June 2005

Maria Halovanic

poetry

In the Ghost-House Acquainted by Kevin Goodan

Don’t let the quiet tone and simple speech of the 2005 L.L. Winship/ PEN New England Award winner fool you, Kevin Goodan’s In the Ghost-House Acquainted is a powerful first collection of poetry that looks unflinchingly at the beauty and pain of living. Like life and history itself, each poem begins in media res, with a “gunshot in river mist,” the body of a dead llama, or a mare delivering a stillborn foal. The reader is always coming onto a scene that has already happened, in the aftermath of some grave violence -- a fire, illness, or death -- and can only look at what happens next. The effect creates a world that is much larger than any of the individual poems.

Goodan’s haunting collection is a recognition of the larger communities that we belong to -- of animals, weather, culture and history, each of which are silent actors in the poems. In fact, the strength of Goodan’s work is in his ability to accept and gracefully illustrate such complex interactions in an unassuming and yet powerful voice, proving that the world we try to tame is more powerful than us and is, indeed, without boundaries. In his poems, god is a field, a dead llama and farmer share the same breath, and wood is transformed when it burns.

The “boundarylesness” of the entire collection, however, is contained by Goodan’s sparse vocabulary. His voice is laconic, even soulful, making use of the same words and subjects as a carpenter makes use of well-worn tools. In the hands of a less-skilled craftsman, such repetition would be tiring, but with his even-temper Goodan uses the repetition to make fine works, dovetailing form and tone. Take for instance, the first half of "Between Brightness and Weight":

Frost on the white barn
but not on the red.
Frost on the alder more white
than on thistle and dung.
Against snow in the pasture
where I walk clicking
my tongue among many sparrows rising.
Between brightness and weight.

The poem’s simple structure, combined with richly textured sounds and the beautiful, surprising change from “white” to “weight” keep Goodan’s language alive, transforming it from mere description into a living language, adding to the spiritual nature with which his collection is infused. Rather than a self-indulgent look at the poet as some first books are wont to be, there is always a higher power or a philosophy that guides these beautifully reflective poems. God is never far from In the Ghost-House Acquainted. Goodan’s god, however, is the god of work, of animals, of the terminally ill and the unloved, the god that looks on its subjects but does not act. If it weren’t for the reverence and acknowledgment of this higher power, Goodan’s poems could become depressed or worse, prosaic pastorals with no higher meaning. And yet there is always reverence -- even in the midst of "Barn-cleaning," a very short, emotionally heavy and violent poem:

A pigeon topples down,
cocks a dazed head.
I catch it, try snapping its neck
like a wet towel in air.
Stupid bird! Goddamned bird!
An alien eye.
I set the bird’s head
against a flat rock.
Wings beat my ankle
but I do not rise.
Four and twenty birds
twitch in a barrel.

While the more urban dwellers among us may cringe at the slaughter, we are allowed to look on because of the poet’s reverence for the fight for life found even among the lowest of us. And there’s also reverence, awe even, for the choices we make that allow us to continue living. Which is really what the collection is about. We can choose to be part of this world, or we can choose to turn our back on it like a lover in a fight. No matter what, as it began without us, life will continue, twitching, living, with or without us.

In the Ghost-House Acquainted by Kevin Goodan
Alice James Books
ISBN: 1882295471
56 pages