Monday, June 6, 2011

Monday Muse on Reading 'Kingdom Come'

. . . a life, if poetic, measures / and dwells. . . .
~ From "Symptomatic, Asymptotic" by John Estes

It's fitting that John Estes begins his substantial first collection Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) with "Emptied Term," a poem ostensibly about a pregnancy too early ended (hold the thought of miscarriage as metaphor), and ends it with "Live and Find Out Who You Are" in which, after being "immersed in a filth of my own / contriving," the narrator proclaims having "accepted as true, / all at once and without fear, / the noble lie of my birth and was . . . born anew." The concluding lines of that first poem of loss, which speak to what "might be avoided/ but would not be averted," I read as necessary to understanding the entirety of the collection: that what life presents, often enough, is choice and time evinces the truth and value of our choices. 

Between that lead-off piece that calls us to the ending of what can be seen as being mis-carried — that notion that art is life — and the last, which clarifies the importance of being willing, and willingly choosing, to get down into the muck rather than stand above, examining it, are 56 other poems in which the narrator passes through the questioning that comes with youthful impulse, to maturer acceptance that sometimes must seem like resignation to "this tyranny of relation", that is, the settling down into domesticity, to wisdom that "the day / will not end if only I live rightly" ("Resolution") and "learn to trust / our faith in art and the body's selection" ("Early Retirement"). Indeed, it is to the narrator's own "kingdom come" we bear witness.

The experiences comprising the narrative arc of the collection Estes organizes into four chapters, which I came to regard as four gospels that in their largest sense are accounts of coming of age: "in which love and art seek their measure, " "in which he marries", in which a child is conceived and born," and "in which they seek the measure of art and love". (I like the ambiguity of "they" in that fourth section heading, and the telling inversion of words. It is in wholeness that the once "Emptied Term" is filled and refilled.) Estes takes a reflective time out between the third and fourth chapters with "Interlude: Home Cosmographies", here mapping out the tensions and trade-offs between pursuing art and having a writing life and living life emptied out into the daily mundanities of domesticity (in roles as father, husband, recycler, bill payer, handyman), which render the exalted artist both sobered and humbled:

. . . I say a prayer for poets
and the poems they will write,
for my next one, that there will be a next one—
but to speak of it will jinx it, so
I resign myself to sitting there,
one eye on the hole in my dying tree,
one eye marking the house's shadow creep
across the yard. . . .
~ From "Object Permanence"

So in my rendition of a night song,
          the black Lab, asleep,
             must stand for nightingale,
     just as the scruffy tree she nests beneath
          must indicate giant fir.
                  Scratch that. She watches, waits
out with me the struggling fire,
          all of us gathered
                      for a heat to catch 
     we know is lost.
             It's late, half moon at best,
                           the woodbin empty. . . .
~ From "Nocturne, Past Midnight, Christmas Day"

Estes displays a rigorous intellect, preceding each section of poems with quotes from the likes of Rodin, Virgil, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Whitman. Not a few of his poems include epigraphs — borrowings from Seneca, Empedocles, Plutarch, Freud, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Tolstoy, the Bible, even films such as Jaws; these, along with the poems' titles ("Epithalamium", "Cafe Rotavirus", "Early Retirement", "My Initiation Into Poetry", "Unscheduled Maintenance", "This Poem Is Carbon Neutral", "Purpose-built from Household Objects"), the attentive reader holds wisely in mind, for, structurally and thematically, they help keep the collection tight and focused. They offer insight into and humorous, ironic, sometimes even sarcastic commentary on the narrator's state of mind.

The poems are dense with allusions and references — to literary or artistic movements (the French Symbolists), mythology, other poets and writers (Frank Bidart, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Rilke, D.H. Lawrence), artists (Georgia O'Keefe), saints, works such as The Kama Sutra, current events such as the war in Iraq, cultural staples (Starbucks, Taco Bell, Pall Malls), science terminology. The rich vocabulary — "haruspex", "etymons", "metonymy", "mephitic", "penetralium", "meiotic", "groks us to detente" —  can be demanding (I went to Google and my dictionary more than once) but is not out-of-place. Rather, both inform what seems always to be the narrator's careful weighing of what art teaches us against what life holds and gives up to us.

Though I would not suggest a full, straight-through reading, I would urge sticking with the collection, which can be challenging; what it reveals it reveals more with each re-reading. These poems are refined, elegant pieces, written out of the experience of recognizable domestic life in a tug with insular artistic life. The domestic and the artistic are not mutually exclusive that last chapter shows, and where their balance can be achieved, we are most likely to "rejoice at what we forgot / to schedule to witness, / however glad we / are for what occurred" ("These Late Eclipses in the Sun and Moon Portend No Good to Us").

* * * * *

Estes, who directs the creative writing program at Malone University, Canton, Ohio, is the author of two recent chapbooks, Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoon (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve (Poetry Society of America, 2009), which earned Estes a National Chapbook Fellowship. He has published poems in AGNI, Ninth Letter,  The Blue Earth Review, Southern Review, Valparaiso Review, Verse DailyTusculum Review, and other literary periodicals and magazines.


Louise Gallagher said...

A fabulous review Maureen!

L.L. Barkat said...

I love poems about poets and poetry. Don't know why. :)

Thanks for sharing Estes. I need to get him into Every Day Poems!

Hannah Stephenson said...

Love this very thoughtful and insightful review. Thanks so much for being so fully engaged with what you describe!

jen revved said...

Maureen-- this is a brilliant review-- did you send a link to the poet? You must! I sent a note to Bly w/ link to your piece-- don't know if you did that but needed to contact him anyway. Finally, I wanted to mention that for better for worse I sent what I could muster given my ever-billowing depression to you via Hotmail. xJenne'