Wow Wow Wow Wow by Kevin Killian
(Belladonna Books, Brooklyn, 2008)
I'd like to start this review with something of a detour. Remember back in the day, before we were blessed with dazzling on-line audio archives like PennSound? It was a pretty tough trick, impossible in fact at least for me, to ever get to hear what these poets I so adored sounded like. Sure there were some recordings of the Modernists around—Eliot, Pound (how much did that freak me out on first hearing it?!?!) & Williams, & Rhino had kept Beat voices circulating on CD. But as far as I could tell that was it. Well, in 1996, Exact Change issued their first (& only I believe) yearbook which included a CD of readings. Looking at it now, whoa, what a lineup of poets! Seminal hardly accounts for the epic importance of the poems we get to hear performed. & to think that for many (like me) this may have been the first time hearing any of these voices. Among the inexhaustible treasures on this disc (now neatly archived at PennSound) is a recording, from 1982, of Ted Berrigan reading "Red Shift", one of his later masterpieces. This performance, with its devastating calibrations & novel insistences, gets under the skin like no other. After a reading or at a party try this game--repeat a few lines of the poem aloud & I bet you'll find that more than a few of your cohort can pick up where you left off, such is the penetrating magic of his reading. If you, like me, hold this recording dear, perhaps it's obtained a special place in your imagination as a referent for one kind of emotional affectivity that poetry can achieve. I'd like to use this forum to propose that it has a compliment of sorts in a performance by Kevin Killian. The reading Killian gives of his poem "Is it All Over My Face?", from the launch reading for EOAGH's "Queering Language" issue (that issue itself a new & classic resource) is one for the ages, & while it uses a somewhat different set of tools to achieve its effects, it is in every way as memorable & moving as Berrigan's evergreen. Charming too, as Killian stops here & there, just as one's heart is starting to break, to fill us in on details that illuminate the poem in intimate ways. So it's a very generous reading, & in places very funny. But finally, by the time we've reached the spot where Kevin's voice drops to a whisper, & he hits the word 'cat', as if it yielded to us some bathetic power we've only heretofore barely felt, we know that we've entered a world of rare emotion & art where a plain, open kind of grief remains wedded to indelible mystery. So, as we turn in this little cul-de-sac I hope one of your next stops after my review will be a trip here—
http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Queering-Language.html for a listen to this reading, & the many other wonderful things gathered on that page.
So, to begin again with the matter at hand, Killian's chapbook Wow Wow Wow Wow. Last year, after most of us had been waiting for what seemed like forever, ingirumimusnocteetcomsumimurigni finally brought out Action Kylie, Kevin's collection of poems attending his muse/familiar Kylie Minogue. That book is a sun bringing with it the pixilated daylight of pop & the twilights of memory & death & lost love. I've been thinking of Wow Wow Wow Wow as a celestial body moving through the gravity field of Action Kylie, as indispensable as our very own moon. It's a short book, 18 pages long, & begins with a quick, chilly burst. "Giving You Up", the first poem, details a mysterious self-circumcision, the resultant blood becoming 'magic graffiti' on the clinical hospital walls. The next poem, "Tightrope", keeps us in suspense, as it opens 'high up on the passage between the vowels, a rope that crawled like/a snake from one edge of the page to the other", & I take it that here we're in the zone of composition itself, navigating the precarious cathexis of contemporary writing. One of the interesting features of Kevin's poetry involving Kylie Minogue is one never quite knows when or where she might show up. This becomes suspenseful in an elemental fashion for it always seems that around this or that corner she may be lurking to open some horizon of meaning we wouldn't have seen without her. That's the case with 'Tightrope', which, after a brief detour to Alice Notley's Parisian apartment ("In France in that little room, the red, white, and blue/intertwined in ribbons") we follow the phantasmal presence of a Kylie b-side on an errand to Duane Reade where the patrons "shriek in excited whispers" upon finding that spirit amongst them. Now, let's pause for a moment to marvel at what I've just recounted to you as if it were a matter of course in one's reading. Think for a moment of whatever work you've been reading, the poems you've loved of late. Have any contained such a wealth of improbable turns, collapses & excitements? Well, maybe some, but none with the particular tones & combinations found here. That's the thing about this little book, it's incredibly exciting, lit up by turns with the freezing & burning we associate perhaps with Renaissance poetry, frost & unbearable heat in duet. Dana, calm down, you might say. Well, I say in response that one of the great gifts of Kevin's writing is that it enables us to risk the folly of our own enthusiasms, & to move from that first station of excitement, mild shame, to someplace where that state is commingled with a complicated, necessary ecstasy.
