In the Name of the Father, & the Sonby Chris Campanioni
Jesus Was A Homeboy
(CavanKerry Press, 2016)
Kevin Carey is a storyteller. He tells stories, he organizes them in verse, sometimes in couplets, other times without stanza breaks, without rhyme or an attention to meter. The story—“something human”—is what takes precedence and in an age where being cool, detached, ironic, and, oddly enough, intentionally arcane is the mode de vie, Carey’s new collection, Jesus Was A Homeboy, comes off as refreshingly warm and insightful, revealing snapshots of the poet’s life and reveling in the photo album’s re-framing.
And Carey re-frames, re-situates—wishes to reform and re-live—incessantly. In “Poetry Snob” he admits as much, replacing the reality of a poetry reading, a poet quoting grammar rules and Wikipedia, with an imagined scene involving the poet and her mother ping-ponging insults at one another until “they each grab a piece of the stroller and walk out/of the frame.”
And I roll-focus to the Maine poet
still flipping her cards, and part of me wants to stand up
and confess my snobbery, while the rest of me wishes
she would read something human, something dangerous.
At other times Carey actually allows the story he’s working on to overtake the coffee shop in which he’s writing it. It’s a moment of meta-physical confession, bizarre, fantastical, film-like—Cool World meets Roger Rabbit—but it’s also real, or real enough. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed the production taking place around us, with our bodies in one place and our minds in quite another? So much of our lives is lived through the screens of popular culture and the cinema; so often do our parallel lines of perception converge, collide.
and a bottle blonde on his arm and I look
at his nose, wrapped in a bandage
that covers half of his face, and I think
of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, and a young girl
sits at a table nearby typing with her back to me,
her hair tied tight in a bun, some half-eaten
sandwich on her plate and the Russian guy
says something to someone I can’t see
in a quick burst of broken English
and the cops get louder with each new piece
to his story and the guy with the nose
looks at me like I’m staring too long,
and out of nowhere a woman with a camera
snaps a picture and just like that my coffee
is cold and any minute I’m expecting
someone to yell, Cut, and lower the dolly
from the ceiling and the whole place lights a cigarette.
A page later, “Motion Picture Family” becomes Carey’s homage to Hollywood and its intersections with home life, allowing readers access to intimate memories of making family movies with his son and daughter when the reel thing was not available.
When my own children were young, they made
Barbie movies—siting her in a car and turning on
the fan so the blonde hair blew behind her
on an imaginary mountain road. My son,
the Hi-8 cameraman, my daughter the set designer.
We had no TV in those days so I’d bring home
a monitor and a VCR from work and we’d rent
Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Parent Trap...
They laughed at me, even then, if I cried,
which I always did when the music rose in waves
and I fell again for the Hollywood touch
Without formal inventions or rhyme, Carey’s poems move because they are so relatable. And in addition to the power—and insistence—of imagination to overtake the everyday, the other unmistakable human imprint that pervades his collection is regret. Much of Jesus Was A Homeboy reads like an extended elegy— what’s been lost, what will be, how much endures. Elsewhere, Carey moves from his regrets as a son (“Sarasota Airport, 1984;” “A Holiday Poem”), father, and husband (“Newburyport;” “Another Coffee Shop;” “Chicago”) to imaginings of his own father (“The Home Movie”) thinking of his son— forever the child and, at the same time, the father (as Wordsworth once proclaimed and this book confirms). Life is cyclical, recursive, and every year brings a reincarnation that only means “The Same Mistakes (Again)/Different Days.”
I said it would never be this way
but I am my father now,
praying in empty churches,
the clouds gray and hanging over my head.
At other moments, as in “Witness,” his continual deployment of “maybe” toys with memory’s subjectivity, our constant hypothesis, our hypothetical yearnings— the desire to play it again, but to play it differently. In “A Surreal Poem,” after a long list of possible meanings, Carey leaves us with an enduring image of Johnny Cash, whose song “Unchained” also prefaces the book.
it’s about life or death
or like Johnny Cash might say
it’s about wounded angels shuffling
around the room or maybe it’s all
of these, or none of these, or
maybe it’s about looking at a wave
crashing to the beach,
some sunny fall day,
a coiled fist of time
pounding the seconds off
the shore and I’m thinking
This ain’t so bad
In a collection fixed—and fixated—on narrative, memory serves an enduring role, precisely for its ability to grasp things, and yet to grasp them differently each time. “Looking at an Old Man in the Pleasant Street Tea Room” is one of the most beautiful, startling poems in the book because of its ability to do both.
My mother remembers things
she can’t tell me,
she says, Did you hear the good news?
and then grows quiet trying to think of what it was.
The other day she wrapped half a sandwich
in a napkin and asked me
to give it to the man on the television.
She doesn’t know it’s hard to see her this way.
We all wish for something—the other choice
that Socrates says is not the long dreamless sleep.
Maybe she is already there,
one foot in the water,
connecting to that place
where we can feed our TV heroes
when they are hungry,
that place where everything we remember
is just happening.
In every act of creation there is the implication of possibility: the prospects for something more, something greater, a landscape waiting to be filled—no, to be overflowing—with images, sensations, memories, experience; something human and something dangerous, and beautiful because of both. The lasting moment I take from Carey’s collection is from the poem “Justice,” a brief moment of perseverance and optimism amid the struggle to achieve it.
I can help a kid to maybe write
a poem he didn’t know he had in him.
He can show that clumsy little girl
how to make a painting
that will change her life.
There’s real joy in that, I say.
And that joy can come from just imagining it.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American and the author of Death of Art (C&R Press). His "Billboards" poem, a response to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world, was awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK, At Large, and Tupelo Quarterly and teaches literature and creative writing at Pace University and Baruch College.