Reviving the Poet’s Role

Posted: January 2, 2011 in Poetry Endorsements
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Hank Kalet (bio and blog)
CERTAINTIES and UNCERTAINTIES (buy via Finishing Line Press or Amazon)

Columnist, reporter, blogger, and humanitarian Hank Kalet uses “CERTAINTIES and UNCERTAINTIES” to connect experiences through images of the everyday, though not the everyday everyone knows…yet. In his poems, common domestic acts, such as grocery shopping, are given foreign settings and foreboding atmospheres to effectively produce a special kind of sympathy lacking in the depictions offered by most poets today (myself included) towards those currently surviving in war-ravaged regions. The message is as simple as it is brilliant: people everywhere more or less have to go through the same motions for survival, and the contrast between the certainty of routine and uncertainty of survival is but fickle circumstance. In a time when publishing poets are increasingly shrinking into academia and themselves to passively entertain a likewise select and shrinking readership, Kalet is spreading humanity through the written word to reach and actively influence the thoughts of anyone lucky enough to encounter this book.

With a New York Times article quote from an Iraqi schoolteacher in Basra as an epigram, “The Waiting” is perhaps the most demonstrative of what I perceive as Kalet’s intent and the book’s voice:

The Waiting
Like a dense fog
that won’t lift this
war looms, these threats persist,
this sense that
nothing is normal, can be
normal, not now–

But she buys lamb in the market
because she has to, because
there is nothing else to do but
go to the market and
buy the lamb, the oranges,
the bread and milk, and
all the stuff she always buys,
every day, every week.
What else to do?

Her husband digs a well;
their neighbors buy propane and
heating oil, stock the pantry
with canned goods, rice,
and she watches the children
play in the street
the games they always play,
the sky clear, open,
waiting for the bombs to fall.

While the point and atmosphere are wonderfully conveyed, this poem is not without its issues – minor though they be – that can be nitpicked after the elation of effective realization has swept over the reader. A minor punctuation omission in the beginning hampers proper flow but can actually serve as a tripping point and make readers go back to the beginning of the sentence to pay closer attention. Also, the language is not as tight as it could be, but this actually serves the poem well in speaking to the casual (non-academically oriented) reader.

Most of the poems in this chapbook feature tighter language – without negatively impacting accessibility or empathetic efficacy – and stronger images as opposed to “all the stuff she always buys,” which could have easily been omitted without any consequence and is the sole blemish on the above poem’s execution; a more detailed grocery list might have been more poetic, but that might also alienate the domestic readership to which it is directed. Otherwise, every word in this poem serves to either connect what people believe to be disparate lifestyles or act as generalities later defined for a greater sympathetic sucker punch. Line 4 blandly states “war looms, these threats persist” but is later defined with full poetic force by the last image of the poem that depicts a woman helplessly watching children play in a street under constant threat of bombs.

There is no obvious craft here, that is to say there are no cubist tricks, no mathematically derived meter, no unnecessary rhyme. There is, however, a voice with natural talent and much heart behind very effective words turned images turned poems. This is the real craft: knowing and delivering images in a specific order to portray an effective story. Kalet does this with what seems to be instinctive ease, which is the true genius behind these poems and makes each one such a universally identifiable and unifying experience between readers in the USA and foreign figures they may read about as victims in the newspapers or see on the nightly news.

While the readability of each poem makes cover-to-cover completion possible in all too short a time, readers would be denying themselves the true and intended experience by so speeding through this 26-page book comprised of 17 poems. The entire purpose behind this volume, irrespective of poem or theme, is to foster a human connection with strangers who are all the book’s subjects, author, and reader. The book produces a masterful effect, epitomizing the poet’s role as translator of human experience, transcendent of location and station.

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