Red Dragonfly Press
press-in-residence at the Anderson Center
Red Wing, Minnesota
97 pages

Designed and Typeset by Scott King using Menhart MT Std.— a digital type design based upon the metal printing type by Czech type designer Oldrich Menhart
Cover painting by Lisa Nankivil,
Detail of ‘Caldera’ 2011, 48” x 58”
Author photo by Lynn Nankivil

Available through Red Dragonfly Press, Small Press Distribution, Alibris

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Bill Stobb, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2013 - “The Confluence of Mysterious Origins”

Having grown up as a poet on regional Midwestern anthologies like Common Ground, Beyond Borders, and Prairie Volcano, I was introduced early on to the conventions of deep image poetics. And as a native of rural Minnesota, the landscapes and communities depicted in those anthologies just seemed natural to me—not a stylistic by-product of surrealism’s slow saturation into American poetics. Life was really like those poems. Consciousness moved from surface to depth, and was connected with incomprehensible feelings that had become attached to mythic imagery drawn from western traditions.

These years later, I wonder what a new Midwestern anthology would look like—a collection that could follow traces from those mid-twentieth-century poetics into the poetic and cultural world of the early twenty-first century. If Common Ground were collected today, what would it look like? How do contemporary Midwestern poets explore that conventional deep image sense of the live center of life, the pulsing image at the core that can be glimpsed but never fully known?
This was the mindset I occupied when I dove into new collections by Minnesota poets Ken McCullough and William Waltz. McCullough’s new full-length collection, Broken Gates arrives from the region’s Red Dragonfly Press (even the press’s name is a good emblem of the Midwestern deep image tradition), while William Waltz’s chapbook Confluence of Mysterious Origins, from Factory Hollow Press, comes out of Amherst, where Waltz went to graduate school and which has its own fabulous poetry community. (I should also say, by way of full disclosure, that I’ve met both gents a few times at poetry readings, and I’ve served as an Associate Editor for Waltz’s literary magazine, Conduit, for the past few years.)

From its first line, McCullough identifies with the kind of old school Midwestern poetics that I’m probably unfairly characterizing, here:

   Tiny nest, perfect, woven from horse hair

To find such a still point, manifested in the physical world, seems like the existential quest Midwestern poems have famously embodied. For a certain reader, this line might even call back to James Wright’s shy and rippling “Indian ponies” in “A Blessing”—ponies that electrify Wright’s verse and launched this historic thunderbolt in American poetry:

   Suddenly I realize
   that if I stepped outside my body I would break
   into blossom

The poem is a major touch-point for Midwestern poetics, set as it is near Rochester, Minnesota (rumor has it there’s a plaque at an I-90 rest stop honoring the poem’s inception), and, moreover, illustrating the magical ineffability that poetry can almost touch at the center of a moment—a palpable energy that’s better approached through metaphor and imagery than through philosophical logic or taxonomy.

McCullough’s title premise for Broken Gates is underscored by the book’s epigraphs, including this one from Edith Sitwell, on William Blake: “Of course he was cracked, but that is where the light shone through.” In his poems, McCullough seeks moments of pure light in a blissfully broken world. In “The Time,” he cleaves to his visions, physical and symbolic.

   I would like the time
      to spy on the pond
   where the coyotes congregate
     I would like the time
        in the hollow oak

    until vines
     wind around me

The act of seeing, of being in the world, hones the observer’s desire to live, and a pure incorporation into the natural would be a best-case scenario for death. Later in the poem, the speaker regrets the “chemlawn halitosis” of his neighbor’s riding lawn mower and the “laptop implant” his partner has acquired. McCullough’s late romantic oaths show his fealty to contact with an uncorrupted world, still inhabited by fellow creatures, whose presence remains available to us:

    oh, in time
      before oblivion takes us
   I’ll wake you
         and walk you to trees
        where silver eyes watch

Throughout the collection, McCullough draws on a wealth of traditions and travels to a variety of locales; the poems understand the speaker’s place in time and within a weave of natural and cultural histories. As one of the cover blurbs notes, McCullough has a shamanic way of adjusting the existential level of his poems—from the box elder bug to the sense of prehistory we carry in our bodies. Yet if the main desire is to connect with something transcendent, McCullough’s poems are also up for complexity and connectivity.

            They might
   raise the level of your essence or
   dapple the lone rider on your horizon.
   They might sink intact into the
   Akhasic record and all you remember
   is invisible hands on your back.

In short, Broken Gates is a nimble, fluent collection situated in a great tradition of American poetics. McCullough’s presence is thoughtful, passionate, and kind. Reading the book is like having an excellent conversation with someone who’s smart and wise and welcoming.

I fully realize that “Midwestern” is unnecessary, as is “Minnesota” earlier in the essay. It’s not about identifying allegiances to a state or region. It’s much more about the persisting legacy of deep image poetics, which could be considered a little surprising, given how long we’ve known that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Maybe we’re a speck elapsing on a speck in an unraveling dust bunny, but we still like when poems come to rest. Is that Midwestern? No. Probably it was all Spanish to start out with. Maybe French, or Italian. Yes, if we’re Midwestern at all, we’re probably secretly prone to the occasional dream of being Italian.

