In a Kingdom of Birds
by Ken Fontenot,
Pinyon Publishing, 2012,
73 pages, paper, $15.00,
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Can ordinary lives be written simply? Too much mundane detail, and readers drown in trips to Walmart for cat litter, or must grapple with prose poised like safety pins on used clothing, as if literature is a Goodwill bin of the past. Then again, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, among the almost mind-numbing repetitions — similar sounding names, the descriptions of the family’s house being freshly painted or going to seed — there resounds a single, clear bell of loneliness. That kind of purity recalls Ken Fontenot’s poetry.
There’s a contrast in Fontenot’s work between enduring daily routines and a longing to transcend boundaries. He listens for “the high-pitched sound the universe made when it began.” He startles readers with these lines from “Let’s Go Out,” a poem with a clearly stated challenge:
Listen again. You missed it the first time.
Your thoughts were elsewhere. We say,
enough of love, and we mean it. We say,
enough of money, and we mean it.
I wouldn’t give one solitary cent for a new car.
You neither? Let’s go out. The lightning bugs
are as bright as your eyes.
The night is as young as the world.
Fontenot’s narrators in these poems speak from solitude. Their observations are given to readers in a bright, colloquial tone that often contains undercurrents of irony or despair, creating poetic tensions. Family life is also described, with memories of an aunt who says, “The dust has gone to Heaven,” along with Evangeline Parish, in Louisiana, and all the hard-working men with “their belts six or seven notches / on the good side of hunger.” A poem called “From a Son Who Knows Only Books” is a meditation on men who do honest, skilled work with their hands, and on the narrator’s father:
A man is happy with his gun, his boat.
A man is happy with his lawn, his dog.
Just think. I’ll not grow up to be my father.
A childhood full of light and shadows permeates the book, as well as the keenly observed movements of birds. Their cruelty is noted, such as their raiding of nests, but birds also serve as quirky, unpredictable metaphors that imply transcendence. Idealism is never entirely destroyed, even in adulthood. All of us, says Fontenot, hold the kingdom of birds within us, as in these lines from “Our Lips Are Gates”:
Grief: that child in cold weather without
a coat. It sings dirges. It writes elegies.
We with half our noses in shadow, half in light.
We with our bodies soaped and scrubbed.
The dark houses. Conversations in other rooms.
A fireplace. Of two doves
both will forage. Neither will wait.
Perhaps solitude begins to be valued in childhood as well, clarifying perceptions that often conflict. This is something readers can identify with, just as we do in Marquez’s novel. And Fontenot’s moths — they could be the cousins of Macondo’s butterflies, as in these opening lines from “The Words for Containment”:
In my dream, moths are pursuing me
the same way they always have to touch us
in real life. Daylight brings the dream to an end.
Memories of the poet’s childhood, savored as an adult, are turned over like beautiful oak leaves pressed between pages. In “The World Without Me,” as throughout In a Kingdom of Birds, Fontenot’s voice transcends sure boundaries:
I am close to my bed. I am close to my book.
I am close to my chair. And my silence lights the room.
— Sharon Olinka