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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Pilkington does not make clever metapoetical quips
in his poems. His is really a poetry of the viscera.

The phrase “in eyes of a dog,” which serves as the title of Kevin Pilkington’s most impressive new collection of poems (some of them reprinted from smaller prize-winning volumes), asks us to look at the dog’s eyes. The distinction is important since, in Pilkington’s poems, we are looking through the eyes of their persona; this persona, if you get right down to it, is a naïf — not a child yet not an adult who fails to see his own or others’ mortal flaws (for Pilkington surely does) but, rather, a man who is pure of intention and who has never stopped believing in life. To persist in such a belief is quite remarkable in a world that is, if not corrupt, then at least too sophisticated for its own good. In poem after poem in this fine book we encounter a speaker who is devoted to, who loves, people and places. We come to feel that he acts out of good faith. The eyes we look through when we read these lovely poems are the eyes of a grown child. He is urbane and scarily savvy, so he recognizes his own shortcomings, even moral failures, and his dutiful reports to us of what he encounters in the world as he lives out his days are personal acts of redemption — he lives within the innocence and devotion of a trusting child, or maybe that child’s pet dog, and through him the world is saved from its worst impulses.
    Pilkington knows that honesty will serve him best as a poet. When he is thinking of himself as a poet especially, he well realizes that most of experience contains language for the poems he will write. So it pays to be not only open but humble. Consider “A Type of Love Story”:

        You gave up on most things
        over the years until you met
        a woman whose legs just wouldn’t quit.
        And when she slid into a pair of heels
        her calves flared ever so slightly
        as if to say: get down on your knees
        and if you have a tongue in that mouth
        of yours take it out and lick
        until you are convinced this is the only
        way home. And that’s exactly what happened.
        You got down on your knees and licked
        all the words you would never use onto
        her legs, a type of love story only you
        would ever want to read again.

    Here the true poem, arguably, gets used up in the poet-persona’s sensual tryst with a powerful goddess-muse. Yet what remains, what he uses to tell his tale, what language makes it onto the page, is worth reading, and the feeling is that this residue has been earned by the poet. In large, he is simply a man trying to explain that life, including its disappointments, is worth the living; indeed, it may turn out that heartbreak and failure are the stuff of ultimate happiness and triumph, or at least of acquiescence with dignity. Pilkington finds the look in a dog’s eyes in his title poem “familiar. / It’s the kind of look that says I’m lost / and don’t understand where I am but since / I’m standing here doesn’t mean I want your scraps, / it means I made it through the day, but if / you have an easier way to get through another / I’ll take it.” This basic paradox, in which dignity is possible in a world of loss, comes across particularly when Pilkington has crafted clean-lined direct statements such as these; then the poetry is astonishingly powerful and memorable. Nevertheless, he is fond of twists of simile and metaphor, which can make us both wince and forgive — a singular characteristic in his writing — and with them we are made whole.
    “A Type of Love Story” (above) notwithstanding, Pilkington does not make clever metapoetical quips in his poems. His is really a poetry of the viscera. Yet he does love to do this neat intellectual trick with metaphor and simile in which the tenor and vehicle of a figure of speech (to borrow I. A. Richards’ terminology) get reversed and then he slams “home” the figure through one or another pun. This trick of figuration helps him, often enough, to create a child’s world in which readers also discover themselves, not least of all when he recovers his early years in a number of poems. On the other hand, we may just as easily find ourselves a long way from innocence, for instance in “The River” (one of Pilkington’s lovely celebrations of the gritty Manhattan cityscape). He wants to find the good in any situation, even when the circumstance is bleak:

        I sit on a bench next to the river.
        The streets are far enough away
        so by the time the sound of traffic
        reaches me it massages my back.
        I’ve come here before to figure
        things out or just read. Last week
        it was a novel I got hooked on,
        inhaling every sentence as if they
        were lines of coke. Mostly it’s just
        to look at the river; the tide stays wet,
        each wave soaked all the way
        through – making it easier for ships
        to enter and leave the harbor.
        When a page from a newspaper
        grabs my ankle like a small dog
        I pick it up, crumble it into
        a basketball and shoot it into a trash
        bin a few feet away as thousands cheer.

        I then look across the river past
        its banks that in this section of the city
        are filled with rock and concrete instead
        of cash, to the road and parked cars
        where drivers go to come for twenty bucks.
        I can almost make out a hooker’s head
        bobbing up and down in the front seat
        as if it were floating on waves.
        Dark water keeps most gulls away,
        though eagles fly low in a flock
        of tattoos on men who work tankers
        and tugs. I know enough not to stare
        at the water too long since it will pollute
        my eyes and turn them brown but it’s the only
        river I’ve got. The pigeons that land near
        my feet are always gray from rubbing
        against sky and when I stomp my foot,
        I know they’ll fly away full on plans
        that never worked out for me.
        Plans that become just so many crumbs
        I bring to feed them in brown paper bags.

