Imagine dissecting a fish, finding foreign words written on paper in its stomach, its gills, its throat. Maybe you’ll find the same words on a scrap of paper that came out of your pocket in the washing machine years later. In his new book, The Most Natural Thing, David Keplinger’s prose does just this—he pinpoints words and isolates their mystery like a surgical experiment, then cleverly infuses the word’s significance into a moment, or experience. Keplinger’s fourth collection of poetry from New Issues Poetry & Prose is split into a ‘comedy in three acts.’ The titles are perfectly fitting for this theme of dissection of moments; Incision, Manipulation and Removal. His prose is so well-crafted and compact that you’d think they wrote themselves into the world—that they were born complete and right on their due date, with no complications.
What’s glowing in Keplinger’s The Most Natural Thing is the undefinable. His prose is saturated with the crux of translation as imperfect, ever-changing. For instance; he mingles with specific words, in this case Polish and Czech, which have no parallel twin in another language. In exploring these rogue words, and putting them in the spotlight, he reminds us of the enigma and weight that undefinable words can carry. If the word doesn’t have its own doppelganger in another language, Keplinger translates it into an experience. The language transforms the image, ‘sperm’ turns into a ‘tadpole,’ the word ‘crow’ in Polish turns into ptak, ‘which also means pencil dick, which/means a useless tool.’
In “Translation: Fruits and Vegetables” for example, the speaker switches the labels of his grandmother’s depression-era vegetable cans. The act comes back to haunt him in the future when he wakes up with “one, almost indiscernible change…Today I have an upraised, very tiny, third nipple.”
Although there’s a magic in his poems, his pieces never come off as too surreal or erroneous as the prose form can often do. Instead Keplinger uses sharp imagery of the body—the larynx, the heart, the bladder, the appendix—taking us through the reality of hospitals, the fright of cancer and disease. Yet his metaphors are filled with such vision that the painful descriptions of the body become beautiful, they become, in fact, “the most natural thing.” The lack of the perfect word is translated again into the poem’s captivating moment. For example, in “Ciia,” he imagines Anicka being a surgeon to remove his lung cancer:
…She discovers a tree she
calls a smrk, branching upward in the darkness of my windpipe….
In Czech the word for death is smrt. Not the tree, but how the ‘t’
moves back into Anicka’s mouth, is the miraculous thing.
Anicka, a recurring character throughout his prose pieces, is a romantically elusive lover whose charm is so moving and delicate that she illuminates the page. It’s not difficult to be taken with her. The speaker lets us in on her idiosyncrasies; she eats raw oysters, holding ‘one monster to her lips’ and ‘dabs her chin with my enormous red tie. I sit here helpless as she’s licked by it.’ Or, in the title piece, she “cracks a walnut into halves and filled the halves with wax. A birthday candle in each one, she set the halves afloat, in milk.”
The couple is so physically intertwined that it seems they need each other’s bodies to stay alive, and often they are only just able to battle the forces of nature. In his description of the pancreas, as it “wriggles like a strange medieval cure,” their bodies are synchronized: “I turn to you, completely unconscious. Completely unconscious, you turn to me.”
Perhaps one of the most beautiful examples of this intimacy is in Gender Study, in which Keplinger again makes a familiar moment precious and glistening;
I came down with a deathly flu and soaked though all
our shirts, until we had none let, so Anicka lifted off her
summer dress, she lowered it over my body.
Another fabulously realistic piece is the candid description of a grandfather in The Larynx, just one example of the speaker’s family members which inhabits the poetry:
‘Let him make a little sound when the food rains through the laryngectomy…
Who am I to say? I’ll ask no
Questions of my grandfather. He asks no
questions of me. The meal is finished and with that,
with that weight, let him push from the head of the table.
In so few words, Keplinger is able to locate the heaviness of silence, the uneasiness of a meal, physical unrest, even the immense meaning behind the movement of table. These details are extremely observant, rendering his relationships, especially with his immediate family, intensely tangible.
Keplinger’s collection is stunning and visceral. If you’re looking for candid language with vision and tenderness, this collection of prose is well worth reading. Each vignette is an intimate exploration, and packs the beauty of metaphor into one concise frame. These poems are strongly rooted in human experience, each like a pulsing body. Read the pieces again and you’ll be surprised what powerful images were hiding the first time around. They reveal themselves with a unique, bright force;
“and in the reeds the stork began to
flush and—now see what I am?—open its colossal wings.”
–“May I See What You Are”