"Cherry, can you see me?" so begins "Cherry Bomb/Heath Ledger", a work devoted to memorializing the fallen actor's dual nature, the Dionysian implications of that first name Heath—"the boy of the moors, all mad fire", & the Apollonian Ledger—"that is one/motherfucking MBA sort of book" as Kevin has it. The poem also opens a window on the great debates played out among Kylie fans over the merits of her tune (another B-Side) called Cherry Bomb. It's a poem of divisions, of unreconciled drives, & the mesmerizing alchemy expressed when such dyads so vividly inhabit one body—
"You made me feel like I didn't need to go to work.
You had the hands of a clown grown calm.
Feed me up sight with your cherry bomb"
Let's pause for a moment to enjoy the beautiful roundness & buoyancy of these lines like a cluster of helium balloons with their strings anchored down by a big raft of pillows. The poem ends with a tender scene of particular resonance here—an image of Heath with Dannii Minogue "hugging that Australian boy with Down’s syndrome at some charity event, hearts all over them." Then, on our way out, we get one last look into the charm box of his name, one last play with that handful of letters, but it's so shivery & good I'm not going to tell it here.
As such I should probably ask you...how do you feel about spoilers? Me personally I'm a glutton for them. But I won't presume here to know how you feel. For discretion's sake let me proceed with a short catalog of some the books other pleasures. So, what else is here? Well, there's a couple of miniature narratives, one where a young person gazes out on a city of promise, & another that deals with the physical allure of books, their relation to erotic seductions. There's an essay concerning a Kylie video, a few carefully appropriated film dialogues, & the hair-raising lyric "Genital Emotion" which indexes moments of having "behaved disgracefully", & addresses us to 'the most embarrassing thing that could/happen, outside of death". I should say too that the sequencing is exquisite here, & works to create an atmosphere of dreamy obsession & peril countervailed by both elegy & ingenious play with the material of language. Yet, as with much of the poetry I love there's something else extant, a 'something else' that continually resists my attempts to apprehend & express it. It manifests itself in a convergence of knowledge, design & receptivity to transmission (of the Spicerian sort) in Kevin's writing. I always feel that to express it I would need first a kind of magic epistemology, the kind that would dissolve before I tried to apply it. A last question, related to the living unknown I've just described—what is the feeling I had so much reading these poems, this feeling they are bonded together by some particular theme or thread I never did quite suss out. Is it the dialectic between a collection of b-sides from Kylie, & this book of Kevin's, released in the wake of his 'full length LP'(Action Kylie), & the notion that, for the true fan, there is no such thing as a secondary text, only constellations of related intensity marked by the performer, or the poet's intentions? Killian's writing has for years performed the necessary task of giving a musical & narrative body to (among other things) the wondrous collapse of high & low, major & minor. Think of his Amazon reviews for a moment (Hooke Press published some in a chapbook edition, & all of them can be accessed here—www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A30TK6U7DNS82
R/ref=cm_rss_rev_feedpdplink. BTW it's like the Met--you can't see it all in one day.) There, he's leveled the omniscient voice that's all too often native to reviewers, contriving instead a voice that's in and amid his objects of attention, with them, through their trajectories & potentials, their frailties. What seems at first blush like an act of common courtesy is instead gently, but explicitly, political. & alluring. & funny. & all the things we like.
In closing I'll admit something true, & probably obvious. I write this as a fan. I take pride in my fandom, as it is finally only a contemporary expression of devotional love that's been part of the human scene forever. It's grounded in what I take to be the inarguably extraordinary character of Kevin's writing. If I have betrayed some illusory trust of presumed objectivity, I will have done so only in service to another kind of accuracy, & to the real work of advocating for art I can't imagine living without. To lay your hands on a copy of Kevin's book, write to the heroic curators & editors of the Belladonna Series Rachel Levitsky & Erica Kaufman. You can find all the necessary info over at www.belladonnaseries.org.
Dana Ward is the author of Goodnight Voice (House Press) the Drought (Open 24hrs), & Roseland (Editions Louis Wain). A collaborative book with the artist Paul Coors entitled I Want This Forever will be published in early Winter. Recent work is out or forthcoming in Mrs. Maybe, Try!, Shampoo, BoogCity, & various other lovely spots. He lives in Cincinnati, edits Cy Press, & works as an advocate for adult literacy at the Over-The-Rhine Learning Center.