REVELATIONS OF NOTICING: RECORDING THE REAL IN KEEGAN LESTER'S THIS SHOULDN'T BE BEAUTIFUL BUT IT WAS & IT WAS ALL I HAD SO I DREW IT
Keegan Lester, this shouldn't be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, Slope Editions, 2017
Reviewed by Rebecca Doverspike
Poetry proper is never merely a higher mode of everyday language. It is rather the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem from which there hardly resounds a call any longer. —Heidegger
& ocean is the name / for both the space we cannot fathom seeing / & the surface, —Keegan Lester
Often in our internal narratives, our speaking, and thinking processes, we quickly string words together based on learned associations without really thinking. In meditation practice, we learn to pause between impulse and action, to act only with intention. Keegan Lester's debut, this shouldn't be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, traffics in regular meditative pauses. The language, its rhythms, ushers in a new way of thinking, a new kind of music in the gaps.
Science alongside ghosts and god particles. Math-filled dreams. Reality and television. Imagination and activity. Pretending and playing. Love and war. This poetry is in service to a better world in that it teaches us how to connect beyond false binaries. At the core of Lester's work is an understanding of global suffering. Throughout the book, Lester dedicates poems "to..." individuals as well as moments.
I sense how to read the collection from the first poem as when Lester writes: "if language, an improbable opponent to gravity & stars, came up with new names for gravity and stars, what force could trick a river north, but the dreams of those who fear sleeping through this version of the world" (1). Language makes it possible for us to experience more nuanced versions of the world than the one worn through with old language, a world where dreamers—those who don't want to sleep through—can change a river's course and have real conversations. Lester writes, "i'd feel less alone waking / up each morning if the newspaper / stopped pretending to be deaf / & we had a real conversation / over coffee" (57). To have that "real" conversation requires re-imagining, re-learning how to connect to language or see language's connection to the real: "i had to relearn to touch you in the room where we created art, / the art could no longer be heard in the art" (46). Lester's collection calls us not only to listen to the hidden poem in the everyday but to create it. He writes with the trustworthy knowledge that "...name & gravity / are the only way / to get to somewhere else" (91).
Language may bespeak playfulness or even danger: "...words mean almost anything i want them to mean," (17). These poems play with gravity and make things magical without sacrificing the integrity of the meaning. Perhaps most of all, the "telling" here, of the real, happens deftly. Language becomes associated with beauty. In the first poem, we see a "power line of rusty apricot" (1). In another, "...a button untethered in a pocket for a just in case time" (4). Beauty is a function of the simple, clear summary of an image. Sound becomes beauteous and scarce as Lester imagines a moment of unrecorded quiet: "when there are no cameras left to translate the quiet" (23). It is reminiscent of the very next poem, "(* these mountains i go to, i go to)," with its "eyes / of thawed lakes. words are no good / for this" (25).
Within the book are a series of "ghost notes," invoking mortality. I love the ghosts in this book. In "(to heloise d'argentuil & peter abelard)," the speaker navigates between historicized love to love between people forgotten by history. In this poem where, "...the skin of our lovers, that in time will be / brittle as favorite pages in our favorite books," there's also an imperative, a half-line which creates a whole sentence: "...turn saliva into ink." After death, what once moved and spoke becomes still and speaks through ink instead of saliva, yet the line is not a description of what happens after death but a statement about the present.
The entire collection is self-conscious about the coexistence of bodies and ghosts. Part of the collective depth of these poems is the way they move casually, skillfully between present and past. There's depth of time here: "...we will have made the ghosts / of greece & rome blush at what they thought they could accomplish / with their hands. we, our ghosts, will be equal to their ghosts" (38). In Lester's poems, revelations have a tendency of manifesting as half lines—sometimes the middle of lines drape into part of another line, connecting structurally with ampersands. Not easily separable from other parts of the poem, Lester writes from within the architecture of our daily lives.
The book has an ongoing, evolving relationship with ghosts, which don't abandon people or places but stay in many worlds at once, as those worlds coexist internally. In "(Rather than Fearing)," Lester describes a man breaking sunflower seeds: "at night, breaking husk with molar, removing husk / with tongue, spit, then repeat. break husk tongue. / spit repeat." Lester reminds us that this man is "in a region where all that's left are ghosts / dancing for other ghosts." We perhaps wouldn't notice ghosts if not for the sunflower seeds in our mouths. We wouldn't feel them if we were already (entirely) ghosts ourselves.
The heart of this book—at least the poem alongside which I drew my own hearts as marginalia—moves from cosmic time to a grandmother:
i was left completely unequipped for the becoming part, for the end, for the fingertips of the cosmos. / 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" (64)
I love the imperative at the end, the way this image of the woman warming a schoolhouse to teach children to read is unconventional West Virginia. That is why these poems are necessary; they unearth what's real in our world, not just what is typical or expected. In these poems, constructs like past and present are collapsed, as are the lives of the living and the ghosting. One gets the sense that Lester is not just drawing this world for beauty's sake, but out of necessity to transmute that beauty into language.