This might just be my favorite so far in the Keystone Chapbook Series from Seven Kitchens Press. For one thing, the poet is very local: I can’t tell you how cool it is for me, as someone who grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, to read poems this good by a guy who grew up in Clearfield, just one county over. For another thing, the publisher took the hand-made aesthetic so literally with this one, he appears to have personally added the inky fingerprints to each copy himself, in addition to the usual hand-cutting and stitching. I say that because the pattern on the book cover image here, which I stole from the Seven Kitchens blog, is quite different from the pattern on my own copy, and they’re from the same printing. The only way this could be cooler would be if they were the author’s own fingerprints, but since he currently resides in Hawaii, I don’t imagine they are.
But the poetry is of course the main attraction, and these poems left me pretty much speechless, which might be why I’ve been nattering on about other stuff instead. I love how over-the-top some of the images are. The sky before a storm is “suddenly the color of rotting meat.” A smoker’s heart is “stained yellow from yearning.” Anxiety is “a dog that always needs walking.” There were a few things in the book I didn’t think quite succeeded, but I always admired the brio. Because Jeff Walt is, as they say in hip-hop circles, keeping it real. I was hooked from the opening lines of the lead poem, “All Day I Have Been Afraid.”
I heard Mrs. Lee scream Kill me! Kill me!
from inside her house and I did not move.
At noon, all the dogs in the neighborhood
began barking wildly. Was it an unbearable truth
told in a pitch only they could hear?
Clearfield Country has the most strip-mined acreage of any country in Pennsylvania, so the subject of the title poem came as no shock:
Down deep they dug, the men
of my family. Shovels & picks,
backs bent. Night on their grave
faces. Monday blues black
every bituminous day of the week.
Though a mere 20 poems long, Soot presents a broad cross-section of Western Pennsylvania working class experience. One poem describes becoming a regular at a neighborhood bar. Another takes us through a sex shop. “Joyride” captures the weekend car culture:
Every Sunday we cruised
in Uncle Jack’s rusted Cadillac,
driving by the sign that marked the edge
of town, honking at stray dogs,
our lives abandoned and hungry.
Swigging Black Velvet
from a silver flask, he was a man
mastering the profession of debauchery.
His hands cracked, fingernails black
from ten hours a day behind
the dragline, excavating his own heart.
These are far from the subtle, understated poems of Harry Humes, but strike me as no less authentically Pennsylvanian. Exaggeration and swagger are a big part of the culture, too, especially in this part of the state. The eponymous “Three Drunk Angels” are “Sick/ of saving lives, escorting/ each delirious spirit from its hollow// body,” and by the end of the poem, the souls they’re charged with have been reduced to plastic shopping bags fluttering down the streets and getting stuck to the bottoms of shoes (soles?)–
Just another something
for the dog to bark at, its owner asking,
“What is it boy, what’s there, what do you see?”
As in the opening poem, the dogs are seers. There are a lot of dogs in this book, and not all of them are well treated. In “My Brother Walks His Neighborhood at Night,” the protagonist is “scavenging the streets” for a lost dog named Lucky, who sounds as if it had every reason to run away. By the end of the poem, the protagonist is in confessional mode.
As a boy, I wanted to kill
everything smaller than me: beetles sprayed
with AquaNet, butterflies smacked
from the bright air, wings dipped in motor oil.
No wonder the angels get drunk behind Fat Jack’s Tavern. By the end of the book, I needed a drink myself.
I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month (or trying to — I missed yesterday) with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.