Another City (2018)
"The exquisite poems in David Keplinger’s Another City possess the weight and certitude of stone, yet break within one as geodes: their depths prismatic yet dreamlike, enigmatic yet also deeply familiar. From familial histories to Lincoln’s imperfect embalming, Marie Curie’s radioactive notebook to an examination of the ache of quotidian objects, there is a wholly radiant center to this collection, a dazzling multiplicity of cities and citizens, losses and revelations. The domes of these pages—both funerary and celestial—are those in which the great poets sing."
Another City is my fifth collection of poetry. Poems from the volume have won the Cavafy Prize from Poetry International and the Erskine Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace, with other work having appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, AGNI, and elsewhere.
The City of Birth
The wound rips open: You feel the welt
of solitude, its hospital lights. Then you know
you have arrived. It is to be one body
and held in the palm of the doctor’s hand.
It is the gash of being seen.
Now for the rest of your life
you are trying to be born through a wound.
That’s loneliness. By a slip, or by some move
more desperate, you have burned
a purple shadow on your body.
But death is not the subject of our portrait.
It is the knowing you are seen,
it is the lighting of one’s light, it is to take
a body, knowing you are not the body.
My place was under the table.
I remained there like a muffled lamp.
Seated above me, along my table-sky,
my parents and their good friends
laughed so hard my planet shook.
They struck their matches, tiny plosives.
Against the table-sky they slammed
their fists. One man was very drunk.
He fell down like he had been pushed.
His eyes met mine at my place under the table.
My small green soldiers, too,
would sometimes lose their dignity.
It was the quality I loved about them.
They all had in common an absolute
sureness, their ardor to die.
War Literature and the Arts
In the padlocked trunk before they dropped him
in the river, Houdini was said to foresee
his mother’s death. Stuck in his box, at the end
of a chain, he felt the death, its approach,
her worry growing smaller at the eyes as she
removed herself from herself, her body shrunken
to the size of a keyhole. I believe that grief
can travel distances like that. My mother’s
cough would wake me up at night, two hundred
miles away. That was a year ago, before she
got too small. She drowned in a cloud
of bright white baby hair. She lay on the bed
as if on a board, the last I saw her, still and calm.
Then truly as if a lever were pulled, she tipped
backward, out of view.
We had the Latin of the waves at night.
We had the vernacular of tears.
We had the alternate ending, plan B,
in which we stayed together. We had
plan A, in which we would part.
We had the letters I have burned,
in which you spoke of our past life
as married, in a forest, on bicycles,
the trees angry seraphim, and darkness
coming. We had this now, not that.
We had that once, now this.
The sun was neither rising nor setting.
Our kisses plosives. The sex, the one time,
is sibilant: shh, before you cross the room
in a nightgown, the knock at the door.
Because it has fed
on the bottoms of rivers, and got fat,
we buy the carp at Christmastime.
It bends in its U in the porcelain tub.
With rolled-up sleeves my father
lifts the carp, winds a white rag
round its eyes. He uses the hammer
to quiet the suck of its mouth,
the tail’s denials, its thumping.
The carp was introduced in Western water
seven hundred years ago. But it came
from farther east: its body continually
revising itself. He opens it with one slice
down the side, his awful Bible.
In the city I’m traveling to,
awnings billow up in wind and light.
Winter is early. We are surprised
we are surprised. The waiters
in their tiny jackets pull their jackets
close against the sudden cold.
In the city I’m traveling to, I arrive
on the train, its only passenger.
A man in black clothes helps me down.
A constable is twirling his baton.
A servant bears my latched-up trunk,
but ruefully, ruefully. He is gone.
A certain old woman is waiting to sell me
my carnation: to offer it with one hand,
to cover her teeth with the other.
American Poetry Review
Lincoln, returning to Springfield
in his coffin, the third of May, fell victim
to imperfect embalming, so, nearly
three weeks passing, his face took on
a fast collapsing, melted gaze.
If there were some way
he could see what he’d become,
grotesque, green Jesus of the hour,
returning dead to the dead he left here,
including one son, he would have turned his head.
He would have signaled
for the train to keep traveling.
He would have let the towns blaze past him,
the cities of the living, people pointing
with their hands, his death a tail of ice.
Endorsements from the back matter of Another City:
"Like Joseph Cornell's elegant and bewitching boxes, David Keplinger's poems are miniatures which reveal a universe. Although the poems begin in the quotidian, they are apt to end in revelation. And these arrivals are made all the more resonant thanks to Keplinger's exacting metaphors and unerring command of free verse craft. Yet Keplinger also reminds us, again and again, that revelation is by no means easy to come by. As he writes in one of the poems, "Now for the rest of your life/you are trying to be born/through a wound," a passage of Rilkean intensity which suggests that for Keplinger the stakes are very high indeed. I admire his poems immensely, and Another City is his finest collection yet."
“There is a lonely ride in every story,” David Keplinger writes, and in each and every quietly stunning lyric in his new collection, Another City, Keplinger locates that journey—however small, however iconic—and undertakes it. Sometimes the sojourn comes from his own experience, at others from the annals of his family, or from historical and literary figures as various as Walt Whitman, Simone Weil, Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie, and Houdini. Within the places (somatic, textual, geographical) that house us and those that we house within us, Keplinger—frank, compressed, darkly witty, and never far from a sense of mythic wonder—makes clear that the purpose of a pilgrimage is to locate in any “city” the profoundly humane citizenry of the isolato. “[D]eath is not the subject of our portrait. / It is,” he writes in “The City of Birth,” “the knowing you are seen, / it is the lighting of one’s light, it is to take/ a body, knowing you are not the body. / That’s loneliness.” In what Keplinger calls, in another poem, “our days of faithless translation,” we are beyond lucky to have Keplinger interpreting our steps with ardent, articulate compassion.”
—Lisa Russ Spaar
“Another City is thoughtful, funny, and transgressive. I’d say that David Keplinger has a voice we need to hear—except that’s not quite right because, like Whitman, his “voice” contains multitudes..All these voices accumulate to a rich texture, inflected by literature and travel. I’ve rarely stood back in such awe at a collection’s ordering principles, its bone structure. These cities open their mouths and sing.”
“I cherish and am grateful for these poems for the way the sweep of them disturbs me out of my complacency, and although I'm not certain as to who it is who tells me these poems, who sometimes even sings these poems out loud so I can hear them rise above the noisy hubbub of our lives, I know that he is capable of a powerful wrenching of the past into the painfully clear light of knowing, and I know that he, this speaker, presents or illustrates really, a frighteningly familiar record of someone confronting the essence of who he is in the world in the middle of his life without any reaching for self-praise or even salvation.”
Read my interview with AU MFA candidate Melody Tootoonchi at Cafe MFA here