kenneth pobo

Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo

Circling Rivers, circlingrivers.com

Ekphrasis. It’s one of those arcane poetry terms that sounds foreboding, like onomatopoeia, caesura, and the catalectic line–terms that could double as medical disorders or the pharmaceuticals meant to treat them. Ekphrasis is a simple concept, once you get past the cryptic name. It comes from two Greek words: “ek” for “out” and “φράσις” for “speak”. It literally means to speak out vividly on a subject (person, place, thing, or experience), and for the Greeks it was a sort of rhetorical exercise in description. The ekphrastic poem in our day has acquired a more focused meaning: a poetic description of a work of art, not so much literal description as a poem inspired by the artwork. The best ekphrastic poems engage in an interactive and stimulating dance with the object. They emphasize, not merely the look but the object’s essence, or, they can focus on what the object inspires inside the writer. One thinks of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” for instance. The poem’s aim is not really trying to describe faithfully the look of the headless, armless, legless statue (although it does describe it in an evocative way). Rilke is more interested in personifying it, investing it with visionary power and illuminating its impact on the observer: “there is no part that does not see you / you must change your life.” Often a good ekphrastic poem does a double service for the reader. It sheds light on the artwork in a new way (the poet acting as creative visionary) and it touches, knocks, and opens up new semantic possibilities that were only tangential to the art, if they were ever there at all. It’s a bit like jazz improvisation. You take an old standard, unpack its chord chart and riff on it, creating something new and unforeseen in the original.

Ken Pobo’s latest poetry collection is a splashy, 90 page deep dive into the world of ekphrasis. His subjects are primarily late 19th through 20th century paintings: Symbolist, Post-impressionist, Expressionist, and Modernist works, and I think Pobo has felt the influence of the modernists in the style his writing takes on here. He’s long been a master of the short line free verse personal poem; in this collection, he’s let the paintings charge his work with experimental verve and at times, a surreal edginess. The poems are exuberant, filled with daring imaginative leaps. It’s a modernistic side of his work that has always been there, perhaps, but here he’s allowed it to come out and play with abandon. Sometimes he will leap directly from the painter’s work to confessional mode, as in the first lines from “Odilon Redon’s World”:

I stank at geometry–why
learn what makes
a triangle a triangle? My teacher said,

“It will make you logical.”

Not logical, I flunked.
In fact, I’m a failure
except I know a good
zinnia when I see one.
That’s not a small thing!

It’s not until halfway through the poem that Redon makes an appearance, his work offering an associative analogue and validation of the poem’s sentiment.

A lot of the time Pobo picks an oblique jumping off point, coming in from an unexpected angle, following a path of intuition until he collides with the artist’s work, and there the sparks fly. Sometimes, the engagement with the work is more immediate, as in “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” on a painting by de Chirico:

For decades I’ve been the little girl
rolling her hoop down a strange street,

a shadow creeping up. I have a name

for it, Death. Maybe it will overlook me

Many of the poems are about Pobo finding a pathway into the painting in order to identify with the painter’s vision. He sees himself in its figures then hauls the painting’s subject matter into his personal world. Some are more anchored in the subject, as in “The Third of May” after the painting by Goya, which empathically enters into the subject position of the condemned man standing before the firing squad. Others are cast in the mold of surrealist romps that blend identification with dream image and intuition. The poems are capable of revelry and revelation, and moving from poem to poem, you never know what you’re going to get next. It’s a playful, upredictable course, and like modernism, the going is not always easy or obvious. But it is in the jump cuts and curious juxtapositions where the work gets most interesting. My favorites here, it’s probably no surprise, are the poems where I am familiar with the artwork he’s writing about, and it’s fascinating to witness how this poet sees and is impacted by those works.

It is a mark of artistic success when an ekphrastic poem makes you want to see the artwork for yourself. These poems will lead you to the search engines looking for his original sources. This is how Ken Pobo sees art, and you can’t help but wonder, will I see the same things he sees? Yes and no. His is an intense, personal vision. But what he does make you realize is that when you look at art, you CAN and SHOULD see for yourself. Loplop in a Red City is a testament to the power of art’s
ability to inspire.

– J. Esch

Kenneth Pobo

It’s hard to
have a heart to heart
with a cow,
explaining that
while cows
are like beautiful
brown ships
sailing through red
dusk, they
can be a nuisance,

yes,
nuisance.  They roam our streets
as they see
fit.  One brilliant cow
unlocked
gates–until
she got shot
and died
in the
Presbyterian Church yard.
Women in
long dresses peeve
when cows
splat on wood sidewalks.

Bovine
gangsters run the town.
We don’t
scare them.  We think
we’re
modern.  After all,
it’s the
late 1800s.  Progress
kisses
merchants’ bald heads.
Loggers make
homes possible

far from
where Lake Superior,
The Great
Unsalted Sea, freezes
so that we
can walk to Madeline Island,
no fear of
sinking.  Spring
brings
cinnamon ferns,
more cows
like gods that stare
through our
open windows.


