A house down around the block is getting a new roof, hammers echoing like giant flickers. Since the big virus outbreak the neighborhood seems quieter, fewer cars speeding up the bumpless street, the park above closed to the outdoor concerts, though a few bicycle races and random music groups have come and gone. We frequently hear music though, through the trees, over the roofs, through the backyard fences, but can’t always be sure of where the sound is coming from. No fireworks this year. Not a single yard sale. But some noise seems louder, the trash trucks on their weekly binge, the mailman at the mailbox, the yapping yellow dog behind and a yard over, skateboards, our tinnitus.
A loss of sound seems paradoxically to quicken our sense of hearing. That is dynamics, change in pressure and temperature, frequency and consistency. Some sounds we don’t hear until they go silent. Sound can baffle, bounce around dancingly. If you’re uncertain where a sound, particularly a voice, is coming from, the disorienting distraction bewilders. Just because you don’t hear a sound doesn’t mean you can’t feel it, its pressure in your ears, resounding around your head. Likewise, you might hear voices, but the words lack clarity, and you can’t make out what’s being said.
Some sounds are tight, other loose fitting. A flash flood of sound leaves a wake of mud. The beginning of rain drips into the ears, like its relative petrichor, that newly wet earthy scent in the nose, a slow awakening to something that’s been asleep for a long time and is now looking for a new bed to spend the night, one of your ears unfolding asymmetrically.
Some writers, it seems, hard to read, struggle to get a piece going unless they have something to talk about, but something to talk about doesn’t come from the same reservoir as having something to say. Some of our most interesting and arresting writers have written profoundly, enjoyably, articulately, about, by all appearances, nothing. Others wait until fit to be tied with a topic under the acrimonious assumption readers are awaiting their latest culled diatribe.
Men’s neckties provide rich fodder for topic matter. The tie is a remarkable piece of nothing. The necktie reached a new height with Annie Hall, who looked and moved like she was taking cues from Charlie Chaplin. After Annie Hall, the necktie could only be pastiche and kitsch and irony. But Annie, or Woody, wasn’t the first out of Hollywood to use the tie to say something at once both memorable and forgettable. W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton – all sported neckties as part of their costume, part of their act. Rodney Dangerfield mastered the wearing of a loose tie, and of using the tie as an expressive prop for his hands. Rodney rarely appeared without a tie, usually wore a red one, and he wasn’t as funny tieless, open-collared. Only with his tie on could he reach the proper level of fit to be tied where his humor worked.
Donning a tie of course is no guarantee to successful stand-up, won’t necessarily make you funny. On the contrary, ties usually suggest a portent, a serious person. White collar workers wore ties because their work was often so unintelligible and without obvious skill that they needed something to enhance their heft in society. Without a necktie, the white collar worker could easily be mistaken for a bum, someone characteristically out of work. To go on a bummer is to loaf about with no clear or obvious purpose, a near perfect description of the average white collar worker. At the same time, a loose tie, particularly when worn toward the late afternoon, may suggest one has been hard at work. Either that or the office air conditioner is on the fritz.
The opposite of wearing a tie, if one is out and about, is wearing only an undershirt. The t-shirt was invented to be worn inside, an undergarment, worn under an overshirt, not to be seen. Originally titled “The Poker Night,” Tennessee Williams’s play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” dresses Stanley Kowalski in a t-shirt, hot and sweaty on a humid August Southern night, drinking and smoking, worked up and fit to be tied. Stanley enters, “roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes. Stanley carries his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s.” Tennessee Williams might have dressed Stanley in a tie, had he known more about office workers.
But it turns out Stanley does wear a tie, has a collection of three. Or maybe we’re confusing the play with the happier ending movie. In any case, it just goes to show anyone can wear a tie, and it means nothing.
If to identify is to accuse, I probably shouldn’t mention Keith Kopka’s travelling punk band past in easy to get front row outlier venues where the stage is so close to the audience sweat exchanges and curls the tickets, nor mention his emergence as a poet with enough good material to fill a book, “Count Four.” Good title for a book of poems, readers waiting for the rim shot, the close cadence that bridges music and language, a command, like Basic Training drill marching, the poet soldier the sensitive one who saves the Motel 8 (or 6 or 4 or 12 bar blues) weekend pass receipt on the back of which is scribbled a waitress’s name and phone number which might appear in some future poem about a past mistake. She gotta way, don’t she, babe. And we’ll never know if she’s still a waitress (speaking of identity, and so what if she is?) or if she found success (if not happiness in apple pie crust) by turning her con artist skills into legitimate work as an adjunct and now only waitresses part time to make ends meet:
She’s a waitress, no older than nineteen, mouth caked in lipstick, pie flour streaked on her thigh. Watching her, I can tell by how she keeps her apron on during sex, that she’ll wait tables forever.
III. Lafayette, Indiana, Star City (50)
Kopka’s poetry seems to successfully bridge what should satisfy simultaneously the respectable academic reader with diplomatic credentials and the still street smart fighting guys and gals intellectually inclined but unwilling to sell their future for a degree, happy to wait for an encore they know deep down where the blood runs true will never come:
but on the entire crowd who continues to believe it, when you sing about the coal vein of hillbilly music being the only thing that keep you hangin’ on, the expensive idea that you still break our hearts, and have your heart broken.
