REVIEW by Crystal Jeans

NWR Issue 98

You, Me and the Birds

by Alan Kellerman

Alan Kellermann’s first collection is a funny little mix, featuring poems about love, lust, astronomy, displacement, nostalgia, road accidents, apocalypse and God. There is a section called the Martini Poems, and two large sections are dedicated to the painters, Goble and Chagall. Some poems are American in flavour, and some are decidedly Welsh (Kellermann is American by birth but now lives in Wales). He tries his hand at the proem, manages a couple of kooky experimental numbers and loose sonnets, but mostly he focuses on the tight-ish free-form poem.

He starts with Farinelli, a poem about the eighteenth-century castrato opera singer. It’s not an especially strong poem, coming across as heavy handed and predictable in places, not least in its final lines: ‘But they never / asked if he wanted to die rich or whole before writing / his future deep and wet on the blade of a knife.’ You, Me and the Birds has a lot more to offer than a castration complaint, but I didn’t find this out until I was a third or so of the way through. Kellermann’s better poems come later.

Some are crafted to perfection, with lines which can be startling, lovely or whipsmart. Most of his opening lines are disarmingly conversational, roping you in. Others are strong and sturdy like a well-made house, but with a bit of creak and moan to liven things up. At times the mood is one of mildly glum brooding. But more often the poems display a knowing cleverness, a tongue-in-cheek wit, gently parodying poetic tropes, playing around with clichés, teasing the line. At times I found the poems’ relentless nudge-nudging a bit too clever for their own good (the Carol-Ann Duffy-ish extended metaphor poems, especially, didn’t do much for me) and was relieved when I came across one with more meat.

These poems were my standout favourites: ‘Crafting Grandfather’, a well-balanced, excellently crafted poem reeking of nostalgia. Flowing lines such as ‘Grandfather works / dowels on the lathe, rebirths them with grooves I trace,’ nicely contrasts with tight monosyllabic bits – ‘he / shakes my hand in sawdust, in the dry tang of cut / wood’: a great blend of subtle and bang. ‘Crafting’ in the title is clearly another furtive nudge. Or a kick?

‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is about Kellerman’s dad, and the ‘wide open spaces’ of America. I might be wrong, but there’s something sinister about this poem, something subtle, but certainly tangible. Since I like a bit of just-perceptible dark, this one did it for me.

In ‘Like Wallpaper She Was’, Kellerman takes playful cliché-subversion to unabashed heights. ‘Air-plain jetting through / my thoughts I think / I’ll have another / beer in mind / she was so plain / as the nose on her / face it you wouldn’t.’ It’s silly but engaging. Once you start reading it, you must continue.

‘Still-Life With Wine Glasses’ includes the line, ‘Eight years it’s been and even cancer / couldn’t have you.’ Nasty. I like it.

In ‘Birthday, this line struck me: ‘It is, Petel, a dialect / of silence I’m fluent in, learned / to speak as though everyone is listening, yet / nothing depends on what I’ve said.’ Thoughtful, with a quirky-but-not-too-quirky voice.

‘The Blue House’ has a nice crisp musicality to it. ‘The teacup’s clatter, the white / staccato of cracked / bones aching.’ And it’s wonderfully moody, a quality I’m fond of.

‘The Grey House’ is even moodier. ‘Cattle skulls hang’ and the house is ‘mud and dry straw in porticos and parapets – / a dome boasting to dead sky.’ It’s introspective and ominous and a little bitter; another example of Kellermann mastering his craft.

The latter part of the collection belongs to the Chagall and Goble Poems, among which are some of my favourites. I have never understood why poets, who, I assume, have lived interesting lives (like most other humans) garner half their material from old paintings. I know plenty who do this – Tony Curtis and Tamar Yoseloff come first to mind. However, the poems that are born of this (including those written by Curtis, Yoseloff, and now Kellermann) are often strong, which I suppose is the only justification that’s needed.

Overall, my response to reading You, Me and the Birds was that it is a patchy collection. I didn’t like the ‘Martini Poems’ and found a few others to be unremarkable and throwaway. But there is excellence here, plenty of it, and some truly gorgeous moments. And of course, one girl’s filler is another girl’s complete sandwich, with fries.

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