Michael Kelleher's Beautiful Warnings
"That light going out/ Is not an empire/ Dying, it's a firefly/ Flashing in the dark," writes Michael Kelleher in the opening lines of "Firefly" the first poem in Human Scale, his new collection of poems published by Buffalo-based publisher of innovative poetry and fiction BlazeVox Books.
Based on a paraphrase of a line by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, the poem is a work of associative etymology, beginning in taxonomy ("Familia lampyridae") and moving to biophysics ("The enzyme luciferase/ acts on the substrate/ Luciferin, which glows/ in the presence of air...") before exploring the Judeo-Christian allegories concerning Lucifer and the Fall ("He was closest to God,/ Who cast him out for pride/ of bioluminescence...").
Kelleher is known in this community for his work on behalf of other writers as Artistic Director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, but Human Scale, a more substantial follow-up to his 2005 BlazeVox chapbook To Be Sung, presents him as a significant talent in his own right.
Although he has described himself in the past as "a formalist who cheats"and "an egotistical non-intentionalist" this book has him steadily moving in the direction of the poetics of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets Kelleher has devoted much of his scholarship to. "Nihilism/ Gives way/ to elegy...An edifice/ Of empty cells/ Awaits fulfillment," he writes in "Pie In The Sky."
Many of the poems in Human Scale succeed by undermining the tropes they appear to participate in. "Cuba" is a strangely dislocated travel poem in which the narrator seems unsure whether he is in the Caribbean or Paris. "A Passing Shadow " is a conditional mock epic written entirely in the subjunctive mood that builds up to an exasperated, black comic ending. Despite it's allusions to the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, the one gets the sense that it is actually a poem about the excesses of grammar.
Some readers might interpret this tendency as Kelleher "taking a run" (to borrow a term from ice hockey) at the neo-formalist trend in contemporary poetry. Nowhere does he take this further than in "Pastoral," a satirical "haymaker" of a poem that equates literary archaism with the tacit acceptance of bestiality. Then again, he might just be having a bit of coarse fun at the expense of the form.
"Number Crunch" is an antiwar poem that doesn't pretend to engage the issues surrounding the war, but objects to the desensitized language we use to process information about its casualties. It stands in marked contrast to the art as witness tableau of the book's "Epilogue" which references Picasso's Guernica and describes Goya's The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, as masterpieces so visionary that they somehow enable the kind of atrocities that inspired them. "La Jetee," a poem inspired by the 1962 French science fiction classic by film maker Chris Marker of the same title, presents a relatively faithful narrative transliteration of the pace of still photo sequencing of that film set in the Paris underground following a nuclear apocalypse.
It is the very nature of perception and the proportionality of experience that comes into question in much of Kelleher's poetry, especially in "Nachtmusik," easily the finest poem in this book, in which he begins:
The night has come
The human scale
Is tipped, the rut,
The groove, the frame
Of mind forming...
The image from which the book's title is derived seems as much of a motif in Kelleher's early poems as the idea of the American "Common Place" served as a frame for Robert Creeley's mid career work. It's in the admission that follows, though, that he reconnects us to poetry's mythic and oracular roots:
of mixed purpose
Out of whole cloth
I wouldn't want
Myself to be...
......I know not
where to learn
To read these