blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | White Stucco Black Wing, by Karen Kevorkian
                  (Red Hen Press, 2004)

Kevorkian packs a wallop with White Stucco Black Wing. Without sentimentality, she powerfully alludes to lost love and anguished yearning, refers dexterously to paintings without using them as mere illustration, and fiercely describes the death and burial of someone dear. Sobs of rage against the Iraqi war burst from the pages. No lightheartedness in these poems, no lullabies; the war cauterizes that part of her. Kevorkian's precise invocation of ordinary details—of nature, her surroundings, and people she knows or passes on the street—gives strength and passion to her work. Surprising syntax and unexpected imagery waken our awareness in such phrasings as "concrete torrents of wall," "Chiffon dress / smoothed blue," "tiny toenails of mice in the walls," at times adding striking shifts in lighting and perspective:

she snuffs the flashlight
leans back as far as she can

looking up.
                         It is something like
looking down
                         at L.A. on a clear night from a plane . . .

Swiftly rendered shock and grief permeate the war poems. She slashes into the newspaper to show the Iraqi war without elaboration. Her cool way of setting the daily facts of our war, fought on another continent, against the normality of everyday life in our own country creates a jolting comparison:

Let yourself
                                    go down into
like a cave where men wait
heads in hands for shelling

to stop . . .

Civilian body count 227
minimum 307
                                    only the first week.

Another brilliant cold day. Someone cutting
grass . . .

Seemingly random details capture essences. She evokes, rather than describes, huge events and inescapable truths:

in the Land of White
Noise. Everywhere
a lawn being mowed. Women wearing

                                              tiny American flags of

cubic zirconia . . .

Spread the pages. Who is
crying today?

The flaunting of that suspect brand of patriotism has become a familiar political statement in favor of the war, making her sharply contrasting reference to the painful daily news that much more pointed.

In "Olive Lingering" we encounter the agony of watching a loved one die. Kevorkian does not fully reveal their relationship, yet we are allowed to sympathize fully with Olive and with those she leaves behind:

The sun beat down she hid in the house
is ready to pass
                         watching the land that so
flatly spreads
want her to and do not
want it
                         the low tract houses the green lawn its
                         knifeblade sprout
heat shivering mesquite
waits for it
                         tall cottonwoods that in spring
fizz across lawns
fluff shoring at the curb's edge
wants it

In these sharply drawn contrasts, inside and outside, we are brought to recognize their dichotomy of feeling: the pain of losing her arrayed against their wish that she might die and end her misery.

"It Was the Idea of Them" expresses anguish suffered for an elusive love. Again Kevorkian does not dwell on the who, what, and why, but instead incises a description of raw emotion that causes us to feel pain in our unavoidable identification with her distress.

She lied. Their bodies
not in her dreams. It was the
idea of them

but present
lives parallel
skittish prudence

"It Was the Idea of Them" gives the impression that the disillusioned narrator has removed to an isolated place in the woods. She not only employs imagery of dense forests and elusive deer, but she examines the very words she uses to deliver those images. The passage I quoted at the essay's beginning, comparing a starry sky during a walk in the woods with a night view of Los Angeles from the air, also comes from this long and richly varied work. Another section features a meditation on language:

That which will not stay
we must have

pray to
make up words for.

Not a being with limbs stretching
far and wide and having a certain size
(Because then

you'd have that white rump,

                       Rather than
present everywhere in its entirety
as spirit is

The epigraph for this poem, chosen from Maurice Blanchot, fits not only this work, but perhaps encompasses the direction of the book itself: That despair verged upon rapture.

Kevorkian often refers to painters and paintings and generally reveals a painterly sensibility. Before moving to Charlottesville, she worked for The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as an editor and distribution manager for art books. Earlier, she was married to a painter. This sensibility surfaces in, for example, "The Green Canal," a collage of seemingly disparate parts which glimpse events occurring in different cities, and which contains a revealing portrait of a Renaissance triptych:

Each end panel of the triptych shows a half room that closed conceals
the crowned queen of heaven
           and in the corner the angel
crouching with parroty wings bearing the message of a changed life.

