It would be easy to dismiss Devin Kelly’s second poetry collection Blood on Blood (Unknown Press) as just another homage to Bruce Springsteen’s seminal album Nebraska because, in part, it is. But for Kelly, Springsteen’s music serves as a jumping-off point to further explore common themes from The Boss, like rural blight, and the men who struggle to communicate in its bleak, hyper-masculine landscape. Kelly effortlessly weaves in his own narratives, making for a collection that is both an original tribute and a personal elegy.
Nebraska’s title track is written from the perspective of a lovesick teenage serial killer. Kelly’s third poem, “A Litany of What We Killed,” picks up where the song left off:
Three dozen flies swatted to guts
on the glass weapon of our windshield. Two
signposts felled like trees into the dust
by the county road. Buckets of beer
I cannot count. An ashtray of cigarettes
& another & another. Our faces under headlines
of each local paper—we killed ourselves
in flame, used the flame to start a fire
once in brush & bramble & then we ran away.
A rabbit I butchered with a shotgun
so I might have a lucky foot. A hotel
door we kicked in while making love
rougher than a chainsaw. Your dress
whipped out the window & into a sky
full of dust our wheels kicked up
when you said you wanted to ride
topless & free. They will say people.
They will read names & other people
will get sad. They will not say flies or rabbit
Kelly revisits the serial killers again in “How to use Old Sparky,” a chilling poem about the electric chair and the distance an executioner must put between himself and the criminal if he wishes to maintain his own frail sanity.
But much of the collection is centered around strained male relationships and the silence that can define them, whether between father and son, or brother and brother, or all three together. Six of the thirty-nine poems are titled “The Story of How You & Your Brother Grew Up,” chronicling Kelly’s earliest memories of brotherhood. The series goes on to explore middle-aged admiration and a desire to return home, if only “To show up at doors / you have left behind,” and ask, “(W)hat is all of this without mending?”
Kelly’s speaker doesn’t mourn the nothingness that sometimes defines the most cherished male relationships in his life, but instead relishes in how shared blood can transcend ideas about what certain relationships should look like. In “Poem for My Brother Running Around a Track,” Kelly writes:
We sat with father
over chili & Cokes, watching the latent glow
of the television at the bar, chewing over
the nothing of our conversation.
And in “My Father and I at a Denny’s in Lansing”:
I ordered coffee that drank & refilled itself
& watched my father sip a Coke through a straw
while we ate eggs slowly, without speaking.
If I could tell you more, I would, but there was
still nothing but the ringing clink of fork on plate
& from the kitchen, a chatter above the hissing.
In Blood on Blood, the transcendence of shared blood can look as mundane as silence over breakfast or staring at a television screen together. To those with families that are neither dysfunctional nor cohesive, these are some of Kelly’s most incisive moments.
There’s also a pervasive deterministic bent in these poems—a hopelessness that our individual lots in life, if we are so unlucky to be born in a certain place at a certain time, are set. We’re either acting out our narrow destinies or trying to make the most of their limits. From “Every Body is Sick with the Flu”:
Tell me you think
the world has more than a coin-flip-chance
at becoming a better place.
Or from “Why Women Make the Best Kind of Killers”:
I tell you this knowing you can’t
brush a cloud atop the universe. I tell this
knowing you can’t stop a thing from happening
that would happen to you anyway.
Where these poems despair, they also seek hope. This same poem ends with, “You tell yourself / it will be ok until it’s not / & even then, you persevere. It was / women who taught me this.”
And sometimes hope and despair are woven together, as in “Confession,” when Kelly writes,
“I could say that life is one long / confession for being alive & forgiveness / a kind of salve.”
Where Blood on Blood sometimes rings hollow is its romanticization and lamentation of the working class. There are broken-down American cars and truckers on long, lonesome drives. Several poems are set in diners. It’s a frequent criticism of Springsteen’s work itself, though Kelly is self-aware enough to admit, writing in “Mahwah Assembly,” that “nothing good happens in New Jersey / except when someone can leave to sing / about it.”
While Springsteen’s Nebraska may be the hook that pulls in some readers, they’ll often return to Kelly’s poems for writing that is eager to understand and articulate both struggle and redemption, whatever time and place we find ourselves in.