It is not often that publishers reprint chapbooks. An exception is Seven Kitchens Press, which in 2011 released, through its ReBound Series, a limited second edition of Collin Kelley's 20-poem Slow to Burn. (The first edition of Kelley's collection, published in 2006 by MetroMania Press, is out of print.)
Limited to 125 copies, the 29-page second edition, hand-trimmed and hand-tied, is lovely to hold in the hand, the black type set off beautifully against brilliant red covers. It includes a new introduction by Karen Head, Ph.D., a poet and an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Those new to Kelley's work, as I was, will find much to like in this small gem of a collection: the authentic voice with which the poet speaks, the selection and combination of marvelous contemporary detail and cultural references that create a strong sense of time and place, the universality of themes — childhood experimentation, alienation, exclusion, death and loss, growing up, self-identity. The writing is clear, the cadence well-controlled, the subject-matter real life, the opening lines lures that hook you and keep you reading to a rewarding end, to wit:
The day I told my parents I wanted to trade in
G.I. Jose for Wonder Woman must have set off alarms. [. . .]
~ from "Wonder Woman"
Before you made me a witch,
got forced into the basement to pray,
your mother stripping you, [. . . ]
~ from "Ian"
Mary pops up in the strangest places,
usually as a window stain or sandwich,
but yesterday she dripped down the wall [. . . .]
~ from "The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass"
Kelley's is a chapbook of vivid and tightly written stories in poetic form. The narratives not only are about the "I" who addresses us; they also introduce us to a cast of believable people, at least some of whom we might have heard about or known when we were growing up. We meet "Ian" who "kissed me once in the backseat, / crouched low, out of my dad's line of sight"; "Aimee", who "built a shrine to John Lennon" and "could reel off the rapes and molestation / like a documentarian"; "Laura Brown", who "packed one morning, / caught the Toronto bus, / [and] disappeared like a chalk mark / in a rain storm"; "Tina", who makes the poet-narrator "her project, / to be reshaped and reformatted".
The narrator of these poems is very much a part of his world, remembering, recalling, ruminating, commenting on, questioning, provoking. Despite a catalogue of experiences in which violence (of suicide especially) grips, the narrator is not without humor, as these lines demonstrate: "I was jumping off beds like the Bionic Woman, / besotted with Farrah's red bathing suit" (from "Freedom Train"); "I'm no spring chicken, not even a rooster, / but I've been called a cock a time or two." (from "Ash Wednesday"); "I say, cut the parlor tricks, Mary. / If you want a little respect, come flaming / out of the sky on a thundercloud" (from "The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass"). Nor is he at a loss for self-understanding that comes with maturity:
[. . .] I am already in halves, have always been,
will always be. [. . .]
~ from "Duality"
[. . . ] I have dissected my past into little pieces
and put them in their proper places.
I have begun the process of growing up
and older, of stripping down memories
to their essence and casting off the extraneous. [. . .]
~ from "The Clarity of Loss"
I am slow to burn, waiting for a match strike,
the long drag against me, catching sparks. [. . .]
[. . .] I am the flame laid bare by desire. Put fire in my hands.
~ from "Slow to Burn"
[. . .] We are those people in an alternate world,
where hallway voices hold no sway. [. . .]
~ from "What Remains"
Kelley, it is clear, is a poet who means "to say something real, / something that puts that one moment / in perspective, strips it to non-fiction" (from "Put Yourself In My Place"). In Slow Burn, he not only "sings back" into his poems his "old muses"—the subjects of his estimable poems; he shows us his own "soul singing to itself" (from "Muses Are Never Quiet") with authority, putting down and leaving "a marker for future reference" (from "Underneath"). We'll all want to pay attention to how far that marker moves.
Slow to Burn is available directly from Seven Kitchens Press; go here for ordering information.
Atlanta, Georgia, resident Collin Kelley is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His debut novel Conquering Venus (Vanilla Heart Publishing) was issued in 2009; his second, Remain in Light (Vanilla Heart Publishing), the second in Kelley's Venus Trilogy, was published last September. Both are available in e-book versions. Kelley, whose work has appeared in a number of anthologies and in many literary magazines and journals, including Atlanta Review, Blue Fifth Review, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and MiPOesias, also is the author of After the Poison: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2008; available through resellers) and Better to Travel (iUniverse, 2003), for which Kelley was named Georgia Author of the Year. He blogs at Modern Confessional and is a tireless but highly effective user of social media.