Startling, cynical, satirical free verse about life among the postmodern ruins.
Keen’s debut poetry collection arrives at the party already a little drunk, a bit raucous and talking a mile a minute, but the longer the night goes on, the more sense it seems to make. After all, he’s not out to hurt anyone; he’s just trying to figure out where it all went wrong for all of us. With considerable energy and tightly coiled wit, Keen ranges across the political, spiritual and pop-culture landscapes only to find them all a little disorienting and largely bereft. “There is no sadness,” he writes, “But the fear of sadness. / There is no despair, / But the distraction from despair. / There is no suffering, / But the avoidance of suffering. / We’re living in bad times, / Biochemically speaking.” Regardless of where he looks, nothing essential remains. Love is sold “in bottles now, / and smells like aftershave,” Christ is “lost in all the traffic” and “so far away from now.” Even your sense of self is suspect: “In this cellular moment, / This eternity / Among strangers, / You see / Yourself / In bits / And / Pieces, / Impossible to describe.” Trapped by the postmodern condition and yearning for the teleologically secure time “before the world was shattered,” Keen’s narrators respond in seemingly the only way available—playing their own language games, answering absurdity with absurdity and papering over fragmentation with pastiche. Meditations on death are peppered with popular advertising slogans, and the apotheosis of Western civilization is reduced to Michelangelo’s David infested with maggots. With no certainty, even of the self, the poems join in the cannibalizing of culture, seeking irony in unexpectedly ironic situations. Amid the brutality arises humor, and Keen ably joins a long tradition in American avant-garde poetry of lampooning demagoguery with poems like “The Demystification of Henry Kissinger” and “Even at Night All Snakes Swallow Their Prey Whole: Looking Back at Arafat & Some of His Peers.” Supporting the politics, satire and social commentary is a more than capable, sometimes beautiful verse that relies heavily on repetition—from anaphora to choral refrains—and startlingly precise imagery (“sway-backed surgeons, / Peeling human skulls like eggs”) for great effect.
Thought-provoking, incisive and entertaining; a remarkably well-rounded debut.