I’m going to discuss a book you’ll never find in any bookstore, never see, never own. Its simple title, Twenty-six Poems, names the late flowering of a poet whose talent is deep, whose life has taken him to places and pursuits other than poetry and to whom life has now offered both a different choice and no choice at all:
Lies down among the laurels, the near hillside
Plowed and planted
In the green thrall of tobacco.
Clouds off the Blue Ridge laden with rain
Hang in the middle distance forever,
A rim of light the demarcation
Between mountains and sky.
The air cools
To a gathering radiance,
Soon to be shadow, then limbo, then night.
— from “Already Darkness”
The lines are lyric and cool. Like sea-smoothed stones in the hand, they calm, weighted with depth. William Keens is the poet, and I want you to meet him through his poems and the story of a long ago friendship. His work is elegant, rarely showy, restrained and daring. Moments like “the near hillside plowed and planted / in the green thrall of tobacco” flare to light the poem into memory, and though the quoted lines bring on the dark, they do so with a hymn’s quiet praise.
The poem “The Body Bends,” here in its entirety, engages us differently. Short lines alternate with longer ones to punctuate the dark wit the poem employs so well:
THE BODY BENDS
The body bends
To its demise, takes a bow
With the cast that populates a life.
So much for planning. It doesn’t matter —
Thug, friend or child molester,
Converge in babble at the end.
Shimmers like paradise through a keyhole.
Stoop to it, stoop and stay doubled
Or the labor of starting over.
Internal slant-rhymes “demise” and “retires” add power. “Life,” coming after with some irony, is a slant rhyme for both. In the second stanza, “friend” and “end” continue the irregular pattern, the first appearing between “thug” and “child molester,” equalizing all toward “end.” “All lines / converge in babble” the poet tells us, even as his lines direct us to more definite and delightful interpretation. Deepening into “What’s true” without specifying, the poem moves to the unseen view that “shimmers through a keyhole” toward which the old will bend to see. “Stoop” is repeated, slant rhyming with “true.” Whoever looks through this keyhole, whose revelation is like paradise, will stoop and “stay doubled” — and we can double that image as we will — “with laughter / or the labor of starting over.” Playful and sad but ultimately affirming, the poem compels re-reading, the slant rhymes of “laughter,” “labor” and “over” performing their own associate play. “The Body Bends,” like a number of other poems here, begins with a matter-of-fact darkness, then enlightens by confounding expectations. As does the following:
END OF THE DAY
Cloud fields, cloud floes
Great polar expanses
Of iced air banked and layered beneath us
From sunset to darkness as our plane beelines north.
Up here existence
Is tenuous but light-hearted, at this hour
Defined as a far room of color, cloud-radiant
And night coming on.
I could step out, try to walk
If they’d hold me, the weightless ones
I loved in the past, still love and would gladly
Embrace again their ethereal forms.
Flight makes me think
How dying will be — carried off over the ice pack.
The stars so brilliant,
Numerous, indifferent, the light almost liquid,
Trekkers and swimmers and silver transporters,
The air full of us,
More than anyone knew,
Each returning to a room
Where the light is still on and someone — a figure
Silhouetted in the window —
Waits up in God-knows-what kind of mood.
The last stanza’s tonal change is half anticipated, yet startling. “Up here existence / is tenuous but light-hearted” could serve as description of the whole poem. The ghosts the poet imagines peopling the air around him, “more than anyone knew,” are benign, beloved whoever they are, stranger or kin. The last stanza gives the poet and each ethereal form a trajectory toward the room where mystery is, and fear, and rueful laughter. The figure, metaphor for past, or Creator, or angel or kinsman, waiting up in “God-knows-what kind of mood” is like a parent, possibly furious, waiting for a tardy child. The line brings on a flinching smile. Like many here, this poem charms with a mixture of clarity and strangeness.
EVIDENCE OF ANGELS
Trying to divine
Something sacred — what the long line
Played out and reeled in
Delivers silvery, wet and flopping
But alive on the crescent of the beach.
Of course they disguise themselves —
Fish with wings, weather vanes,
High-flying hawks —
Those “purely spiritual and
(This from an Islamic tract)
Who row and spin in their interceding,
The sum a practical account:
Tumors fade, children
Remain whole, the thread doesn’t break.
