Kyle Dargan’s latest collection, Honest Engine, is slinky, ironical, and overrun with shadows. The book might make a close reader uncomfortable a few times in the reading, but that effect, or affect, is obviously intentional. Dargan knows how to intertwine cruelty and beauty with disconcerting ease.
We are the grunts this world needs
to perish first. A lesson of blood
the goliath teaches us
I think I began to understand Honest Engine when I began to consider the grind of this engine’s gears: the grind of living in a city and the heart of a monstrously powerful country, of doing the work of being a man, a man of color, a man of a certain age, an intellectual, and an artist. It would be impossible to prevent being ground down in some way, by at one or all of these considerations.
I know this about my body—it has edges.
Yet in Honest Engine, that constant grind and wear displays itself, yes, as cynicism, but also as polish. Dargan is a poet with several collections under his belt, who now knows well how to work to balance craft and life, to show up to the desk and page. This speaker is doing the arduous, responsible work of carrying history and questioning its repercussions.
Ghost, I cannot
feed you, but I’ll tongue a woman wildly
for you. I’ll feed pints of ale across my lips.
I’ll rub my nerves raw with recklessness
reminded now that this is all we ever were:
(fr. “O, Ghost)
Dargan uses this gorgeous cynicism to critique our culture, scathingly at times, to question all he sees. Anything normative or presumed is exposed to his gaze. Dargan questions the systems in which we find ourselves, and to which we are beholden.
To you, my America appears
distant, if even real at all, while you are
barely visible to me.
(fr. “A House Divided”)
The speaker has a kind of flawed omniscience that can be weirdly endearing and alienating at the same time. His critique of heterosexual dynamics, for example, falls equally on men who unthinkingly share stories of conquest and women who claim they feel powerful taming the lower / serpent in the poem, “There Is No Power In Sex.” This line doesn’t sit well with me; I’m not a huge fan of men (especially) who tell women (especially) what they should be feeling and where they should be taking pleasure. I read this as a stumble from a speaker who is generally very poised, and with whom I generally agree. But the speaker’s blazing critique is much more harsh in examining masculinity.
I walked among men for a year
with the task of pausing if I heard
one speak the words, “I fucked her.”
At that point, I’d produce for them
a sketch pad and kindly request
drawings of what each man implied.
(fr. “Art Project”)
With another writer, this excoriating gaze might come across as smug, therefore easy to dismiss. But Dargan’s speaker turns that gaze on himself just as coolly. This critical self-reflection makes the work work.
I can remember
that I’m tumbling from an apex of grace.
In all truth, Honest Engine can feel too jaded for me. Around the halfway point in the collection, for all the poems did to challenge my worldview and intellect, I was beginning to feel worn down – but the section entitled, “Conversations with Sleep,” a gorgeous, surreal five-poem sequence reminiscent of Neruda, laden with imagery and metaphor, brought me to a place of awe and wonder, and gave needed respite. This was also the section where I immediately recognized the depth of Dargan’s artistry. Work so pretty, and so direct:
This winter’s vice has been too loose
to keep daffodils from sprouting through
the earth’s skull.
(fr. “Comversations with Sleep (I)”)
I loved this section of the book the most, its sudden high lyricsm and indulgent metaphor. The overriding message of the book doesn’t shift here: this is a document of sorrow and nightmare, executed with exceptional grace. This book doesn’t belong to anyone seeking reprieve, vacation, nor holiday.
These are poems of the critic, the perpetual outsider, the haunted man, the insomniac. These are poems that peer deeply and delve into the parts of ourselves we might not like, but know. The collection works because the speaker is not exempt from his own penetrating eye, and because, as much as he details his cynicism, he is a lover of all that’s human and flawed. The most honest engine we have is the heart, and in this book, Dargan offers his. I look forward to reading more work from this relentless poet.