New Issues Poetry and Prose. 2013. 90 pages.
Reviewed by Jenny Molberg
We remember well what Auden wrote in his elegy to Yeats: that “poetry makes nothing happen.” What many of us forget, though, is what comes just a few lines later in the poem, that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.” David Keplinger’s new book of poems, The Most Natural Thing (New Issues, 2013), is a book that knows this deeply. The poems offer themselves up as anatomical conduits—each a mechanism in a body of work that speaks through singular, personal experience in a sprawling and enigmatic dialogue with history. Keplinger creates unusual conversations among the poems: when the book is closed, Flash Gordon lives beside the French Symbolists, a sexual encounter at a teenager’s first job beside Vasco da Gama. When it is open, the poems embody Keplinger’s line in “Late Autumn, Germanesque”: “A part of me could crawl up out of me, forget myself, and sing.” There is praise and mourning, comedy and tragedy. This book is bold in its exploring. It takes risks. In doing so, it pronounces itself as an extremely important and potentially influential new work.
When I read David Keplinger’s poems, I find myself sharply aware of my own body’s place in the universe while simultaneously at ease—even, at times, comforted—by the beauty in its ephemerality. These poems are visceral and sentient; they are difficult and rewarding. They confront the frightening transience of the mortal body, but there is great hope in the power of empathy and metaphor. “I want some proof, I want to take a picture, I want to say things with authority. Which is to say, I want to be assured that I will live,” Keplinger writes in the poem sequence, “The Crown of Light at Assisi,” which bridges the book’s second and third sections. Later, in “Sleepwalking,” he writes, “[a]s I reveal myself to the world, the world will be revealed to me.” Keplinger is engaged in an inquisitive and profound conversation with his reader. When I arrived at the last poem in the book, I turned back to the beginning, because it is an impossible conversation to end.
The Most Natural Thing is Keplinger’s fourth collection of poems; it draws influence from his work in translation, especially World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors and House Inspections, collections of surreal prose poems by the Danish poet Carsten René Neilsen, which Keplinger translated with Neilsen into English. This collection, which in many ways can be read in conversation with Keplinger’s earlier The Prayers of Others (New Issues, 2006), asserts its essential place in the discourse of contemporary prose poetry. Keplinger’s poems are spiritual and surreal; each a world unto itself.
The book consists of three parts, “Incision,” “Manipulation,” and “Removal.” This Dantean nod reminds us of the collision between the scientific and the spiritual—life, death, afterlife; beginning, middle, end; the triple helix from which we are made. “When you set my life story to music,” Keplinger writes in “A Comedy in Three Acts,” “use triadic structures like the one four five. Every detail of the story should be set in threes. Three trees are split by lightning on my death day; the same trees that were planted at my birth…” Every poem is box, a fitting visual embodiment of the scientific, human eye shaping and collecting what is present in nature. The reader trusts Keplinger’s assured voice, but also marvels in the ways the poems transcend the limits of the mundane world. Keplinger has the keen eye of a scientist, who, in each poem, has discovered an anomaly, living proof of a dream world, spirituality in natural phenomenon.
Each poem’s anatomy, like the aspens’ tangled roots on the book’s cover, is woven into dialogue with the other poems in the collection. I am particularly stricken with what Keplinger does with the heart (I would suggest that the heart is this book’s “way of happening”—the image of the aspen grove on the cover even resembles the anatomical heart). The image of the heart appears in the book in many different forms—as a sound under water, a halved walnut filled with a candle and floating in milk, a “cup” confined within “the cell bars of the ribs.” But the poem “The Heart” is one that I was astonished by:
Jenny Molberg is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review, Mississippi Review, Louisville Review, The New Guard, Mudlark, and other journals. She was recently commended by the Hippocrates Initiative on Poetry and Medicine, and was the winner of the Third Coast poetry prize. Jenny is the managing editor of American Literary Review.