In her memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, bell hooks…
Kathleen Driskell. Next Door to the Dead: Poems. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 102 pages. Softcover. $19.95.
Kathleen Driskell’s new collection of poems is not only an affable invitation to walk among the dead in a graveyard but also an arresting testament on the art of poetry, the writing process, and the caging of creativity manifested in poems that are surprising and wholly satisfying. Part of The University Press of Kentucky’s “Kentucky Voices” series, Next Door to the Dead advances beyond the Horatian platitude that poetry should both instruct and delight into a meditation on harvesting the imagination. In the second of two poems titled “Ars Poetica” the specters in this poem could as easily be provender for poems as they might be ghosts in the graveyard: “I have summoned them / but hold them / in the low sky / above the churchyard. // Moored, they tug against my greed, / my imagination. / I know I could let / them go, / but / no, not / yet, no.” With grace, ingenuity, and attention to poetic craft, Driskell has set her poems to bloom and thrive outside of the confines of any cemetery.
But that is where we begin: inside the literal graveyard next door to where Driskell and her family have made their home in a pre-Civil War Lutheran church house for over twenty years. One of the distinguishing marks of the poems in the first half of the book is the use of funerary imagery. Angels, tombstones, caskets, and epitaphs punctuate the themes of the poems, of course, but also spur admiration for the poet’s gifts for shaping language. Mourners in black are “the heavy / notes of a dirge.” Buzzards gathered around a dead deer at the edge of the cemetery become “the greasy black prayer-circle,” “the dark congregation,” the “pallbearers / who will lift high the deer into the grave / weeping sky.” In these poems that introduce us to the poet’s local landscape the dead “rise up / and float as if angel-food.” Meanwhile, we are kept aware of the poet’s intentions to chronicle these graveyard stories. While hanging laundry on the line in “Markers,” the speaker watches a man dig a grave while pinning “up the corners of my blank white sheets,” a “blank to be filled in.”
As the poems move us outside the iron gates of the graveyard we continue to contemplate our own confinements, our own humanity. In “Inishmore, Aran Islands” the speaker says (using a lovely echo of the long e sound):
I see in myself what could not be seen
until considering these squared green fields:
the rolling land has been caught seized,
fenced by its own stony elements.
Another excellent example of this rumination on enclosures (temporal, corporeal, and poetic) is the long poem “Tchaenhotep” that helps to center the collection. Tchaenhotep is a mummified middle-class Egyptian housewife brought to Kentucky after the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and now housed in the Kentucky Science Center. In an interview with her publisher, Driskell said, “I began my relationship with her [Tchaenhotep] years ago after accompanying my children on grade school field trips to the Louisville Science Center.… I thought about her for years before I believed myself ready to write a poem about her.” Tchaenhotep’s poem is a first-person account of her life and death and afterlife that reflects on the themes of subjugation. On being confined as a housewife in the ancient world, she says, “my husband’s heart was lean / and stringy. He eyed me as if I were something to eat / and he was a wild dog on the streets.” On being (literally) wrapped up: “… for centuries I lay in the dark. // … For two thousand years, I waited for the door to open, / and when it did, the sun lit / but another pyramid on the stone wall.” On being a dead thing on display: “ … but no one asked me to speak, / I was only told to be / still, here, there, / faces and faces leaning in / close, their sour living breath blowing over me. / Why be a god if you are but a thing / to be so coarsely regarded?”
Driskell’s excellent poetic commentary on themes of enclosure is amplified through the rest of this collection. The latter half of the book includes (mostly) either persona poems spoken by the dead or poems spoken by the living as they contemplate their dead. All the while, we are made aware of the poems as a type of container for stunning imagery, subtle rhyme, and diction appropriate to the speakers. In “Death of the Civil War Infantryman, Mill Springs, Kentucky,” for instance, the soldier speaks as he is dying in the mud. His speech is clipped, disjointed—a sort of death rattle— as he watches red birds light on the tree limbs above him: “The sky. Gray. Infinite. / Approaching. Each bird, sudden, unexpected, like / sudden blood blooming through the chest.” Another compelling persona poem is “From the Grave of the Mathematician,” a cleverly imagined and skillfully crafted sonnet. The mathematician contemplates the crosses on tombstones as plus signs as well as the “equal signs / that wagon wheels leave in the mud / when carrying an infant’s coffin.” In “Epitaph: For the Man with No Last Name” the poem is spoken by a group of “God-fearing” gravediggers who find and bury a stranger with his belongings expect for a “dear John” letter which they nail “to that hickory / tree over yonder” and from which they learn the dead man’s only name: Ned. The poem is short-lined and shaped like a grave. In another grave-shaped poem the actual grave speaks to the poet (and to the reader), beckoning us to “stop / here, lean / in, put / your ear / near. // Nearer, nearer / still and / I’ll tell / all. Of course, we practically do fall into this grave/poem as we’re brought closer and closer to our own mortality.
Next Door to the Dead ends as it begins, with the arrival of birds patrolling the skies above the graveyard. In “Flock,” masses of birds are “swirling and swirling above / they are / stirring the soup of love,” until they perch in the trees, “each branch / like a road leading to the heart / of a town I had not known / I wished to visit.” At the very least, Kathleen Driskell’s poems inspire us to get out and visit our dead but more than that, the poems offer praise to “this dark / nourishment, / imagination.” In language both opulent and adroit she gives voice to the forgotten and calls us to witness our own inevitable demise.