Sky In A Hundred Puddles
W.B. Keckler builds a hall of mirrors
By Toh Hsien Min
Sanskrit of the Body
One of my convictions about the reading of poetry is that one should always read the collection of poems in order. Even if not necessarily at one sitting, the reading should be carried out in a brief enough period for one to have an idea of the shape of the whole book. By and large, we do not read a poem by starting at the fifth stanza and working alternately backwards and forwards until every line has been read, nor do we generally read three stanzas of a sestina and return to the remaining stanza only two months later; and there seems little reason to believe that what holds true at the level of the poem does not hold true at the level of the book.
So it was a little disconcerting to come across W.B. Keckler’s new collection, Sanskrit of the Body, and wonder if the poems may not have been better served up in amuse bouche portions. This question comes despite the poet’s announcement of the fugal form linking the book on the back cover, and the subsequent question of why this may be the case serves more as a source of distraction than as a reading focus.
One possibility that - and certainly to Keckler’s credit - is that the poems may be too rich. There are “coiled energies”, recollecting Dylan Thomas, and these energies uncoil themselves into, two pages later, “obsidian streamlining animal energy”. At one level, one could say that the uncoiling is enabled by its form and activated by the physical act of turning the page, but there is a sense in which the uncoiling is imagistic, in this case, by way of resembling a snake. The images in Keckler’s book are often stunning, catching the reader at the throat. The rendering of grass as “seeming to burn the field / but they are the field” is an uncannily recollective phrase for the apparent change of colour that can result when grass is bent double by a strong wind. Later, we are shown how “the wind came... and browsed”. Other natural phenomena are noted as carefully and vividly. “Sun left floaters, spangled fire over a bay’s wide-dazzled influx” brings across the sharp points of light put together by strong sunlight and unsettled waves seen from a distance. In the distinctly odd poem ‘All afternoon and blue evening’, snow as “white krill” presents one of the outstanding metaphors of my reading diet so far this year. “I’m the sky reflected in a hundred puddles”, in ‘Morning Rain Ticking’ similarly puts together a visual image with an original metaphor. There is throughout the book a strong sense of colour, “a multicolor eye, unnatural orange splinters in green / green glass, rare gold in a grey winter stare.” The images are rich and sensitive, but almost disturbingly so; one suspects that “Can somebody just walk away / from such an image?” is not particular to the poem ‘I wrestle with many problems, lately’ but a rationalisation that informs the book.
The opening poem does much to lay the foundations for this disconcerting effect. It is difficult to read of a mouse doing chin-ups “in the void-void” – I paused to go huh? – “of a haunted bird-cage” in the second and third lines and not feel that this goes beyond the contemporary mode of defamiliarising through the surreal toward the bounds of the ridiculous. Other images do not make that jump, but trip instead over their own feet. The suggestion in ‘Now you walk the floors’ of stepping “over the grids / with your displaced music” probably finds an unfortunate correspondence with the para para dance found in Asia, but the way “candles lick walls of your room incorporeal” in ‘The privacy of a penitentiary’ is simply clumsy. These moments are, happily, infrequent, but so is the linkage of the stunning image to an equally stunning idea. One such, nevertheless, is in ‘A hand goes deeper inside the nude’, whose form, anaphoric with indefinite articles, brings more than a hint of parataxis, which is supported by its fetishistic focus on the pornographic movie of the narrative. However, its success only highlights the way an unforgiving, paratactic mode informs the whole collection.
Few concessions are made to the reader in the matter of structure. It is not long before the reader questions how the book hangs together. The book is divided into what appears to be four sections, but it is not clear if these are conceptually four long poems, four mini-collections or four parts to a whole. (It is a cause for minor celebration to encounter proper titles in the third section, as they provide a little more clarity in that section, although not necessarily for the book.) Certainly, it does appear that Keckler has a feel for architecture; his awareness can be seen in structural references, such as “And then you divide again” coming after a section break (almost a structural pathetic fallacy), or “old drawings of a whale’s fin, an ibis’s wing, a leaf”, which speaks of an eye for design. Rather, the difficulty is in communicating the vision, and this is more pressing because of the broadness of the brush with which the poet paints.
