HUMAN SCALE by Michael Kelleher
(BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2007)
I’m lucky to be surrounded by the works of visual artists. And as I read Michael Kelleher’s HUMAN SCALE, the works of Maureen McQuillan and Eve Aschheim come to mind.
McQuillan’s drawings -- the ones in the house -- were once-straight lines swirled about to create abstract images that evoke landscape, biological organisms, the Milky Way or a solar system, among others. To see these images, click HERE. To make the drawings, McQuillan made a series of parallel straight lines by stretching out lines of ink and placing them against wet resin. Then she disrupted them to make what I call the swirls. One of the ways in which she disrupts is to pick up the drawing while still wet, hold it against or in front of her torso, and move the drawing about with her body to eliminate the straightness of the ink lines.
As for Aschheim, the paintings I have are abstract works which are so powerful that, when seen in reproduction, one can assume that they are huge works. In fact, the works are relatively small, many being about 12 X 9”. An example of one of her paintings’ images is HERE (or, ahem, on the cover of one of my books HERE).
Which is to say, McQuillan and Aschheim are clearly concerned with intimacy viz the former’s involvement of the body even as she opens up her process to randomness (one can’t anticipate how the swirled lines will look) and the latter’s talking back at immense scale (I still recall the tendency to huge painting in the 1980s which used to frustrate me because of limited wall space in my then-New York City apartments) to generate the same force but from a significantly smaller field. Intimacy is a concern I see shared by HUMAN SCALE. And Kelleher’s new book is marvelous in part for presenting intimacy as a complex condition. Here’s an excerpt from his poem “CUBA”:
The phone rings.
It rings again.
It rings again.
It stops ringing.
Think about it. Hear this that we all know: the sound of an unanswered ringing phone. For anyone possessing a phone, this is an event so familiar that to read “the phone rings” is inevitably to hear the phone ring.
And yet, as is often the case, to be intimate is not the same as to possess knowledge or insight. The phone rings then stops ringing -- we don’t know whether someone answered the phone, or whether the caller gave up attempting to reach someone and hung up. We are intimate with this moment -- its sound -- and yet it remains stubbornly a mystery.
(The excerpt resonates in another way when we consider it in light of its title, “CUBA” -- when we consider it against what we know, and do not know, about Cuba. In this sense, for me, some sense of the ominous makes itself known even as it doesn’t explain its presence. I note this point parenthetically because it seems to turn Cuba, a country/history/culture into a mere marker; let me just say that “CUBA” is an 11-section poem with enough content not to have made the mistake of reductiveness.)
A similar stubborn wall preventing narrative clarity remains before the reader as one reads the next section in “CUBA”:
There are stories about him. About who his father was. He is the child of the father of many. There is a family resemblance. We do not like to talk about it, but it is true. It is true and we do not like to talk about it.
We must continue to resist our hunger. For instance.
He went away for two years. He went away for fourteen years. And then he came back. He never came back. And then he came back. He didn’t find his fortune. From the room in his apartment the city looks like Paris.
It is Paris.
In this excerpt and elsewhere in the book, there’s all this activity -- and specifics -- and yet it all remains a mystery, even as it all holds together somehow. One is given a family’s history -- in that sense, the reader is considered an intimate; yet the tale remains secretive. So that, suddenly, the cover image makes sense: the cover photo and the book design is by Julian Montague who deserves fulsome kudos for his brilliant job.
Have I mentioned that the book is sized at 6 X 4”? You can hold the book cupped in one palm, recalling again how McQuillan held the drawing against her body and how Aschheim’s paintings tempt you to pick them up from the wall and peer nose to canvas at them. Yet the book’s small scale facilitates intimacy paradoxically with, or despite, the cover image of a human atop the stone ridge. The human figure, here, is almost a mere dark blot against the expanse of the terrain that stretches for miles and beneath a sky that also offers a seemingly infinite expanse.
Both text and book design manifest/embody a sense of grappling -- grappling with both the internal/psychological and external/world terrains. But it’s significant that the book opens with the poem “Firefly”. Indeed, despite the difficulties that come with existence, Kelleher brings optimism to the fore, through evoking a creature which, while tiny, brings light:
That light going out
Flashing in the dark.
