June 21, 2019 by The Citron Review
Demolition in the Tropics
(Seven Kitchens Press, 2019)
~from “Dream of Alexandria”
Rogan Kelly’s inaugural poetry collection, Demolition in the Tropics, packs a lot of narrative in its pages. No, narrative, won’t do; these are stories, rendered crisp, photographic, brave n’ settled in the prose poetry form; this is an accounting of how place informs persona (his Jersey roots—steadfast—with the poet in Sonoma or on a different continent). We meet people who have affected him: Jimmy Dangler from “Elegy for the Funeral Director,” Nicole from “Corner Store,” Omar from “Seven Mile Coastline of Alexandria, Egypt,” and more, and these people make appearances in other poems too because in Kelly’s collection, we want to remember and catalogue the faces, mornings, stop signs, and architecture that have marked our lives. And we revisit the face, the most permanent we have known, if for no other reason than that person helped shape our temperament or wonder. This is a reckoning of relationship.
From “Outside Heaven”:
“My field of dreams is three cornfields over. I can still hear the crack of the bat amongst the cicadas and the barn house cat, Whiskey, a talker and a stalker, a bump-kisser in a shade of black they used to burn with the witches and the lefty-redheads who wrote dirty poems by moonlight and candle. I’m resting in a hammock, tied to a Bur oak and the front porch post, with a book and a cold drink from the free lemonade stand that rests at the edge of the long white stone drive. A woman I loved…”
Sometimes, these poems remember—and piece together—a sequence of images before arriving at a larger truth. Sometimes, the poems are “electric in stops and starts” like the woman described in “Dream of Alexandria,” and there is no resolution—or the final lines might be image-driven, anti-climatic, as in “Between Morristown and Maplewood”:
“ … Then it’s just sunlight and shadow From these wrong-side trees mostly rooted, bent straight, defiant. The
Exposed backside of houses. Abandoned industry. The slowing click of
The fragmented nature of these concluding lines seems truthful to the way we remember a “friendly” landscape: not as panorama of detail, fully drawn and colored in; instead, we recall specifics and layer them so the scene seems to be assembled piecemeal, which imparts a vividness to the intersection. The clipped nature of the lines prevents one detail from blurring into the next.
We might compare the treatment of this poem to the way painters have evolved in the last few centuries. For example, one way to paint an outdoor scene is to look at a photograph (or go on-site) and paint the platonic ideal of that scene. Another way, however, is to let the prominent objects of that scene determine the composite of the painting. In that case, some might say the painting has been abstracted; others, however, would agree that prominence doesn’t need to be chronological or fit into a neat little box.
That Kelly understands when and how to arrange his work—and stagger the delivery of his prose in Demolition in the Tropics—speaks to his talent as a poet. This staggering of delivery is particularly important in prose poems because there are fewer options for variation.
Variation is analogous to tone, here. We would make a mistake to read the title of the book and make assumptions about mood or the trajectory of this collection. In “Tending the Garden at Twilight,” we see Kelly slow down time to zero in on observations many would miss:
“My / neighbor, Nicole, moves as if a Tom Waits love song plays, watches from her second floor deck. She waits for the new boyfriend with the new moon in the sky. I can feel her eyes, a bewilderment at watching a man dancing around tomato plants, balancing a small dog, carrying broken eggs…”
There’s a lot of detail and movement in these lines, but we don’t miss anything. This passage also is indicative of the many moods at play, including wonder and humor. By front-loading these lines with subjects and attaching verb-driven clauses, Kelly instigates movement: moves, watches; watching, dancing, balancing, carrying… Now, there’s nothing unusual about these verbs, but their complements or direct objects are specific and memorable in sequence: the man “dancing / around tomato plants, balancing a small dog, carrying broken eggs…” The repetition of watch, new, and the ing- suffixes contribute to pacing and the sound of the passage.
One reason that Demolition in the Tropics feels balanced and earned is because Kelly does not make every poem about divorce, though its presence is felt throughout the collection. There is direct treatment of divorce in such poems as “The Exploding Heart Technique”: “…. Ever since you’ve been dying your life has gotten / interesting. And you wonder if it is your exploding heart’s intent to love her / straight through to your end.” But we spend more time with the poet in this reflective, “dying while living” phase as he comes to terms with the end of the marriage.
The paradox of dying while living is by no means relegated to this poem, either. There is much contrast in this collection—as craft and a means of elevating the poetry like in the title poem: “We were at a / couples resort, no longer a couple. She was on a path to self-discovery and I / was blocking her view of the sea.” We also see contrast in a meditative, free-wheeling Kelly as he processes his new life, and not without incident, though I don’t want to spoil the surprise in this poem.
From “Through the Divorce”:
“… It was also the summer of arms unfolded, fists unfurled,
Irish dance. Of trying new things. Of saying, yes, goddammit, yes. Of re-imagining the sad-sack of of overgrown rooted potatoes I’d become into a wondrous pile of high stinking compost with tightly-uniformed rows of the most brilliant wildflowers.”
A memorable image. I also like the doubling-down on the “re-imagining” line, as it grows stronger with detail. A compressed image, there, would not capture the poet’s spirit as well. Though my point is that the balancing act that Demolition achieves, in part, comes from the contrast that is inherent in its pages. It delights in specifics—for the right words to make something as curious as rhubarb come alive. From “From the Vineyards of Livermore”:
“He [Nina] told us, he had fresh rhubarb, just delivered by the
truckload, all at a special price. We bought a carload and a bit of strawberries. I slept and dreamt of the Sonoma coast, Persian lips, domesticated raccoons and top-down convertibles. And when I woke our Nina had
Baked a rhubarb and strawberry torte…
Demolition in the Tropics confides in us and gets us to care about the people and places in Kelly’s orbit and reflect afresh on the people in our own. No small feat.
Eric Steineger teaches English at Mars Hill University. He is the Managing Editor and Senior Poetry Editor of The Citron Review, while his work has been featured in Waxwing, The Los Angeles Review, Rattle: The Poets Respond, Asheville Poetry Review, and other journals. In 2018, his chapbook From A Lisbon Rooftop was published by Plan B Press. Occasionally, he curates poetry events for Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center. He lives in Asheville with his wife and daughter.
Rogan Kelly is a poet and educator. He was a finalist for the 2018 Jane Underwood Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many notable journals, including The Citron Review, The Cortland Review, The Penn Review, Small Orange, Tiferet, among others. Demolition in the Tropics is his first chapbook (Seven Kitchens Press 2019). Follow Rogan on Instagram and Twitter: @JerzyPoet.