REVIEW: Translations on Waking in an Italian Cemetary by Michael Keenan

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by Dong Li

In this spellbinding debut, Michael Keenan dips in the heart blood and paints a swift scroll of fleeting names. Lean and lovingly delicate, like the poet himself, these poems tend to have titles longer than a line, which slowly draw out their short echoing bodies. The line-ends may remind us of the one-eyed Robert Creeley, whose seemingly abrupt enjambment estranges the text as words break apart and breath stumbles. Often, the parting of words and breaking of breath happen in those secrete places or gap gardens whose deep songs no one else hears. As with Creeley, it is the “unseen birds in simple flight” that the poet sees: Lotte’s maple blossoms, Paula’s lime gardens, Anna in the hallway, Ballerina in the elm. The list goes on, indeed a “pine-forest-frenzy, coming/full-on-night.” Taking its toll, longing looms especially at night and brings those longed-for lovers unreachably close to the touch. This young troubadour sings us through the gap gardens of the evanescent longing and sets us on a drift over the tender folds of skin, over a tremble on the heartstring. The poem embodies. In the bodies. After deep songs, check, check, where are the places to go. Nowhere in the longing mind. Except night. Night in the dark dunes of night. Ladies are dark and only naming curls upon mouth corners. These understatedly romantic and hypnotically resonant acts of naming evoke endless scenes of the unrequited, the unreachable, and the forever-gone.

It is not the fantastically faraway lovers that we see through Michael’s eyes but the poet himself through the unexpected and unintended glances, like a car parked illegally “on Court Street in the middle of the day.” We are, thus, in, in his eyes: we are in the dirty-water days with Michael and his dark art. The motto, “To run the dark,” is certain and clear. To dance a deadly blue waltz, to seek radio towers from Paula’s window, to insert letters to Victoria between window and sill, to see a first friend, to watch a first lover forever in the fading waters, dark love does drive the goddamn ancient car. Frank Stanford in the night company, we are on a highway to black smoke, black rain, to the “lute in the glass wind.” Who leaps into crystal Mississippi again and again. Is the heart green again. Regardless, the night buoys, regardless, the moon wets. Our hearts break out, regardless. Longing, the dark art. Living is the night. As the poet and his poems move around the country on his waffle truck, “the Autumn is/listening” and we are listening to moments of waking in the cemetery of the mind as they translate into telepathic tendrils or tunes of New Orleans. These poems are intimate and thin like hair. Like a wisp of hair in a pool of whispering hairs, they smooth the skin of feelings and feelings in the skin. When Michael asks his friend Carlos, “is it time,” let us stand up and sing yes. It is Michael Keenan’s time. It is your time, Michael. Not too late to dream, not too late to be alive, let us run away with him and drive to the moon.

A-Minor Press: $12.95

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