Book Review of Bundle o’Tinder by Rose Kelleher
Bundle o’ Tinder by Rose Kelleher, recipient of the 2007 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize (Final Judge, Richard Wilbur)
Book Review —
Rose Kelleher: Bundle o’Tinder
(The Waywiser Press, 2008)
Rose Kelleher’s Bundle o’Tinder (a title I find too cheerily redolent, given this book’s concerns, of the Auld Sod) was selected by Richard Wilbur for the 2008 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Waywiser Press’s series, which includes books by Joseph Harrison, Erica Dawson, and Morri Creech, has been a brilliant showcase for books displaying formal dexterity, and Kelleher’s is no exception. In his foreword, Mr. Wilbur praises the poet for “a sharp intelligence, a good heart, and a great technical gift,” going on to note that, while Kelleher’s work is “strongly personal” it manages to be “very unlike the claustrally personal work of which one sees too much at present.” It is easy to see why the judge, who has obviously relished the “chance to be judicious” was drawn to this collection, for that phrase might well be applied to the personality that is evident in so much of Wilbur’s recent work.
Born in 1964, Kelleher should perhaps be considered in light of the accomplishments of several women formalists of similar years; I think especially of A. E. Stallings, Chelsea Rathburn, and Catherine Tufariello in this regard. Kelleher’s biographical note mentions that, after acquiring a degree in English, she has worked mainly in computer technology, rediscovering poetry only recently. It is likely that this rediscovery has been made through the good offices of Eratosphere, the poets of which are mentioned by the author for special thanks. We should be thankful as well, for the poems collected here, most of them originally published in smaller-than-little magazines and on the Internet, would require considerable online sleuthing to access. They comprise an appealing collection that fully deserves Wilbur’s claim that it is “a first book in which the poet’s voice has been fully found.”
What, then, are the qualities of that voice? I would use such words as wry, confident, and skeptical, among others. The tone, if not the typical matter and manner, is established in the book’s first poem, the free-verse “Asperger’s Muse,” in which the subject individual, in his private mantra, tirelessly and automatically conjugates the numerical value of pi:
Seeking spoken sanctuary
in the perfect circle’s key,
he draws a closed perimeter
around himself; and though I cannot
understand the tongue he speaks,
I know he sings a hymn to something
steady, central, infinite.
It seems right that the first of the book’s four sections should be titled “God.” The subjects here range from the missing portrait of a disgraced priest, to “Dore’s Engravings” of Dante (as viewed by two precocious and irreverent children), to meditations on visions of the Virgin in Lourdes, Guadalupe, and Cairo. The final poem, “Penal Rosary,” struck me initially as obscure but was resolved by the poet’s note that the curious ring described therein was used in Ireland in times past as a surreptitious rosary:
By sleight of hand, he manages to twist
his ring from thumb to finger secretly.
Five fingers hide one cross inside a fist,
ten beads against a palm, one mystery:
his faith in what he feels but cannot see.
The books second section, “Science,” is foreshadowed by the Transcendentalist flavor of “Parking Garage” in the first, in which the poet recalls a younger self imagining that she can hear the “souls” of certain trees. If Kelleher’s take on god and religion has perhaps been tempered by too much exposure to the forms of infinity that lurk within computers, it is conversely true that her approach to science also embraces its spirituality. Wilbur singles out the sonnet “The First Uprising” for praise in the way that the Eden myth is conflated with the evolutionary one. In the octave, Eve reaches high for the “blackest plums [that] are near the sun,” and her attendant creatures likewise rise on their hind legs to eat the lower, less potent though equally forbidden fruit. The sestet details their lesser enlightenment—the ability to seek out their kind and to locate water or to detect danger—and ends in quandary, wondering if the curse of labor and birth also extends into the lower kingdom. I especially like “Lovesick,” a poem that might well fit into the book’s final section of poems on love were it not for the medical conceit signaled in the title. Another sonnet, it uses the octave to compare the lingering aftereffects of love to a disease in which each cell of the bereft lover is “a mutant, every drop of me / adulterated.” The resolution, surprisingly, does not do the expected in finding a cure (a thousand country-western songs have done that, to be sure) but imagines geneticists examining slides of the speaker’s cells to piece back together not just the subject creature but her parasitical companion as well: “and in the deepest etchings of my brain, / they’ll find the you my body memorized.”
