Review by Nick DePascal
IN A BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY
by Kevin Prufer
Four Way Books
PO Box 535
Village Station, New York NY 10014
2011, 116 pp., $15.95
Kevin Prufer’s fifth poetry collection, In a Beautiful Country, is a fitting follow up to 2008’s National Anthem in terms of a continuation of themes and content. Like his previous collection, In a Beautiful Country is an engaging and lengthy meditation on the loss of one’s country, one’s faith and one’s friends and family. The collection, in its willingness to take risks with imagery and sounds, is an absolute mesmerizing pleasure to read. And yet, while as a reader I’m quite a fan of dark, unflinching poetry, especially dealing with personal loss, the collection, at 107 pages, seems to push these themes too insistently, and for too long.
Unlike the two large sections of National Anthem that cleanly split the political and personal poems, In a Beautiful Country, for the most part, prefers to move in symphonic swells of theme, helped along by much shorter sections. In general, this structuring of the book and placement of the poems allow the reader to feel as though they are experiencing the poems more naturally and to find connections among the varying subjects of the book.
One particularly evocative example of this comes late in the collection in three successive poems. “The 20th Century” wonderfully personifies a time period, beginning as a pitying lament to the dying century wherein the reader is advised to “Kiss its cheek, then smooth its sad, gray hair. / Bring it secret cigarettes. How could they hurt / it anymore?” yet ending with a call to snuff the century, and all it entailed, out: “And if it finds no comfort from your visit, / put a pillow to its mouth, and, so, be done with it.”
Following this poem is “Recent History,” wherein the speaker and his neighbors encounter dying angels crashing down to earth with such disinterestedness that by the end of the poem they seem to care only that “they’ll stink in the sun.” Placed immediately after “The 20th Century,” the mundane spiritual malady of “Recent History” seems to be a direct consequence of the sickness of the 20th century. Following these two poems is “A Wandering Star,” which tracks the devastating effects of Earth suddenly gaining a second star, in tandem with the slow death of the speaker’s father. Even as “the treetops burst in flame,” and “the roofs / charred,” the speaker remains at his father’s bedside until “the star grew / dimmer every day, / until at last, like you, it blinked away.” The whole poem is a beautifully executed metaphor on both our ability to survive loss and the seemingly hollow life that remains once we’ve survived it.
Following as it does “Recent History,” there is again a suggested causality between the poems, as if the death of the angels and, by proxy, the faith in the first poem is directly responsible for the Biblical-like destruction of “A Wandering Star.” Though each of the three poems have different themes, and make use of varying imagery, their expert placement in the collection guarantees cross-pollination in the reader’s mind.
Elsewhere, it is the opposite: that the repeated use of particular imagery tends to blur some of the poems together, and suggests redundancy rather than pattern. In a number of poems where death has occurred or is occurring, wintry images are employed so often that they become a sort of too easy stand-in for the cold sadness of a loved one’s death. In the poem “Icicles,” we learn that “melting icicles remind me / of a hospital.” Two poems later comes “Burial Hymn in Winter.” In “Broken Statue of Gabriel,” “Carla said it was a body in the snow.” In “Transparent Cities,” the speaker tells us “I fell into a snow bank and didn’t wake again,” and then in “Night Watch,” “the snow fell like angels.” It certainly isn’t that these poems aren’t incredibly written, or beautifully wrought, but rather that the redundant imagery over the lot of them blunts their thematic intensity, especially the further into the collection the reader gets. It’s exactly the variety of images that occur throughout the rest of the collection that makes these winter-heavy poems seem excessive and less powerful.
And yet, even with these occasional missteps, its clear that Prufer is in full command of his image-making faculties. The book is rich with images at turns beautiful, disturbing, vivid and voluptuous. Prufer’s love and mastery of the striking image is evident in his ability to make the reader reconsider a seemingly concrete image from another angle. Consider the painstakingly rendered, almost perversely loving description of a weapon of destruction in “Patriot Missile,” which begins:
I loved the half-constructed hulk of it,
the firing condenser that, bared,
caught the light
and made of it a copper flare—
nose and husk, electrolyte.
And I, tweezing a clot of oil, a metal shaving from its stilled heart,
might smile, as if to tell it Live—
Here, the image of the missile is given the florid details of a living thing, so that it comes to sound like the speaker is describing a flower, or the features of a beloved. Likewise, another exciting trait of much of Prufer’s poetry is at work in this poem: his seemingly unabashed love of rhythm, rhyme, and just generally sound. Here, the rhymes of “bared” and “flare,” and “oil” and “smile,” have a soft, open-mouthed quality to them, as if the speaker is cooing to a lover, which incidentally, later in the poem he does, when he discloses “I told it Darling and Love.”
It seems rare and refreshing these days to find a poet so willing to pose a clear and traceable rhyme scheme in his poetry, and yet Prufer does so quite effortlessly. Take for example the ABBA rhyme structure of “What I Gave the 20th Century,” which begins “I gave it thirty years. It wanted more. / I loved its mad perambulations / through the outlet malls, its runs / of horror movies and its discount stores.” Prufer manages to successfully carry this rhyme scheme throughout the four stanzas of the poem by using a mix of perfect and slant rhyme. He never forces an exact rhyme on the lines if they don’t call for it, instead allowing rhymes to fall where they may within the line, all of which contributes to wonderful sound and rhythm without sacrificing the surprise of interesting line breaks. Ultimately, it’s this sort of attention to sonic detail and general command of image that make one want to go back and read the poems again and again.
Nick DePascal currently lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife and son, where he’s working towards his MFA in Poetry at the University of New Mexico. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Sugar House Review, Adobe Walls, The Houston Literary Review, Breadcrumb Scabs and more.