The enzyme luciferase
Acts on the substrate
Luciferin, which glows
In the presence of air.
Luciferin comes from
“Bringer of the dawn.”
He was closest to God
Who cast him out for pride
The optimism is refreshing, and apt as there's a sense of activism here. The poem continues on to say, “My goal is to bring / Fireflies back to city”. The activism is fitting given some of the book’s themes. What’s brilliant is how those themes are not didactically revealed, but presented through a depiction of the difficulties of engagement:
The tower the sun the Sabbath the child
The sun the stage the setting the pier
The woman the eyes the goggles the sun
The crowd the gun the shot the fall
The instant the moment the aftermath the event
The sudden insight
(--from “LA JETEE”)
In any event, if the “goal is to bring / Fireflies back,” how to do such? Well, specifically by
Using an abdominal light --
I note “organ” and perhaps belatedly realize (so taken was I originally by the book’s physically intimate scale and how that affected my first perusal) that “scale” also refers then to a sonic facet. So do these poems sing? But of course! Sing along to “PIE IN THE SKY’ whose fourth section is
Least of all
My own, which
I have sat here
After year, until
All I could taste
Was your name.
Or “SEASONAL AFFECT” which begins
and continues on for a total of 18 stanzas riffing of each other. You want to read these poems aloud: they sound good, yes, but they also feel good in the mouth, which is to say, they were crafted not to strain the vocal chord, which is to say, the pitch is perfect.
But despite their sonic mastery, these poems are too intelligent to discuss without addressing narrative (including visual) content. “PIE IN THE SKY”, for example, could be an obligatory 9-1-1 poem (and I say “obligatory” without intending any snark; it’s just that this collection is one of many I pick up nowadays which refers or seems to refer to the 9-1-1 tragedy, and why not if these collections are “contemporary?”). The poem begins
And black earth
In mind where
To some end
Yet the poem is more than just song…and more than just about 9-1-1 (or whatever it is about) -- the poem sings, but also states. In part, the poem says
Ah, those fireflies. And such may summarize the deceptively-simple balance of HUMAN SCALE. Because the matter at hand is a poem, nihilism gives way to elegy. But it’s elegy as a thinking portal. A portal through which the reader, if the reader so wishes, may not just close the book but move forward with a clarified vision to engage in acts that, so to speak in an attempt at summation, help ease suffering.
HUMAN SCALE ends with a poem entitled “EPILOGUE.” It begins, it offers:
There once was a place called Guernica
Somewhere in a land called Spain.
They had a light bulb and a broken sword.
Everything was in pieces, everything
In black and white, like the past.
People could be seen clear through,
Like ghosts or windows, like ghosts of windows.
Guernica hung on the walls of the high school
Spanish classroom beside the a poster of a painting
Of a firing squad in which a man in yellow pants
And bright, white shirt stood, arms spread wide
Facing the solders at arms length, their arms
Aimed at his heart. The people of Guernica
Were shattered and the rest of the world
Shattered by Picasso, which goes to show
There may be some relation yet-to-be-explored.
That’s right: “relation.” In a suffering world, living is not easy and answers are difficult to find. And so Kelleher’s texts retain their mysteries. Because, as “ELEGY” continues, “Between art and life…depictions / Cause their objects to exist. / In such a world, Guernica causes Guernica.”
HUMAN SCALE gently suggests, Let’s not objectify each other. Let’s relate. McQuillan makes the artist's -- her -- body inherently part of the drawing. Aschheim’s paintings urge their being picked up off the wall to be held. HUMAN SCALE gently urges, Let’s relate. It can begin in intimacy despite the lack of certainty facilitated by knowledge -- intimacy that can be possible through something like art, something like Song.
Eileen Tabios doesn't allow her books to be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects -- but she is ecstatic to point you to recent reviews of her recent book The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes (Marsh Hawk Press, 2007) by Nicholas Manning, by Jesse Glass, and by Burt Kimmelman. Oh, and a review by Laurel Johnson reprinted by Amazon.com, though it's also good to support SPD! Preening is as good as wine for good health!