A Boy’s Guide to Arson
by Jarret Keene
Zeitgeist Press, 61 pp., $13.00
Can a male poet be both tough and thoughtful, sensitive and powerful, all while avoiding the clichés of misogyny and manliness, without posturing or chest-bumping? After reading A Boy’s Guide, I think so. In Keene’s case, he succeeds with powerfully painful, tough, and often very blunt poetry. However, in my opinion, the book is most powerful when it risks something, namely, sounding sentimental or gentle in the shadow of the speaker’s fallen father. Keene succeeds more consistently when he breaks the rules of that which inspires his work, namely the death of his fireman father, in order to create even more powerful and gritty work that resonates with vulnerability and emotion.
In the book’s first poem, “Preface,” the reader experiences the father’s death at the hospital. The father speaks only briefly but sets a painful tone for the rest of the collection. The speaker’s mother tries to console him by telling him, “’You’re going to live.’” Composed yet vulnerable, he responds, “’Maybe…God, / I hurt so bad.’” The reader hears from him again but only in the last two lines, “’I’m in so much pain / you can’t hurt me.’” The speaker quickly counters his father’s statement; “But they did” (3). Here, Keene introduces the precedence for the entire collection. His father’s death allows him to see his father as vulnerable for the first time. These poems grapple not only with the loss of his father but also with the belief that his father is invincible and all-powerful.
Early on, the speaker inhabits this tragedy quite impersonally in first-person. Details about the night his father died slowly reveal themselves throughout the book since Keene rarely uses his poems as an opportunity to clearly narrate a lived moment. Instead, his speaker imagines an apocalyptic world of pyres of flame, dying superheroes, angels of death, dogs from hell, and billowing smoke. Mood and tone consistently somewhere between furious anger, grief and helplessness, as opposed to stories or snippets of narration, are the focus of this book.
He assigns nicknames to his father such as “Father Fire,” “Captain Ash” and “Dr. Smoke,” revealing his adolescent obsession with comic books. By using the parameters of a comic book to frame his tragedy, the speaker attempts yet continually fails to make his father the superhero, who would be prohibited from dying, saved at the last second somehow by a sidekick, if this were actually a comic book. In the poem “Captain Ash, You Are Hereby Invited” the speaker pronounces, “My heroes are dead, Father,” yet in the next poem the speaker asks, “How many times must a boy say goodbye / To his superhero before the idea catches on?” (13)(15). In each poem, particularly in the first section entitled “Death of the Fireman,” the speaker repeats his attempts at resurrecting his father only to admit failure by the end again and again, as in “Farewell, Dr. Smoke,” “I drop work on this engine, and pronounce it a failure” (15). Each poem, however, finds the speaker compelled to pick up the work all over again.
This rinse and repeat process eventually starts to trigger something. What exactly the speaker begins to learn is not really clear. However, as in “The Enigma of Fire,” some odd sense of unstable understanding begins to emerge, “The way the unbearable makes sense / Within the context of affliction” (16). Then in “Exodus” Keene writes, “Yes, I could spend my whole life / Watching a moth destroy itself against a light bulb. / But I could never imagine that light bulb / as anything more than my powerless life” (21). This seems to suggest that only by reliving the tragedy, immersing himself in pain and suffering, will the speaker gain solace or a sense of his father’s impact both alive and in death.
Due to its consistent use of violent imagery, blunt diction and colloquial tone, the majority of the book tends to blur together. Of course a review like this cannot try to capture the subtle fluctuations and developments that weave in and out of these poems. Also, I can’t help but think that the poems I enjoyed the most are even more potent situated within the context of this collection. As I stated earlier, Keene succeeds the most with me when he risks failing at replicating his father’s masculinity not at resurrecting his father. For the sake of memorable poetry, getting over the loss of his father also means coming to terms with being a different kind of man.
Toward the end of the collection a trio of poems stands out to me. The first I’ll discuss, “Meat,” is the most brutally tortured and sad poem featured in this book, alluding to a child burned alive in a house fire. I believe this poem exemplifies this tragedy because it’s also extremely tender and gentle. The speaker begins by addressing his father, “Father Fire, when I was a child you’d come home / In the morning after a 24-hour shift smelling of smoke” (54). He continues, describing the memory initially as a sweet one, “the smoke was a good smell…like the smell of firewood, / Like you’d been sitting all night before a warm fireplace” (54).
