Friday, July 25, 2008


High culture and low. Stuff you learn in a college classroom, stuff you bring with you from the street or the latest music tracks. Odysseus and Elvis -- will that be a good enough example?

David Kirby's ninth collection of poems (he's done far more than 20 books, crossing genres) is THE TEMPLE GATE CALLED BEAUTIFUL (Alice James Books, 2008) and the cover offers part of an Italian fresco titled "The Resurrection of the Dead." If that sounds like a class in the classics, yes, that's surely the intent -- but the first poem in the book is "Elvis, Be My Psychopomp." I kept misreading the "pomp" for "poop" or "pop," which I guess is a partial effect of my eyes on my brains. First thought after the word "Elvis" is? No, you get no points for saying "Graceland." That would suggest a book about forgiveness and heaven -- rather than one drenched in versions, aromas, and quips of the underworld. Kirby lists at the back of the book some of his sources, including the predictable like The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Inferno, The Odyssey ... but he adds, "I also watched Bubba Ho-Tep, the documentary about Elvis and JFK battling an ancient Egyptian mummy for the souls of the rest of us." Whiplash of vision here: Did he just say "documentary"?

The entire collection splashes like this, a wild ocean in a bottle with a pirate ship hurling cannonballs and sponges toward a watcher's wide and startled eyes. One minute the poet's writing home from London, or visiting an Islamic shrine jammed with tourist trinkets that support terrorism through their sales; the next, he's fumbling through a conversation with his dead parents that recalls Eliot, cynical and loving in the same moment.

When I cracked up during "Dogs Who Are Poets and Movie Stars" and began reading aloud to my husband, he stopped me after a mere two stanzas and exclaimed, "That's not poetry!" Indeed, read aloud, it's hard to realize that this isn't the comic monologue of a Renaissance-trained professor drenched in Monty Python reruns. But there is indeed a strong sense of form -- long lines in carefully shaped stanzas -- and the underlying rhythms evoke marvelous late-night conversations. Sure, one-sided ones, but with someone whose mind is so stuffed that every quip becomes a set of metaphors feeding into an Escher staircase that's headed back to the opening of the poem in spite of racing away from it.

Gosh, I had fun reading this.

Here's a sample, the first two-plus stanzas of a 13-stanza reflection on ... well, Italy, secrets, dogs, what happens to people who've died... See what I mean? [Caution: the actual page has much more interesting line indents than I can show here. This blog template wasn't built with contemporary forms in mind, sigh.]

The Secret Room

A poster of two handsome Renaissance gents
catches my eye with the words Stanze Segrete, and I think,
Yeah, but whose secret rooms? and then, Who cares,
as long as they're secret? Because almost anyone's
secret room is superior to anyone else's public room.
Even a dog's—-especially a dog's-—secret room,
though not a dog's secrets. When somebody says

secret room to me, I think of the ones you get to
magically: your car breaks down outside an old castle,
and it's pouring, but the butler lets you in, and while
you're drying off in the library and having a brandy
as you wait for the master, you take an old book
off the shelf, but it's the wrong one, or maybe the right,
because just then the wall opens and you find yourself

in a laboratory full of bubbling retorts and cages filled
with the master's sworn enemies, one of whom is now you.

Get the book -- it's too much fun to postpone. But while you're waiting for it to arrive in the mail (or scheduling a trip to the bookshop), do visit this wild-hearted poet's web site,

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