Nocturnes by Kathleen Kirk

Nocturnes NocturnesKathleen Kirk; Hyacinth Girl Press 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder
This was the perfect companion for a quiet, rainy spring night. Kathleen Kirk‘s latest chapbook gathers 20 night-themed poems that together trace a landscape of loss and yearning, peopled by memories, dreams, ghosts, lovers and various errant moons. The book begins in Cuba, with a striking image of women wearing fireflies in their hair nets (“Cucuyo”) followed by several pieces from the perspective of a Cuban exile’s family, culminating in the grotesque “Our Son Dreams of the Beast Shark.” It then segues into “Stargazing with My Son,” introducing an astronomical theme that continues off and on throughout the book, mingled with, increasingly, poems about love and desire.

All of which is to say that the book is very well put together. As someone who has written several themed collections myself, I can attest to the difficulty of maintaining a good balance between unity and diversity, as Kirk does here.

Three of the poems are ekphrastic, responses to Whistler’s “nocturne” paintings — not surprising, considering that Kirk is poetry editor for Escape Into Life, a magazine devoted to the intersection between visual and literary arts. But even poems that weren’t sparked by paintings abound with painterly details: “A grey glob” of mortar “lands wet and heavy / on the plastic sheet / like a body part” (“Losing Cuba”), and the narrator’s skin is likened to “these moon-colored leaves (touch them!) / trembling in the moments / just before rain” (“Last Leaves”).

“Almost an Aubade” references Edward Hopper, his subjects “shining in their loneliness,” but unexpectedly turns into a love poem: “After the sharp dream of another, I come back to you…” The book is full of such artful inversions. Possibly the most unexpected poem, “When We Lived at Night” — my favorite in the collection — goes deep into our pre-human past, when “there was no time, / only the moment” and “we lay along the wide limb / of our new existence / in the trees, nocturnal together.”

What’s left of my reptilian brain
still longs to live in the moment,
that wretched clawing in the dust
suspended forever.
But there was no forever.

I relate to the poems about sleeplessness, “Acorns Rolling Off the Roof” and “Naked Dance”:

It’s three oh three,
I’ve dreamed a giant red poppy,
tall as a small tree …

It’s good to be lonely

at a time like this.
I wouldn’t want to wake the sleeping world
from its soft desserts.

There’s only one explicit reference to blues in this book, but if you love blues music as I do, the dominant mood should feel very familiar, that same mix of melancholy and exultation. Like good blues, these poems are never lugubrious, and aim to turn losses into something salutary: “When the time comes, / juncos will feast on this cold” (“Almost Winter”). Or as Kirk says at the end of “Cosmonaut”:

This shining loss is now a thing to be praised,
as stunning as a comet’s tail
or a transit of Venus,
or a black hole swallowing up life as we know it
and spitting it back out whole
somewhere else, without any teeth marks.

Kudos to Hyacinth Girl Press for their selection of this surprising and delightful book.

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