The evidence of angels.
For them, the bamboo
Unfurls its shade, long poles that
Sway and clack
Like socketed pinions in the shimmering air.
Murmurs in the crown,
A sudden cooling like the advent of rain.
William Keens has faced, since the age of fifty-four, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Now sixty-two, he is still able to lead a full life. Twenty-six Poems was an unexpected gift from Bill when he came for a visit, after decades of no contact between us. You won’t see the book because it is privately printed in an edition of only one hundred copies for family and friends of the poet. The copy I hold in my hand is a beautiful object, its simple green cloth cover lovely to the touch. The hand-binding is evident, the design elegant, the paper handmade. Its power, however, as you have read, is in the strikingly rich material inside.
AFTER THE GREAT WAR
A train crosses the desert.
The shadow of a train
Ripples like the negative image of wind
Over a plain of lizards.
We are their passing dream: bright metal
Of the dining car decked in clouds, the bone
Face of my father.
I brush salt from my palm
And remember an outing with my family.
My grandmother rests in a dry light
And talks of her labors
The year Debs was in prison,
Making flowers until her fingers bloomed like poppies.
I look from her outstretched hands
Toward the others:
My grandfather mowed down by sleep,
Mother at her easel, father rowing into the wind.
So we were. Every day
I searched for news of our armistice —
Wind in the mesquite, wind looking for something —
Every night redrafted the terms of our peace.
In “Names for the Heirloom,” which accents the naming that poetry is, the poet’s Italian grandmother sews in a high room in New York. Perhaps it is a quilt she is sewing, perhaps a coat, perhaps a dream or a song. Or all of these:
NAMES FOR THE HEIRLOOM
In the simple darkness of her kitchen, my nonna
Stitches, stitches, stitches.
Snips of thread and linen fall like snow into her lap.
Her dress is black,
Cut from the shirts of fascists, her hands
Lie down like old companions,
Two sisters in the winter olive grove sleeping
Or lovers or partisans. They travel among us:
Two immigrants, two peasants, two voting socialists.
We are the last known
Ark of creation, sailing under threat of forgetfulness
From that distant mooring, a kitchen in the dark
As snow falls over West Fourth Street
And I listen to my grandmother sew
Ever Near, Always With You,
Something to wear in that storm.
Echoes of Neruda hover around this poem without upstaging the story. Again a strategy of slant rhyme animates the lines, with “kitchen” and the three “stitches” and “snips” working music into the beginning, music that shows up again as the poem moves into magic, the grandmother’s hands becoming two sisters, two compatriots, two lovers or partisans. The speaker and his grandmother are the “last known / Ark of creation” in the kitchen, floating in the dark, in the snow over New York’s West Fourth Street, and the immigrant’s heritage descending as the grandmother sews “Something to wear in that storm.”
Why write about a book that will never appear in a bookstore? And who is William Keens? I confess to reasons of both aesthetics and personal connection. And herein is a little history.
As the first Randall Jarrell Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Keens studied with Robert Watson and Fred Chappell. From there. he went on to the Iowa Writers Workshop to study with Donald Justice, Norman Dubie and Marvin Bell, graduating with a stellar class that included Tess Gallagher, David St. John, Michael Ryan, Denis Johnson and Laura Jensen, among others. Some of his work was published in journals, and there was a small chapbook from Penumbra Press in Iowa. There were years of hard work teaching English at an excellent and very old private high school in Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s where I met Bill, and therein lies our small adventure.
He was the most intense young man I ever met. Determined, driven, focused and very, very smart, he wanted everything — poetry, success, travel, love, beauty, art — the world. In the few years I knew him (can it have been thirty-five years since we met?), he was able to energize a group of us toward efforts we’d never imagined on our own. He talked me and another poet into starting — or trying to start — an honest-to-God serious literary journal. We loved gathering to talk poems and argue poetics, and somehow the idea of a journal grew. We could call it Saxifrage after the William Carlos Williams line and the flower said to split rock.
Against all odds, we — and this means mostly Bill — were able to raise enough money to publish the first issue with first-rate paper and art. And it was Bill who was able to get commitments for poems, essays and stories from some of the best writers around, including Dave Smith, Morris Dickstein and Elizabeth Sewell.
