The reader of these poems will sift through the radiant ashes of a country that has set itself on fire, as Prufer unburies the rotting bodies of a recent history.
Kevin Prufer’s fifth collection of poetry, In a Beautiful Country, depicts a startling landscape that is eroded by war, violence, grief, and alienation. Prufer populates this landscape with a variety of voices–a merciless God, a grieving son, a war veteran, and speakers alternately buried alive and witnessing decay. The wide vocal and thematic scope of this collection speak to Prufer’s breadth of vision, something he addresses directly in the poem “Distant Strangers” when he urges the reader, “Take a catalog, if you’d like, / though the color reproductions / can’t quite capture / the scope of my enormous project.” The enormity of his project does not startle the reader as much as the moments when Prufer transforms familiar images into unsettling starkness. In his country of charred trees, falling angels, missiles and bombs, and perpetual snowstorms, “boys idle in pick-ups / while a spring rain dots their windshields / with a million tiny bombs.” Over the course of the book, the poems themselves become the angels that “crashed through the trees, / so the yard was a scatter / of bent, failing bodies.”
At the center of Prufer’s honest observation of contemporary American society lies the image of falling, a motion both literal and figurative that, in these poems, always results in death. In the title poem, “In a Beautiful Country,” Prufer writes: “A good way to fall in love / is to close up the garage and turn the engine on.” His perception of love is one of utter grief, ending in suicide or murder. Consequently, in this self-destructive and violence-driven society, missiles are nurtured to life like plants: “I told it Breathe and, for a moment, / it appeared to. I told it Darling and Love.” Love is professed by making bombs for the loved one while the “heart says bang, bang, bang.”
Through the use of elaborate conceits, such as likening a decomposing body to a fallen empire “having spilled a population / into the grass,” Prufer manages to link personal tragedy to the collective tragedy of a country. Tragedy is not only restricted to death, but it also speaks to the growing sense of people drifting apart and personal relationships becoming obsolete in the age of technology: “And my neighbors were hunched at their screens, / like nothing happened, / emailing each other / about the weather.” The disintegrating bodies in Prufer’s poems are not unlike the disintegration of a community.
Whenever Prufer delves into the political landscape of America, he cleverly focuses on the human body so as not to lose his reader in abstract ideas. In “Recent History,” Prufer links the oblivious act of a man jumping into an empty pool to recent historical events, such as the American invasion of Afghanistan. The lines “(and we often retold this as the war went forward) / he finally noticed the empty pool and, startled, seemed to understand / the source of our objections” are reminiscent of a country entering a war that has no purpose but to destroy all parties involved.
While Prufer’s subject matter deals with the decay of a country, his verse is anything but disintegrating. His poems possess a fluidity and musicality that is especially apparent in his sonnets “What I Gave the 20th Century” and “The 20th Century.” In the latter poem, the combination of rhyme and disturbing subject matter empowers the imperative voice: “And if it finds no comfort from your visit, / put a pillow to its mouth, and, so, be done with it.” Form in Prufer’s collection serves the purpose of furnishing his speakers with authority. As the title implies, the poem “Ars Poetica” is written in the voice of the poet, a satirical voice that “does well / to look on human ill / and find in it some beauty.” In terms of form, the final stanza in this poem behaves gracefully, but the message is anything but graceful.
It was a kindly God
who tore the town apart.
Very kindly, He
who held my punctured heart.
(Its ink was thick and dark.)
Clearly, Prufer is a poet who knows how to employ form in order to grab his reader’s attention. In his poems, elegant form and at times grotesque content tug at each other to create taut and uncanny lines.
What Prufer seems to express so eloquently in In a Beautiful Country is the notion that a country, essentially populated by humans, is troubled by the same emotions and fate as a human being, only on a larger and more frightening scale. Love, grief, loss, and oblivion reign “in God’s country / and his million glass stars / keep falling / on the rooftop.” Turning the pages in Prufer’s latest collection, “down the buildings [fall] / into glitter and crash, / and down the city [tumbles] / into perfect banks of ash.” The reader of these poems will sift through the radiant ashes of a country that has set itself on fire, as Prufer unburies the rotting bodies of a recent history.
In a Beautiful Country by Kevin Prufer, Four Way Books, 2011.
Reviewed by M. Zobel.
More Kevin Prufer: