The Poetry Project

On Punks by John Keene

Review by Kashif Sharma-Patel

John Keene’s Punks (The Song Cave, 2021) is a taut offering from a seasoned writer. Formed of seven parts written over three decades, the contiguous whole evinces the many worlds that Keene travels. Keene pays service to life lived replete with love, language, and entangled historicities. At its core, Punks is a collection that situates the subject within a wider social landscape, mediated through both urban and digital environments, where intimacy and the erotic consistently foreground the process of writing itself.

“Playland” opens the collection, offering vignettes of time past. We are told in “Mission and Outpost” of the narrator’s hopes to “salvage and loose // the sybarite trapped inside,” but instead found “how to cruise and lay and lose the gold-tressed, / virile god of every queer boy’s fantasies—but mine” (4). Arriving at the Castro Theatre: “native, arrivant […] figured out what really / mattered were the deepest exigencies of pleasure, soul’s / satisfaction” (5). And so this melancholic dance with desire foments, “admiring the leather and rubber clad legions [...] my yearning this snapshot before joining them, / as the hills bloom with stars and headlights” (6). Each snapshot speaks doubly, to both particular events and lingering sentiment. “The Angel of Indifference” illustrates this well: “In the end it’s the desire alone we’ll remember, not our backs mountaineering or our thighs breaking their netted shadows on the glossy sod as dawn, paying us no mind, stirs itself awake” (7). With silky lyricism in “The Haymarket,” Keene’s Black-queer noir works through conflict and contrition: “That was the night you tore / out my throat over my words with an ex” (8). Keene is absorbed in an urban orbit of sociality that works with these insights into the psyche as an almost filmic endeavour, where images of desire and place meet in the space of writing.

The poem “One Revolution” typifies the ebb and flow of urban life as commingled with the interiority of desire and social relation. “Boombox / beats blast backward from the square / where the hard light is,” and “buses bum-rush / us and slither off to the Boston side,” intercut as “that same man passes me with a glance I remember from daydreams then turns / away” (24–5). The melancholic, lyrical everyday overflows with sound and sensation. Similar ideas pass into the second section, “The Lost World,” though these are predominantly prose poems reflecting Keene’s prowess as a prose stylist. The intimacy of the club, an exchange, a hook-up, where a little butch queen “reels me into the glitter and sparkle” (46) and yet “we have to worry about getting entangled” (53). In “Grind,” from the last section “Words,” we are faced with a grid-like poem which mirrors developments in post-internet parlance:

your muscles
travel for work
if this sounds like
no agenda
crank it up

meaning nothing
crisscrossing the country
you hit me up
along for the ride
looking to get hot and steamy (199)

There is a sense in which the sensuality of the urban environment is disintegrating as part of digital mediation. This disintegration reflects back onto the styles of writing that Keene employs, something which is tied to the irreducibility of the intimate experience. This proximity is continually queried by moments of self-consciousness as poet-narrator developing moments of literary formalism amid the warm folds of the text.

The following part from “Folks Are Right, My Nose Was Wide Open” in “The Lost World” speaks directly to these concerns: “I write down lines towards poems, abstract pronouncements about unhappiness and being saved and unknown and misunderstood and death, which makes me think I’m the addressing the problem” (50). This direct appeal, in breaking the filmic narrational quality of much of the work, goes a long way to establishing intimacy between reader and writer, jolting one out of voyeurism and into a more engaged practice. “Black(en),” from the final section “Words,” takes this into a full theorisation of Black poetics reminiscent of cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun: “Using the new grooves, the recoding, blacking involves planting zombies through the cuts, the open ports, so that the existing language has been implanted, transplanted: this monster language is under the control of the hacker without the knowledge of the crackers, the original owners” (194). Linguistic practices, structural form, a relanguaged grammar of possibility; Keene sets out, in fragmentary fashion, an abstraction that is foreshadowed by the embodied social relations that permeate everyday life. At the same time, one should be wary of reading this as a linear or direct relationship, as the fragment ends: “Step into a word, a world: the machine is always running” (194). The word and world exceed or undercut a mere description of social totality. Instead, we receive a loose modality for thinking poetics and writing.

The section “Trees,” described as “collaborative lyrics” with Cynthia Gray, is much more sparse, and perhaps more traditional with its focus on interiority and the pastoral as shown in the poem “Song”: “my body sits / with its decompositions / I press myself against / a splintering of wood” (105). This is quelled in somewhat by the final poem “August”:

The throng around me humming its indifferent rhythms. Time husbands indecision. Boundaries exhale, limbs stiffen, relax, the perfumed sigh of a tired woman cultivating wintry visions of Brooklyn rooms that split the difference between our grief and our persistence. (117)

We are thrust back into the prose stylings that populate Keene’s oeuvre, the wind-swept throng slowly overwhelming the lyric respite. This play with speed finds a different valence in “Dear Trane (Lecture on Something),” part of the “Dark To Themselves” section:

What you
a repetition?

is the best

the whole

I could listen

cut felt as bliss
as entropy

I am here,

when I let
the practice

would it be

or west

What you know
of improvisation (172)

Again the grid-like structure speaks to a disintegrative discordancy, something here alluding to John Coltrane’s bebop, with typography bearing comparison to experimentalists like N. H. Pritchard. This difficult arrhythmia stands as testament to the unevenness that Keene fully embraces—from lyric to grid—as something of a modality for blackness and queerness.

While the section “Manzanita” contains work related to Keene’s origins and family history, “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” after Ted Berrigan’s poem of the same title, is more wholistic with its interplay of historicity, practice, and sex. The double-poem “Recuerdas” showcases part of this process: “revisionary practices: death or praxis: through possibility: seminal phenomena: also my son: borrow fragmentation,” (84) to be set against, “supine we smolder together like two freshly tossed cigarettes,” (76) from “Postcard: Decadence.” “Post-Black” synthesises the two strands manifestly: “in the street, we passed each: other, slowly beholding scenes, presenting a second order: [...] but our stories can never be rendered, completely in that language: so falter, imprecise: music, detached: as if at once one self, and the other: ensemble” (91). There is clearly something Motenian here, with the interleafing of form and subjectivity, speaking to the necessity to understand and track social totality in its uneven and fragmentary form.

In many respects Punks is a difficult book to capture as it moves within and through Keene’s life and thought. In each section one errs towards a cleansing clarity, situated in a totality predicated on intimacy and social practice, only to be set off course once again in the variegated forms that Keene fashions together. From a filmic vignette style through to arrhythmic abstractions, lyric interiority and filial recollections, each form foregrounds the doubling of event and desire as the social space from where his writing self-consciously operates. What he leaves for us is a multi-layered resource wherein the literary frames for understanding the wider text can be located in various moments of self-conscious formalism, exhibiting a form of poetics driven by a social openness that remains historically grounded and introspective.

#268 – Spring 2022