Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Before Whose Glory, by Lawrence Kessenich


Before Whose Glory, by Lawrence Kessenich
FutureCycle Press, 2013

There is a lot to enjoy and admire in this collection of poems by Mr. Kessenich, who won the prestigious 2010 Stokestown Poetry prize. Rather than comparing it to another book of poetry, I find myself thinking of Don DeLillo’s 1998 novel Underworld, one of the most ambitious, momentous, and critically acclaimed works in the history of American fiction.

At only 81 pages (compared to Underworld’s 827), Before Whose Glory is naturally a more modest proposition. But it shares its predecessor’s ability to illuminate half a century of American experience by utilizing the viewpoints of multiple characters, in situations ranging from the historically pivotal to the curious to the seemingly inconsequential. Along the way, Kessenich manages to elicit a full range of appropriate emotions—delight, despair, awe, and more than one world-view changing epiphany.

The collection is presented in five sections: Permeable Borders, Even the Biggest Family, Paper Boy, Beauty on the Bus, and Blazing Heart. Along the way the reader learns about—among other things—Fatal Insomnia (a real disease), Henry Miller and ping-pong, what it might have been like to sleep with Jacqueline Kennedy, how the Atomic Bomb changed children’s and adults’ thinking on a visceral level, and the journey of a piano to the top of a mountain.

One of the great things about reading any of these poems is never saying to yourself, “I wonder what that was supposed to be about,” an all-too-common problem with much contemporary writing. Besides poetry, Mr. Kessenich has also published a number of essays, and had several plays produced; it comes as no surprise, then, that he can actually communicate.

If you’re a writer, you’ll probably find yourself shaking your head after reading some of these poems, asking “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s perfect, and it seems so obvious, now.” This, of course, is one of the marks of a great poem.

If you want to get a feel for the evolving, multi-faceted American experience since around 1950, get a copy of Underworld and Before Whose Glory. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

—Kirk Etherton, 2013

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