Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Justin Kishbaugh, For the Blue Flash

I know Justin Kishbaugh, and he’s published me in an anthology that he put out, so if you are worried about nepotism in the poetry world, then caveat emptor. On the other hand, I don’t say that I like something if I don’t. And I do like Kishbaugh’s For the Blue Flash (DAT Press, 2012). It’s a compact collection consisting of three terse ten-page poems and a brief three-pager tagged on as a coda for good measure — thus, 33 pages of stripped-down, imagistic short lines. Kishbaugh’s bio notes that he is a scholar of Pound and Imagism, and these influences are present.

However, Kishbaugh does not simply recapitulate a hundred-year-old zeitgeist. The first poem, titled “A Gun and a Girl,” takes up film noir and (according to one of the blurbs) Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Here he applies imagist principles to moving pictures and subverts conventions of genre, playing on noir clichés. For example, section viii contains the lines,
       . . . a Pandora’s Box
of cinema and jukeboxes
she questions the limits
of language she whispers
words cannot capture
the truth is all love is not
open or honest as her eyes
Not only is the medium of film foregrounded, but so is the awareness of poetry as a medium; they are intermingled here. The enjambment and lack of punctuation lend extra layers of meaning in this regard — “she” “questions the limits” of cinema, but also of language. It is the “language she whispers,” but also “she whispers / words.” Further, we have the statement, “words cannot capture / the truth”; therefore, what really is “open or honest”? Love? “Her eyes”? Now we are back in a noir film scene. Skillfully accomplished.

The second piece is “Letters and Landscapes,” which begins with an imagist observation, “How the eye lingers / over that which it loves. . . .” Interestingly, the scene in question is then revealed to be a postcard of a painting, and so once again the subject is the mediation of the thing rather than the thing itself. The poem is also about the dynamics of a relationship and references the myth of Sappho’s suicide at Lefkada. Kishbaugh clearly likes working in an oblique mode and, astutely, avoids the confessional. We don’t really need to know who “he” and “she” are, or whether they are even based on “real” people, in order to appreciate the poem. The moon metaphor is a bit familiar, perhaps, but this too might be an intentional subversion of poetic convention. There is nice metaphorical language throughout this poem (not just of the moon), whatever the case.

“Animals and Air” instantiates a Buddhist theme, but there is also another couple, lovers who express themselves through elemental gestures or moments — water: “her eyes catch the flash / of two fish that swim” (maybe an obscure reference to Amy Lowell’s “Wind and Silver”?); air: “like a kite he floats”; fire: “foxes from the eight / provinces carry fire”; and earth: “On a bent birch / weighted with snow. . . .” This latter line comes from section x, of a cardinal who sits on the aforementioned birch, seemingly reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s famous blackbird. I don’t want to read too much into it, but Kishbaugh’s scholarly interests open the door to this kind of thing. That said, he is certainly not aping his imagist forebears, but rather plays on them in interesting ways.

For the Blue Flash ends with “The Rule of Three,” the first two parts of which employ references to Scotch whisky, including a double-entendre about its “bouquet” (whisky, roses). It too is something of a love poem, this time wistful, forlorn. Section iii, the ending, reads in full:
Like a falcon
his eyes
the sun
and the moon
her eyes
for a moment
the ocean
between them
If I have any criticism it is of that very last line (“between them”), which seems to me unnecessary. But this is of course a subjective opinion from another poet. In all, Kishbaugh has produced a solid and intelligent first collection which impressed me with its acuity of perception and deft use of wordplay and sound devices.