It should be clear from the quoted examples that Kelleher formalist credentials are impeccable; about the only defect I could find was in “The Poet Who Will Win This Competition,” a poem in terza rima where the poet comes up short for a third rhyme for “dirty,” forcing a line that doesn’t quite make sense. The “People” in the book’s third section are often targets of gentle satire; indeed, “the old-school formalist” in “Old School,” who scolds the poet for her occasional less-than—perfect rhymes, sounds suspiciously like Mr. Wilbur himself, depicted here as an elder statesman whose formal rigidity emerged from the schoolboy’s fear of a Latin master’s birch: “Today he breaks / the rules but rarely, taking pleasure in / the piquant joys of English discipline.” (A world of implication in that final line!)” I would hate to assign this poet-elder to the class-roll of “Noted Sadomasochists”—Rousseau, Swinburne, T. E. Lawrence, et al.—in a later sequence, and I suspect that Wilbur saw the joke himself, pointing out the “piquant” effect of the off-rhymes in “Lye,” where their employment “artfully reflects the scuffed texture of New England.” Wilbur has correctly observed that Kelleher’s “good heart” keeps her satirical portraits from meanness; even the sadomasochists (who are, after all, more intent on receiving pain than inflicting it) are treated with understanding, as is “Brockton Man,” a penny-dreadful murderer of a woman whom the poet recognizes from a newspaper headline and photograph as a former acquaintance. She feels not the “twinge” of an old lust “nor grief for someone I don’t miss,” only
of all instincts, best and worst:
to bond, to bend, to waive, to waver,
to put unruly feelings first,
and gloss it over.
The book’s final section, “Love,” finds Kelleher most at home in her own voice, and, as I have mentioned, some of the poems in other sections—the sonnets “Lovesick” and the later “Shotgun”—could as well have been placed here. The poet begins with the witty “Random Sextet,” in which she repeats that oft-heard morning-after question “What was I thinking?” These include several eventual rejects who would never have found their way into Wendy Cope’s “Rondeau Redoublé (that memorable catalog of “awful men”), including the cabbie in Tarzan underwear, the lambada-dancing Hungarian who praises the poet’s “leeps,” and the cash-flow poor ex-con. Still, the poet adds, “But he had awesome hair.” Among the many successes here, I’d single out “Love Sonnet” for its artful use of ersatz romantic idiom (“The soldierness of your astronymy / so gentle hungries in my panging blue . . .”) and “Mortimer,” another poem with an artful conceit, for its evocation of a dummy as relict (if you can remember Mortimer Snerd you are, as they say, of an age) whose wooden heart, “consisting of some hidden / knobs and levers on a swivel-stick,” longs for the manipulations of the ventriloquist’s absent hand, “those furtive fingers, all he knows of love.” The book closes, fittingly, with a poem to the poet’s husband, for whom poetry “does not have callused hands.” The guy, in this case, is clearly relished for being a guy, one for whom a pencil is best put to use not to write poems but to “mark // meeting-points of bookshelf and support.” It’s good to know, after one too many swinish in which the poet’s pearls lodge like an annoyance “wedged inside the cleft / of his hind hoof” that she has settled on and settled in with one who is “too concrete for words. A concrete wall // is constant, rough enough to face the sand.” As I said, a fitting (and charming) conclusion.
Kelleher has now joined the ranks of the Eratosphere bibliography, one that to my mind constitutes a meaningful and largely populist alternative to the ever-expanding legions of academic poet-teachers that dominate the lists of contest-winners and awards. Mr. Wilbur has chosen judiciously and well.