Broken Gates, Ken McCullough

by Lucy Bryan Green

The allure of Ken McCullough’s seventh volume of poetry lies in his intimate portrayal of landscapes. A master of “looking closely,” the poet possesses an artist’s acuity, a naturalist’s knowledge, and a child’s sense of wonder. The opening piece offers readers “Chartreuse / of new shoots, red of rhubarb, one gash / of sunlight trapped in the foliage”—a concentration of detail sustained throughout the book. But Broken Gates provides more than sensory immersion into the natural world. It explores human connections to place: the way places influence our conceptions of self, relationships, family, history, politics, and home.The structure of the collection underscores these connections. Each of its three sections has a different thematic and geographic focus. The first, “Driftless,” takes its name from the Midwest region where McCullough has lived with his family since 1996, an area whose topography is characterized by a lack of glacial drift. In Broken Gates, McCullough articulates the physical and psychological significance of that place:

When I came to live here, fifty years into my life
in this valley cut by the river
all I knew was wandering, but this
the Driftless Region, is what I breathe and drink now.

Images of rural life pervade many of the poems in this section, often meditating on the intersection of domesticity and the nature world. “Night Holding the Scent of Day” moves from the wild beauty of a bird’s nest to a family garden to “Linens left on the line all day and forgotten— / sun-drenched, scents trapped in the weave.” Other poems describe the tasks of pruning apple trees, clearing undergrowth, and growing and cooking Brussels sprouts. The speakers in these poems seek out ways to unite their relationships with nature and their relationships with people. In “The Time,” the speaker tells his lover, “I’ll wake you / and walk you to the trees.” In “Find,” father and son admire a large moth hanging on a screen door. Subverting the doctrine of dominion, the poet imparts his reverence for the land he inhabits to his son in the section’s final piece: “Do not subdue and do not have dominion. / You are husband to this land, and steward.”

Broken Gates’ second section, “Westering,” also explores associations between people and place, but its speakers tend to be drifters rather than driftless. Moving through landscapes in the western United States, mainly Montana, many take to the road—holing up in a hotel until bad weather breaks, riding a bus east “through small towns reviving,” or driving through a flash flood on a New Mexico highway. The interior lives of these speakers often mirror their geographical in between-ness. “The darkness in my room // resembled me,” one reflects. Another calls an old girlfriend he hasn’t spoken to in 18 years to “explain to her how much it hurts / leaving Montana.” A remote road allows another to mourn the death of an old lover. The bleak backdrop bears up his regret: “If I’d have known myself I’d have never left. / If I had ever stopped equivocating.” Despite the melancholy of many of its subjects, this section is not devoid of hope. A visitor “At Chief Plenty Coups’ Medicine Spring” receives this message from a nearby chickadee (the departed Crow leader’s spirit animal):

chickadee-deedee
sink-sink sink-sink
drink and be healed

drinkdrink
and be healed
drinkdrink

and be healed

The final section of Broken Gates, “Portals,” transports readers across space and time. The mélange of speakers includes a twelfth century crusader on his final quest and a twentieth century pilgrim to Ganeshpuri India, who performs “Seva” (God’s work) by hauling gas cans full of cow urine and picking up human feces. In “The Black Isle, Scotland,” the poet searches for the graves of his ancestors. This poem provides one of the most exquisite sequences of the collection, a manifestation of turning back time:

The spent summer leaps from the blueberry gorse,
the spit-up flies from the wet nurse’s shoulder
back in the baby’s mouth, irises evaporate,
the sun rises over Inverness and sets on the North Sea,
time walks, time and its beasts walk sdrawkcab.

In addition to supplying a diversity of subjects, this section uses unexpected styles and forms. Both “Driftless” and “Westering” favor the first-person point of view and long lines of free verse, but the pieces in “Portals” depart from these norms. Both “Domestique” and “The Cottage” give third person portraits of marriage (one grim, the other full of promise). The rhyme employed in “Four Fingers and a Thumb” lends a satirical edge to its critique of George W. Bush and his cabinet members. “Today’s Essay: a nod to Peter Maurin” channels Bob Dylan in its swirling musical current:

I don’t care if you’re a Buddhist
a nudist or tomfoolerist
a convert or an introvert
If you don’t care
how your fellow
is faring you are missing
the ferry hey down derry

Although thematic and stylistic differences distinguish the poems in “Portals,” many display the attention to place characteristic of the volume. “Lightning laces indigo” in the sky. Snow falls “in the iron light.” And “the heavy perfume of camellias / and wisteria” fills the air.

“Today, I bless the fences fallen into disrepair,” the poet proclaims in the collection’s title poem. Then, recasting Psalm 100, he instructs his son, “enter these broken gates with thanksgiving.” Indeed, Broken Gates is a celebration of brokenness, whether broken ground or broken relationships. Wanderers and wonderers, homesteaders and homebodies, lovers of land and lovers of language will delight in these 57 poems. McCullough’s richly imagistic and emotionally complex collection affirms the Leonard Cohen lyrics that serve as its epigraph: “There’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”

 

Broken Gates
Ken McCullough
Red Dragonfly Press 2012
ISBN 978-1-937693-17-6
100 Pages
$15.00, Paperback