Signorelli Says

The Temple Gate Called Beautiful,
David Kirby
(76pp, $14.95, Alice James Books)

One of my favorite poems in this collection is 'Mopery With Intent to Creep.' Kirby meditates wittily on the Ten Commandments.  The policeman involved, Howard,
           seems wistful more than
              anything else, like the ancient Greek
           and Chinese sages who said for the good of the village, we must   
              believe in gods who don't exist.

Why is David Kirby not the most famous poet of the 'post-Ashbery generation'? 

When you read a book this wonderful, you find yourself wondering. 

For instance, David Kirby is so much better than Billy Collins. Why is he not as well known?  Probably because he is so much better. But 'better or worse' is a fool's game, so that trap will come up only once later on. Or maybe twice.

A traveler's collection of tales: Italy, England, Alabama, London, American college campuses, art museums, books. Kirby is a fine teller of anecdotes, jokes and sketches.  What he most likes to do is to weave these--to allow these to weave themselves - into rambling intersections of association, juxtaposition, chance, artifice - the best formal features of a shaggy dog story fused with the precise cuts and splices and splashes of MTV. 

On the back cover Alan Shapiro says it is 'one of the most moving and entertaining books I've ever read.' I probably wouldn't go so far as to say 'ever.' But then when asked to come up with such candidates I am always stymied to come up with my short list.  Would I put Kirby's book on such a list? Well, maybe. It is an extraordinarily winsome book. 

Potential Conflict of Interest Disclaimers: First, Kirby and I were born the same year, 1944.  Last of the 'war babies' and a year or two before the notorious Boomers. (Collins is four years younger - pure Boomer.)

So I feel a tremendous similarity of outlook with Kirby's view of things. Secondly, the South.  We are both American Southerners and again, great overlaps of tone of voice, sense of humor, vaguely nuanced layers of gentility and coarseness. Third, we both had Catholic boyhoods and schooling. As soon as I got into Kirby's first poem, an invocation, I could hear the old religion lessons from grade school and high school.  Oh, I thought, he's doing a tour of the underworld, pondering the deaths of his parents and many others, and now that he's sixty-something, he's thinking of his own fairly likely demise sometime sooner rather than later, just as I am doing these days. So, I thought, he's writing poems, like a good Catholic Southern boy, about The Four Last Things:  Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Plus, Third, we both have come to love wandering cities as one of the essential projects of life. So, there is a lot of resonance for me in all that Kirby says before the poetry even begins.  Disclaimers noted. 

Kirby makes clear his religious tenets these days are pretty far from those he was schooled in as a child. So three of the big items, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, get crossed off the list of topics. And yet these motifs circulate through the poems in most delightful ways, artfully allowed to weave and spin and splash around the footsteps of the journey. Chats with and about his dead parents loom large. 9/11 is there, for sure, placed within a stray conversation with an actor in between acts in a London theater in a most brilliant way.  Other deaths, other dark events and moments thread through the poems as well. Everything gets layered and blended. An Archaeology of Last Things. Nothing tugs at imagination like remembrance of paradises lost, resurrections that may or may not take place. The Roman Catholicity of these topics gets artfully woven into a larger tapestry of sites in the Greek and Roman explorations of the Afterlife and the Underworld. 

Dark meditations, but the overall mood of these poems is bright and marvelous. Never has a poet explored the four last things, toured the underworld, with such happy aplomb.  In the opening poem Kirby invokes Elvis as his psychopomp, his guide through these caverns.

I worried about this choice. Won't Elvis date the poems too quickly, too much? Younger readers will scoff for sure. (Spin
critic Chuck Klosterman tells us in his rock memoir that he hates Elvis.)  

Isn't Elvis too much a pop figure for poems about the underworld? Wouldn't some other figure have been a better choice?  Andy Warhol?  John Lennon?  John Kennedy?  Marilyn Monroe? T.S. Eliot? Buddy Holly? Hemingway?

