En Plein Air

An urban photographer idling along on foot
found a plein air painter her portable kit
easel, small canvas, box of luscious bright wet
paints open and with one brush loose and light
all the motion in her wrist at the edge of the street
like frosting a cake her subject the poet
scribbling on a napkin at a sidewalk cafe table
sitting cool under an umbrella saturated scarlet
his poem about a live oil painter out and about
creeped up on cautiously for the stolen
image no one likely would object.


Notes on Keith Kopka’s “Count Four.”

“Count Four.”: Poems by Keith Kopka
Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2020, 99 pp
Book Review first published at Berfrois on 20 Aug 2021.

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.

Interrogation (1)

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

Homecoming (33)

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.

A Typical Weather Report

Today is hot,
yesterday was hot,
tomorrow will be hot:
hot, more hot, most hot.

An old friend lives
where it’s not so hot
and often reminds me
of her advantages.

She relates her rought
through old address books
cancelling friends
burrowing each in a shaft.

She comes to visit
sticks me with a meat
thermometer
and feeds me ice cream.


on water

he walked under
paid & unemployed
among rocks
and whirlpools
between antiquity
and the gift of now
of uncertainty
treading water
waiting for his own
antiquity to come
when someone might
remember he walked
on water treading
trudged and carried
no grudge.

Searchlight Sun

the sun has stopped it seems
capsized bottoms up
slithering south in the sky
somewhere there must be
a gargantuan sale on
of cars or mattresses
or a drive-in movie premier
or midsummer festival
the searchlight swiveling
in spherical place
all day and all night
or maybe there’s just another
fight on and the night ringsters
awake outside some old
development rising
to nouveau sea lows
and climbing salt heights
a tsunami of fossil fuels.

Poetry Post

The poetry post was taken down  over night spirits the rules  of cultural worm tongues  relevance ad hoc heresy.  Kicked to the ground  old fashioned paper  pages bestrew the weeds  of diction and grammar. Who put up the poetry post  unknown nor who kicked  the post down still cadence  broke at the base cracked  where it entered the yard  near the sidewalk free  for passersby to read  not the news and certainly  nothing about a poetry post  pushed over in the night  nor who picked up the pieces  and raked clean any evidence Who put up the poetry post  unknown nor who punched   the post's still cadence  broke at the base cracked  where it entered the yard  near the sidewalk free  for passersby to read  not the news and anyway  nothing about a poetry post  pushed away in the night  broken
      where      entered the ground    empty
the post head
                where displayed
                                 a page a day
now empty
            abandoned
                           unfulfilled
leaning

           fallen
                    pushedfall




pure poetry, 2000

Readers who like unlikeable characters will love Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Lila Moscowitz. Lila is stubborn, spoiled, angry, bitter, promiscuously self-destructive. And, frosting on the cake, she’s a poet. That’s not to say she’s without redeemable qualities. She’s funny, hilarious, in fact, a natural wit, and as honest as a person can be without losing all of one’s family and friends and readers. Her humor is laced with sarcasm and irony. She’s quick, street smart and intelligent, independent. Experienced readers will recognize that Lila is not Binnie, that the narrator of a novel should not be confused with the author. This narrative truth is emphasized toward the end of the book when Lila takes some questions after a poetry reading:

“‘Did you really dance topless at the Baby Doll Lounge?’ Another one of the college girls is contemplating a career move, no doubt.
I smile as if I’ve got a secret, and I say, ‘I refuse to answer on the grounds that it could incriminate me.'”

Lila may be a poet, but she’s not stupid:

“That I never danced topless at the Baby Doll Lounge or anyplace else either is not what they want to hear.”

Does she “write every day,” another student asks, and Lila pretends for the audience that she does write every day. She’s then asked “how much money do poets make?” Here she tells the truth (192-193).

But while the perspicacious reader knows Lila is not Binnie, we all know that poetry does not sell, so why not only does Binnie put “poetry” in her title but structures her book with poetic devices, informing each chapter with epigraphs, definitions of poetic conventions? Didn’t she want her book to sell? The answer has to do with wheels within wheels, or how to turn a stand up routine into literature:

“Many of the poems I write are about sex. I have a gift for the subject. The ins and outs of it. My poems lean toward the sordid side of the bed, the stuff of soiled sheets” (21).

We don’t get to hear those poems, but they apparently are full of the tension created by want harbored in inhibitions freed in seduction, romp enclosed in forms, procedures, praxis, which express mores without which somehow sex is not nearly as much fun. The fun is enclosed in a box of gravure etchings. The notion of form as enclosure is conservative. The poet might want out, not in. Lila’s own explanation might solve both Binnie and the reader’s questions:

“There is freedom within the confines of form the way a barrier protects you from the elements of disaster. The way there is love in the bonds of marriage. ‘Without boundaries, you can be only adrift,’ I say. ‘Lost. Without lines drawn on the map, you are nowhere. It is better to be a prisoner of war than to be without a nation, a place, a people'” (194).

Jesus may have said the opposite – Come, follow me, and leave all that nonsense behind. Of course, most of his followers wound up wanting it both ways.

“Maybe they should stay in their cages and sing their hearts out. Unbridled passion…results from being tied to the bedpost” (194).

Which is to make of Lila a dynamic character, one who’s changed over the course of the work. She finds love only by losing love. She’s human, fallen, having slipped on her own banana peel, but she gets back up, and writes a book that stirs and calms the forms.

Pure Poetry, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, a novel, Simon & Schuster, 2000, 203 pages.