Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bear Crossing. Kell Robertson.

Bear Crossing. Kell Robertson. ( Pathwise Press. 2311 Broadway St. New Orleans, LA 70125

Well…I am a dyed-in-the wool creature of the asphalt, a denizen of the rarefied air of Boston, a stranger to the West, cowboys, and the charms and horrors of the hinterlands. So I am an unlikely reviewer for “Bear Crossing,” a collection of poetry from Kell Robertson republished by the Pathwise Press. Robertson is a wizened old cowboy poet, songwriter, vagabond, ner-do-well, drunk…if he is telling the truth. Of course he quotes Faulkner, which may bring some doubt:

“I don’t have much patience with the facts, and any writer is a congenital liar to begin with or he wouldn’t take up writing.”

I did find much to recommend in this chap. Robertson works well with the “white trash” vernacular, the tall tales, and the drunken fonts of wisdom he comes across during his sojourn through the backwaters. Here is a well-observed slice-of-life in a down-at-the-heels town, titled: “Taos Plaza”

“… A young girl
lifts her skirt
to scratch
the staph infection
on her plump thigh

the local Mexican lover boys
are disgusted, “Shit
I wouldn’t fuck her
with somebody else’s dick.

Sun Hawk
one of Geronimo’s grandsons
is pleased when
I say hello, says:

“I am glad someone
remembers Sun Hawk.”

then heads for
the infection ridden girl
in a very straight line.”

In the poem “Sue” Robertson uses grotesquely dried apples as a silent Greek chorus to the lives of quiet desperation in some dusty tourist stop along the road:

“Her husband makes faces
out of dried apples
which wrinkle up
into a line
of grotesques
which she sells here
over the cash register.
Since his back went out
it’s about all that he can do
except well, sometimes
he drinks too much.
The tourist couple
in the corner booth
look again at their
Triple A map
as she walks into the kitchen
the husband’s eyes
follow her very fine ass
as if it was
the sun going down
for the very last time.”


A response to the review from the publisher:

Hello Doug,
I hope this finds you well. I wanted to thank you for your review of Kell
Robertson's Bear Crossing. As you know, any review for a small press
publication is a triumph...especially as more and more review sources dry
up. I appreciate the time you took to read and evaluate the book. This is
a book that saw many delays but now that it is out, folks are excited about

However, I do take issue with a couple turns of phrase you use in your
review, and quite frankly, find them extremely prejudiced. I have reviewed
many books over the years and have always made it a principle to give honest
reviews, even if negative ones. However, I have never given descriptions of
the poet, simply the work being reviewed. While Kell will be the first to
proudly state that his biography can be found in the lines of his work, we
both know that most writers use hyperbole and imagination. Even when
reviewing the most blantantly Bukowski-worshipping tripe, I've never called
a poet a "drunk"...I've said the poet's work was awash in shallow drunken
metaphor, but that's it. There is a line in descibing the author and the
author's work, especially when one does not know the author personally. Of
course, you do elude to the question of truthfullness in Kell's work, which
mitigates your choice of description somewhat.

To be honest, perhaps the part that stuck me the most was the description of
Kell's writing as a "white trash" vernacular of the "backwaters". To be
honest, Doug, this bites of east coast elitism. I hate to sound jingoist
and the rust-belt, bible-belt, prairie-lands rally type, but when I read
something like that I'm willing to suggest that you rent a car, find the
first highway that takes you west and go discover a bit of America, my
friend. Perhaps it is my Midwestern background raising hackles, but there
is more to this country and its poetry than what is found in Harvard Square.
Kell has been around for many years and I've corresponded with him enough
to know that his knowledge, understanding and depth of history, politics,
literature and the reality of day-to-day living is one born of real
understanding and experience combined with a healthy dose of daily reading.

There is more to lands west of New England than mere backwaters (although
there are plenty of those here and in your locale). I don't take exception
to your background of asphalt and rareifed air (that would be hypocritical
given what I've said above), but personally, when I've encountered a book
that speaks to a life different from my own, I've either taken that as a
sign to expand my knowledge and plunged deeply within or I've politely
declined to read and review. This is a large country and its literature
stretches from Hawthorne's New England to Anderson's Ohio to Faulkner's
South to the pueblos of Leslie Marmon Silko.

Again, Doug, as the publisher, I appreciate the time you took with the book.
And by all means, ignore this message, keep the review on your blog as it
is...that's your perogative...or add this message as a form of debate in the
best Socratic tradition. Above all else, as Kell would say..."Ride Easy"...

Christopher Harter
Pathwise Press/Bathtub Gin

FORTHCOMING BOOK: from Scarecrow Press: "An Author Index to Little
The 1960s/70s Mimeograph Revolution" -- contact
for information.


  1. Anonymous3:17 PM

    I realize this is old, and I cannot believe no one has commented on it yet. But I have to step in and say I agree with Christopher Harter 100%. White trash?!! Not only is that an insulting stereotype, it is absolutely wrong. I suppose those of us from the muddy back roads are in the last group it's okay to offend.

    Kell Robertson is a poetic genius. The HUMAN BEINGS he writes about are living, breathing, well rounded characters, not stereotypes from prime time.

    Kell Robertson's poetry has all of the elements that make poetry great. But in addition to that, it has soul. Is every character in poetry supposed to be a yuppie? I think not.

    Please go back and read his poems again. Look at the music, the line breaths, the structure of the work. The nuts and bolts. It is astounding.

    Please don't think I'm angry at you, because I'm not. I realize you say good things about his work. I also realize you're responding from your own culture, which I respect. I admit I am sensitive to this subject, because I write in this "white trash vernacular" myself sometimes, though I will never be as great as Kell Robertson.

    However, I often feel marginalized by poets who should know better than to marginalize anybody. If poets of all voices don't stick together, then we may as well give it up, because the rest of the world surely doesn't give a damn about us.

    But I will go to my grave telling anyone who will listen what a poetic genius we have in Kell Robertson. We are so fortunate to have his work. Yes, thank you for reviewing his book. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to chip in my two wooden nickels.

  2. Anonymous1:16 PM

    Kel passed on yesterday, 11-7-11, at his abode near Santa Fe, NM surrounded by friends and family.

    Ride Easy my friend