An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Pathwise Press
PO Box 178
PA 16512
ISBN 1 932840 00 1

email Pathwise Press
visit the website of Pathwise Press

NHI review home page
FAQ page
Notes for Publishers

book reviews
other media

Web design by Gerald England
This page last updated: 10th December 2007.

Joseph Kerschbaum's long poem DEAD STARS HAVE NO GRAVES uses a narrator persona in framing a question and answer around a dizzying exploration of the "I" in relationships. This is a very full, intense engagement with a moment in time, a development of the relative perception of one side of a relationship and a thorough weighing and appraisal of the consequence of breaking it.

The poem takes the form of free verse, interspersed with prose poems, and the narrator investigates every point of reference thoroughly along the way. There are references to stars, black holes, decay and the purity of cleansing fire.

The poem begins with a question and the exploration follows on from this:

	just tell me — 
	yes or no. 
	It's simple,
But the framed response is a complex imagining of catastrophe unseen — what the mind is capable of conjuring and not expressing in a yes or no situation. The narrator swiftly becomes:
	a bird suddenly stripped
	wingless tumbling
	to the quaking ground.
And these aftershocks are absorbed into the rest of the body of the poem. On the following page the narrator stops to absorb the image of the partner's index finger, with a bandage, self-referentially pointing out that he is
	Under that bandage 
	might be a splinter
	or a canyon.
This investigation in metaphors continues, broadening out the sense of the other involved and that the
	small injustice
of the bandaged finger, will in some way come to represent more to the narrator just as
	the atrocities awaiting
	the rest of your body.
Here, the narrator is hinting at the signs of decay, of cellular breakdown, that support the broader exploration of relationship breakdown. Relentless though, the narrator's tongue may yet become,
	a knife
ready for the cause of pain, or for the cutting off point: the beginning and ending of things referred to at the poem's close.

The mid-section of the poem explores the world of what has been, the difference before the breaking down, in the narrator's point of view towards the partner. The difference is conveyed through a sense of could-have-beens:

	Her smile could have been
	The most alluring I've ever seen.
Instead the narrator conveys reality as it is, through the wry realisation that:
	I woke to find her smile simply composed
	of teeth, not diamonds
Moving forward in the poem, the narrator brings the poem round to the sense of ending: that
	we break loose of our constellation
	like teeth knocked out of skull.
Still with the focus on the dying moments before and admission, here the words marry the night skies with an image of the killer punch from boxing. This poem is working, inevitably, towards an anticipated conclusion at breakneck speed.

Just before the poem's climax the narrator admits to the wish for a return to a former state of grace with his mouth a

	room ready to be lived in,
This reads almost like a working of the long since lived moment of regret, in realising the Fall of man, and the narrator teases the reader with the tongue changing from a knife to,
	a red carpet I roll out
	for your bare feet.
showing the possibilities at even this late stage of going back to the point before the breakdown.

But the final moment of the poem comes on its own on the last page, a bald statement of how things must proceed, now that the relationship has become what it is.

DEAD STARS HAVE NO GRAVES is varied in its representation of the turmoil of the mind in a situation like the breakdown described. To investigate a subject so fully in this manner, means a long engagement with the subject matter, and the danger is in the reader (and the writer) being consumed by the situation's negative effects. There is no nice manner with which to deal with a subject like this, so Kerschbaum's effort in retaining the sense of gravity with the material navigates a fine line between avoiding break-up clichés and appearing to be arrogantly selfish.

If the poem is considered an investigation of the ego under emotional duress, it shows that even under such duress, there is much more going on in the mind, than one may ever be able to reveal - and this poem shows the possibility of what can be reconstructed from the mind, in what can be read as a pause before answering. Reading the poem in this way, shows how Kerschbaum manages to capture a deeper level of psychological penetration, which is framed by sandwiching the whole between question and answer. The poem is one of the fullest explorations of the internal mental process and is a refreshing antidote to the thousands of clichés to be found in the world about broken love.

reviewer: Barbara Smith.