Tuesday, May 19, 2009

One for the Ages

Sorry for the long hiatus. I'm not dead yet.

But this blog is likely to remain dark for a bit. My job is sucking a huge amount of my writing energy, and I'm trying to focus what little juice remains on a bigger project.

I will be popping up now and then when the news is worthwhile or the Muse comes knocking.


In the meantime, though, before I go back to radio silence for a while, I feel compelled to give a shout-out for a book I have recently been re-reading. For the sake of full disclosure: The author, Andrew Kozelka, is a friend of mine. We went to grad school at Hollins together, though I think we shared only one class, a theory seminar on short fiction. And while most of us young grad students were spending our nights hanging around, drinking, bantering wittily, hoping to show enough intellectual ankle to get us intellectually laid, this guy was burning the midnight oil in his little apartment in downtown Roanoke, churning out two novels and many of the first poems in the book below.

Every time I pick up The Ages, I am struck by a complex roster of emotions: The first is a rueful sense of irritation with the state of poetry publication in this day and age. Here is a book, dear readers, which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2005. A finalist, but it did not win, and then when Kozelka got tired of the ongoing slings and arrows of the contest submission system, he finally did that horrible, shiver-inducing thing which can draw hushed gasps of disgust even from those who know the meaning of the slang term "Dirty Sanchez": He self-published it.

While the innocent among you are googling the term (I tell you now, you'll be happier if you don't), I ask the rest: Has Kozelka, by dropping into the self-publishing well, dipped himself in tar which can never be peeled away?

Maybe he could have gone on playing the game. Maybe he should have. Every time I pick up the book, I argue with myself about it, the angel on one shoulder soothing, It's out there, the devil on the other seething, No one will read it.

Oh, but that's just the first emotion. The second one comes on as I start reading: envy. Deep, lustful envy of these poems. The kind I very rarely experience, that Why the hell aren't I smart enough to write this? sort of feeling. Then, as I read further, the envy vanishes and turns into excitement. Excitement at their ambition, their leaps of imagination, their historical scope, their black humor, their multiplicity of form, their willingness to scavenge through the darkness and bring up gold and icons and drowned slaves and dead czars and heroes who are known as heroes because they killed many, many people.

I realize I am waxing all slobbery here, but I cannot help it: the cumulative power of these poems taken together is hard to overstate. Every time I read them, they make me want to write more, and read more, and simultaneously they make me want to throw every book in the room onto a pyre and light it and go be a throat-slitting pirate somewhere. Really. It is that good.

I'm going to just shut up now and drop a couple of my favorites below. Kozelka's dirty, filthy, self-published book of brilliance is available through Amazon. Buy it, and have a little source of dark light to put on your shelf.


The Age of Fable

From the village below the castle
The serfs can see the knights
Cavorting with pale ladies;
They can smell the delicate muttons,
They can feel the blatant unfairness
And what the priest tells them
Doesn't really help.

As for the Revolution
It's at least five hundred years away,
And so they make up stories.
In one, they're strong with rage.
An axe is in their hand. They go
Up to the castle and rape and kill
Everything that breathes.

Then they sit down at the great table
And stuff themselves.
They lay a tax upon the village.
The prettiest boys and girls
Are brought to their bed.
They sleep in. They kill off
Anyone who seems ambitious.

All the serfs in the village know this story,
Though not one has ever told it.


The Vision of St. Francis
in the Year of the Plague

Some children undertook
Another crusade
To stop a war their parents had made

But along the way they grew up, had children
Of their own,
And had to protect them with arrow and stone

And had to settle and build a fort
Where soon their children were asking the same sort
Of questions they used to:

Why the need for the wall?
Why even have enemies at all?
Why do we work? Why elect a prince?

It just doesn't make sense.
And so they went off on another crusade
To stop the war their parents had made.

But they didn't want it to be like before
And just end up fighting the same old war
And so when they saw the marauders approach

The children didn't go into a protective crouch
But instead ran out to the desert holding hands
And took to kissing in the sands.

Soon it had gotten dark out and the children couldn't see.
All of this was told to me
By my fever.


Teaching Japanese Children English
Not Far From the Hiroshima Peace Park

We the guilty form a wall around innocence,
Killing and being killed where we stand or attack
And there is nothing else between love and the dark,
No wall not of our making, no free-taken home,
And no consolation for the myriad displaced
But to pass briefly through pitiful gardens.