By Kevin Prufer
New York: Four Way Books, 2014.
96 pages. $15.95. (paperback)
Much criticism of contemporary poetry in recent months has focused on its apparent lack of relevance to modern society. The New York Times recently published a debate addressing the dubious question of whether or not poetry “matters.” While the tenets of that argument are beyond the scope of this review (not to mention the validity of such a reductionist proposal), it does offer a useful context in which to read Kevin Prufer’s new book, Churches: in a world in which the daily intertwinings of work, domesticity, and interior life are punctuated by a seemingly never-ending stream of horrifying images flashing across our TV and computer screens — journalists beheaded, bombing campaigns designed to degrade and destroy, widespread and unchecked institutional racism, political and corporate corruption — how does poetry create a space in which the personal and, for lack of better words, the civic and political, intermingle with and respond to each other in way that is authentic to that lived experience, that finds resonance in the imagination and enters the realm of music through lyrical utterance?
“There ought to be a word / that suggests / how we’re balanced at the very tip of history / and behind us / everything speeds irretrievably away” (31), Prufer writes in the title poem from Churches, and it is Prufer’s obsession with articulating this precarious position that drives his sixth volume of poetry. In Churches we find bombs dreaming of God, avalanche-covered bodies speaking from beyond the grave, narrators from unspecified post-apocalyptic futures recounting stories of our impending destruction. In many ways, Churches is the natural extension of the project Prufer began in National Anthem and pursued in In A Beautiful Country. These are more expansive and intricate interweavings of story and myth, fragments of history and prayer, intensely focused on the point of convergence where the civic and political meet and overlap with the personal.
Churches establishes its structural and thematic commitments from the first section of the book’s first poem, “Potential Energy is Stored Energy”:
When the bomb tore through the train,
it cut the first-class cabin into halves.
Inside, the wealthy travelers mostly died,
though here and there
one cupped his bleeding ears
or looked around,
confused. Where the car had split,
snow blew in,
capping the uptuned drink cart,
a lady’s coat, the dying porter
up at the sky. (3)
“Potential Energy is Stored Energy,” like many poems in this volume, uses the juxtaposition of different stories as both a structural and a thematic principle, alternating between descriptions of the blast, the bomb’s prayers to God, and the story of the dying porter’s infant son in an almost cinematic fashion: “Dear Lord, dear Lord, / the bomb kept saying, / curled in its suitcase like a prayer” cuts to “And the baby in the bath was burning up with fever, / so they soaked him there, filled the tub with ice / and smoothed his hair,” which in turn gives onto “each lady’s black felt hat, each glove … and shards of frosted glass that decorate the first-class cabin’s / perfect ceiling” (5). For the moment, this is Prufer’s signature style: sequences of fragmented stories and monologues torn apart and then sewn back together again, islands of disparate experiences bridged by the space between them, so that in a single section of a poem he can write about the death of his father and depict a future torn apart by war and human neglect:
(Asleep in your pajamas, asleep in your bed at home where they told you
rest, rest now, asleep by the waterglass and the pillcup, asleep while the sun
sets and the street goes quiet and in the yard the weed grow high
and that boy and I walk the once-blasted landscape where now the moss has
covered up the burned-out stumps, where now the birds returned at last,
where now our town’s collapsing into bent rooftops, beetles, woodsmoke.)
(“I Am Knocking at Your Window,” 53)
Perhaps more importantly, this fragmented delivery establishes a mode in which we are always poised on the edge of discovery, synapses firing as the strands of story shift into place, as alert to potential linkages as the poet must have been when he discovered them for the first time.
Churches is Prufer’s most cohesive volume to date, and so it might be easy to overlook how capable he is of different sounds and forms. Sometimes he recalls Frost, as in “Love Poem,” where the dream-like, mythic images of earth-bound missiles shooting out from the moon are conveyed in loosely rhymed, iambic rhythms, cut over cascading lines:
I thought I’d set my weak pod there
and walk among
our swiftly burning trees,
the unripe fruit
that sizzled on the ground.
It was a lovely moon
we used to sit below,
the moon that burned the city down
and set the fields aglow,
moon that glittered hotly
while its great guns fired.
It was an angry moon
that made me miss you so. (9)
Other times, and perhaps more often, he bears resemblance to Whitman, the insistent pulse of syntax unfurling over long lines:
We bury the body or we leave it on a ledge to the darkness, we tie rocks
around its legs and sink it in the sea, we put it in a bag and throw
it from a cliff, we remove the indifferent entrails. We remove the
brain, piece by piece, through the nose; we sew the eyelids shut;
we sprinkle it with ochre;
we stuff it with fruit; we stuff it with gold; we sew inside it wine and
aromatic spices, a beloved family pet —
so do we make of the emptiness of the body a vessel for the meanings we
impose upon it …
(“Inside the Body,” 43)
What is so beguiling about Churches is the sheer intoxication one feels reading poems that are at once alive with consciousness and imagination, yet steeped in death and destruction. How else to say it, that we enjoy the description of murdered and buried children? “In troubled times, a man might offer up his child for mercy, firewood, venison. // Those parsnips grew best among the fists of buried children. // And how the peeled onion resembled the soft face that gave it life” (15). Prufer’s command of line and syntax and the precision of his choices in diction create poems that are beautiful and terrifying at the same time, as pleasurable to read as they are disturbing to comprehend. His employment of tone is also essential to the almost perverse pleasure we feel reading Churches. The playfulness with which he handles his materials, the swift alternation between prophetic and matter-of-fact, humorous and horrified, keeps these poems elastic and surprising. “How I love a cool Sunday morning / high above the park / after a rain,” Prufer writes in “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”: “If I could, I would jump / right through this window” (46).
The poems in Churches are composed of materials that, in lesser hands, could become prescriptive and moralizing. But what makes these poems so ephemeral and tough is the way Prufer lets his stories and subjects speak for themselves, eluding any attempt we might make to reduce them to their constituent parts. In their lack of finite meaning we are left to make those meanings and morals for ourselves; these poems mirror a world wherein the concrete particulars of the drama are clear but the overall purpose is not. It would be a mistake, of course, to view Churches as a mere instructional manual for writing effectively about the events of the modern world. It is, at its core, a work of art, and the skill and technical subtlety that build that work of art are immense and deeply satisfying. It sidesteps completely the question of relevance, offering an irrefutable answer in its place.