Lucy Bryan Green, Taos Journal of Art and Poetry

The allure of Ken McCullough’s seventh volume of poetry lies in his intimate portrayal of landscapes. A master of “looking closely,” the poet possesses an artist’s acuity, a naturalist’s knowledge, and a child’s sense of wonder. The opening piece offers readers “Chartreuse / of new shoots, red of rhubarb, one gash / of sunlight trapped in the foliage”—a concentration of detail sustained throughout the book. But Broken Gates provides more than sensory immersion into the natural world. It explores human connections to place: the way places influence our conceptions of self, relationships, family, history, politics, and home.The structure of the collection underscores these connections. Each of its three sections has a different thematic and geographic focus. The first, “Driftless,” takes its name from the Midwest region where McCullough has lived with his family since 1996, an area whose topography is characterized by a lack of glacial drift. In Broken Gates, McCullough articulates the physical and psychological significance of that place:

   When I came to live here, fifty years into my life
   in this valley cut by the river
   all I knew was wandering, but this
   the Driftless Region, is what I breathe and drink now.

Images of rural life pervade many of the poems in this section, often meditating on the intersection of domesticity and the nature world. “Night Holding the Scent of Day” moves from the wild beauty of a bird’s nest to a family garden to “Linens left on the line all day and forgotten— / sun-drenched, scents trapped in the weave.” Other poems describe the tasks of pruning apple trees, clearing undergrowth, and growing and cooking Brussels sprouts. The speakers in these poems seek out ways to unite their relationships with nature and their relationships with people. In “The Time,” the speaker tells his lover, “I’ll wake you / and walk you to the trees.” In “Find,” father and son admire a large moth hanging on a screen door. Subverting the doctrine of dominion, the poet imparts his reverence for the land he inhabits to his son in the section’s final piece: “Do not subdue and do not have dominion. / You are husband to this land, and steward.”

Broken Gates’ second section, “Westering,” also explores associations between people and place, but its speakers tend to be drifters rather than driftless. Moving through landscapes in the western United States, mainly Montana, many take to the road—holing up in a hotel until bad weather breaks, riding a bus east “through small towns reviving,” or driving through a flash flood on a New Mexico highway. The interior lives of these speakers often mirror their geographical in between-ness. “The darkness in my room // resembled me,” one reflects. Another calls an old girlfriend he hasn’t spoken to in 18 years to “explain to her how much it hurts / leaving Montana.” A remote road allows another to mourn the death of an old lover. The bleak backdrop bears up his regret: “If I’d have known myself I’d have never left. / If I had ever stopped equivocating.” Despite the melancholy of many of its subjects, this section is not devoid of hope. A visitor “At Chief Plenty Coups’ Medicine Spring” receives this message from a nearby chickadee (the departed Crow leader’s spirit animal):

   sink-sink sink-sink
   drink and be healed

   and be healed

   and be healed

The final section of Broken Gates, “Portals,” transports readers across space and time. The mélange of speakers includes a twelfth century crusader on his final quest and a twentieth century pilgrim to Ganeshpuri India, who performs “Seva” (God’s work) by hauling gas cans full of cow urine and picking up human feces. In “The Black Isle, Scotland,” the poet searches for the graves of his ancestors. This poem provides one of the most exquisite sequences of the collection, a manifestation of turning back time:

   The spent summer leaps from the blueberry gorse,
   the spit-up flies from the wet nurse’s shoulder
   back in the baby’s mouth, irises evaporate,
   the sun rises over Inverness and sets on the North Sea,
   time walks, time and its beasts walk sdrawkcab.

In addition to supplying a diversity of subjects, this section uses unexpected styles and forms. Both “Driftless” and “Westering” favor the first-person point of view and long lines of free verse, but the pieces in “Portals” depart from these norms. Both “Domestique” and “The Cottage” give third person portraits of marriage (one grim, the other full of promise). The rhyme employed in “Four Fingers and a Thumb” lends a satirical edge to its critique of George W. Bush and his cabinet members. “Today’s Essay: a nod to Peter Maurin” channels Bob Dylan in its swirling musical current:

   I don’t care if you’re a Buddhist
   a nudist or tomfoolerist
   a convert or an introvert
   If you don’t care
   how your fellow
   is faring you are missing
   the ferry hey down derry

Although thematic and stylistic differences distinguish the poems in “Portals,” many display the attention to place characteristic of the volume. “Lightning laces indigo” in the sky. Snow falls “in the iron light.” And “the heavy perfume of camellias / and wisteria” fills the air.

“Today, I bless the fences fallen into disrepair,” the poet proclaims in the collection’s title poem. Then, recasting Psalm 100, he instructs his son, “enter these broken gates with thanksgiving.” Indeed, Broken Gates is a celebration of brokenness, whether broken ground or broken relationships. Wanderers and wonderers, homesteaders and homebodies, lovers of land and lovers of language will delight in these 57 poems. McCullough’s richly imagistic and emotionally complex collection affirms the Leonard Cohen lyrics that serve as its epigraph: “There’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”

James Naiden, Ink, Sweat and Tears, U.K.

