THE BLUE TREE OF THE WIND
Night Flight reviewed by
Kerry Shawn Keys. Night Flight. Rockford, MI: PRESA :S: PRESS, 2012.
Kerry Shawn Keys is a poet of spirit and soul, of deepest experience. Mystical, witty, iconoclastic, erudite, sensual, harrowing and funny, he is also the unlikeliest combination of energies to inhabit a single sensibility. Indeed, in many of his previous books, these energies occasionally seem more at war than in concert, despite the many good poems in them. But here, in Night Flight, his latest of several dozen books, he seems to have journeyed to Robert Johnsons crossroads and come back blessed, because everything, or very nearly everything, works: the surreal, the absurd, the elegiac and the mystical combining in what is nothing short of a ravishing book.
The deep plunge into experience, whether that of the woods and streams of his native Pennsylvania, the former ghetto of Vilnius or the slums and hotspots of India and Brazil (one ear to the gutters of the martyred, the other to the dizzying dance of the deities), is driven by relentless rhythms, astonishing vocabulary (and almost Poundian range of reference), humor and pathos. Here, reflecting on the plight of the poet (specifically the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa):
poor Pessoa, one reads as one might read
the works of a disconsolate waterbug
confined by timidity to the corner
of a kitchen spending a lifetime
telling us how not to live. . . (Blue Sky)
Or here on spring and the urge for renewal:
And so, intimate stranger, I must lay the red rug out for you again,
my secret sharer, my friend, my shy, sugar-tongued pen,
and to the deserted parchment of the countryside, invoke your return.
Come C.O.D, come vagrant, come fluorescently flagrant,
Raven-quill, hummingbird beak, St. Jerome at his peak,
seed-pressed, oily ink in hand, rowing the air any way you can.
I want to inscribe new leaves on the blue tree of the wind. (Crocuses In Spring Incited This Paean)
Or here, simply a reflection on childhood and mother tongue, the coming to words:
Moon Moon again he cries
excited as his father always
to reproduce that drone of sound
the golden roundness of which
blind Borges envied the English. (The White Goddess)
Then there is the deep throb and rural bleakness of Elegy For Kathy Leonard that begins Her stepfather killed her with the back of an ax, and later invokes her:
Tonight, starlight foxtrots my classmates gravestone
like sequins of pyrite over the snowwhite gown
she was to fishtail in at the junior prom.
Its twenty years and then twenty years again,
and maybe twenty miles the way the crow flies
to the Susquehanna where dreary men still drop their lines
Through a wishing well of ice and wind
trying to latch onto something akin to the alien swish
of her dress, the sparkle of this stone, the Sphinx-like
Quicksilver of her smile. . .
Or the comical self-parody of rural living in Wheels Get Tired of Being Mechanical Forces describing a dilapidated cabin with two car tires holding down a leak patch on the roof that finally come down unceremoniously one spring, ending:
But only when my cat got kerplunked
by the tire sliding off the roof did the satori sink in
That the real reason for the invention of the wheel
was some mystical albeit teleological connection between
animals, leaky roofs, and a jerry-rigged excuse for a poem.
Or the theological fireworks of the All and Nothing of The Left Hand Speaks, dedicated to Tomas Transtromer, that ends
Not long ago, hearing The Sorrow Gondola,
my righthand man paid tribute in a poem.
Now listen. Look. Lightly laden with all of life,
transparent and black in the evening light, I am rowing.
I am rowing this gondola whirling like a dervish
in an endless circle toward God.
Obviously sound, often lush sound, is an important part of a Keys poem, along with story and image. Cadence, internal rhyme and alliteration, sometimes even joke-rhyme, are all part of his Sufi dance of veils and spells. And then, sometimes, he will let a poem float down the page with the apparent artlessness of absolute mastery:
how long its been
since you came
with your red napkin
to my table to dine.
The suns gone down
ten thousand times,
the moon risen the same.
bloody on the lawn
sideways to nothing,
through your brain,
There are 57 poems in this very large little book whose rich diversity and haunting qualities I can only hope to hint at. I conclude by quoting in full the first poem in the book, one that, for me, displays the wealth of Mr. Keys gifts for synthesizing complex experience of both inner and outer worlds. To me it is emblematic of the sum of the Night Flight experience, reminding me of a phrase Robert Penn Warren once used in praise of another spiritual poet, saying he had been denied nothing and spared nothing.
the river flows like a silver quill into an inkwell
of woods and words
as it deepens
tunes her stone bow
to deaths dark song
as it quickens
the quarter moon grins over lush leaves and listens
to the frogs peep
the decoys dive
the carps dreams
and a blacksnake glistens down the sycamores skin
like a rainbow
while the river contrails through the blue shivering vein
of your aching
until at last you understand the majestic indifference of
the Promised Land
its blue flowers
the rising sun