KELL ROBERTSON: BEAR CROSSING
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ISBN 978 1 932840 01 8
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|KELL ROBERTSON: BEAR CROSSING|
In his Introduction to BEAR CROSSING Kell Robertson teases out the role his life's experiences have played in his writing. He says,
This little selection of poems was put together from the scraps of paper found in the bottom of my old tin suitcase. ... I like this book because it somehow says in a very few words what I've been trying to say over a lot of years.The language of poetry has a moral and aesthetic purpose that elevates this task of autobiographical writing, particularly if you're persuaded by the smattering of American terms filtering through the poems rattlesnake, tequila, frying corncakes, chittering squirrels, whiskey, country music, a Hopi, Indian songs / Cowboy songs and gumbo clay terms that are more readily identified with the iconography of small town America than anywhere else.
Someone once said that you shouldn't use poetry to tell a story, but Robertson chooses to ignore this. Robertson writes about people and places. It's his forte. His poems convey a sense of landscape and human players: odd characters that he came across when he was working in a day work place called Labour Force in Ocala, Florida, and journeying throughout the U.S.
The characters peopling Robertson's poems are tended with a sensitivity and humour involving not a little compassion. Tended with humility too or maybe it's just the wariness of someone who is an outsider. In the title poem, BEAR CROSSING, whilst he is
Flagging traffic for a road crewhe comes across a black bear and her cub:
The flagman at the other end said he saw the bear too and, over a hot dog, and a cold sodapop at noon told me he wished he'd had his gun boy he'd have shot the sonofabitch right in the belly, her guts all over the road.Robertson leaves the impression of someone who is not quite at home with this scene, drawing back when he sees
the blood on my boot this morning as thick as the sky up there.In many of the poems Robertson seems to be identifying the people and places of the American heartland, so it's not surprising to find him inherently curious about the desert in A FINE PLACE TO BE:
Popping open a hot beer at dawn out on the desert, coughing up and spitting remnants of tobacco stained dreams, very real granite gravel grinding into my knees as I fry stolen bacon in an iron skillet over a fire made of dry popping driftwood, my friend's gentle mare chomping, snorting down the dry wash where I tethered her.But the poems are never hard-edged or bleak; the poems capturing nature red in tooth and claw, often wrapped with reverence and awe, a contrast to the offhand dismissal of those who live in and absorb these scenes on a daily basis. Clearly, however, his perceptions are not merely the awed appraisals of the outsider. Sentimentality is saved by the author's clear eye and descriptive powers. In OLD MAN NEWBERRY he describes this odd character in detail:
Newberry barefooted in tennis shoes with holes in the toes walks across the street to the store for beer clutching the exact change. Newberry reels in a drunken dance to crush beercans to supplement his social security in the back yard.Robertson's response to living and working in the American hinterland is to write of the issues that concentrate the minds of many of the people who live there. In OF BATS AND DRUNKS, for example, there's no overblown rhetoric, simply a poet's sensibility at work with his clear-eyed appraisal of the situation:
We sit around our small fire drink whiskey and tell stories making ourselves into legendary figures.Indigenous people are brought into the poems with an easy relationship, as we see in CORONADO NATIONAL MONUMENT:
My friend Jimmie a Hopi gathers his pennies and buys us Tokay and we drink it under the cut bank of the Rio Grande he throws the three extra pennies into the riverThe mantle of the poet affords a freedom of expression and scope for integrity. It's apparent with Robertson in poems such as LABOUR FORCE #1, where he describes his experience in the Labour Force:
We were not allowed to take off our shirts and it was a quarter of a mile down the road to take a piss behind the big pile of mulch in the glade. The owner came home in the afternoon, got out of his Rolls and glared at us as if we were some kind of necessary insects on his prize winning lawn.There's a tolerance in Robertson's writing that is admirable and I respond to the general tenor of his approach. When it comes to judging others whether it be a preacher's son or a guitar player Robertson is both generous and forbearing. He certainly doesn't romanticise hardships and loneliness, but offers a fair hearing, which is about as much as one can ask for. His words demonstrate concern and a desire to come to terms with difference both of character and place. Here we have his description of what Thunderlip Jones, the guitar player from the long poem THE SAGA OF THUNDERLIP JONES does on Saturday nights:
Saturday nights were fine to Thunderlip Jones nobody called him worthless while they were laughing & he went out into a world of Saturday nights learned the loneliness of empty stages skid row hotels, bars in the afternoon sun after or before the crowd empty feelings when the song is done but he continued to singI suspect Robertson writes for himself, cataloguing the questions and answers that inhabit the boundaries of his experience.
It's a kind of beat biography of my own absurd self,he says of THE SAGA OF THUNDERLIP JONES.
A mix of myth and reality that I will probably never publish in its entirety.NEW YEAR'S EVE is a simply written poem, simply told, with no more than two or four words to a line. It describes the poet's journey across the desert to the nearest town:
After I eat I will walk back to town and get drunk and ride the high lonesome again.The next group of poems, THE MARR GIRLS, DEPOT CAFÉ, TAOS PLAZA AND SUE, describe some of the women that Robertson came across in his wanderings: the Marr girls
buck toothed but wonderful in their bright flowersack dressesthe waitress who
never stopped talking (never said much) but never stopped talkinga young girl among the hollyhocks scratching an infection
on her plump thighand Sue, whose
husband makes faces out of dried appleswhich she sells
over the cash registerLITTLE HOPE CEMETERY describes the
ragged burial groundwhere Molly S. Dunn's grave is covered with
prophylactics a pair of dirty yellow panties and a half pint bottle of Jim Beam, all emptyThe collection ends with GREEN LANTERN BAR/EL PASO, TEXAS, where Robertson is seen writing in his notebook and the barmaid, Karen,
a gringa from Kansaslooks over his shoulder:
"You don't fool me," she says, "We're both hustlers. I hustle for money and drugs you hustle for these words of yours."It seems a fitting end to Robertson's often lonely journey where the lines of his poems and the notes of his songs are his only companions.
Robertson shuns the off-the-rack constraints of conventional verse to suit himself; perhaps even to have fun. With him, there's an itch, the background stuff he can't discard, the simple normative experience of someone who thinks and records. An honest and insightful attempt to see into the hearts and minds of his fellows and a need to capture the essence of heartland America is what I take from BEAR CROSSING.
|reviewer: Patricia Prime.|