This poet was born in July 1943 in New York State and so will soon be 70. For graduate school, McCullough moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where he earned his M. F. A. degree and then began a university teaching career in Montana. He also traveled intermittently and widely – all over the United States, and to Mexico, Italy, the British Isles, Ireland, Colombia, India (where he lived for a time and did manual labor), and eventually took a teaching job in Winona, Minnesota, in 1996. When that ended, he became a college administrator at a different university in the same town, where he is now. He fathered two sons along the way and married fairly late in life to Lynn Nankivil, a playwright.

His poems have always reflected his myriad adventures. Broken Gates is his latest collection, bringing poems together from the last fifteen years or so. The book has three arbitrary sections – Driftless, then Westering, and finally Portals. McCullough’s questioning, searching tone has always had fervor, as if the poet is amazed that he’s still alive and energetic enough to create art through disciplined lines, taut images, not overwhelming the reader but instead offering portraits, some short, others longer, of those he has known or situations where he’s instinctively looked for the affirmative instead of negatives, for the latter are always around – as we know too well. Here is cogent memory of a friend:

 in memory of Kay Louise Amert

   You, sitting on the back steps smoking, glass
   of lemonade, as cicadas start up in the trees.
   Sweet breeze jumps up from the ravine:
   faint bouquet of plum just as the sun sets.

An infrequent lapse into banal metaphors (“Diet for the Smallest Planet”) does not deplete from the verve of superior poems such as “The Cottage” (the marriage of two friends), “Remembering Bill” (for another lost friend), and “Wolf Point” (for Lynn, his spouse). Or indeed “Abbey” – with the epigram for Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his final days:

   I saw the black shirt of the oracle
   disappear into elderberry shade,
   shadow of three trees on the barn opened
   for a flock of purple-black marauders:
   “unk, unk, unk, talulah,” they exploded,
   “wittgen, wittgen” in response – oh, holy
   afternoon. Never saw him face-to-face,
   his words like frozen bliss in the air,
   every word an impossible challenge.
   A tinge of old leaves, a slow riverbank –
   a chance to fall in familiar steps.
   And snow falling in the iron light.

There are many longer poems here, shorter ones, all adding up to a fine distillation of a lifetime’s passage in different places. Not that at the end of seven decades an artist’s life is done. No, for some it’s merely a continuation of what one started out doing when young, invariable digressions along the way, but poetry always pulls one back and says: Write – for you are not a brick or a tree! You have the ability to describe this! Do it! So Ken McCullough’s conscience and natural inclinations have never let him not write – and we are all the better for it. Broken Gates is a gathering, a rich harvest, of poems to savor.

Jacob Little, The Corresponder

It’d be easy to attribute the success of Ken McCullough’s seventh volume of poetry, Broken Gates, solely to his intoxicating depiction of the natural world. And certainly, reading his work engages all of the senses, making one feel as refreshed as if just back from a trek through the woods.

But it would do this collection a disservice to only give credit in this regard. McCullough’s voice shows the wisdom of an older man without sounding weary or bitter. Instead, there is a fondness for even the harshest truths that nature brings. In “Pruning, Overdue,” McCullough writes,

   After major amputations, I lop the runners
   And imagine the tree in full bloom, later,
   and a few years from now, when I am too
   stove up to trust the ladder or myself.
   I’ve given her back some years. And as I
   Walk away can almost hear her exhale.

The first section, “Wandering,” explores these landscapes and rejoices in them, shouting out praises that ring out like the book of Psalms. Sometimes the language borders on worshipful, and when there is lament, there is an unspoken trust that everything is as it should be.

His second section, “Westering,” is a different journey. Where the speakers in “Wandering” were comfortably aimless, these speakers are less at ease with their solitude. Whether stopping at a motel for the night, on a long bus journey, not wanting to leave Montana, or driving through a flood warning in New Mexico, the speakers’ only friends seem to be the coyotes mentioned in “Leaving” or the “pickpocket slicing pears in the rain” in “Pluto Retrograde.” These speakers are searching harder for purpose. They are outcasts, but they are still connected, somehow to a sense of location.

“Portals,” his final section, breaks down the gates at last. The reader is brought to Belfast, India, ancient cathedrals, and the 12th century. McCullough starts to play with other forms, using rhyme to give “Four Fingers and a Thumb” a biting edge of sarcasm, and “Psalm” has a flowing Biblical cadence.

Where this collection stretches and breathes is in its explanation of people in different natural locations. Every speaker or character seems somehow connected to the Earth around them in a way that leaves the reader panting for the same. Many of the characters are only briefly connected, but they seem to sense that something important is happening in those brief moments.

And like the Psalms that it sometimes draws on, there is an acceptance to the passing of things. Temporary is beautiful to McCullough. We all, as McCullough writes in “Wake,” “turn in/to grass, innumerable, bold/ anonymous.”

Painting by Lisa Nankivil for "Obsidian Point" Book Cover

Photos of painting, books and other works by Kathy Greden

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