After reading Stephen Kessler''s poems in After Modigliani, I feel like I''ve been in his head, his heart, his bed, his typewriter and in his shoes for the past few turbulent decades. They are places I already look forward to revisiting with each re-reading of this piercing, soaring, tenderly amusing collection of reflections, rhapsodies and elegies on life.
Kessler''s poems are meticulously crafted gems of wit, style and passion. His delight in expressing complex emotions with just the right turn of phrase, with a former infielder''s nonchalant flick of the wrist''s lethal double play, is palpable and irresistible.
The poems in After Modigliani (Creative Arts Book Company) reflect Kessler''s love of language, music, the sensual world and life in all its visages: grim, beautiful, chaotic, inspired, but above all, real. With a journalist''s hard-edged irony and a Beat generation appreciation for linguistic whimsy, these poems combine the rhythms of a coffeehouse poetry slam and a Miles Davis solo with the serenity of a quiet night on the Mendocino coast. Kessler''s style, while consistently intellectual and playful, spans a remarkable breadth of paradoxical perspectives: He is an epicure and a perfectionist, a social critic and a romantic visionary, a postmodern philosopher and a street musician sing-ing the eternal songs of the human soul.
Until the publication this year of After Modigliani, Kessler''s fans have had to catch glimpses of his poetry virtually on the fly. Since the ''60s his work has appeared in poetry journals around the country, but most of his recent acclaim has come from his nine books of translation--of poets and writers such as Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortázar and Nobel laureate Vicente Aleixandre. Kessler''s journalism, criticism and essays have also been widely published in the independent alternative press since the 1970s, and he edited and published the Santa Cruz alternative weekly, The Sun. This is the first time in 20 years that his poems have been published in a collection all their own.
In After Modigliani, traces of Kessler''s shrewd editorial insight pervades even his most desolate love laments, producing a thematic unity in the book: the tension between mind and heart. The seductive struggle to find words to express this tension is often itself the subject matter of his poems, but spanning disparate discourses is Kessler''s strength as a writer. He brings his translator''s skills to his own inner conflicts and puts the languages of mind and heart into a dialogue with each other that is both refined and raw.
The most pervasive motifs of the poems in this collection are interconnection and unexpected association. Like the dream-world fluidity of impressionist landscapes, Kessler''s poems reveal the absence of boundaries in our world, in his experiences, in nature, and in art. In "Eucalyptus Love Song," a vision of "Hundreds of miles of wild eucalyptus" that "litter the state with their excessive flesh/shedding it in long strips to reveal the smooth white limbs/you want to stroke as you speed past" propel the poet into a recognition of his own desire to "strip away layers" in a "gesture of surrender" which links him to the expansive consciousness and sensuality of Walt Whitman: "he and I have hung out at length/leaning back high on the spicy smell/our longing wandering among the slim trunks/that reach up, up."
Kessler has a wide circle of poetic influences--a fellowship of visionaries that includes Whitman, Sappho, Allen Ginsburg, Percy Shelley, Charles Bukowski and Anne Frank--through which he extends himself beyond the confines of his own life, and encourages us to do the same. In a soaring eulogy called "Allen Ginsburg Aloft," Kessler writes of Ginsburg words that could just as aptly be applied to himself: "wildly traveled/to every corner of consciousness/promiscuously alive/at home in your own words." When Kessler asks, of his own contribution to the collective pool of art created by his heroes, "how many words does the world need?" The answer is, as many as we can get.
Alongside his inspired dialogue with these more public luminaries, After Modigliani also contains private refrains of "pure loss," "gorgeous suffering" and "impossible distances"--each one resounding with the haunting memory/presence of the poet''s "legendary duet" with an ex-lover who continues to leave traces of "a certain residue of indelible tenderness" on his psyche. In his meditations on love and passion, Kessler alternates between the perspectives of a coolly objective spiritual recluse and that of a man so piercingly, fatally in love that he compares himself to "a fighter pilot" on his "final spiral into the sea...your picture stuck on the control panel...sick of how long it''s taken to be done with the death of tenderness."
The title of the collection aptly captures the essence of the book''s 60 poems--eulogies for so many losses: the poet''s lover, the lives of the artists who have influenced his own art, even the loss of a certain kind of faith. Yet each of these poems is also a love song, and all of them are without question, the "words the world needs."
Stephen Kessler reads from After Modigliani on Tuesday, July 18, 7:30pm at Borders Books, 2080 California, Sand City.