Poetry has always been a tough sell, a small world made up of a few big names that most of us were forced to read in school. How refreshing then to come across Kenneth Baron's debut collection, Semi-Sleep (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing). This collection overflows with memorable lines about everyday life that seem to perfectly express the feelings, hopes, disappointments, and small victories we each experience in our own lives.
But far more than just great lines, these poems each feel like short stories, combining the richness of verse with the intimacy of a conversation with a cherished friend--and like all great short stories, each poem here uses a small canvas and precision brushstrokes to inform, amuse, move, and entertain all at once.
A number of Baron's poems are set in places where people have too much time on their hands, places where they can't help but focus on things they'd prefer to forget, such as barrooms. From a poem called "Autumn Blizzard" we get:
...I have witnessed
a daughter's first crush, experienced the humiliation
of trying to describe one's life in a resume, watched
fists serve as a substitute for a small vocabulary.
From Not Watching Football with Edward Hopper":
It's a Sunday afternoon in one of those rural corners of America
that's unique in name only, and neither god
nor the women here seem to be shedding much grace,
though the beer is cheap and the manufactured urgency of sports
drones unfalteringly on in the only good bar in town
And from "Another Hilltop":
If no one ever quite perfected in words the uplifting fervor of the first drink,
it wasn't for lack of trying. Our literature seems to be moist with the rings
of well-researched effort...
While from "Solving the Riddle of Cafés", we get this painful observation:
This is structured loneliness. This is any place but home.
Anyone long married will certainly recognize themself in some of this book's more biting verse. "What's So Funny--or How Cold Is it?" begins as follows:
I've noticed that if you rearrange the letters of bedroom,
you get boredom.
While "A Very Short Poem About Marriage and Sex" opens the book with a line that portends the dark themes and resigned humor that is to come:
Let's just say that explaining one's lust to an uninterested party
is like trying to catch fireflies in the daytime . . .
Baron is also not afraid to use nature, not as a point of comparison but of abstraction. The first line of the first verse of "Rectangles" sent me to Google to check the veracity of what I'd read (turns out it's true):
There are no rectangles in nature.
Hear this and the mind races--crossing
continents, scanning desert, prying up
rocks--looking for that elusive, all-natural
block. It's not there. Save yourself
the mental airfare.
Ultimately "Rectangles" leads us wistfully indoors:
. . . Everywhere, rectangles--shoeboxes
filled with photos, letters hidden in attics, journals
on closet shelves, calendars on walls--
rectangles of who we were. Rectangles high above,
and the one in the ground below.
This is a stunning debut and one that should make poetry readers out of those who, like me, never knew how much they could love the form. And it also proves that there are many small names in poetry who, like Baron, deserve to be big.
For me, this book also passed the ultimate test: After I finished reading Semi-Sleep by Kenneth Baron, storyteller, philosopher, poet, I not only recommended it my friends, I also began to read it again.