    This poem is a palpable testament of self-reconciliation and it is beautiful in how it unfolds. Here and in other poems the significance of an image or set of images slides effortlessly from one context to the next, which can be surprising. There is, for example, the too cute and somewhat clichéd ploy in which the speaker gets “hooked on” a “novel” when he inhales “every sentence as if they / were lines of coke.” Still, the joke, in the way it’s told, ushers us into a truly transcendent and liberating moment, which is not really funny and which is more effective for its sober tone. Fresh and exhilarating lines of the poem, which first remind us of where he is — seated by a dreary riverside (“Dark water keeps most gulls away”) — then provide the speaker’s lovely flight of fancy (pardon my pun) and ultimate communion with a particular, tangible place that has been fully realized in an extended and pleasingly complex figure: “though eagles fly low in a flock / of tattoos on men who work tankers / and tugs I know enough not to stare / at the water too long since it will pollute / my eyes and turn them brown but it’s the only / river I’ve got [etc.].”
    The flow of the lines, the quiet steady rhythm and clean syntax, pull us into the setting. Pilkington’s knack of reversing tenor and vehicle (e.g., the river’s “banks [. . .] in this section of the city / are filled with rock and concrete instead / of cash”) fits easily into the overall scenario of “The River.” His ability to create an enchanting scene out of what, in a lesser poet’s hands, might be the most intransigent material is extraordinary, and how he brings this off is possibly unique. In any case, what is remarkable is that he is not prettying up the scene, even considering his characteristic playing around with simile and metaphor that to some readers will be endearing. Yet even when he is not attempting an acrobatic literary feat he can turn description into an animation a child would immediately take to (e.g., “The streets are far enough away / so by the time the sound of traffic / reaches me it massages my back”). Pilkington is capable of creating a fantastic, child-like world because his figures willfully ignore scientific reality in favor of a dreamy consciousness driven by an alternate and equally compelling logic (e.g., “The pigeons that land near / my feet are always gray from rubbing / against sky [. . .]”). At Pilkington’s worst, the poems make us groan at their overly smart but nonetheless charming playfulness (here’s another example, from “On the Harbor,” in which he is working too hard for the effect he’s after, reaching a bit too far when he observes that the “name on” a boat’s “stern says Dog” and then jokes, “no wonder it’s / the kind of boat you’d rather pet / than sail”).
    Yet Pilkington can be rollickingly funny, and wise, through deft use of simile, as in “Shopping” (here is the poem’s second stanza):

        You stop in the Army & Navy store
        to buy a sweater, bright green,
        but it’s not as loud as the girl
        in the apartment below yours
        who screams God so often
        when she fucks, you are beginning
        to believe he really exists.).

    What city dweller would not nod and perhaps chuckle at this? Sometimes, however, reading Pilkington, it is as if we are in a conversation with one of Oliver Sachs’s patients who, because of a neurological disorder, can’t stop punning, even when what the situation calls for is a bit of straight talk.
    In the end, we indulge this highly skilled and empathic poet. Pilkington is capable of the most brilliant shifts of attention and linguistic sleights of hand, which make a scene come utterly alive. Reading him I am reminded distantly of some work by Billy Collins, Mark Strand, or Thomas Lux, but Pilkington’s work is all his own and its capacity for figuration is extraordinary. Most of all, I enjoy his aptitude for observation. Note, for instance, this gorgeous, metrically tight, and visually crisp opening stanza of “Kissing the Sky” (the speaker, removed from his familiar Manhattan locale, makes the adjustment to the easy pace of a Caribbean island):

        The surf along the beach
        sounds like jets leaving
        a runway. Surfers fly
        on waves that break into
        the color of cream I pour
        in coffee, to make it look
        as tan as my skin.

    There is a pleasing sense of unity and wholeness, a purity, achieved in this percept through a set of very personal associations of sound and color, which helps to create the poem’s distinctive voice. And here is another, quite arresting set of lines, which open “Wellfleet,” another vacation poem and a canny snapshot of the resort in summer; note the exquisite visual scrutiny combined with a simple, dependable rhythm:

        We find a spot we know
        is far enough down the beach
        when sunbathers and swimmers
        become dark pieces of driftwood.
        I spread my towel on the sand
        like margarine and my wife
        opens her umbrella until
        there is a circle of shade under
        it. We are near a house
        hidden among the dunes—
        only its roof is visible
        and where it comes together
        like the fingertips of a young
        child praying, gulls sit.
        Two snowballs that will never
        melt. I look out at the ocean,
        its waves are on a roll,
        the kind I’ve been on since
        April, and the sky is so clear
        we can see China.

    This is not just clarity of sight. The poem is also an imaginative seeing of a place, something a child might be capable of but Pilkington is too, fully understanding what the stakes are in a way impossible for a child, though he has retained the ability to be earnest and committed. The optimism at the end of this poem is infectious. It is the child that Pilkington never forgets, who in the child’s innocence can see how, at least in this poem, nature authorizes our forms of living, forms that, if subjected to the gaze of unadulterated eyes, reveal the truth.
    It’s not that Pilkington is an incurable Romantic (he’s a Romantic in the best sense of that descriptor). He can be jokey, and at times charmingly self-deprecating (“I’m the kind of guy who gave up / smoking because I couldn’t handle the commitment,” in “Greatness Isn’t Always the Color of Envy”), and with tongue-in-cheek he will adopt the pose of the ingénue. But he acknowledges pain (“The world I knew is the one I bolted / the door against every night when I got home,” in “Eating a Herd of Reindeer”). It’s just that he is dedicated to rescuing the world from its grim hour. If there is happiness in Pilkington’s poems it’s because he believes in its possibility, and I am one reader who is grateful for that assurance.

In the Eyes of a Dog, Kevin Pilkington. NYQ Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1935520092. $14.95

© by Burt Kimmelman


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