                                                If the end panels were closed
as they never are
they would meet to make a whole, a room before the virgin
before the angel. In its windows
far towers of another mythical city
where pigeons struggle and preen
their feathers released bits of smoke

Distant landscapes, often framed by windows, were an innovation in Renaissance painting. The scene described here, its pigeons and smoking chimneys observed through the Virgin's window, contrasts setting and details in the same way that Kevorkian does in her poetry: an apparently placid landscape is presented, seemingly untroubled by the earthshaking event occurring elsewhere.

One of my favorite pieces in this collection is her gentle rumination on "Lunch." For the moment, butter and chocolate, and rolls with ham, make a comforting respite from grief and horror:

Soft rolls with thin ham

butter without salt. The butter cookie called Little Scholar
with gleaming chocolate

waxlike impression of an antique boy
caught running.

I like to believe she means Sally Lunn rolls and country ham to keep the "antique boy" company—and giving some readers a temporary respite.

The book's title appears in the poem "El Camino Real." The street scene in California, as Kevorkian here describes it, evokes the dreaminess and lucidity of an American Golden Age illustration:

As in
           Maxfield Parrish, though he wasn't
Californian. Still

that's what it feels like

after dawn, or when the sun
declines, when a shadow's black wing
cuts white stucco, the street for a minute
quiet, then
a child cries, or a
radio speaks
                       the inky fluttering of a crow's wing

disappears over the white edge of a roof. Between buildings

palm trees effloresce, wide spary of
green fronds, something processionally
to bear. Ah, Aida

Maybe. Less

new trees ringed with metal

staked, what's
to come

The sharp contrast between black wing and white stucco symbolizes the jarring juxtapositions and harsh comparisons which emerge in poems throughout the book. Even the verb cuts stresses the starkness. Here, within a description of the softer times of day, the surreal peacefulness of dawn or dusk, she sets the vaguely ominous image of the crow. To further that eerie feeling, the palm trees and the historic street name (The Royal Road), with its invocation of the processes of European colonization, lead us to the victory procession in Verdi's tragic opera. That imagery, juxtaposed with the staked trees of the future and their final question, creates a doleful, foreboding picture.

In "Escuela and Rengstorff," names of streets which intersect with El Camino Real, Kevorkian compares the modern street with the same road in 1776, named by the Spanish who rode through on their way to settle San Francisco. The party of Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza encountered a terribly frightened Indian who held out to them "his bunch of grass / as if by this present he hoped to save his life." This study in contrasts continues into the present, where "you press a button on a pole" in order to cross the street now, and ending with another study in ironic contrasts, examining

      The way people will
stop, turn,

help a blind woman or man, flash of dark

hands held out, feeling, something to
shrug away from.

Kevorkian's poems give evidence of their having been made with both adventurous creativity and responsible care. Characteristically, "Tinged with Red Neon Clouds Drift in from the Coast" contains examples of Kevorkian's rich use of metaphor: "lichen scabs bark," rocks are "fat," tree roots "exotic," rain falls in "morse code," leaves flutter "with importance." She also gives care to the appearance of the poem on the page. Irregularity of punctuation and syntax are used with striking effect. In "Her Clothes Weren't Quite Right for the New Town," Kevorkian links a meditation on a rainy afternoon with a woman deciding what to wear (the epigraph from Cesar Vallejo is itself a study in intriguing contrasts: "The afternoon is pleasant. Why shouldn't it be? / It is wearing grace and pain; it is dressed like a woman.") and it ends with lines which seem, like the rain, like the woman's dress, to go on flowing:

           Cocoon? The task of opening
all the boxes on the floor. All the sleeves inside

flowing out onto

Karen Kevorkian's craftsmanship is meticulous. Never a word, nor comma—nor lack of comma—is unintended. Spare, cubistic poems plumb deep emotional ranges. Intensities of feeling are set among mundane details of dailiness as well as elegant images of nature. The beauty of her art vivifies through its many contrasts both the anguish of lost love and the horror of our war in Iraq and mysteriously provides links between them. This small volume keeps pulling me back with its density of meaning and the heft of its exquisite creations.  

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