Review by Trina L. Drotar
by Claudia Keelan
New Issues Poetry and Prose
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5200 USA
2009, 79 pp., $15.00
Claudia Keelan’s Missing Her opens with an epigraph from Gerrard Winstanley, “The Truth is Always Experimentall,” which sets the tone for this book. Indeed, each poem within is an experiment in truth. Keelan asks us to consider what truth is and how it is presented in poems dealing with subjects as diverse as a father’s loss, the Vietnam War, oil companies, Jesus, and the attacks of September 11, 2001. Keelan plays with words and images in poems like “What is Meant Here By the People,” where she questions the idea of knowledge, of the collective, and of the individual, and she shifts directions, always pointing us forward and back so that we may seek our own truth. Keelan’s title has us ask, “Who is missing?” The answer might be found in “Same Dream,” where she writes, “So I have / Tried to love my first / Self and so she has / Fled me,” but what is missing is not truly a person; rather, it is often the child from the past.
The speaker in many of these poems is seeking the “first self,” that of the child in “What is Meant Here By the People,” or mourning the loss of the same in “Little Elegy (1977-1991).” In “Everybody’s Autobiography,” Keelan weaves history, politics, and the personal more so than in other poems, but it is the final section of this long poem that brings us back to the book’s title and the search for the “first self”—in this case, the speaker’s childhood. Keelan writes, “Since my father’s death, I’ve slowly begun waking to my childhood.” Death does have a way of causing us to stop and reevaluate our lives. So many of the poems contain subject matter that has done the same to people and our nation: death, Hurricane Katrina, the September 11 attacks. In reevaluating our lives, we may look back to our childhood, a time of more innocence and perhaps more knowledge, (according to several poems in this collection), and we may try to recapture that childhood through our own children. In the same poem, the speaker says that she is “waking to [her] childhood in [her] own child’s life, / the driving he loves on video games, a version of the driving [she] loved, asleep / in the backseat.” In these lines, Keelan points us back both to a childhood memory and to the poem, “Grand Theft Auto,” and the speaker’s “little car-thief.”
In fact, in many instances Keelan foreshadows poems to come in this collection and points back to poems we have read. She often does this through repetition of words and phrases. One such reference asks, “Are you my mother?” in the poems, “The Sister Worlds” and “Little Elegy (Eros).” These words and phrases, much like themes of the collective versus the individual weave throughout this collection almost invisibly. Keelan does not try to knock us over like the “human boat” that “came capsizing” in the prefatory poem, “Came Capsizing the Human Boat” or like the “bulldozer” in “Little Elegy (Eros).” That is not to say that Keelan does not use language or images that can be quite forceful. “Are you my mother?” / Said the baby bird to the bulldozer / Hatchlings / this glorious orphanhood!” are lines that cause us to stop and wonder. Why does the baby bird consider the bulldozer its mother, and why would orphanhood be glorious? Keelan stops us again in “Pity Boat,” where she writes, “Nyet in Spanish,” and the speaker is “lying / next to William Blake / in a big rubber raft / & he’s teaching [her] how to love / being dead.” We might ask why she would use a Russian word there, and we might ask why the speaker chose Blake and why they are on a raft and where they are headed, but “William Blake is beyond asking why.” Blake is dead and can’t question.This poem points toward “What is Meant Here By the People” and the speaker’s search for knowledge, which is also the knowledge of how to live.
What is meant here by the people and how to become one
I carried the heavy child across the river
I knew how I meant to be a child
Including knowing how to live
And forgetting the lesser know how
What is meant here by the child
Excludes the possibility of the people
The collective, “the people,” are like Blake in that they do not question, in this case, knowledge. Keelan’s speaker says that the child, which is the missing part, is heavy inside. It is weighed down by the responsibilities of adulthood, perhaps, but it is more than that. It is weighed down by the need to be part of the collective, yet the collective does not have the knowledge of the child. The speaker is willing to carry the heavy load “across the river;” and although we do not know what river, we understand this to be a difficult task.
Keelan writes that “in remembering there is re-membering,” and this idea is also seen in several of her poems where she discusses the Vietnam War, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, among other lesser known or personal topics. These are more prevalent in the “Little Elegy” poems. In “Little Elegy (Vietnam),” she not only speaks about Vietnam but rather than condemning the troops or even the United States, she re-members this event and speaks about General Westmoreland. It is here, too, that we find some of her word play.
The general was a humanist:
Scratching his head
On his last day
Wondering why, though he killed so many,
The East to the
Gave not one bit
She uses “Westmoreland” in the way we’ve seen her use “knowledge” and “by the people” in other poems. She turns this “Little Elegy” poem around and makes the general the focus. She refocuses the attention of the September 11 attacks in a similar fashion in “Little Elegy (American Justice)”:
The Banker’s family
More than the Fireman’s
& the Stockbroker’s
More than the Cop’s
The Insurance Man
Won out too, over
The small Rosa
Who dusted his many pens,
And all the way down
The many floors, the lives
Were rated, all of those
Who died September 11th.
Rather than focusing on the attacks or their causes or the grief surrounding that time, she chooses to focus on the way “the lives / were rated.”
Missing Her is a pleasure to read. It is a book that doesn’t require multiple reads, but it one that should be read multiple times. Keelan provides us with questions, new ways of viewing ourselves, our lives, our country, our past, and she does it in a most enjoyable way. In Missing Her, the truth is certainly being experimented with, expanded upon, and shown to encompass many forms.
Trina L. Drotar is an English-Creative Writing graduate student at CSUS and the student of Doug Rice, Joshua McKinney, and Peter Grandbois. She has worked as editor of Calaveras Station and currently works as editor of Poetry Now. Her reviews and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Word Riot and Medusa’s Kitchen. She is originally from San Francisco, CA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.