In Kristen Evans’ KROnline review of Winter Tenor, Kevin Goodan’s second collection of poems, she noted Goodan’s ability to “create an intimate narrative from what could be, in different hands, emotionally distant observations.” That collection’s mostly depopulated landscapes, presented through untitled poems that mix intent detachment and vivifying warmth, should be on the same map as the “full-grown lambs” that “loud bleat from hilly bourn” in Keats’s “To Autumn.” As Keats does in that poem, Goodan’s collection shows the self primarily through what it sees; one is in the natural world but, because that world is received through the filters of observation, one remains separate from it, even when those filters make one reel in reverie.
The Keatsian touchstone for Goodan’s latest collection, Upper Level Disturbances (Center for Literary Publishing, The Mountain West Poetry Series, 2012), might be the fourth stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which a “mysterious priest” leads a heifer to a “green altar” before the citizens of a small town: the poems in Upper Level Disturbances show one living within an arduous landscape, changing with it through the seasons and their rites. Their main subject is the strenuous psychic and physical work such living requires.
As in the passage from Keats, that work includes slaughter: in one untitled poem, Goodan shows us how “the kill-truck idles as the beasts are hooked, / Railed, run to the cooler.” Unlike many giddy bards of authentic ditches, he avoids the admire-how-hardscrabble-I-am romanticism that can accompany such scenes. Instead of foregrounding the poet’s resume, Goodan’s poems suggest the ways in which work connects one to similarly demanding spiritual vocations. Still, he is typically more interested in the gear, tackle, and trim of daily labor (“Gut-barrels skid from the truck-bed, drop, / Slopping mush over hands that pull them in”) than in converting them into dogma. His faith is observant, is observation itself, and it steadily takes stock–sometimes quite literally, as in the following passage from “Thus I am Called, Thresher to the Fields.” After invoking a lineage of ancestors and dream, Goodan offers an inventory that relishes the things of this world, even as it suggests commerce with another:
For I am the link
And the radius of the link
That bears the reduction of complication.
For my boiler is supplied with a superheater pipe
Should the good Lord freeze my threshing.
For I contain sight-feed lubricators,
Needle-feed oilers, a girder-type engine frame,
A fire-box made fast to the axle.
His burling attention to sound is rhapsodic, and so is his reaction to image. “Soft thump of chickadees against the pane / Brings me round,” begins another poem in the collection. Goodan’s poems call one to attention by varied thumps: of a family homestead that is now an industrial park, of places where “grandfather pleaded and turned, and was struck by lightning,” where “ash gentles down on the snow” covering a familiar burning field. Their commitment to labor—and to the labor of attention—often responds to the crisis of “Some dark shape in the mist / Some dread thing emerging.” The fires that illuminate these shapes—and which variously destroy, purify, and offer daily warmth—reveal Goodan in postures of rapt and sometimes breathless humility (“I am still here, stacking wood / When I’m able”).
Throughout the collection, Goodan attends to the forces that “make small the labors of men,” demonstrating the ways in which such awareness brings things into a scale one can live with. “There is a light, you say,” Goodan writes, “that shines out from inside,” and although Upper Level Disturbances stunningly toes its boots toward transcendence, I’m most grateful for the ways in which it, like the best memoirs, proves that such shining can embed one more ardently in the surfaces of this world.
Upper Level Disturbances is part of The Mountain West imprint of the Center for Literary Publishing; the CLP also publishes the winning collection of the annual Colorado Prize for Poetry (which, I’ll say in disclosure and fondness, welcomed my second book of poetry, Annulments, in 2010). The new series publishes the work of poets who live in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Although they are aesthetically diverse, the titles in the series so far, which includes books by Joshua Kryah, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Heather Winterer, often concern the intersections between landscape, sensuality, and the spirit. Aren’t those the subjects of all poems? Perhaps, but they are distinctly present in The Mountain West Series, and though it might be critically suspect to suggest that this has anything to do with geography, I, having grown up near mountains, will.
This post is the second in a series of brief reviews I will write this April. The first post in the series discusses works by Jena Osman and Yevgeniy Fiks.