Kenneth Pobo had three new books in 2015: When The Light Turns Green
(Spruce Alley Press), Bend of Quiet (Blue Light Press), and Booking
Rooms in the Kuiper Belt (Urban Farmhouse Press).  He teaches creative
writing and English at Widener University.  He gardens, is somewhat of
an authority on Tommy James and the Shondells, and read Hardy’s
Return of the Native this June.

Kenneth Pobo

Ever since Adeline was a little girl she wanted to be
rich.  Not rich, really, but rich beyond
compare, the richest woman in the world.
It could happen!  On late night TV
when she was seven she saw Ruth Chatterton starring in The Rich Are Always With Us.  At the end, charming rich Ruth married George
Brent, a sexy novelist—who made money.

For twenty-one years Adeline was married to a
porridge-looking guy, Ernie, who ran a sporting equipment store in the Divine
Gator Mall.  She never set foot in the
store, even when Ernie and his employees celebrated its twentieth year in
business.  That was the beginning of the
end.

“You
missed the balloons, Adeline.  Shit.  Some wife.”

“Everything
pops sooner or later.  Congratulations
anyway.”

Clearly, Ernie would not make her the wealthiest woman who
had ever been born.  It wasn’t Ernie’s
fault, she knew.  A guy who wore old
hushpuppies everyday, he wouldn’t get it.
In “real” life, George Brent and Ruth Chatterton got married.  For two years.  Real life didn’t impress Adeline.  It never had a fur collar.

She routinely entered the lottery but say you won 500
million bucks, you’re still not the richest.
It’s a boost, but you don’t get to be number one.

Adeline was like a mannequin in Ernie’s store, holding a
ball, something she couldn’t throw, an eternal pose.  She died at sixty-eight.  The lights went out, tennis balls huddled in
tubes, and the mall took an enormous pink pill and fell asleep.


Kenneth Pobo had three new books in 2015: When The Light Turns Green
(Spruce Alley Press), Bend of Quiet (Blue Light Press), and Booking
Rooms in the Kuiper Belt (Urban Farmhouse Press).  He teaches creative
writing and English at Widener University.  He gardens, is somewhat of
an authority on Tommy James and the Shondells, and read Hardy’s
Return of the Native this June.

Phase

Kenneth Pobo

Aunt Silkie had many, many lovers which she talked about at
family parties.  In very specific
ways.  Even as a grade schooler, I liked
hearing about these guys.  Maybe I’d meet
a guy and he would “burn off my buttons,” as she said.  I didn’t know I was gay until I was thirteen
and played around with Rick Wenboscly.
Rick was happy naked—but no kissing.
That was bad.  If a guy kisses
you, you’re cooked.  Even then, I told
myself it was a phase.  Or people told me
it was a phase.  

I had
been through many phases.  I loved
turtles for six months, loved the piano for six months, loved learning how to
play guitar for six months.  With Rick, I
knew something wasn’t phase-like.  I
decided it was too risky to be gay, that if I prayed enough, God would put me
into a heterosexual phase which would stretch into old age.

I
told my Sunday School teacher, Gary Winthem, and he too said it was a
phase.  God had a woman picked out for
me.  He asked me if I masturbated.  That too wasn’t a phase.  I told him no.  He knew I was lying.  We pretended I was telling the truth.  I didn’t ask him if he did.  He was seventeen and already applying to
colleges.

Sometimes
on my knees in prayer, I pictured the disciples naked, even Jesus with his
spaniel eyes and long golden hair.
That’s how he looked in the picture in the Sunday School room. 

“Turn
it over to God,” my mom said, for any situation.  She had turned the smallest things over to
God like riding her bike up to the Micah Mart.
“Dear God, lead me to the best sales.”
She said he did.  We ate many
grapefruits.

I
tried.  I kept getting crushes.  Some got sexual.  Most consisted of me sneaking glances and
hoping not to get caught.

By
the end of high school, I graduated into a new phase of my life, entered
Missouri Western State University, lived in a dorm, wrote extremely gassy
papers that mostly got B’s for my Communications Studies major.  My Aunt Silkie died of pneumonia when I was a
Junior.  Her latest boyfriend, Sid, fell
on her casket and wept.  They had been
together for seven weeks.  Several
ex-flames showed up.

Many
family members privately were glad she was gone.  We could have less ribald conversations.  I tried to replace her, mentioned two guys I
was seeing at once over the Thanksgiving turkey.  There was only one guy, but I thought I’d
spice it up.  I got sent to my room.  At 21.
My dad said I was going through a rebellious phase.  He figured I wouldn’t ever be a “steady” guy,
the kind he believed he was.  He thought
of me as a hummingbird, flitting to the feeder, flying off.  He was a little right.  I’d get the nectar and, I hoped, a home.  


