Dark Stars (poetry)

Red Dragonfly Press
53 pages, soft cover.

Available through Amazon and Red Dragonfly Press.

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Red Dragonfly Press

Paul Ėluard once said “There is another world but it is in this one.” Dark Stars, Ken McCullough’s new book from Red Dragonfly Press, presents a compendium of the human condition, always grounded in the natural world, and often in totemic relationships. There is lost innocence, love present, and back through time, there are tributes to friends and mentors. McCullough keeps one foot in the primal world and the other in community, yet he travels confidently from one to the other. You hear the poet making peace with mortality. Dark Stars has a deep and engaging sweep. It is a rough bouquet collected en plein air. We are left wanting more of these harmonies.

Joyce Sutphen, Poet Laureate of Minnesota

There is both darkness and light in Ken McCullough’s aptly named collection, Dark Stars.  Mortality and loss sound their sad notes from the opening page in a long “in memoriam” list, which includes the poet’s mother, Barbara McCullough, Leonard Cohen, John Calvin Rezmerski, and Prince.  There are many other memento mori moments:  “Avec,” a poem dedicated to McCullough’s son Galway, begins with a line that brings Yeats’s Irish Airman to mind:  “I know my death is up here, somewhere.” Other reminders are more humble:  “My hair is almost white, and there’s not much of it.” 

The contrast—or rather, the balance—of the book comes especially in the many striking poems of the natural world, closely observed; crows and coyotes have starring roles, but one of my favorites, “Starling Meditation,” begins like this:

    our ancient sugar maple
        still full of green leaves
    twists its twin trunks skyward
      a hundred starlings
  in the canopy—
    chortling rattling clucking
  whistling trilling whirring sprattling
  like a manic orchestra tuning up.

The last poem, For Mary Oliver, brings the book to a surprising (and sonnet-like) ending.  Yes, we want to say, the gifts have arrived.

Connie Wanek, author of Rival Garden and Hartley Field

Some of the poems in Ken McCullough’s new Dark Stars are detailed memories and stories from his childhood–wonderful, complex poems.  But many of them come from the place where what is free and wild overlaps with what is burdened and human, a feral landscape where crows and coyotes and owls are perfectly at home.  Or, as McCullough would have it in “Coyote Tag,” they step on our toes when we are looking the other way.  The poet here has an alertness, an eager vigilance, which is a key to thriving (and writing) in this beloved land.  In “A Citizen of Two Worlds,” his true compass points to yet a third world: “where the shadows are deep/ and all of us carry the smell of smoke.”  The poem “A Lifetime,” has an image I’ll never forget:  McCullough addresses a woman “Inscribing my poems on thick leaves/ with a stylus–several dried that way/ others faded and disintegrated.”  I thought of Keats’ epitaph: “Here lies One whose Name was writ in water.”  McCullough’s is a marvelous image transience, humility, and the confluence of poetry and the natural world.  I love this book.

Bart Sutter, author of The Reindeer Camps and Other Poems

Ken McCullough knows about crows and coyotes, famous poets and local characters, strip joints and meditation halls. Dark Stars offers poems on love, politics, youth, and age, an unusual prayer, landscapes from all over the country, confessions, and an elegy for a cat. That’s more variety than most poets can manage. The range of McCullough’s diction is also impressive, but I especially enjoy the musical zing of his colloquial phrasing, as when he calls a girl he admired when he was a boy “a bona fide drop dead dungaree doll” or says the ants in the peonies “don’t know tophats from tapioca.”

Merrill Gilfillan, author of Sworn Before Cranes and The Bark of the Dog

Dark Stars continues a half-century of gifted devoted work in the poetry vineyards: deep-rooted poems that size and celebrate the zodiacal world and the human crossroads in it. They have the long, long reach of, say, Rilke or Wang Wei, full of sky and passersby and are always willing to wrestle, night or day, with the Angel.”

Painting by Lisa Nankivil for "Obsidian Point" Book Cover

Photos of painting, books and other works by Kathy Greden

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