Those who say that poetry is dead should have a word of prayer with Tarheel Renaissance man Keith Flynn. Winner of numerous poetry awards, founder and managing editor of the Asheville Poetry Review, author of three volumes of verse, and lead-singer and lyricist for widely acclaimed heavy-metal band, Crystal Zoo, Flynn is doing his part and then some to breathe life into the dry bones of poetry. His new book of poems, The Lost Sea, is an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of the poetic arts.
Donald Revell's essay at the beginning of The Lost Sea is a rare event: an introduction as finely crafted as the text it opens. Revell runs his finger along the seam between music and poetry: "Flynn's poetic vision is a music, immediate, large and cosmologically local, wherever it happens and however it happens to transpire." What is most praiseworthy in Flynn's work, according to Revell, is his stubborn refusal to succumb to the cancer that is killing contemporary poetry: the urge to abstraction. How many times have you picked up a book of poems, read a few lines and, no matter how beautiful the language might be, you say to yourself, "What the hell was he talking about?" before replacing the book on the shelf and moving on to more prosaic reading?
Never more than in the recent heyday of postmodern lit-crit, poetry has been kidnapped by academics and left to rot in the dank dungeon beneath their ivory tower. University-based critics, who laud the pristine life of the mind even as they eschew the body's smelly, turbid grunts and groans, celebrate the abstruse and the intellectual over the concrete and the physical. While never stooping to anti-intellectualism--in fact, a healthy knowledge of poets like Lorca, Neruda and Kinnell will aid in its appreciation--The Lost Sea is a battering ram against that dungeon's doors. As Revell so aptly puts it, Flynn's words are "wholly embodied."
These poems honor the visceral connection of the body and the physical world. In their lines it becomes clear that we humans are, before and beneath anything else, animals that breathe, eat, crap and die. The bear is our brother, the jellyfish our mother, the grass our children, the trees our celestial cloud of witnesses. In "Critical Mass," our flesh and blood, the physicality we share with all other earthly creatures, become the scriptures revealing God's mysteries. Dedicated to Flynn's partner, the poem reveals a lover asking:
What animal is this
we are making that
steals our breath?
But what parts of my skin
can I give to you?
On what plot will you
build your dreams?
Flynn's muse is muscular, immanent, incarnate.
Stealing poetry back from the pencil-necks, he wields it like a double-edged sword of the spirit, to ward off the deadly chill of disembodied solipsism. His "mythology of flesh" gives no quarter to the perversions of Christian theology that have made ghosts of us all, distrusting our beautiful, vulnerable bodies as filthy cages that confine eternal souls. The New Agers, with all their cheapened spirituality and eight easy steps to enlightenment, should also run like hell from this book.
In "The Mayor of Antarctica," poetry (and by implication, the arts) is our last best hope of survival in a world that can be and all too often is cold, cruel and anything but humane. The poem is an imaginary monologue spoken by Robert Falcon Scott, whose doomed expedition to the South Pole left him frozen stiff in the icy wilderness. As he lies dying, Scott muses,
life is that which flows
but poetry must stand still
for a moment, like a hummingbird
a circle of pure desire
an icy breath that rides on its own melting.
The older we grow, the more death's chill grips us, so that art becomes a way to stay alive and lively until we pass on, a blanket of warmth against the encroaching cold. The artist leaves a fleeting record of our failed excursion into the future's uncharted territory, a pilgrimage that nonetheless succeeds, since the getting there is all. Life's journey towards death is the destination.
We are embodied, claims Flynn, yet we are not brute beasts, for we hope, we dream, we aspire to a higher life, to joy. We dare to love, risk hurt, open our hearts, even as we know they will be broken by other beings as fallible as we. Again, "Critical Mass":
Our hands are older
than our bodies,
creased with maps
of secret history,
of every hushed liaison,
every tearful turning away.
Love's losing gamble, like the high lonesome calling of poetry, is a sanctuary in life's storm. And both these manifestations of spirit call us forth from a merely physical existence, even as they lead us back to that lost sea of bodily experience. We can seek solace in a lover, "two lives burning together;" we can search for ultimate truth in the depths of the inspired mind, "in the arms of the light;" yet when all is said and done we need look no farther than the lined skin of our own palms, and the pulsating vessels underneath, to read hints of life's deeper meaning.
Nonetheless, the poetic urge to abstraction is strong, and Flynn at times succumbs. "Death Is a Fiction of Stone" boasts a promising title, though in its lines there is too much fiction and too little stone:
Liberty drifts among
the orange rubber cameras,
segregating the pyramids
of hypodermic skeletons.
Is meaning to be found in the seeming meaninglessness, in the tangle of disparate images? Perhaps the difficulty here is not so much abstraction as the Dadaist impulse to portray the shattered mirror of modern life in all its fragmented glory. Granted, these lines are no more confusing than much of the double- and triple-speak that passed for campaign rhetoric in the recent elections, but once we perceive the broken shards of contemporary discourse with all their dissonant reflections, at some point we must pick up the pieces and try to put them back together, handling them with great care lest the sharp edges draw blood. Humanity can stand only so much surrealism.
Yet even in this poem's jangled pieces, we find prisms of clarity: "there are more gun dealers in America than gas stations," and again Flynn's faith in the gritty power of poetry's grace:
When the trees begin to speak
and the mind is on fire,
when the snarls of the white hounds
and the white-bearded weeds
swim through the poets
with television fins,
language, like a sonorous animal,
will evolve into its new skin.
When we cease yammering long enough to begin to see the natural world as the other animals must, unfiltered through all our manmade media, perhaps then human language itself can become re-embodied, fleshly, and we will speak from the gut.
Like Blake, Flynn is a poet of the sublime, afflicted with a condition of seeing so clearly, so fearlessly that even the smallest thing--a starfish, a hornet, a shadow--threatens to crush him with its raw immensity. In his persona as rock singer, Flynn screams out, "I see some things so beautiful/and they frighten me." Like that other musician and poet, Jim Morrison, who channeled the craziness of Los Angeles, and like Frost, who gave us the deep quietude of his New England, Flynn used his first two volumes of verse, The Talking Drum and The Book of Monsters, to bring to life the land of his native state. In The Lost Sea he sets both feet squarely in the mountains of North Carolina and holds forth his vision of spirits in the material world, like a prophet crying in the wilderness of our own backyard.