“The worm is in man’s heart”
An apt start for a collection of poems pre-occupied with the author’s own heart related health issues. Like many American poets, Kay gets straight to the er, heart of the issue, forsaking the structural showboating and vainglorious stylizations of many European writers in a bid to connect via emotion. Not that Kay doesn’t have a style, but that style serves the poem and not the author.
On first reading his short sets of six free-form couplets can often be skimmed over but once re-read become more resonant;
The Dropped Chessman
Kay picks up the newspaper
and reads the headline. He
puts his jacket on and walks
to the bridge. He reaches into
the black bag he’s been carrying
and removes wooden chessmen,
one by one, dropping them into
the river – one white, one black.
At home – a trumpet plays dole-
fully. On the chessboard, he cuts
a blood orange in two, leaving
a thin red stain – and a clue.
A clue? The newspaper headline? The chessmen? The river? The trumpet? The orange stain? Maybe there is no story to tell here, maybe it’s something entirely personal to Kay ( he’s always Kay by the way) or perhaps it has something to do with, I dunno, the death of Miles Davis. What matters is that the reader then projects their own interpretation on the poem. Not that most of the poems in this collection need much interpreting. As with the likes of Fred Voss, Kay’s work surpasses the pseudo-primitivism of Bukowski copyists. The plaintive titles – Eating Pistachios, Tough Guy, I Married A Clown etc – hint at down-home simplicity and although all of the pieces included here are autobiographical with the feverish fear of disease and death informing each word, nevertheless there is a universality about Kay’s existential anxiety. Take
‘Beauty and the Beast’
Fishing in the high mountains
with his family, Kay wanders
upstream alone, searching for
the perfect hole. Luckless, he
sprawls on a sun-warmed rock
dangling his feet in the cool water.
Jeans rolled up, shoes and socks
stacked neatly nearby, he dozes off,
enjoying the beauty of nature –
when, suddenly a sleek Vipera berus
locks his big toe in its cold jaws,
and he hears himself shrieking.
These little moments remind us of our mortality, of what life is and what we will lose once dead. The sound of our own voices, the warmth of the sun, the pain of the bite. In ‘Dead Man Walking’ he’s smelling the roses whilst walking down the Bergstrasse of his adopted German home and these sensual snatches of every day existence permeates the collection. All poems , even ones not entirely to do with Kay himself, return to the same issue; take ‘Infidelity’
Some die of Legionnaires’
disease or get rear-ended into
Eternity, but he came home,
bludgeoned his wife and son
with a baseball bat, hopped
on his motorcycle and sped
back in the direction of his
mistress, hit a bus broadside,
jumped up and was killed by
a truck – attracting the police,
medical personnel, journalists
and a poet with a new idea.
This macabre humour returns in poems where Kay describes his ventriloquist puppet, also called Kay. It’s not certain whether puppet ‘Kay’ is an alter-egotistical metaphor for the dying (dead?) man or a real puppet and in any case, it doesn’t really matter.
Kicking The Bag
I have taken to stuffing Kay
into a large, paper grocery bag,
which is lighter than his box
and easier to carry. Yesterday
he began to moan and whine,
causing a general disturbance,
so I kicked the bag a few times.
He wouldn’t stop, so I began to
Untangle his strings. He said,
God’s existence is the only good
explanation for pain. I closed
the bag and kicked it again.
Phantom Of The Apple displays an American poet who refuses to go quietly into that good night, a frightened, ageing man in his 60s who’s ticker troubles provide both despair and delight. Any one who had a heart would understand.
When I pick up ice cubes
that stick to my fingertips,
I panic trying to shake them off
-trying to shake off forever,
like during a nightmare when
I find myself in the middle
of the night, walking through
the house, turning on lights
as quickly as I can, a chill in
my spine – doing everything
possible to stay in this world,
to come unstuck from the other.