Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review of Kevin Rabas's poetry collection, Bird's Horn & Other Poems

Rabas’s subject matter is a revolving door of topics: the poems in this collection explore everything from the jazz he swoons over to the particularities of love, writing, and family. The collection travels interesting territory: from jazz clubs in Kansas City to rural sculpture gardens and family anecdotes and a father’s rite of passage.

Legend is a common theme in this collection, and it extends from depictions of such icons as Charlie “Bird” Parker and family lore about “your father’s mother’s people." Rabas has reverence for the world’s quiet moments just as he holds a great love for the jazz alluded to in the collection’s title. In the title poem, Rabas writes:

Nights, I lent him my horn.
Afternoons, I wrapped my hands
around the horn Bird blew.
This was not unusual. Bird was often
without a horn. He’d blow into town, and everyone
would offer him one. He’d play anything.
Played a plastic saxophone, especially made,
just above the level of a toy in Toronto, I’m told.
They kept it. Put it in a museum.
Piece of plastic, played once, full of only
his spit. I didn’t learn a damn thing from him,
except to keep my hands
on my horn, keep my
hands on my horn
whatever horn I had.

This poem’s every twist and turn is highly controlled: one cannot deny its sly sense of humor circling the circumstances, skilled enjambment, and tornado-like shape? Rabas is well-aware of how legend is made – through repetition of story – and the artifacts, the toy-like sax Parker once touched, are met with the poet’s snark. The ending lines of this poem are like a hymn; the repetition in of sound and words is intoxicating. This is a poem to turn to when looking for Rabas’s collisions of sound and meaning: his sense of the line is keen, and what’s even keener is his sense of syncopation. Like Fulton’s fractal verse theory, the order of this poem is found in its disorder. The order in this poem is like whirlwind: one only ends the poem to begin it again.

The enjambment and repetition of “Love at Once” is like the best scatting and wailing of any blues song. Here, love revolves around the push-pull of expectation. Rabas begins the poem by writing,

She always found it easy to love,
and he found it hard to find love,
although there were few he did not
love. She gave everything at once,
and gave nothing until he knew
he could have everything
at once, until he knew he would not lose
everything at once, until he knew.

Again, Rabas uses repetition to pull the reader into the poem’s leaps. The yin yang pull of the poem’s partners is represented by the very structure of the poem. The connotations to a magnet are not accidental. There is a ripple-effect to these poems: we see the poetic lake and moments of change, but the change vibrates past the page, just as context shudders in the background.

If there’s a stutter to the collection, it’s when Rabas is too bogged down in context and story and when an image is too directly told: sometimes the charge of an idea or moment doesn’t translate and the music seems notched down for the sake of meaning. Is it fair to ask this skilled poet to forsake meaning for the grand leaps and crafty line work? Probably not: these images and stories mean something or this poet wouldn’t have made them timeless.

Rabas does find a balance between the jazz poems that focus on sound and the later narratives that focus on family, students, and fatherhood. His poem, “The Moon,” is able to reach past narrative or statement and tap into the music of his jazz poems. He writes:

Don’t wait until you’re under. Don’t wait
until they’ve dressed you in a gown
with a slit along your spine. Don’t wait.
They’ll white-wall you, plastic glove you,
breathe into you from a plastic mask, metal tank.
They’ll fill your arms, your chest, with tubes –
use long, spent, see-through tubes on you,
never roots, never stems, never
fingertips on your chest, nor lips.
That cold touch of coffin sides holds
beneath every wheel and every rail.

Everlasting day, say goodbye to night.
We’ve cut and sectioned our moon
and tied its pieces to our ceilings,
put the pale, big-bellied man on a rack
and split him, carted his parts
in every separate direction.
When we each keep a piece of him, he dims.
And we wonder why we can’t keep from staring
deep, deep into our TVs. We’re spot welding,
searching for another star. No, we’re
cooking our eyes with filament, lit wire.

Here, we have a poem that moves in and out of perspective. Here, we have Rabas’s trademark repetition and rat-a-tat-tatting pumping through a poem about life. The rhythm of this poem is controlled, and, like the other poems in this collection, there are grand leaps of logic and image. The piece begins with direct pleas to the reader, to the self, and to the world, as the poem progresses, the language grows more and more wild.

This is a poet to watch: his leaps of logic, use of line, and musical sensibilities are a breath of fresh air. Here, we have work that’s skilled without bowing to revision’s soul-sucking plague. Here, we have a poet who swings from poetry’s branches.

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