Review by Shelby Stephenson
Count Four: Poems
by Keith Kopka
University of Tampa Press
Paperback, 108pp, Sept 2020, ISBN: 978-1597321853
Nature flourishes Keith Kopka’s poems for the little creatures –squirrels, frogs, bees – and you-name-it. His imagination splurges presences with father, mother, and acquaintances. Kopka’s steepage in pop-culture evidences every poem. Example: “You Strung” – John Wayne. Imagine what you will as you recall Wayne on the screen. Or consider “Vinny the Tailor”: The speaker’s dad takes him to Vinny: ”I’m here for my first Easter suit, something to suffer in at church, / and once more at K-Mart portrait studio.” That line pretty much identifies the tone of these poems. The poet recreates a boy lost in childhood, remade by a father and adults, like Vinny, whose craft rules, as the teller charges the scene: “Vinny, / menace of the Jersey / Turnpike, man who never stitched / a thing more complicated / than an alibi, I think of you now / only during the holy trinity / of my suited occasions: weddings, / interviews, & funerals.”
“Dwight Yoakam’s Hat”: The narrator recalls a Yoakam concert of the 1980’s when the singer’s hat was The Thing. “Your hat is the linchpin / between nostalgia’s illusion and paying twelve bucks / for a margarita at the concession stand.” As Yoakam leaves the stage, he looks “down at the woman in the front row who’s spinning her bra / above her head like a lasso.” That’s the way Kopka’s stories turn, drawing the reader in, while the hero-singer-country-boy Kentuckian revs his performance to end on a promise he will return to the stage for an encore, surely, or leave his audience wanting and hoping he will see them at another show.
In “Tour,” a long poem in eight parts, Kopka captures what it’s like to hit the road, the days turning the musicians’ bodies to shine “like children dressed as ghosts / scaring themselves / in a mirror, “ the stage always waiting, the instruments blaring and begging with sounds as a “tuning peg snaps / off in his shoulder, pokes through his skin,” the moment reminding him “of the sewing needles / my grandmother left / in the lining of the bedspread / she made me.” On the road again and again, through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Kopka precisely tells what feeling’s like after being tired, beyond any description, dog-whipped, beside himself. The sun comes up over those mountains. “It’s / unremarkable. Just a ball someone threw.” Feelings of ennui and despair settle in. The beats seem to count themselves in fours over and over, even after the stage-lights go out, as if they were kicked out to find a way untraveled, freshly forgotten in the bustling.
What else is there to do but stretch reality, make it sing elegies only Instinct understands? “Hollywood Ave.” gives a hint, some clue: “One night in January, / Ian got drunk and shoveled / the driveway while naked. It was the new year’s / first snow, and he bent / like a buried elm bough, started close / to the house where the car was, / and lifted small mountains of the heavy wet / like gemstones. He threw / each pile over his shoulder, his bare body plowing / backward into the street.” Could a moon ever be so blue over such nakedness, Humanity, by itself, there, shoveling without shivering the cold, white stones?
These speakers, Kopka’s tellers – their attitudes – interest me more than anything else. They seem to hurt, as if they live as emotionally bruised, successful failures whose memories of fathers and mothers, family, course the past coming in on the writer’s desire to tell all – and more – to live to play music so close to grieving, I want to wince then sigh for the horrific plight joy brings alive on the planet. “All We Do Is Begin”: “The trick music plays on us all / is that we believe what we feel when / we listen is more than we’ve already / felt.” No wonder Keith Kopka has another book with the title: Asking a Shadow to Dance: An Introduction to the Practice of Poetry.
About the reviewer: Shelby Stephenson was poet laureate of North Carolina, 2015-2018. A recent book is Praises.