In this “post-truth” era, I’m drawn increasingly to collections of poetry that feel more like a good conversation than an artistic exercise. The news, from sexual assault revelations to climate disaster, makes me feel fragile and small. I’m looking for poems that empathize with loneliness and offer a cure in the form of companionship. Keegan Lester’s first book, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it (Slope Editions, 2017), is everything I need right now. His poems are full of sadness and hope, ghosts and wanderings, and an America that is refreshingly nuanced rather than polarized. Maybe I’m not alone in this need. Right now, we probably all need poems that hold our hand as we walk through the uncertainty.
this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was… is a beautifully designed book. On the cover, the helmet-clad author is about to toss a football, the coming pass seemingly directed right at the reader. It’s a casual game of catch we’re joining, a back-and-forth between author and reader.
Keegan’s poems are filled with loneliness, emptiness, and undoing, but they are equally full of self-discovery and love, learning and hope. The poems are wide-eyed and awed at a world that is both good and bad. Several poems have a string of phrases beginning with “to” in celebration or ode. These sentences, pointing to the miraculous in the everyday, leap associatively and work emotionally on the reader. One poem begins “to my mother painting hummingbirds: the feeding & caring for something else is the art part in all of this”; and ends, “to the games clouds play when people are looking.” These poems make me wish I kept a notebook to list every beautiful thing the world offers up; they make me more likely to notice those beautiful things in the first place.
A majority of the poems fall into a section entitled “Ghost Note,” and are untitled except for the first line. No capital letters; ampersands replace the “ands.” Many long sentences are syntactical fragments. Lester’s language challenges norms and rules, while also being familiar and conversational. Because many of the poems extend over several pages, they nearly flow into each other if you don’t notice that new poems start slightly lower on the page.
The final section, “Coda,” contains three poems with titles, including an “Ars Poetica” as the final poem, which is simply a stunning way to summarize all that the collection accomplishes. Here are some of my favorite lines:“as the shape of two people reaching for something far away, reaching / for something like oranges. as miles from home. as the only thing you ever knew about the wild / is that one needed water & a flashlight because reportedly, people get lost in the wild all the time.” This collection is the hand reaching out to you, a flashlight guiding you so that you don’t get lost.
Lester often weaves past and present, the personal and the vast into one poem, leaping between these seeming opposites. In one poem, we are first fossils: “when they find us we will be trilobites. our hearts & hands & eyes, all small star critters etched / into some rock”; then we’re inside “the mason jars of lightning bugs in the dark. & we, what is swallowed by light.” Through these leaps of time, space, and scale, what remain are intimacy, wonder, and the belief that, even though our lives are brief, they still matter.
If the collection could be accused of anything, it’s having a lot of “ghosts.” In Lester’s poems, ghosts are strangers and loved ones; ghosts are literal and metaphorical. One poem begins, “there are exactly two ghosts waiting / on coughing heating pipes back home / while dawn wests.” The poems are peopled by ghosts because, Lester points out, that is how the people we love stay in our lives.
The poems also crisscross America like one great road trip, with Lester’s speaker in a frequent state of wandering and becoming. It’s fitting that Lester is the co-founder and editor of Souvenir Lit, an online poetry journal “to remind you where you’ve been & the places you’d like to go,” where each poem is accompanied by an anecdote of a souvenir. In moving from West Virginia to California to New York, the poems also create a loving, humanist portrait of America. In Berkeley, California, two lab techs fall in love researching a tumor suppressor gene called brca1 (“look at the variation, look at the movement”), working for both love and test-tube tumors, and in Boston, Massachusetts (“what is boston without a brutal fugue of wind & ice & brick”), the speaker sees a familiar face, or a ghost, in a crowd. Each place the speaker visits is observed with an appreciative and insightful eye; each place becomes a part of him.
Lester also celebrates Americana, particularly football. At one point, he describes a football stadium as “the amalgamation of 70,000 people’s magic realism on the television set,” and there is an entire long poem that claims to be lifted from Friday Night Lights, but really is its own celebration and creation. Lester’s poems love America’s humanity and celebrate its humble stories: “the one thing i know is real is that my grandmother used to steal coal from her father to warm her school house. that was her job: steal coal, so other children could learn to read. when you think of west virginia, think of her.” What a loving portrait.
After zinging around America, Lester’s speaker often returns to Appalachia with love. He apologizes for missing the cherry blossoms, but asks, “how would i have ever been made ready?” Leaving home and exploring the country is what has made the voice and vision of these poems.
In an interview, Lester has said it’s his ambition “to write for a larger audience… to write for people who are non-poets.” I admit I’m a poet, but I believe Lester has accomplished this goal while still challenging the norms of poetry and language. His poems are intuitive—they are felt, rather than puzzled out—and each associative leap balances on the fine line of subtlety and logic. He moves quickly from line to line, starting in one place and ending up in another place entirely, but he never loses his reader along the way. His poems definitely work like a flashlight in wilderness—you are guided through, wide-eyed and surprised at what is illuminated.
As I finished reading the collection, I felt like I’d just had one of those long conversations that are both comforting and exciting, and that remind us of what’s really important about being alive, despite all the noise and bad news we’re bombarded with. The poems in this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it acknowledge that it’s okay to be sad, that the world is a little bit broken anyway, and that there’s still room in the world and our lives for wonder.