Dwight Yoakam’s Hat (89)
Just so the key to the effectiveness and efficiencies of Kopka’s poems, which will be popular scratched on the walls of an egalitarian latrine or published in the pure pages of a Poetry magazine, where normal wears formal:
Asia is a sexual astronaut, surrounded by a radiated halo, a solar system of pleasure choices, links to videos, and a chat room.
Asia Carrera’s XXX Butt-kicking Homepage, 1998 (12)
Yet there are domestic, familial, moral imperatives, purposeful and meaningful roots to Kopka’s poetry. One doesn’t become a Punk (or poet) by chance, but by choice. The decision is existential and requires a rebirth. All life begins as a kid and spins like a top:
By then I’d circled all the way around to my father’s house again. Same house I grew up in. So I ring the doorbell, and when my father answers I start to name what I’ve lifted.
His dad sets him up in a suit in a poem that contains the ritual of a sacrament, the Sacrament of Confirmation. On the way home they rehearse a lie for his mom about how they got the suit, as if she won’t guess the truth. They won’t mention “Vinny the Tailor,” the kid’s sponsor, who never sewed a stitch in his life:
Vinny, menace of the Jersey Turnpike, man who never stitched a thing more complicated than an alibi,
Vinny the Tailor (20)
The world turns, as in a soap opera, life grows hairy, there are chores to get done, some things change and others don’t:
like an un-staked scarecrow. My aunt dries dishes while my mother washes. My uncle rolls his eyes when I toss Danielle a dish rag, and take my mother’s place
The roots of now old trees rise up, raise the sidewalk, crack the cement. You can’t go home again, but neither will you feel at home in Harvard Yard. You find yourself starting to talk about punctuation, a concern for commas:
This comma, handed down from generations of working class parents
Georgic on the Boston Comma (37)
“Count Four,” and place a comma. As good a rule as any. And with rules come sophistications, affairs of the road, where poems become counts of indictments, stories are told slant, as Emily suggested, where “Success in Circuit lies.” But there are more guns in these poems than guitars, and a violence that cries out for meaning. The words are crisp and intelligible, not muddy as if through a Marshall 100 watt amp built to take squelching and squealing abuse. The poems waiver in stereo back and forth between anecdotal narratives laced with abuse and epiphanic moments and where some never awaken from the noise of self-abuse. These poems were written over time, the book collecting from a myriad of sources, a few independent or alternative, and are brought together under the imprimatur of a vintage label. The book’s title appears in the poem “All We Do Is Begin,” as in “Begin the Beguine,” where poetry translates noise into music, mosh pit convulsions into slow dance. It’s poetry where the Punk finds their way out of the mosh pit and into the solo business of writing poems to make sense of it all:
Through the wall you heard a song end, and in its ring the singer counted to four. You were just starting to understand how he’d count four thirty times a night for twenty years. It is easy to hate what we’re given, especially when it’s all we know.
All We Do Is Begin (85).
The guns are not symbols, as any guitars might have been; they’re literal and costly and deadly and like tattoos hard to erase. And the poems come loaded with history lessons, poems like “You, Strung,” that meld the personal with the general, reality with fantasy. These are poems Holden might have written, if he had written poems. And an epigram might make for the stunning occasion of the argument, as in “Square Dance Conspiracy,” above which Henry Ford gives us his opinion on the source of jazz, which he gets wrong, though his description seems to work. In any case, “Square Dance” a great exercise in poetic apostrophe, where “Wild nights – Wild nights!” are calmed if not tamed.
I don’t get the feeling Kopka’s poems are hastily written. There’s an underlying patience, notes of growth and maturation, and his poems show both temperamental talent and writerly skills at work. The ideas begin in observation, might be confessional, but could be fictional, and ethical choices are made, dug out, and then backfilled. Description moves us forward, closer to the action:
We’re eating poutine in a courtyard canopied by hackberry trees…. Under the table, the brunette unfolds a napkin on my lap, her palm holding me through the cloth makes a slow, migratory circuit.
The Birds of Montreal (86)
There are three sections to “Count Four,” and a single poem introduction (“Interrogation”), for a total of 32 poems. The book is well organized and presented. No very short, tweet-like poems. The poems are formally written using poetic devices both hidden and obvious. Not that these need to be recognized for enjoyment of the book. The poems are accessible, and in that sense traditional and conservative, at least in form, rather than radical and blurred. There’s humor as well as remorse. The narrators are dynamic characters, changing from their beginnings as a result of their experiences. It seems there is no end to some of these experiences for each new generation that cometh. The poem “Hollywood Ave,” for example, takes a new pic of an old icon. Originally named Prospect Avenue, but changed to Hollywood Boulevard; too bad, Prospect far more telling. Or maybe the poem is about any one of the other 90,000 Hollywood Avenues spread throughout the country. And “Coke Folks” could easily be a nowadays sitcom.
Final Note: I very much enjoyed and like the poems in this book. I don’t want to be in most of them, but I imagine Keith Kopka doesn’t either these days. He’s no doubt moved on, this book seems to function as a kind of memoir, and I look forward to reading his future writing. For readers who would like to know more about Kopka now, here’s a link to an essay he wrote last year, titled PUNK ROCK, POETRY & THE MYTH OF MASCULINITY (OCTOBER 14, 2020 VOL. 1 BROOKLYN). But get a copy of “Count Four”; it’s the real thing.