“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
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:
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
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:
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,
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.