometimes witty observations on life and art dance with stark, often startling insight. Kates uses rhyme, off-rhyme, and other formalist techniques with a light touch, bringing out the poetic moments, not overwhelming them. His dramatic details strike honest notes, whether he is bemoaning democracy’s wasting effect on artistry, recording the passionate violence in a lovers’ quarrel, or looking down a gun’s barrel. The poet’s introductory title piece sets the tone and it is, in its way, too true. He says,

… Everything’s attached.

In the briar patch whichever way

you turn, somebody gets scratched.

From the beginning of this book Kates seems to inject a bit of old time religion. The concept of predestination is trotted out front and center. Universal creation cues ennui. Even human tragedy and evil one generally expects as part of life. As you are slowing down looking at the next horrendous crack up, you hear the poetic traffic cop exclaim, “Nothing to see here; move along.” In the poem Six-Day Wonder, Kates describes the humdrum,

… The celebrated night-

and-day dichotomy had praise

from man, the delegate, whose chief end

was to make glory of all this

orderly chaos and pretend

that a small part of it was his.

The sun in place, nothing was new

under it. The stars were moved

because there was nothing else to do

but love, and be loved.

Notice the word pretend. In the poet’s predictable world, man must still pretend that he controls something, anything.

The poem entitled Range nicely connects the moving parts of our world. The author explains,

arrow and bow are not estranged—

archer and target shaft and field are brought

together by letting go,

and what the bowstring whispered in my ear

at that one instant they all know.

Life and art are part of the same picture. The whispering bowstring suggests the artist’s muse. Almost a companion piece to this poem is If Achilles Were a Point, another poem with movable parts. Here Kates portrays his version of Zeno’s paradox. He shows Achilles chasing his tortoise over the impossible infinite distance he must traverse by halves. The twist comes when the poet lets love into the equation and love conquers yet another man-made logic. Achilles, according to Kates, wants the tortoise shell as a love offering. The poet puts it this way,

{Achilles}, as the distance

narrowed by halves,

plunged his arms forward

into the illogic of victory

Pre-Christmas jingling songs depress this writer as it does many others. He wants relief from the predictable and the humdrum. In the poem Advent he even cites Yeats’ Second Coming—the beast slouching towards Bethlehem to no avail. But he still hopes. Here is how the poem ends:

The jingling songs we’re sick of,

not even a rough beast slouching

unless the wet cats

crying to be fed

or a special election

with no one special running.

Nothing is dry enough to burn.

We wait on the event

to make a season of these days:

a drop in temperature

crystallizing rain

to the snow it started out as,

that we had given up expecting.

The poem entitled The Genuine Monets compares the original paintings of the French impressionist that are kept in secure museums under scientific light to cheap prints of the same artist hanging presumably in the poet’s bedroom. Kates describes his cheap print this way,

…I have a poster

Of the pond with waterlilies

That I picked up at the Coop

For a dollar fifty.

And moving sunlight dances

every hour a different dance

around my waterlilies.

The shadow of the wooden bridge

alters with each cloud

outside my window.

A statue falls to begin the poem In Interesting Times. The falling statue of course represents liberation and the benefits therein. Kates suggests that liberation is not always conducive to the dynamic of art. In fact quite the opposite. Other things capture the imagination in a newly freed society. Porn for one. The poet complains,

…liberation wore thin

as the new flood of sleazy magazines

that showed nothing but skin, always more skin—

where was the blood?

Kates has a way of turning passion into detail and interesting detail at that. Two poems especially struck me: Weapons and Man with a Gun. In weapons the poet describes the household item thrown during a fight. He lists books and food and facts and ideas. Each item is hurtful in its own unique way. The poet makes that clear in his last stanza,

of all our effects

none is harmless.

This axe I sharpen

Is an eight-pound maul.

During the free verse piece Man with a Gun the man vanishes. The gun speaks , the gun threatens, and the gun controls. The poet records each detail,

The gun says

Give me all your money.

I have none.

Except for the jagged hole

The gun is speaking through

The window shows nothing

But my own reflection…

The poetic force here powers over fear and delivers.

The last section in this impressive book includes a set of translations. My favorite is Lamentation In Captivity by Richard the Lionhearted. Richard complains that he has not yet been ransomed by his brother King John et al. The verse is tightly structured, metered, and rhymed--almost a prison for Richard. He tries to be witty and subtle but teeters on the edge of losing it. This is a very, very well done piece. Great book!

1 comment:

  1. Yet another goddam good review by Dennis Daly! Makes me glad he reads more than I do. Lets me know there's stuff I oughta read.