By Michael T. Young
Reading the poetry of Dean Kostos is like reading the language of a primordial source. You feel yourself perched
at the methane
maw of a cave,
at the sun-blind lake, at the cusp of no-
It is exactly at this precipice he creates a language that is both thematically complex and beautiful.
The poems of Rivering, his fourth collection, are structurally diverse and adept, ranging from terza rima and cinquains to free verse and prose poems. Nearly every line can be quoted as an example of linguistic beauty ranging through the tools of internal rhyme, assonance and consonance to subtler resonances. For example, “The students slant telescopes toward oblivion,” or “palms pressed/against papers to keep secrets//from seeping away,” or “I’m the future’s sacrifice, my face/an immaculate wound,” or “Jack’s bloody shirt no longer smells/of cigarettes, sweat, sweet hay.” These are keenly articulated lines of an ear delighted by the music of language. Notice, in that last line, the interplay, not only of the internal rhyme of “cigarettes/sweat” but the short “e” carrying the assonance through the three words “smells/cigarettes/sweat” and the long “e” sound of both “sweet” and “hay” reaching back to the word “bloody,” the alliterated “s” sounds and the consonant “t” moving through “shirt/cigarettes/sweat/sweet.” This is a bedrock of musical texture. Like good architectural design distributing the weight of a large building, the music of these poems solidly grounds Kostos’ themes throughout the entire collection.
But Kostos is not simply a poet who creates beautiful linguistic objects. He is a poet with a profound thematic intention. As he searches “for codes lost//in folds of remembering” he probes deeply questions of identity, historical narrative, the right to self-definition, and the power of language. It’s why I felt these poems have a kinship with such diverse poets as Eavon Boland, Derek Walcott and Ceszlaw Milosz, poets who have faced these very problems of silence, oppression, power and language in different contexts. In fact, Milosz provides the collection’s epigraph, “It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.” And the wounds tended to in this collection are very deep because like these other poets, he grasps how his personal life connects with history.
For Eavon Boland it was the silence of the female voice in Western history and art, for Derek Walcott it was the silence of his Caribbean history within the context of his inherited colonial English. For Kostos it is the silence of the gay voice within Western history and the violence against its reality. This is most obvious in the poem “Homage to Alan Turing.” It is a poignant poem reflecting on what Turing contributed during World War II to help decode the Nazi’s encryption machine known as Engima and, even more, what he contributed to our modern computer. But Kostos does this while reminding us that Turing was convicted of a criminal offense for being gay and given female hormone treatment in what was called “chemical castration.” Turing committed suicide in 1954. These are things hard to imagine today, but the poem turns on it and reflects in its last 2 stanzas
Because the Apple logo now bleeds with your poisoned
saliva, your mouth crusted with decades
Because I can love another man, and because this world
all too willingly forgets, I thank you, writing this
on a computer.
This is a hard-won point in the collection. It is pivotal, the penultimate poem in the second of three sections. Here, the speaker has reclaimed the truth from the silences of standard history. But we start first with the wound of those silences and trying to find a language that will voice them.
The second poem in the collection, “Photograph of Myself, Age Four, Asleep in My Father’s Arms,” concludes,
of language—grammar of flies—
ever touches the father.
As he surrounds the boy
in the river of his arms,
it runs dry.
The father’s arms surround him, one might even think, protectively. But there is no language and the river runs dry. Something unarticulated is oppressing the scene. Here we see personal history rooting itself in what will be the collection’s central concern: finding a way to the present from the silence of the past so as to be able to articulate one’s own narrative. Thus in the poem “Wound,” the speaker
invents a language
of hidden intentions—things he means
to say—obscured by a thicket
of divergent words, metallic on the tongue.
Or in the poem “Midnight in a Mountain Village,” he observes
tattoo primordial rock.
Their scrawl writes,
Remember, this collection is called Rivering. It’s a word taken from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. But Kostos makes this word his own and it is a perfect title. It simultaneously suggests a fishing of the depths and the ever moving present in which we all live and in which, finally, identity resides. So the movement of the book is from the oppressive silences of history and the imposed need to find a language for those silences, into the articulations that reclaim history in the light of truth, not simply for its own sake, but so the real work of self-definition can begin in the only place of its reality: in the moment. So the wonderful poem “Liquifire,” in the final section, is a melding of opposites where
Even tears, when heard third-person,
can sound like paroxysms of laughter.
But if they’re yours, they focus neither after
nor before, but during, in the frisson
of grief or joy. It’s labels we acquire.
It’s precisely those labels the collection struggles against. The opening poem, “Shores of Walker Lake,” is an ekphrastic poem based on an anonymous nineteenth-century photograph of a Native-American boy. Its image adorns the cover. The choice of this for cover art and for the opening poem is perfectly in tune when we reflect a moment on the history of the Native American Indian and our country’s silence on how we really treated them. “Shores of Walker Lake” tells us that “Reflection/swims into itself,” indicating that we are about to delve deep into a meditation. In this poem “The boy below the lake/waits.” Symbolically, that boy below the lake is what the collection seeks to recover, to come, in the end, to the final poem, “Siena” that asserts, “Go to Siena. But only if it’s stitched without boundaries.” The silences history imposes are boundaries, like the laws that killed Alan Turing. Those silences are a denial in our history of those who participate and even make it. So it is not merely articulating the history of gay people that is the point. The ultimate point is having the freedom to write your own history as you live it, to simply be who you are, without fear or denial from any sphere, including how history will remember you.
Art is the force that purges the silences by articulating their existence. A number of these poems are either ekphrastic or about museums or the art of painting and drawing. Thus the poem “Lesson,” an early poem in the first section, articulates advice from an art teacher, “’Now draw in the mystery, press down harder—/let darkness draw all the elements together.’” The opening poem of the second section, “The Painter of Self-Portraits,” ends “One has traveled far,/she said, swimming into a mirror.” This echoes the opening poem where “Reflection/swims into itself.” But here we have made some way toward that land without boundaries in “Siena.” “The Painter of Self-Portraits” begins by saying “All flesh is neutral, she said,/no matter how dark, how//frail.” This poem is the spatial version of dispensing with boundaries as the poem which ends the first section—one of my favorites—“Nostalgia for Now” is the temporal version of dispensing with boundaries. Those boundaries are completely dissolved in a series of poems in the middle of the second section, all ekphrastic and all based on imaginary paintings, the first one in this series declaring,
he’s painted dendritic characters
to warn the living. In the rustle
of leaves, ancestors speak.
Flocking in trees, they pierce
our souls with night-colored thread.
There is something akin to Rilke in how boundaries are dissolved here, how nerves are laid bare. With the freedom to imagine paintings by real artists and respond to them, we have entered the realm where it is possible to create redemption from the unjust silences of history. So in the wake of this imaginative effort we come to the poem about Turing and confront the real history of a real person whose humanity was denied him. Doing so is redemption from silence. The boundaries are peeled away in the “liquifire” of reaching into the silences of history to recover the personal freedom to write history, even—or perhaps especially—when that history is written as a poem. Poetry here is a form of salvation and renewal.
Derek Walcott said that “the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.” Kostos’ poems don’t only attempt this but prove its necessity. Rivering teases out the insights that reclaim a denied identity from the silence of history in a poetry that is beautiful, even incantatory. This is the kind of collection that only emerges when the right intelligence hits upon the right theme, the perfect marriage of sensibility and subject.
Rivering. Dean Kostos.
New York, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, April 2, 2012. 150 pages, ISBN: 978-1933132372