Colony Collapse Disorder

by Keith Flynn,
Wings Press, 2013,
$16.00, 103 pages, paper,
ISBN: 978-1-60940-294-5.
Buy the Book

Keith Flynn is a direct heir of the Beats in that he questions surface realities, often harshly, yet also creates empathy within readers for human frailty.  There’s nothing cheap or facile about his questions; they provoke the reader and disturb with musical phrasing and stark imagery, as in the following lines from “Easter in Palestine”:

On the face of it, the landscape bore

an astonishing nostalgia for lies.

The tapestries cried; the gates of Paradise

opened and shut like the jaws of a shark

in the frenzy of chum.

With an intuitive heart, Flynn takes us all over the world, back and forth in historical time, and uses as his pivotal metaphor the sickness and disappearance of almost half of American honeybees, and the death of bees rapidly spreading to other countries.  Instability is a given, Keith Flynn’s poems tell us. Labadee, Haiti, “fat and warm,” a navel in the world, is changed during an earthquake “like a woman slowly dropping her slip from / one shoulder as she slides away.”  Unwanted immigrants ride the bus in Berlin, men shoot at pillows and glass window panes even after the war ends in Kosovo, people wander Atlantic City, “where the prelapsarian middle class of all rotted / American Dreams comes to be fleeced / and calls it fun,” and in Dothan, Alabama, things are also not well.  Here are a few lines from one of the strongest poems in the book, “Alabama Chrome,” about people whose only sin is “proximity to poverty.”

Handsome warlocks, strapped to strip

malls, and mauled by the perfection

drop poison pellets from their

raven beaks onto the lips of sun-streaked

Meth-pocked blondes in the windy

parking lots of ritualistic pawn shops

and close-cropped itchy trigger teeth

gritted in the Marine recruiting station,

whose volunteers choose grief over


An elastic, fluid language permeates each poem, often with staccato bursts like a trumpet solo pointed towards the stars. But Flynn takes a quieter mode in several of the poems; deeply reflective, willing to look long and hard for a hidden shaft of light, a clue from a fragmented history that will speak to him.  In “Coffin Not Included,” he says “The walls / between this world and the next / are leaky as an old rowboat.”  For “The Seven Islands of Izu,” short stanzas push forward like an oar through cold, ancient water.  The tone of the poem is like gray brushstrokes on a scroll, and the reader can almost feel clouds above, or gusts  of wind.  And one of my favorite poems in this book is “God Gives Us Each a Song.”  Here’s how it ends:

The worm’s tiny groan as it pops out

of the apple’s skin and finds itself

alone, filled with the right

of the Spirit to be known.

Not every poem in Colony Collapse Disorder  rises to this brilliance.  “Present at the Revolution” falls flat, the Parisian fashion designers in “The Resurrection of Haute Couture” seem superficial, and Andrew Jackson’s persona in “Old Hickory Gets the Bends” is ponderous.  A little pruning would have helped, or perhaps two or three poems eliminated and others substituted, without affecting the book’s basic strength and structure.  And truly, the book’s greatest strength is that raw voice that speaks so honestly to us, intimate as a low, hoarse train whistle late at night.

For me, Flynn asks the big questions.  He can’t completely answer them — no one can.  But he asks, How can I be whole as a man, on this damaged planet?  And also, Why do people hurt each other so badly?  In “The Exile,” a short, sweet poem, the narrator says “I’ve tried to rope the world in countless / ways and have

done the best I can, / with tangled prayers and no reprieve.”  And if this echoes Richard Hugo, that also seems like a blessing: compassion for wounded souls, such as Hugo’s Mrs. Jensen, can never be learned or faked.  Keith Flynn is like an EMS worker in the world of poetry: risking the deep places, and born to heal.

Sharon Olinka