ISBN 978-0-9852133-2-9 review by Raewyn Alexander
The title put me in mind of someone on a train, travelling through the state of Virginia and watching it flow by the locomotive until that particular landscape was gone. Intrigued, but mistaken, I read at first to find out why this book was titled this way and also, because I've long enjoyed the poetry of this inventive, original and startling young writer. We've discussed writing and each others work online for many years, as colleagues, and devotees of literature.
Kepple follows in the tradition of language poets, taking English or really, American and making of it what he wishes. He reclaims language as an individual, to the extent that some readers with pedantic leanings may be shocked or horrified. This upset is calculated and focussed for the most part, creating a kind of blueprint for a new, more hopeful way of life, we could say. Kepple's talent is also such that he persuades the reader to keep on, entertainment ensues amongst other pleasures as rich, engaging and varied as anyone could wish, even if sometimes this collection is overwhelming or wildly odd.
The poetry is arranged into three parts. The poems mainly flow on one from the other without the end of the page being taken up with white space, after each piece. Where white page space appears it adds to the meaning or tone of the poem, rather than standing as a long-held and rather extravagant convention of traditional formatting.
The introduction by Kim Goransson warns the reader this collection could seem like too much at times. But I, for the most part, delighted in how Kepple discards an overly precious approach to poetry, and instead relishes the chance to allow the appearance of the written word to work in curious, revolutionary ways, while also paying respect to language. Genuine humanity is evident in this verse and a startlingly recognisable, flawed appearance, without a trace of laziness or pretense. (Although laziness and pretense do exist in fact, and these poems do make that clear, with much else besides).
There were times however when I felt lost, disturbed and horribly alone, then the writing drew me back to a place of relative safety or at least, familiarity so I felt I could continue in good heart. Drama and particularly tragedy carries many verses well.
Word-play, once a reader realises it's there, is at times truly hilarious, or rather thought-provoking and undercuts many assumptions, with elan.
'I tell her I'm hungryask, or is that to caveman'
- from The Lost Art of Seduction
This maintains a double meaning, a sense of what the line would mean with 'too' and continues a persuasive thrust, which is quite possibly to get some food from this girl, from her 'to caveman', also by the way cleverly admitting his bluntness, and negating simplicity. Subtly shocking syntax also destroying the idea that people who cannot spell 'correctly' or use grammar 'properly' are stupid, since he's using those 'errors' to be truly clever, subtle and amusing.
Sometimes Kepple uses the word its to show something belongs to something else more than it is, could ever possibly explain.
'but its cold behind iron, and I need you to forgefor its trivial us in such assertions'
- from I just got out of jail baby
He does this with interchanging 'your' and you're' and also, 'then' and 'than' as well, along with other small, often taken-for-granted words which are sprinkled about, a garnish of diversion or a twist to cause reflection; a swerve in meaning. But occasionally it seems the mis-spellings are to show a kind of a person, a character, there is no subtle word play I can figure.
'and I pass her up wishing I wasnt so cheap
I suppose its a matter of money these encounters,'
- from occidental street love
My first impression of the book, after galloping through it reading the collection entirely in three days was, it seemed sexy. Not that there is anything much erotic in the words themselves to any large degree, even if some intimacy is mentioned, but the maturity, strength and intelligence inherent in this poetry, along with its wry and also blatant humour impressed me so much. Other saphiosexual readers could find this work affects them the same way, intelligence can be so stirring.
An exhilarating sense of a real person fully engaged with language and what it can do for them also emerges, a man revealing himself and risking hurt, then also, Kepple reveals so much while he obscures himself in some kind of camouflage too. This poetry is a statement about the need to disguise one's intelligence in these times, perhaps, but showing off to those who 'get it', and also including them? There's some camaraderie involved here.
TVP got to me. Every time I thought I could define it, the writing slipped into another gear, or changed its tone and diversionary tactics, or just enthralled me. A collection with more to it than what appears at first. The alarming last section certainly creates various brain storms and mind fevers. My eyes wide with something close to terror by the end, (which as it happens is not quite the finish at all, another surprise appears even there).
Extreme states are going out of fashion in art, we could say, except for extreme price tags on fine art or what we could call cheek, (in American they say, sass). We are told in everyday life, in countless often banal ways to calm down and carry on, to contemplate the intellectual rather than indulge the emotional, and to divide ourselves into easily recognisable groups for familiarity and comfort. This all subtly done through the way art is presented as an elite practise, and in its contemporary content being cynically clear or ironically observed, often expensive and for only the highly educated, and therefore quite exclusionary. Some mystery permissible as long as it is so sophisticated it has to be accepted as true, without explanations dared to be asked for. Thus Virginia Passes as a collection does pay some respect to that mindset, it has wisdom and is of this time, (despite some curiously old-fashioned turns of phrase), while the writing also determines we need more than coralling or discipline, more than a society of knowing winks and nods, more than brutality dressed in the finest manner to make it seem acceptable. We need to feel deeply and explore our existence fearlessly in order to truly, best live and learn, much of Kepple's writing appears to show this, convincingly.
The poetry is not as distancing and obtuse as some other recent verse by more traditional or less risky poets, it does not pretend it's from somewhere unattainable for most people. Although so idiosyncratic at times it does appear unfathomable on first reading in places, I later decided it was like a wild animal sporting and celebrating itself, beautifully, for its own sake, in places which suit the particular topic or tone.
I found Kepple eskewing 'the' was often annoying or unnecessary, although this telegramesque, truncated language suits the break-neck pace of some of his work. This device does eventually appear as his genuine voice too, but sometimes the omission distracts from some beautiful, unexpected line which follows.
'a troubled troubador
on train seat
she can walk
plastic on my
- from train poem #43
Possibly however, that's one of his points, beauty exists obscured by the furious speed we seem to think we are going, time poor and distracted.
Kepple's writing sweeps along with grand gestures and surprising, momentous images too, often illustrating contemporary issues along with time-tested, vital concerns. The symbolism in some poetry could take a reader many readings and some research to understand, while on the surface there's a definite narrative thread as well, satisfying to an extent.
'We need incensed sacrifice and summonings to protect us
For the earth has grown weary of our consumptive material
It is past time that its fruits spiritual will go stolen unnoticed,'
- from A Prelude to Ophiuchus
Differently sized type-faces, some tricky word placements, three sections called in order of appearance - Book I: Thus Virginia Passes, Book II: Harlem Blues, Book III: Herald, (the most experimental verse), and no page numbers, we're reminded throughout that this is not any usual book of poetry. That even if it does echo some other writers' allusions and literary times past, in some regard.
The unexpected in a tailor-made, avant-garde suit, if I had to explain Thus Virginia Passes in an image. Daring, considered, gloriously individual and with many twists, turns and puzzles, this first major collection by James Browning Kepple is recommended. I must admire his bravery, quite apart from his obvious talent and labour. We need more writers prepared to register publicly who they really are along with a plea for privacy and respect, while at the same time saying something else entirely. Then we remember what matters and grow inspired to stretch ourselves to trust in our own experience and intelligence, our own feelings.
Words carefully chosen in the best order, indeed.
I'm happiest most when
and building fires, do not
monitor me please