Just lining up other possibilities demonstrates how astute Kirby is, how much thought and intuitive insight he brings to his wanderings. His psychopomp (you must admit, what a great word, Elvis's pompadour embedded nicely in there as well as his sexy voice) rocks across his stage with just the mix of glam and glory that Kirby wants and needs. Never question a master on such choices. 

Back in the summer I got into trouble by posting my enthusiasm for Kirby's book on my blog and mentioned that he is Billy Collins but darker and deeper. Wow. Within a day some Collins devotee-sheriff was on my Comment site with a sharp reprimand. It is not so, 'Collins is very deep and very important.' And she was certain that if Kirby knew I had made such a slighting comparison, he would find it 'really distasteful.' 

In spite of that, I stand by my initial perception.  On the surfaces Kirby's poetry has many similar characteristics with Billy Collins but I still find Kirby more interesting, more compelling, and having more substance. Collins of course is splendid in his own ways and I mean to take nothing from him. It is just that Collins has garnered a good measure of fame in certain ways and I think Kirby has not.  And that is a shame.  Because Kirby is better.  There, I said it again. And fame in such matters, the poetry world, the larger world, the under worlds, is such a fickle and oceanic mystery. 

In Acts 3:2, it is said that a crippled man used to be placed every day pro.j th.n qu,ran tou/ i`erou/ th.n legome,nhn w`rai,an, which is commonly translated, 'at the gate of the Temple called Beautiful'.[1] The same location is mentioned again later in the episode (3:10) when the healed man is identified as the one who used to sit evpi. th/|  w`rai,a| pu,lh|, translated, again commonly, 'at the Gate Beautiful'. This name is striking, but attempts by scholars to locate this gate have met with little success or agreement[2]. Scholars have suggested both the upper inner gate, the Nicanor, and the lower outer gate, the Shushan, as candidates for the Beautiful Gate. (Wikipedia

In his title poem, Kirby's wandering speaker pays a visit to a Raw Vision painter, an Outsider artist, named Mr W C Rice in an outskirt of Montgomery, Alabama, Prattville. Rice's place has lots of signs in red paint saying You Will Die and other such biblical injunctions.  The traveler feels relief and some joy.  Now the assumption - given the New Testament sub-text - is that redemption has been experienced in seeing Rice's art - a kind of art not collected into the polite confines of the Montgomery museum, but a kind of art that heals the crippled. Mr Rice is crippled and so is our speaker-traveler who journeys from Montgomery to Prattville in Kirby's poem. 

In other poems, Kirby invokes in similar ways Luca Signorelli's mural in the Duomo at Orvieto, 'The Resurrection of the Dead.'

                   But what names do we give to good, to evil?
           In Signorelli's fresco, the Anti-Christ looks like Jesus,
    but what did Jesus look like, and what did his friends call him?
                     Did they call him 'buddy' or 'pal' or 'Son of Man'
           or just 'man,' as in 'Hey, man, let's go to Cana' or 'Man,

                  we better go---those centurions are, like, pissed.'

No transcendence is the official position of the poet in this book. But in a poem called 'Sex and Candy' he shows us how we hunger for these things. And constantly joke about it and ourselves - when we get to heaven:

          we'll all want the thing that's better than either sex 
                 or candy, the thing that we got just a glimmer of  once,
           like a firefly in a distant meadow that we saw one night
                 as we were stuffing our faces or pulling somebody's pants down,
           and it's got a name, that thing, we just don't know what it is.

And we also know that after sex and candy we can have art. 

Kirby's notebooks should be as  fascinating as the poems. I wonder if he would publish some? Or maybe that is part of the supreme illusion he creates in and through the poems.  Here is the finest of human achievements because here we join into the great feast of sensibility, sexuality, wit, intelligence, longing, symbol, language, and the conscious shifting and weaving, the weighing and sorting, the collapsing and re-building of all that we love and enjoy.  Whatever doctrines we hold, reading these poems like reading so much else, like being aware we are alive and loving it, makes us believers for the nonce: This is heaven, right here in our hands.  There is such a Temple Gate called Beautiful and, poem by poem, Kirby takes us to it. 

         Robert Garlitz 2008