Bill also oversaw, with some help from us, getting the necessary tax-exempt status and the national distributor (DeBoer) we would need. Ours, we told ourselves, wouldn’t be just another literary magazine, but the best literary magazine ever! We were, after all, young.
Of course, our venture failed. Even before we could gather the first issue together, we came to see that with the longevity requirement for grants, the huge costs of production, the forty percent coming off the top for distribution and uncertain revenue from subscribers and advertisers for the foreseeable future, we’d have to raise large sums of money again and again. We knew we couldn’t swing it.
So we changed directions. Bill’s idea, of course. We decided to establish a literary prize: After contacting our donors and gaining their permission, we used the funds collected for the magazine to set up the Saxifrage Prize Competition. Open only to books published by university or small independent presses, the competition would award the Prize to poetry books and books of short fiction in alternating years. The winning author would receive $1,000 and would be brought to North Carolina for a three-city reading tour. The three copies of each book entered were donated, after the award year, to the public libraries of each of the cities hosting a reading. The entries poured in by the hundreds. The first winner was Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America, and the five finalists were equally as stunning. I arranged the Raleigh reading at the North Carolina Museum of Art, where Pinsky read among the Renaissance paintings, with a large crowd present.
The competition lasted five years, then the money ran out, and we were done. Bill had learned that he was very good indeed at working with people, at fund raising, designing plans and following through. He moved to Manhattan even before our competition ended, where he took a job editing American Arts magazine, the publication of the umbrella organization of American Arts Councils. Soon he was tapped to run the organization that published the magazine. Thereafter, he began a successful business of his own as a consultant to donors and grantees alike. With a happy second marriage that gave him and Caroline Watson two sons, Bill had fulfilled his ambitions, found meaningful work that rewarded him well: the yearned-for travel, a long-term connection with the arts and a full family life.
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2002 changed Bill’s life, of course. His consulting business pared down, his perspective on the future was altered and he gained an expanded sense of the value of every day and reclaimed his art. He had already begun writing poetry after a hiatus of decades, and that call became stronger. In the four-part poem “Covenant of Circles” the following lines are addressed to poetry itself, to the muse if you will:
My poor half-sister streams through the window.
She is the morning light, I labor
In the hem of her dress
Trying to sew a fold in the radiance
And fail again. But hold in my hand
The light body that breaks into flame
Like tongues into canticles. . . .
The poem moves then from Madame Curie to Einstein, from Copernicus to Galileo, its line limning circles, hymns to light and galaxies, to “the Zodiac’s fish-filled, goat-raucous band,” and to “All who rode into the shadows and never came out again; / Shed fire, sang, burned with fever.” It’s a risky, brilliant poem.
These slower days, and occasionally using a cane to maintain his balance, Bill works with a few select clients as a consultant, visits Italy to be with relatives on his mother’s side, with whom he has established ties, spends time with Caroline and his boys, and writes. He has also founded a website with his colleague Brian Lemond of Brooklyn Digital Foundry. The Poetry Ark is a sort of interactive salon for poetry lovers and has culminated in The Ark Anthology, one hundred poems voted on by users, downloadable at www.poetryark.com
One of the most moving and interesting among the Twenty-Six Poems is this one:
Root trunk and branch
Root trunk and branch
Root could be crown being
Source and mooring
In wind gale and tempest
Wind gale and tempest
Blows the errant seagull inland
Wheatfield mystery of that oracular bird
Just so the displaced unexpected
Rogue cell misfiring neuron
Age that narrow constrains constricts
Blood’s course heart’s errant tick
Breathless battered sapped
Looking down looks up into that starry net
I’ve written here about a book both present and unavailable, and I’ve done so to make it, at least in part, present for those who read this. I’ve written not out of a long ago friendship, but because the poems are original, beautiful, strange, deeply sad, deeply celebratory, and necessary to their author in ways that make them necessary for the reader who finds them. I have written here because the making of poems, the thing itself (“the light that body breaks into flame like tongues into canticles”), matters so much more than careers in poetry — in teaching or performance or publishing — and because some poets write in the dark and thereby write themselves out of darkness into light. All the candles matter, however windblown, when the gift is there, when the flame is a true one.