Keepers Meet Questing Eyes: Poems
by John Michael Flynn (Moldova 1993-1995)
Leaf Garden Press
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-1993)
John Michael Flynn’s latest collection of poetry doesn’t come in a conventional package.
Unlike a standard 6-by-9-inch poetry collection, with its requisite arty (or, on occasion, awful) cover, Flynn’s Keepers Meet Questing Eyes looks and feels more like a coloring book.
But in a good-and fitting-way.
Flynn’s poems don’t aspire to be arty or clever or coy. They’re honest evocations of life, and they invite the reader in the same way a coloring book invites children in: with generosity and without pretense.
Of course Flynn’s poems are aimed at an adult readership, and their rewards lie in their directness and clarity.
One of my favorites is “Heath,” about the actor Heath Ledger, who comes across in the poem as a good man despite his having “sucked up a million lines.” There’s a double meaning here. Ledger died of what was ruled an accidental drug overdose, and the poem speaks of “more coke than I’d ever seen.” But “Heath” also alludes to another kind of sucking up-what anyone in the movie business must do, at least on occasion, to make it. There are producers who slash budgets, and the visionary director Terry Gilliam’s battle against “Hollywood greed.”
There are always impediments to art, and Flynn addresses this theme in “Please Do, Artist Friend,” which opens with a paradox:
One mistake is to believe there is originality.
Another is to believe that it’s been used up.
What advice does Flynn offer the artist who strives for originality?
You cannot become original. You already are —
from ashes, sweat, an influence.
Flynn also writes stories, and a great number of his poems (there are nearly one hundred total in Keepers) are narrative in nature. “At Carl’s Diner in Oxford Center at Six A.M.” tells the story of teenage townies at the local eating spot, “needing to learn from the older hungry regulars.”
The lessons can be tough:
All hopes and faces end up battered —
all cars and marriages require endless repair,
all boots no matter how clean
march to a creditor’s drumbeat.
“Dink at the Mohawk” features a tough-talking protagonist who demands violent action from his president — “Kill ‘em, they’re threats to our freedom” — but nurses a tender sorrow:
Some years back, big death took from Dink’s menu
his wife. She was much if not all that he lived for.
The titles of Flynn’s poems alone offer a strong sense of the range of his interests and imaginings: “Class Envy on Constitution Road,” “Cash,” “Gin and Post Mortems,” “I Poach Until Swollen in Thoughts of War,” “Punk Halcyon 80s Rest in Peace.”
Who could resist putting on a name badge and partaking of “What Happened at the Reunion”? (You’ll especially want to attend if you’re a Boston Red Sox fan.)
I’ll conclude with an excerpt from “Fifty-One,” whose message ought to appeal to Peace Corps Volunteers past and present:
There’s liberation in not needing to impress.
I have no money, no plans, no status to uphold.
I count to death backwards to here, where I am.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Award from the University of Notre Dame Press, and six other books. His latest is Truth Poker: Stories, which has made the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the richest award given to a short story collection: http://shortstoryireland.com/2015/04/29/frank-oconnor-longlist-2015-announced/
He is a professor of English and directs the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University.