Heidi Peppermint


Claudia Keelan
Alice James Books
$11.95 / 69 pages / ISBN 1-882295-28-5

Claudia Keelan's Utopic delivers complex yet accessible lyrics of the political imagination. In these poems, Keelan cries out for change. Full of linguistic unrest, formal disobedience, and a thoughtful, rigorous silence, these poems perform an ethical stance from the uneasy territory of between—between such dangerous concepts as self/other, them/us, utopia/dystopia.

Keelan enacts her inclusive politics with a kind of radical linguistics that, among other things, permits a high level of ambiguity. In these poems—and in society, Keelan suggests—ambiguity must be tolerated. Here, an ideology has been conceived of the utopian and, paradoxically, of sustained indeterminacy. Moments like the title express such a complex vision —Utopic as "you topic"—a pun that suggests both the ethical necessity that we imagine ourselves as "the other," and that our selves may not be so easy to pinpoint, perhaps are "no place" to be found.

Shifting meanings and possibilities portray what Keelan seems to imagine as the most moral turns of mind. Highly resonant titles divide the book into its four sections and develop a take on utopia that includes both longing and skepticism: "Zion," "Bluff City," "Bro. Ken Fac.Tor.Y," "The Meadows," and a discursive page or so of "Debts" tacked on at the end. Just a look at the way "Bluff City" undermines the idealism invoked by a title like "Zion," or the "brother" and "kin" cut off from each other by capitals and punctuation in "Bro. Ken Fac. Tor. Y," gives a picture of Keelan's restrained stance toward idealism.

For a writer like Keelan, this self-doubt that is a kind of political action, begins with a self-conscious relationship to language. In the first section "Zion," an epigraph by Simone Weil states: "We must take the feeling of being at home into exile. We must be rooted in the absence of place." In many respects, this could be read as Keelan's ars poetica. She is a writer who both seems to feel at home in language and forever fallen from naive usage:

I          is not a writer
                                 to serve language the cause of language.
The language I knows
                                 commits errors knowingly

While self-consciousness, hesitation, and self-critique are a part of Keelan's vision, a dreamer sings in these poems. She wants to find a language enjoying freedom from any history of domination, imperialism, or genocide, a Natural pre-historical English:

English                        imitation without
Mother-tongue           without imitation:
             "the bowels of the earth"
             "the womb of the earth"
                                  very sweet
                                  without domination
Expression                  innocent fun.

You can see in this example the highly competent and conceptualized way in which Keelan employs the stanza; she will often times justify her lines in ways which not only permit, but beg, readings in directions beyond the traditional left-right-up-down. These poems do not have marching orders; they wander on the page, dwelling in uncertainty, abiding in silence and consideration. Set on the page parallel to one another, the stanzas seem to share equal emphasis:

A pilot's broken                    radio           lost
                      Lost words                        an ocean
Inside animal shadow            inside          Your hillside.

To subvert linearity and reification of hierarchy in this manner is a recognizable and laudable accomplishment. However, one discovers with gladness that Keelan resists conforming to her own devices. Throughout the book, she remains willing to keep herself abroad in possibility. The stanzas range from the prose block to the one-line fragment as simple as the assertion "of Being."

Keelan's poetics is her politics is her poetics. Insightful speculations give rise to emotionally invested expressions, and I am grateful for the combination. I have found the book a place to go for both development and consolation in a time of political crisis. Read Utopic and embrace an ethical stance that responds to the question: How can we act in concern for others when we are so isolated in ourselves:

P/ity    Merc (I) (Y)                   Peace
            All alone in our boats


Review of The Chime by Cort Day

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