Review by Alan Schneider
by Kevin Goodan
Alice James Books
238 Main Street
Farmington, Me 04938
2009, 43 pp., $15.95
Kevin Goodan’s second collection of poetry and prose poems, Winter Tenor, is a rare pleasure for poetry reviewers of any stripe. The unity of theme throughout the work makes the work readily accessible and indeed obviates the necessity of titles for its constituent pieces–they are all subsumed under Winter Tenor. Within its pages Goodan’s speaker explores a wholly organic relation to the land of the mid-western farmer and the natural cycles of which he is a part. These poems are refreshingly free of moral judgment and shallow didacticism, invoking the spirit of the pastoral sans the idealized vision that has traditionally accompanied that genre.
These pieces arise from the observance of, for lack of a better phrase, the necessities of farm life. Observed through the eyes of a mostly-passive speaker, events are rendered with an elegant simplicity which brings with it an implicit understanding that what occurs—what the reader sees, the beauty, the harshness, and the brutality of the land—is is neither more nor less than the facts of that life. This is evident even in the opening poem which ends:
The mare rubs her neck against your shoulder
And you smack her away–
The pneumatic sigh hoaring
The long, unshaved hairs of her snot,
Her great-roomed eyes–
You punch her nape but she does not shy.
It is then you hear blood puddling the snow.
This is not to say, however, that Goodan’s speaker is indifferent. There is passion here as well, restrained (sometimes only barely) but all the more palpable for that restraint:
Came blizzard came lambs stillborn
Came ravens cawing from pine
Snow hazarding every breath shadows
Lost their balance fled a lantern
Lighted but light is lost
In whiteness the stamping ewes
Coo around dark stains
Every direction overwhelmed bodies
Here one might see Goodan’s linguistic prowess at work as well. Though the words are simple, there is enough newness in the way they are used to grip us firmly and propel us forward through short, muscular lines and impart the feeling of near-panic which lies under their surface.
Yet one of the greatest joys a book can offer is the disclosure of new secrets each time it is read and thus even with that propulsion—the desire the language of the poem instills in the reader to press forward—Goodan ensures that meaning appears on multiple valences (in the above case by means of syntactic ambiguity created by his heavy enjambment) He ensures rewards to the reader who will take their time, go back, and read again.
Goodan’s simple, non-judgmental word-choice combined with the fresh manner in which he brings those words together is perhaps the genius of the work. It renders such images as a rabbit caught by a hawk in a new light with the simple choice of a different verb—one without the connotations often ascribed to “caught”:
Dark shapes darting in the stagnant
Weedy water of a ditch, drying tufts
Of a rabbit chosen by a hawk.
The violence of the image is mitigated by that word, “chosen,” and thus the impulse to judge is not fueled. One thing, however, which might be worrisome to the reader of Goodan would be, in all his linguistic inventiveness, his occasional lapse into the conceptual world, drawing the reader from the concrete imagery his deft strokes paint so vividly in the mind. For some reader such lines as “The tolerances between which we almost prevail,” spoken in relation to “..a comma sizzling on bright tin/That is the body of a nestling dropped by a hawk–” might seem abstruse and perhaps overly intellectual. The good news, however, is that such lines are few and far between and that Goodan, in fine form as a poetic artist, lets the images tell the story.
Alan Schneider is a graduate student with the creative writing program at Sacramento State University in Sacramento California.