Jim Feast review of Divine Comedy by Ron Kolm (Fly By Night Press, 2013)
The Downtown writer, Ron Kolm, has put together an impressive new collection of poems, Divine Comedy. Rather than lyrical effusions or New York School ambiguity, Kolm’s verse is anecdotal; a series of set pieces that chart the poet’s progress across a landscape of industrial rubble and relationships that have gone into tailspins.
The hero’s resulting wounds are often masked with a touch of dark absurdity, but even so, the reader finds him/herself wincing at the painful moments he depicts. In “Hand Jobs,” for instance, the narrator gets a gig at a foundry and is told, “You’ll be rubbing acid on new // Welds to seal them.” He is given rubber gloves, missing fingertips. He tosses them back to the foreman, and, as he tells it, I “head out to the parking lot // Get into my pickup and smash // The dashboard with my fist.”
Similar situations occasionally appear in the poems dealing with the writer’s relationships; at times it seems that his partner is making demands that are impossible to fulfill. In one poem, the narrator finds he is going along with increasingly bizarre requests. “You wanted // To film me // In my apartment // Doing routine chores // Dressed in your Dad’s // Pajamas.” When she begins to threaten his life “For a complicated // Imaginary wrong,” his response, in so many words, is: “I’m outta here.”
Where other narrative poets, such as Charles Bukowski or Hal Sirowitz, always end one of their mini-tales with a laugh or a wacky bromide; most of Kolm’s one-offs leave an ambiguous aftertaste. It’s as if he were questioning the anecdotal form itself or, to segue into a more philosophical vein, the ability of experience to teach us how to cope with life better.
But it’s more than that. It’s the question of whether experience can ever be interrogated so as to give clear directions. On his blog Espresso Bongo, Jerome Sala, discussing American philosopher Graham Harman’s book on an American fantasy writer, notes, “Harman defends Lovecraft on this score, arguing that what his work is actually about is how impossible it is to capture reality through our representational systems.” I think this is what Kolm is trying to show us: Because reality can’t really be fathomed with language, there can be no pat answers. To take the already quoted “Hand Jobs,” for example, it might be asked: What does it really signify that the narrator “smashes” the dashboard with his fist? Is he saying he was dumb to apply for that job? Does he somehow feel the universe is playing him for a sucker?
We can also illustrate this conundrum with the poem “Chores” where he goes home with a pickup – this time a woman not a vehicle – who starts sexually tangoing with him before they even get out of the building where they’ve met at a party: “A thin spaghetti strap broke // When we humped in the elevator.” At her apartment, without overtures, as the narrator tells it, “She grabbed my dick … And brusquely milked me … Like a cow.” Is this a letdown because he was expecting a lengthier, maybe even gentler, encounter? The poem breaks off without answering.
There are a few moments of harmony in the poet’s life as when, in a tender evocation, getting randy with his lover in the garden behind a restaurant, he describes what ensues:
Smiling up at me,
You let me cup your breasts
Without saying anything.
These moments are the reward, both for the reader of this fine book and the person who obviously lived through the events portrayed in these short, but memorable, slices of life.