I went to a recent reading in Oakland in which Douglas Kearney read from his new book, The Black Automaton. Wow! What a showman, he came in and tore the place up with his exciting readings, well really performance showcases, that made full use of his many voices. In fact he was so fine it made me wonder, yeah, but what about reading the book, will the book still be good without this tremendous theatrical energy pushing it alive like a fire lit under the stage?
It is a book fueled by music and by sight, and these elements speak freely within Kearney's pages which, he told us, he had designed himself. He is like the Orson Welles of poets, starring in, writing, directing, producing, composing the score and here, drawing and detailing the entire thing. Good going, for even if one or two details look askew, the book profits from the organicity of its concept and the polish with which the tiniest detail is buffed up. On racial matters, about which experimental poetry has had a checkered history, we turn to Kearney for a brilliant new viewpoint. Folk tale, fairy tale, hip-hop, legendary materials from a huge swath of cultures and coteries, he has brought together, like a master weaver, all the colors of the night and day, but this metaphor suggests an easy silken road, and the actual experience of "reading" the book (including deciphering some of the concrete poetry sections in which, for example, a page in which the words "blowing down" look to be repeated, stamped on each other, superimposed dozens of times, with little tributaries of other words floating away from the general explosion) isn't always so easy. I felt a little twinge going in, not knowing my early 80s rap lyrics as I should, nor the contemporary Saturday morning cartoons out of which some of this diamondine music has been mined. Here it is, and I wonder what it looked like when the judge for the National Poetry Series, Cathy Wagner, picked it out of the pile on her desk, of all the other semi-finalists she had to read.
Oh, what was that Keats poem about first seeing something great? And the subject feels like a Conquistador? Somehow in the midst of reading "The Black Automaton" one will tingle with that similar sensation, reprovable or not. Let me conclude by saying that you don't need the man himself to make his book a sensation event in your life.