This broadness can be traced through the imagistic links that form the sinews of the book; the links can often be seen within poems, sometimes within lines, in the way “blazoned eyes” reflect “peacock feathers”, in ‘She talks to herself all night’. The result is the effect of a contrapuntal fugue – or perhaps a hall of mirrors. One cannot help but feel the resonances, but then the rational mind steps in and objects that when you put together so many unelaborated yet evocative images together, resonances are inevitable. Is it then a question of language? Is “ride that flood / tide at full spate” a little redundant in the style of “mica-flecked sand”, or is the repetitive construction re-creative of the structure of river-flow? The linkages can be easily traced, for example, in ‘What are the stories you keep in your mind’s tight crawlspace’, where one can start with the “crawl” of “crawlspace” and trace it along the poem through the “crab” to the “sand” and then the “sandpiper”, as easily as tracing the “space” from the reiteration of “space” through to “shape”, then “labyrinth” then “wheel”, then “coils” and eventually “abalone”. The “animal economy” of the much later poem ‘A kinetic sculpture is mounted’ brings “ocean’s sound left inside a shell” (which, incidentally, refers to an orgasm) back to the unfurling of the shell in the “abalone.” In ‘How old is this darkness anyway’, “rust”, which appears for the third time within eight poems, is part of the sequence that traces the effect of water from “reflections” through to “snow”, then “puddles” then “waterfall”. The “rails of a railroad” in one poem link with the train in the previous poem, as does “dripping water” with the previous mirage. The “river stones” of ‘Our differing voice patterns’ link back to the “full spate” earlier. It is possible to admire the effort and to agree that the fugal theme has been well served, but at the same time to be unmoved by these conceptual assonances. This sense is never so strong as when Keckler speaks of “writing predating the human”, the “Sanskrit on your body” of the title. The writing is there, if you look, and maybe that constitutes the poetry; there is a “hologram of thinking”, an illusion of depth, but it is tiring to try to feel it (“Life is what the living take”, Keckler says, to which my only answer is yes). In other words, because Keckler’s style is expansive rather than intensive, because the links are on the level of order rather than of genus, because the breadth never permits quite enough depth, it is on the one hand necessary to read the book as a whole and yet seldom rewarding in the instant of reading.
This tendency towards breadth is accentuated but not helped by Keckler’s tendency to abstraction. We may question unusual diction as we encounter them, e.g. “hejira”, for a quite trivial point on the wind’s movement in the second poem, but the poise of the poet is strictly assured, the form of statement that appears in so many of the poems brooks no dissidence. Again, there is no concession for the reader. This is a poise that leads the poet towards the “big ideas”, which Keckler does not have any more success with than any other poet. When he speaks of how “everything is sleeping on this silly planet” and “Only a millionth part of us ever really awoke”, my instinctive question – unanswered in the poem – is, who awoke?. Touching the cosmic trope again with the “Big Bang” in ‘Crickets outside tonight speak’, he postulates that “Crickets all night are proof / space is empty enough to talk to itself”; my instant response is a skeptical, Really?. The potential of “cold electricity”, a few poems later, is let down by the reference to the “Great Wheel of Being”. Such attempts to touch, abstractly, on things bigger than even humanity bring to mind Anna Adams’s concession in her essay ‘Having Changed Horses In Midstream’ that “Such matters as the Meaning of Life should be left to lie sleeping while poets write about living experience, and, by means of minute particulars, hint at the large answers that can otherwise only be presented as truisms. Show the evidence, and let the readers be the jury.” Keckler’s method often takes the exact opposite. While he has an expert eye for observing the natural, he too often translates phenomena into the neural, psychological or abstract. “Does a shell secrete mathematics // Or vice versa?” he asks, again translating nature into analysis. The expansion and contraction of the thought in that poem, ‘You Were Thinking How’, is temporarily exhilarating, but it spirals on to a point where the thought disappears. Stylistically, Keckler’s poetry is a very modern American poetry, of the school that has seized on the more lyrical aspects of New York School while also carving space for ambition, but in so doing creating the cracks on what could otherwise have been a powerful lens.
A reservation that has to be made is that one other glass has already been brought to bear. The poems were selected for this collection by the celebrated American poet Mary Oliver. It is quite possible that many of the flaws in the collection stem from this: it is easier for an external editor to seize on the salient or broadest aspects of poems; some of the clearer linkages between poems have the flavour of such selection. As the book appears thus to have been planned in retrospect, the difficulty of making the poems cohere tends to be greater, and perhaps the case for reading the poems without reference to their order grows. The poems are often compelling in their own right, taken as individual bite sizes; hence the question remains of whether Sanskrit of the Body may have been better served up as two or three smaller collections. I think the only answer that can be positively reached at this juncture is that it is a book of uncertain regard, in both senses. There is accomplishment in the flesh of the poems, but the perspectives that are brought to bear upon them do the poems no favours.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004