Ethical Consciousness by Paul Killebrew

51qNZInriYL._SY300_Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness, the follow-up to his excellent debut Flowers, is a book of poems obsessed with remnants of meaning. For Killebrew, gestures, the unsaid, unspoken, and ineffable bits of flotsam are an undeniable force. His poetry’s particular fascination lies in the architecture of experience, what we get to say about the perpetual work of becoming.

The poems in Ethical Consciousness are poised to wonder what we may say about being alive, breathing and thinking, if we don’t even know how to communicate the flow of little experiences, thoughts, and memories that fragment what we think of as reality. These poems seem to suggest that our language isn’t suited to that flow. Yet they say so in a way that somehow performs both hope and disappointment, inscribed into each other—and beautifully. Late in the book, we find:

I am here

to tell you

that you are not

dying. You are

already dead.

You are not shrinking.

You have disappeared.

Your reputation

isn’t waning. You

are unknown.

Almost all of the book’s two-dozen or so poems are composed of clipped lines that unfurl long and short and then even longer sentences. Killebrew’s New York School ethos (wit, juxtaposition, high- and low-brow cocktail) is on full display, but he’s after something else. Even if he’s in the traditions of Ashbery and Schuyler, what distinguishes his writing is the way his poems keep circling back and homing in on the scene of some crime, where the evidence can’t quite stand in for what’s happened. Instead, the poems prove that what we’re left clutching is not even evidence—but only a story we’re trying to tell, in order to rectify some long-past crime or injustice.

The book’s first poem opens:

My disease, if I

have one,

is life

in its entirety—

the white drapes,

the faceted expression

the face

of the unerring

device, these

inscrutable tears

collecting like tulips

around a copse

of vases.

This long, heavily enjambed sentence is not an exception in the book, it’s the rule. Killebrew’s poems are staccato and ephemeral, springy and exploratory. They cut to the quick, yet pivot outward. His poems think, they talk, they even wax rhapsodically, but their short and shorter lines seem to say: onward, down, more, further; let’s keep going, by hook or crook, we’re not there yet. Or, in the poet’s own words, “Each step is a holograph.”

The poem “Really Isn’t” begins:

It is such
a beautiful world,
and yet
I treat
so many things
as emblematic,
as if each
teardrop on
the brim of
his lies
spoke for
a large and
shadowy theme

If the opening cliché that the speaker’s fully invested in (as if saying, I know it’s corny, but I mean it!) harkens to Ashbery’s daffier lines, what propels Killebrew beyond the derivative is his hunt to locate certain words to believe in through a scrutiny of shared experience. Thus, while Killebrew may be at home under the spell of passing feelings, he knows this brings him no closer to the words that might cast the same spell on the reader. The poems in Ethical Consciousness trust the mindfulness to attend to what’s fleeting, what’s “emblematic” and even “shadowy,” but they mistrust our ability to communicate those fleeting experiences to one another. In response, the poems twist and shirk down the page in these long, lovely, funny, perplexing, careening sentences and questions.

Again and again, Killebrew’s pleasures are entrenched in his frustrations: how to express the ineffable, how to accurately describe the experience of a mugging, a defendant lying on the stand, a friend’s personality shifts in the throes of a run for Congress, a beam of sunlight on a sidewalk, even the conceit of a conceptual poem breaking down—without ruining the stuff through the very act of our having said it. Prufrock’s famous “Do I dare to eat a peach?” becomes, for Killebrew, in the same poem from above:

No one heard me
peeling the orange.
I lived mostly as a walk
through frozen iterations
of a neighborhood,
everyone’s briefly meeting faces
seem to allude
to a future conversation
in a smoke-filled garden
draped in beads.

It’s not, should I peel and eat the orange and might that disturb the universe? It’s, well, I peeled it and “No one heard me” anyhow. As such, the poet seems to ask: what of our lives can be said to be meaningful if the smallest and sometimes most resonant details belie communication? Killebrew has conjured something that only the best poets find new and pleasurable ways of manifesting: poems that think through their own making, fall short, but which somehow perform the pleasures of having missed their marks.  That poem’s closing lines are:

Theories found us
huddled in our comfortable resemblances,
scouring each change
in the melody of conversation
for a method,
a route through the atmosphere
from eyes like condemned theaters
to the adventure of pure meaning
we are sure awaits us.

The experience of the gap that the poem articulates—that wish for and falling short of the “pure meaning” we yearn to know—is what makes Killebrew’s poems so good and so haunting. They’re scored with forlorn resonances of missed opportunities to connect. And yes, they’re disappointed by their own inability to trace any experience back to that nonexistent source for which it apparently stands. And, yeah, they’re even sorry about it, in their own funny, meandering, and plaintive ways. But as Killebrew writes: “My only wish was that / the metaphor would outlast / the afternoon.”

Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the editor of The Volta

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