December 2023

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier |


Karren Alenier

Legacy…that's the essence of  David Keplinger's Ice. The Steiny Road Poet sees his tribute poem to the legendary Russian poet Osip Mandelstam that follows epitomizing the importance that Keplinger ascribes to legacy: Mandelstam has "made it/to the future" festooned with rose petals strewn by visitors who never knew him.


    At Osip Mandelstam's Memorial Statue in Voronezh


    Now that you've become a statue,

    you can be calm. You have made it.

    to the future. You can raise your giant

    muscular hand to your heart,

    alleged to be yourself a man named Osip,


    your eyes the size of thank-you notes,

    the lids of their green envelopes wet

    and unfazed. Now that you're a story,

    complete with irreversible choices

    and the physics of their consequences,


    as lightest rain floats down through

    trees in this park like funeral confetti,

    you stand here in the permanence of gravel,

    with the roses those who never knew you

    have scattered in no pattern at your feet.


What is actually in ice (and titled "Ice") opens Keplinger's book: the severed head of a full-sized Pleistocene wolf found in Siberia. Strangely and horrifically, the poet describes the head as "the size of a child." Moreover, the poet's larger depiction manifests like description found in a Grimm's fairytale:


    The tongue hung from its mouth.

    The teeth were terrible but mostly there.

    The head alone was the size of a child.


Keplinger presents the discovery of the frozen head, reported in the Siberian Times, as an epigraph to "Ice." The poem has a storytelling approach told by the poet who reveals what he and his housemate were doing (writing poems), where they were located, and how cold their house was.


    When we read about the story of it together,

    those were the days when we would stay up

    all winter in the house writing poems in our

    icy rooms. You wanted a child. I don't know

    where that question got buried in my body.


What's particularly odd about the passage is that the poet states he doesn't know where—not why—the question got buried in his body and furthermore why wanting a child is a question and not just a statement, same as the comment about the housemate. The poet goes on to say:


    The wolf head lived on top of its body

    in the valley on the river and we cannot know

    how the head got severed from the heart.


The poem concludes:


                                           … But the head stayed

    intact, as it still is, as it feels that way now,

    the heft and the size of a child. Cocked sideways

    in its question on the shoulders of the world.


The repetition that the wolf head is the size of a child is significant. At the heartbeat of this collection of poetry (Keplinger's eighth) are words that evoke his personal biological heritage and his concern about contributing to his lineage, about building a legacy. Of the 53 poems in Ice, more than 60 percent of them contain such words as child, boy, baby, grandchildren, bastard, childhood, mother, father, family. Reference is made to Icarus, the Greek mythological son whose father made him wings and warned not to fly too close to the sun. Reference is made to small people and the time when the poet was three and said his first word.




    "That I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh

    was given to me." 2 Corinthians 12:7


    When they were finished

    barn-building, one of the pieces, part of a beam,

    lay in its singleness in a corner of the hayloft,

    the light shining on it like a just-born

    bastard. This is not to say the piece forgotten

    from the finished work was holy, but there was

    a heavenly hurt it gave me. It was a common

    piece of wood, with two holes for screws,

    small eyes to vaguely scrutinize their happiness

    now that the work was over. I was so little

    but already I desired to bring it home and dress

    it up, paint tears into the eyes and feed my baby.

    To leave it would have caused me harm.


That wood, experienced by the little boy that became the poet David Keplinger, provides a metaphoric link to a writer's legacy—tree, wooden plank, paper, book. Just as Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons made a covenant with Alice Toklas that Stein's books would be their babies, Keplinger goes back further in his life to show his trajectory.


Counterbalancing the biological legacy are many poems about literary greats such as Emily Dickinson, James Wright, and Stanley Kunitz. Into this mix appears Keplinger's version of a ghazal, a love poem of Arabic origin, that makes clear that the legacy of the poet David Keplinger—what he publishes—is the bottom line.




    All around the street I kept finding David. I saw the heart on its own still working for David, outside his body, beating itself, the deviant muscles worn down, flattened, like old seats in a theater. I tried to force it back inside David. I found a line of trees that led into the daydream of his life, the parts of David I didn't know existed, and plucked a little David yet to bloom. Do not put me in your mouth, it said to me.


Usually, a ghazal contains five to fifteen couplets in the rhyming pattern of AA BA CA DA EA. The repeated rhyme is the same word and in the last couplet, the name of the poet writing the ghazal appears. In Keplinger's "Ghazal," the repeated word is his name David. Like the reference in Keplinger's opening poem "Ice" which contains the line: "how the head got severed from the heart," we find in "Ghazal" that the heart "on its own still working for David, outside his body." What this means to the Steiny Road Poet is that David's heart is inside published work because next comes reference to "a line of trees that led into the daydream of his life." Similarly, to the poem "Elation," tree is a metaphoric stand-in for published work in books, books made of paper and of course paper comes from trees. Trees also are how we talk about lineage—family trees.


David Keplinger is the Master of Fine Arts Director of Creative Writing at The American University in Washington, DC. He has won many prestigious literary prizes, including the Emily Dickinson Award from Poetry Society of America (2020), two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a two-year Soros Foundation fellowship in the Czech Republic. He has translated the Danish poet Carsten Rene Nielsen and collaborated with German poet Jan Wagner. Keplinger produced an album of eleven songs based on the Civil War poetry of his great-great grandfather.


Ice, David Keplinger's book  from Milkweed Editions
is threaded well with innovative adaptations and
metaphoric clues. It is both accessible and mysterious
 in its ability to invoke admiration and feeling.



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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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©2023 Karren Alenier
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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