David Kertis begins his first full-length book of poems, The Word of the Day, by letting us in on his secret, that is, most of life is hidden, secret. His poem, Starlings, begins with an ordinary voice, a voice a reader might imagine is in black and white not color, or perhaps the voice of Everyman:
The day’s no longer bright, the sky
full of clouds moving in
from the mountains or the lake.
Okay, we think, this is a common description, right? But then Kertis tells us:
The light appears
to have no source.
The distant row of trees
is where the birds are hidden.
They burst out flying, fearing
my approach, all at once.
Suddenly, this bucolic scene offers up more than we expected. There is the mystery of the light with no source. There are the hidden birds fearing him, the human being. Now readers, we have entered his signature lyricism intertwined with the narrative.
In his poem, Adult Books, Kertis begins, once again, with the ordinary:
The first book I had
that was made for adults
was a field manual, a bird book
small enough for my hands.
Okay reader, we all had a first book, right?
And what child hasn’t been bored, as the lines below suggest?
But note his choice of line break at “and” and the next two lines “by the dark/ reading of scripture.” Kertis is not going to shout out his intent, so listen carefully to how he breaks his lines and walks you through his world.
I brought along the book
when my grandmother
took me to church. I thumbed it quietly
in the pew, bored by the music and
by the dark
reading of scripture.
Then Kertis makes his signature shift, moving ever so slightly from the ordinary, the most ordinary moment, into his obsessions—
the delicacy of humans, the delicacy of everything in this world of ours, the secrets it holds that he is resigned never to know. And time. …a lifetime to drift/ and nearly to fly…
Birds are not
the right way to think of souls.
My soul that they spoke of
in church, I knew was smoke,
or the air rising
and warming as it left the damp
earth, to take a lifetime to drift
and nearly to fly,
upwards over the earth.
Kertis tells us in his poem, Elegy: The ash trees were planted/ to last a lifetime by the side door/and you were there longer. Later in this poem: Cold windows showed the sky outside—/ it seemed/ as everlasting as the blue in a book of hours.
In spite of time’s obstinate procession, Kertis ends this poem with modest optimism that seeps through all of work.
Small windows, but we knew the rooms
were filled with lights you always left on,
like the sparrows out there somewhere
in the dark, all heart wrapped in feathers
and kept warm.
Kertis’s poems do suggest he is both outside of the world and inside, simultaneously. The consummate outsider and the man who wants to live fully, embracing his world. His poems are like great photographs, and he, a photographer. In his poem, Vocals, he begins:
The city is made out of voices
I live there
in a half-furnished room
but I’m not anonymous.
I’m part of the babble but what I utter
might be called song.
Yes, these remarkable poems are songs, the kind we hum to without thinking. The good news is that Kertis’s work is no longer a secret.
The Word of the Day by David Kertis, Winner of the Second Joie DeVivre Book Award Sponsored by Mad Poets Review
Publisher: Infinity Press 2015