Kenneth Pobo had three new books in 2015: When The Light Turns Green
(Spruce Alley Press), Bend of Quiet (Blue Light Press), and Booking
Rooms in the Kuiper Belt (Urban Farmhouse Press).  He teaches creative
writing and English at Widener University.  He gardens, is somewhat of
an authority on Tommy James and the Shondells, and plans to read Hardy’s
Return of the Native this June.

image

The Moon Doesn’t Like Us Anymore

Kenneth Pobo

If it were
up to me,
I’d drop you
down a well.
I’d do it
easily,

turn a tide,
make strong tea.
You’ll be
happy in hell—
if it were
up to me.

For my serenity,
I’d risk a
demon’s cell,
I’d do it
easily,

to squish
you like a flea.
You’re a
rotten egg smell.
If it were
up to me,

I’d cut you
down, a tree
that wept
before it fell.
I’d do it
easily

without any
worry.
You’ve no
more lies to tell.
If it were
up to me,
I’d do it
easily.



Kenneth Pobo had three new books in 2015: When The Light Turns Green
(Spruce Alley Press), Bend of Quiet (Blue Light Press), and Booking
Rooms in the Kuiper Belt (Urban Farmhouse Press).  He teaches creative
writing and English at Widener University.  He gardens, is somewhat of
an authority on Tommy James and the Shondells, and plans to read Hardy’s
Return of the Native this June.

Ash Trees

Kenneth Pobo

Opposite branching,
a geometry rising,
turns tree into V.

Tens of millions of ash lost.  

Emerald ash borer kills
in two or four years.
Pests work silently.  
Treetops thin.  
Bark splits or flakes.  
Autumn’s yellow fire
can’t burn out disease.

Look up.  
A spreading emptiness.


Kenneth Pobo had three new books in 2015: When The Light Turns Green (Spruce Alley Press), Bend of Quiet (Blue Light Press), and Booking Rooms in the Kuiper Belt (Urban Farmhouse Press).  He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University.  He gardens, is somewhat of an authority on Tommy James and the Shondells, and plans to read Hardy’s Return of the Native this June.

image

Poet Ken Pobo talks about collaborating with Stacy Esch on his new chapbook, When the Light Turns Green

In “The Letter,” Alex Chilton 
gravels out “Air-O-Plane.”  
He wants a ticket. 
So do you—to fly 

where you’ll be handsome, 
bright, and athletic.  You 
pop pimples.  The song’s 

under two minutes long.  
The last verse got cut 
from the single—

the plane crashes.  You wish 
you had been on it.  Instead, 
you face 
Geometry.

Kenneth Pobo

Well, we have to begin somewhere, 
right?  Of course not!  
Don’t begin.  
Or end.  
And avoid the middle—
where demons diaper the dead.  
Think of yourself 
as a swing.  
You’re in mid-air, 
nobody pushing.  Somebody 
should be sitting on you.  
You were made for that.  
But you make a small
wind shiver 
as you near clouds.

Kenneth Pobo

I’m boring.  Everything, including inanimate objects, will do whatever is necessary to escape me.

A little history: Miss Wyman, why did you divorce President Reagan?
I divorced him because he was boring.

Remember Jane in Magnificent Obsession?  Blind and definitely not boring. 

I’ve been divorced twenty-three times.

Mostly I’ve married women, but since Massachusetts got gay marriage I’ve married a couple of guys.  Whatever.  Ask any of my husbands or wives and they’ll tell you I divorced him because he was boring.  I’m boring in bed.  Out of bed.  When I wake up in the morning I bore immediately.  By nightfall I’ve made an entire day boring.  Willows really do weep for me.

I wasn’t always boring.  My mother says in the womb I kicked and romped–even when I got pulled into post-womb reality, I was still pretty interesting.

Dad: “He’ll be a quarterback and cure hemorrhoids!”

Mom: “He’ll design cars and build drug stores!”

By the time that I was two they saw that I would be a boring kid.  I ate boring.  I pooped boring.  I slept boring.  I watched boring TV shows.  By the time I got to high school, even the few friends I had in grade school dropped me.

“Jason is just so… well… it’s mean to say it but…”

“He’s fuckin’ boring!”

I overheard.  I felt happy that they didn’t have to pretend anymore.  If Jane Wyman could quit pretending, I guess they could too.  High school was lonely.  College, even worse.  Friends came and left quickly. 

“Jason is so nice, really, but….” 

All of my marriages happened lightning fast.  I excelled at zippy proposals and zippier elopements.  I knew each marriage was on borrowed time even before the I Do’s.   I’ve had the same job for three decades now, but I can’t tell you what I do.  Numbers.  They do stuff.  In nervous files.

At work Pete, another boring guy but with moments of pzazz, says he’s jealous.

“All marriages should end in under six months.  Look at me, with Diane for thirty-one years—man, it is endless, like flat Coke on a warm picnic table.”

When I die, nobody, not even Pete, will attend my funeral.  No minister or priest will say “Brother Jason is now in his heavenly father’s arms.”  They know God finds me as boring as the devil does.  For eternity I’m destined to be nowhere.  It’s okay.  I’ve always been nowhere.  And everywhere.  Wherever in the universe I get stashed, I know stars will back off—even black holes, grabby and hungry, will spit me out and lock down their event horizons.  

Kenneth Pobo