The mood begins to shift towards the sinister as the speaker admits his childish naïveté:
I didn’t know firefighters preferred The Terminator
To philosophy, that they blasted imitation country.
I didn’t know they stayed up all night every night
Responding to dumpster fires, drunken smash-ups,
Domestic shoot-outs, and worse (54)
That phrase “and worse” does a lot of work to prepare the reader for what’s to come, shifting the mood once more from sinister to potentially diabolical. As a reader I find myself heartbroken on many levels by this poem. Referencing the perspective of himself as a child, the speaker creates an unsettling imbalance of who knows and who doesn’t between the reader, the parents, the speaker as child, and the speaker as adult. All the players, except for the speaker as child, already know that the “cooked meat” smell on the speaker’s father is all that remains of another child who’d died in the fire. This makes the last moment so powerfully rich with emotion—“I, too, was a child, Father Fire, alive / And ready to bury myself in the folds of your death-scented shirt” (54). Even when the line breaks at “alive” the reader is thinking about death.
The child’s quiet ignorance is tender and sweet. The moment is soul-crushing and grotesque. The father is, yet again, a vessel for death. The speaker renders himself vulnerable as he recognizes this part of himself reemerge as he tries to understand his father’s death. By doing so he incorporates an emotional self into his version of masculinity, one that is otherwise devoid from his father’s version. The best poems in this book do that so well. They mix the terribly frightening and the brute-force grotesque with tiny moments of child-like innocence and softness.
This poem as well as the other two I’d like to talk about, “Burn Unit” and “Ballad of the Overman,” take an additional risk by entering, if only briefly, lived or seemingly “real” moments of the speaker’s life. The rest inhabit feelings like sadness and anger by escaping, utilizing the imagined spaces of hell, nightmares, shadows or comic books as vehicles for these volatile emotions. The speaker even tries using humor in “Ballad of the Overman” during one of his father’s most intimidating and intimate moments. At a Chinese food restaurant his father, noticing a man staring at him, becomes
…sick of dealing
With this guy’s ugly face, so without breaking
Your stare you hood your eyes and clench your jaw
And casually pull the .38 and place it on the zodiac mat
In front of you, and things get quiet (56)
After the man turns away the speaker tries to lighten the moment possibly to expose his dad’s softer side too, “so I make a joke, / Something like ‘Gun with Chinese Vegetables’” (56). Nothing. “You’re not smiling. It was often like this with you” the speaker says. His father somehow becomes even scarier, colder, more emotionally distant, by refusing to smile than by pulling a gun out at a restaurant.
The poem “Burn Unit” is as staunchly serious as the unsmiling, unflinching face of the speaker’s father. Instead of existing in the ephemeral nightmarish world of the rest of the book, “Burn Unit” focuses on the tangible and gory. Images like “Skin hanging, melted,” “Fingers fused” and “Nails fallen off” skim the surface of the physical pain the man in this poem endures. However, just as the reader notices in “Meat,” the crux of this poem’s emotional weight is not the immensely disturbing and tactile images, but the love between a father and his child and the risks taken by devoted firemen:
Six weeks later, his daughter arrived.
She ran right up to him. He picked her up
And cried, not because of the small
Blessing she gave him. He cried
Because she weighed as much as the destroyed
Child he’d pulled from the fire,
Whose death persistently scraped
At the wound of his mind (56)
This is truly brutal and sad material, not at all unlike the gruesome imagery of the death metal music said by Virgil Suarez to have inspired Keene’s work. But, like death metal, the point is not to sadistically revel or celebrate tragedy. Instead, by immersing his poetry in stories like this or the death of his father without any enlightening moments Keene rejects the notion that we ever exist without negotiating a tragedy of some kind. Death is inherently life and so, too, the reverse.
I hesitate to say that these types of poems are few and far between because I wonder if they would be as powerful in a different context, one not so dominated by the imagery of death and hell-fire, the overwhelming sense of despair. These softer moments emerge from the terrifying and painful pages of A Boy’s Guide to Arson in a unique way that seems to hit even harder. So as the speaker inherits the responsibility of replicating his father’s strength, heroics, masculinity and a life enveloped by flames, Keene replicates this task in verse with a gentleness that every so often peeks through the fire and suffocating black smoke. Keene’s toughness is compassionate and sympathetic, a powerful way to compose a book of poetry.