Review | City of Regret, by Andrew Kozma
All poets secretly wish they were musicians, or so the adage goes, and all musicians secretly wish they were poets. But maybe that’s a sham; maybe most poets truly want to be architects. The vocation fits our obsession with place, our need for formal constructs. One need go no further than Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” to see the cult of the Maker in action.
Back up. Why do we as readers care to witness someone’s death, unless we have first cared for him in life? To ask sympathy for the dead is easy. To create empathy for the living is the true challenge. Kozma steps up to the task in an evocative poem called “From the Honeymoon Album,” working from old photographs that capture parents in an earlier, already haunted era:
The poet has a way with phrasing, as in the poem “On the Way to My Father’s Death,” in which the speaker watches as his plane “slips through clouds like a needle through skin . . . other planes below us, debating the air.” The poems’ best moments are their strangest ones: the unholy invocation of “God, your mouth is open” in “Dedicatory Letter,” or the deflating declaration in “Not a Love Letter” that “I cannot make myself a saint. I can make myself / a sandwich.” Most of these poems are in the low-key rhythms of contemporary free verse, so the eye welcomes the punctuated one-line stanzas of the poem “Invader”:
The wall is nibbled into opening.
Inside, there is no exit except my entrance, curled in disfavor.
We enter, a multitude of one, and scratch our cryptograms to herald absence.
. . .
In these sanded caves, large enough for a thousand nests, we have each other.
We enter from forgotten tunnels, a furtherance of graves.
As often happens in these poems, “Invaders” revolves around locatory expression. Describing where are we replaces answering who are we, and this speaks to an evasiveness of the larger collection that, at times, troubles me as a reader. The title, City of Regret, and the powerful preface poem “Dis” evoke epic narrative—“I’ve 2 coins for passage, 3 boiled ox bones, 1 cup blood. / Hell is a room the size of the world”—something akin to Aeneas’s visitation of his father in the underworld from the Aeneid. Yet Kozma shies away from the demands of his story, mostly pushing the account of the father’s death to the outer margins. It’s as if the medicalized reality hinted at in the early poem “The Transplant Ward” is judged too tame, so the book tangles the middle section in more dramatic scenes of passing: an Englishman “found arranged by the roadside . . . joints rest[ing] at embarrassed angles,” a suicidal butcher who holds his cut wrist to the rain, a girl whose father “died a simile” and who burns her grief “page by page.”
Using a consistent speaker throughout a manuscript is a double-edged sword: the poet reaps the benefits of accumulated detail that point toward a larger plot and cast, but the poet also has to think twice about persona poems. Even if they’re good poems (and these often are), their inclusion suggests that the core speaker is not being interrogated fully. Yes, Sodom is burning. Yes, “Mary Fights the Memories of her Tongue” by chanting dramatically “I am not what I eat, I am not what I eat.” But let’s get back to those honeymooners, that widow-to-be with her cage of fingers.
The heart of this book beats, paradoxically, in the immediate and intimate death of the speaker’s father. Amazing things happen when Kozma colors his poems in the wilder shades of grief. Take the surreal turn of my favorite poem, “His Body Makes Its Way Home”:
This is the true, strange death, as the beloved he becomes it amidst the cold banalities of suburbia, and this is Kozma’s work at its most bracing and grounded.
First books have their typical pleasures and perils, and this book is no exception: There is an obligatory villanelle, a token ghazal, some clumsy descriptive language, as in “Night Meeting”: “Streetlamps turn surfaces shiny // with a thin sugar glaze.”But that’s no cause for regret; that’s as it should be. First books are the destined places for hacking through the raw material, for taking chances, for apprenticeship. A guy has to hit his thumb with a hammer before he can be a master architect. In such glimmering poems as “His Body Makes Its Way Home,” we see the bright potential of Kozma’s second and third and fourth book, and I look forward to reading them.
Andrew Kozma took an MFA from the University of Florida and a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Lilies and Cannonball Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Agni Online. His manuscript City Of Regret was a cowinner of the Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry.