Vagaries of a Violent World: Sarah Sousa on Kevin Goodan’s Winter Tenor


Kevin Goodan, Winter Tenor, Alice James Books

In a series of untitled, haiku-spare poems, Kevin Goodan’s second collection Winter Tenor reads like an ode to nature. Not the beauty of flower and birdsong alone, but the landscape and reality of suffering on, presumably, a New England farm. Goodan lived on a farm in western Massachusetts at the publication of his first book. This is Frost’s New England, skewed, and with an intense light focused on the harsher elements of “Pigeon blood drying on the shit-spreader” and “crushed/ heads of kittens found mewling in the spaces between bales.” Readers unfamiliar with the violence of a working farm where animals are raised for meat and profit and are often slaughtered on site by the hand that births, doctors and feeds them, will have to reconcile this recurrent image with Goodan’s love letter to his flawed yet beautiful livelihood.

Unencumbered by titles, Goodan engages in a book-length examination of his subject as if he were studying a glass paperweight with a flower pressed between the layers, tilting it this way and that, considering the appearance, the experience, from different angles.

The juxtaposition of what compels yet disturbs the poet is a friction at work within each poem and between the poems. The Whitmanesque anaphora on page six celebrates the human as classifier, the farmer as Lord of his domain, while recognizing the burden inherent in both positions:

To crave what the light does crave
to shelter, to flee
to gain desire of every splayed leaf
to calm cattle, to heat the mare
to coax dead flies back from slumber
to turn the gaze of each opened bud
to ripe the fruit to rot the fruit
and drive down under the earth
to lord a gentle dust
to lend a glancing grace to llamas
to gather dampness from fields
and divide birds
and divide the ewes from slaughter
and raise the corn and bend the wheat
and drive tractors to ruin
burnish the fox, brother the hawk
shed the snake, bloom the weed
and drive all wind diurnal
to blanch the fire and clot the cloud
to husk, to harvest,
sheave and chaff
to choose the bird
and voice the bird
to sing us, veery, into darkness

Goodan’s choice to eliminate punctuation at the end of some poems, contributes to the interconnectedness between the pieces. This litany of the human’s, and more specifically the farmer’s, breakdown of chores: “to ripe the fruit and rot the fruit/ to husk, to harvest” ends with a slight torque of the poet’s use of the word “To”. We begin reading the line “to choose the bird” imagining a literal task as in “to calm cattle” but Goodan continues, qualifying the line with: “and voice the bird”. And here we see him choosing “to sing us, veery, into darkness”, choosing lyricism to soften the darkness as does the haunting and beautiful song of the veery.

Birds flit in and out of the poems and there is a sinister echo of “to choose the bird” midway through the book. Interestingly, it is also at this point that the poet begins to be seen as complicit with the violence around him:

In the burn-barrel wings
and breasts of many birds were glazed and dotted with the crushed
heads of kittens found mewling in the spaces between bales

The poet stands at a remove. The kittens were “found” between the bales and were heaped by some hand into the barrel with the “breasts of many birds”, but the reader is getting wise to the speaker’s role: “to choose the bird.” The sense of being wearied yet compelled by the dark beauty of farm life is revisited throughout the book. Later, the poet writes: “There are things I remember that brought me here, things I wanted to learn”.

Midway through the book, the speaker becomes fully complicit with a god that is not “calmness/ but a stand of birch catching flame”. Notice in the following line and many instances throughout the collection, the way in which birds witness the scene and give voice by singing or chanting. The poet’s relationship with the birds that populate his trees and fields is complicated; he identifies with them, he recognizes their witnessing presence, he silences them by rounding up and burning them. Where “Vesper sparrows flock and chant/ around the ewe kicked to death by mares”, the speaker moves from observing to lifting the body, its blood soaking through his pants and staining his skin, to a confession of sorts:

I hold the Cheviot lamb
that will not feed against my thigh
scratch its neck so it lifts its head
saying random words in a soft voice
until it closes its eyes and I pass
the blade across the neck quick
systolic arcs surge from the kerf
callnotes to the soil I’m not saying

Most readers will pause a beat or two before turning the page. It’s a challenge to remain in Goodan’s camp after this scene. One may think, as I did, who coincidentally live in New England and have experienced the harsh realities of farm life, including burning dead livestock on a bonfire: “Did he have to kill the lamb himself? You can hire people to do that kind of thing” “Is this gratuitous, or for show?” But, I’d suggest that the speaker’s complicity is necessary for the credibility and movement of this collection. There’s really no other direction it can go in. In order for the poet to “sing us, veery, into darkness” he must also enter the darkness. When the page is turned, the reader finds: “The shrike that impales none/ by some obscure faith”. And the rift between what the speaker has done and how he feels about what he has done begins to widen, culminating in the heartbreaking last poem, which places the speaker both inside and outside of the scene, bringing the collection full circle and achieving a sense of culmination:

Who will angel what remains?
winter birds sing in every copse.
Canebrake, unknown star—
old leaves burn
as if maple knew nothing more
than rain. Such fleshly ardour
the dark urge we beatify—
A farmer turns his collar to the flame.
The sun idles down,
a storm makes dark in the east,
I whisper brother,
come near my fire, we who saw
and sought, who bodied
and birded and lit
in the darkness. The corn
and windchill lend parity
to the clay. Llamas tarry the silage.
Will you go as gently to the knives?
The mares maintaining distance from the hedge-ditch.
And if I could sing. Every branch a branch of fire.

This last poem is fittingly set in winter. The speaker takes his place among the mares, the sheep and the kittens as beasts who suffer the vagaries of a violent world and an unpredictable god. “Who will angel what remains?” he asks, recognizing his own impermanence. The poet becomes both the farmer who turns his collar to the flame and the one who whispers “brother,/ come near my fire.” and thus when he asks “Will you go as gently to the knives?” the question is asked of his fellow farmer, of himself and of us all.

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Sarah Sousa is a poet living in western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. She received an MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems have appeared in literary journals including: Smartish Pace, Spire Press, White Pelican Review, and Amoskeag: The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University, as well as the Maine anthology A Sense of Place.Her poetry manuscript To Stave Off Disaster was a semi-finalist for the 2009 University of Akron Book prize and a finalist for both the 2010 Astrophil Press book prize and 2010 John Ciardi Prize. Her poem “Leaving Maine” was chosen for inclusion in Meridian’s 50 Best New Poets 2010. She has poems in the current issues of Weave, Inertia and Eudaimonia and a poem forthcoming in Clare Magazine of Cardinal Stritch University.

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