By Greg Bem
I enclose a radical simplicity, which could be taken or mistaken as art.
(from “Gift” in “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” on page 67)
Across seven distinct sections and over two hundred pages in length, John Keene’s Punks is a book of poetry worth the investment of time and focus. A collection to fall in love with, it chronicles a poet’s wanderings across a textured milieu of urban and pastoral landscapes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and it chronicles the poet’s maturity across decades. It reflects a commitment to a poetry of the queer and Black soul. It is a testimony to a soulfulness that it is exquisitely intimate. Keene’s is a poetry derivative of and channeled through human connection and proximity, the range of which takes many hours of reading Punks to see in range.
Relationships are powerfully described from poem to poem, reflected in a poetry that is, at times, outwardly sensual, and, at others, deeply hermetic. The poetry thus is a terrain, a landscape through which hold snapshots and recounting of Keene alongside a large cast of people who have filled his life. The living documentation is marvelous as a collection. At times the individuals are vague and fuzzy in their presence, almost as ghosts or blurs in the totality of human experience. Keene’s expressions feels like result of a liminal proclamation or curiosity in the annals of memory:
until dawn fills
our eyes with sighs
allow me these
tattoos your funk
(from “Western Avenue” in “Playland,” page 17)
At other times, Keene’s focus is distinct and quite specific, as with another early poem in the book, “A Sonnet to Tyson Beckford,” where Keene exquisitely offers,
[…] though every lyric is a voucher
of our failure there are times
when only a poem
like daydreams or a lover’s arms
can satisfy a certain quality of hunger
(from “A Sonnet to Tyson Beckford” in “Playland,” page 26)
Often intimacies like these feel natural, humble, and fixed in time as if there was no other way they could be. This confidence, across time and poem, feels inspired by other voices that preceded Keene. Amidst the book’s third section, “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” Keene channels Whitman via the title of the poem, “The Soul is Always Beautiful,” (page 89). Open and absorbed with the audacity of human experience, Keene certainly feels Whitmanesque. His spotlight travels across many corners of Americana, and its many communities, feels at once universal and undeniably personable. And often there is a blur between the lines, as we read of Keene’s muse and subjects: “you speak in / a song – so low I / have heard – in dreams / between us – […]” (from “Scatter” in “Trees” on page 109).
Much like the line that opened this review, Keene’s work is often easily accessed through deconstruction and dissection, his lines often a collection of aphoristic glances and moments and conclusions. In the poem “Underground,” Keene writes: “On the other side of this weeping / is a world built of blood” (on page 140 in “Dark to Themselves”), a line that cuts and crops. In the prose poem “Postcard: Decadence,” the poet mysteriously asks, “Does the newness of you make the darkness gleam more greedily?” (in “Ten Things I Do Every Day” on page 76). Sometimes the statements and questions are mysterious, and sometimes that is all the reader needs to feel how their presence stems from the poet’s consciousness.
Musings like these are many across Punks, a collection ultimately so large it implies the power and accessibility of Keene’s fragments above all. Each poem, when sliced, connects further to Keene’s own dreamlike trance, when otherwise we see walls of text and poems that read like epics. When taken on their own, each poem tells a story and posits a reality; but en masse there is phantasmagoria and a distinct leaning toward the surreal, toward bending across and between lines.
Punks poems originate from multiple decades, and when together in a single collection it’s fascinating to watch Keene grow from poem to poem, milestones or celebrations in tandem. The historical effect is a remarkable representation and one not always found in selected works. The last two sections of Punks, “Dark to Themselves” and “Words,” spin the end of the collection in a new, exciting direction. Keene’s poems take forms and distinctly move away from lyric and storytelling found in the book’s earlier sections. Experimentation and playfulness are central, and there are often elements of performance that enter the work.
In “Blackness,” Keene writes a collective consideration of Black folks and ends nearly every line with “black people,” who are literally and symbolically present in each line from start to finish. Within this poem of presence and consistency, there is the mantra: “When I begin a poem I often do so/ because I love black people” he writes (in “Dark to Themselves” on page 175). Keene’s poem “Words” also pulls together a list, opening with “When you said people did you mean punish? / When you said friend did you mean fraud?” (page 181) and continues powerfully across multiple pages.
Keene’s conceptual leanings are substantially rooted in music as well. An early lyric poem, “Apostate” in “Dark to Themselves,” describes the experience of being within performance, of witnessing it and its energy:
Tonight: amped to decibels to blow
the eardrums clear of hearing,
bassists and keyboardists
whose names you never learned
or cannot remember […]
The poem moves through the emotions and tribulations of being audience, arriving to an elegant and blunt description of power, energy, and impact of musical performance for both Keene and the performer:
Passion is a song you sing
on your own terms: the set opens,
and you hold your breath
to map the evening’s destiny: sound.
Death, get ready.
(on pages 162 and 163)
The lyrical examples found earlier in Punks lead to experimental poems like “Dear Trane (Lecture on Something)” (page 171) and “Grind” (page 197), which evoke musical scores by projecting fragments like matrixes across the page. Across multiple columns and stanzas, the improvisational and conversational are reinforced through visual patterns and an open flow. Like Coltrane’s whimsically spiritual foray across space and time, so too do we have examinations from Keene, though the literary presence leaves a performance of the work by Keene desired.
Punks ranges from start to finish with stories and introspection, but it takes the book’s entirety (from start to finish) to truly begin an understanding of Keene’s poetics. Tyehimba Jess writes of Punks, “Keene’s masterfully inventive inquiry of self and history is queered, Blackened, and joyously thick with multitudes of voice and valence.”
The book’s final poem, a final cry of love, passion, and intimacy also, contains a resounding reflection on this poetry, as it speaks to identity, as it speaks to emergence, as it brings forward a lifetime of multitudes: “Love your and others’ chatter and its proof of the expansiveness / of nothingness” (in “Beatitude” in “Words” on page 202). A line as starkly positioned as this offers strong advice: dive back into the intimacies of Punks for another look, another story, another moment with the poet.
You will stay and write until
your heart runs out. You will take this
dark knowledge and spread it.
(from “Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall” in “Dark to Themselves” on page 155)
You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/punks-by-john-keene
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com