Reviews, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Four Way Books, 2008
Paperback, 80 pp., $15.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
The poetry in National Anthem, simply put, is necessary. Gritty and vibrantly-realized, Kevin Prufer’s work is a concretization of an imagined apocalypse—an analysis of the nation’s affairs and poignant observations on life in contemporary America.
“Apocalypse” rings true in post-Katrina society, and after so many recent worldwide natural disasters. Prufer writes,
. . . I searched the ground for rings and cufflinks, never
and then I saw in a tree’s low branch the body of a girl, long decayed. The
flooding must have washed her there.
Prufer never shies from the shocking, and proves as well, a certain versatility. A capacity for a rhythmic poetics with an incantatory quality are revealed exceptionally in “The Pastor”: “The gunfire said, Bang, bang, bang/ and the pastor said, Kneel and the old men kneeled. I kneeled./ The pastor said, Bow your heads.” Here the rhythm is lulling in the face of an inescapable death that rains down even as the religious bend on their knees to pray.
Equally jarring is “The Excavation of the Children of the Czar”:
I’ve been a baby in a well. The air was damp. I cried and cried.
I’ve been a secret in another’s brain, and then the brain went cold
so no one knew—
and now the jawbone aches to speak
Prufer’s ability to combine rhythm, metaphor, variety and imagery becomes evident in works like “Landscape with Hospital and Empire,” where the title is evocative of that of a painting. Appropriately, the poem’s aesthetic comes to fruition in its vivid imagery and use of language, which compares America to Roman civilization. In “What We did with the Empire,” commentary on the contemporary handling of the American government strikes up similarities with the uses and abuses of the Roman empire, which led to its collapse.
Part II presents poetry that is less commentary, as is the work in Part I, than it is a reflection on life in the context of war. “The Enormous Parachute” is partly epistolary, written from the perspective of someone living under the blanket of a parachute that extends as far as the eye can see. Perhaps it covers the entire nation. Those living beneath it are subjected to effects such as the blocking out of the sun and the confusion that follows its installation. The citizens whose world was covered have no say in the matter; they are equally subjected to what is likely the decision of a bureaucrat in a stuffy political office.
“There is No Audience for Poetry” acknowledges its own futility, and at the same time, its inherently intransigent nature. Poetry is a loudly resistant force that will not die, even if ignored. The poem is one of many unforgettable works in National Anthem, a collection ripe with beautiful language and an attention to craft that is next to unrivaled among contemporary poets. Prufer’s work should be required reading for students of poetry everywhere and, as per Marie Howe’s quote from the book’s cover, should indeed be read on national news.
Prufer has the unique ability to tap into the current state of affairs and the vibe of the national consciousness. But he doesn’t stop there. His work transforms the material into something necessary whose lasting benefit speaks to a country in a unique sort of turmoil.