March 16, 2016 at 10:30 am

Lit Fest | Meet Kevin Prufer, Poet of the Spooky-Sad and Mysteriously Funny

The 2016 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Kevin Prufer for a reading on Thursday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m., in Baker Ballroom, and for a lecture on Friday, April 8, at 11:00 a.m., in Alden 4.

By Jacob Little
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing: Nonfiction

Kevin Prufer is an American poet of the spooky-sad and the mysteriously funny. He’s an academic, an editor, a teacher, and an essayist whose most recent books are Churches, In a Beautiful Country, and National Anthem. His honors include three Pushcart Prizes, and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, The Lannan Foundation, and other organizations.

There are many reasons to love Prufer’s poetry: his descending, eloping line (it’ll run away with you without warning); his use of the page’s white space to enhance a poem’s look, feel, and sound; the distinctive, off-kilter grace of his imagery; or his ability to write political poetry that is interested more in the discrete universal moment than the personal or the partisan.

Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer

Perhaps this preference for avoiding the didactic derives from Prufer’s Midwesternliness (he was born and raised in Ohio). He also spent a large chunk of his adult writing life in rural Warrensburg, Missouri. But, though his writing is interested in the people and politics of those places, he rarely writes about a factual version of himself. When he does, it is often about the way the self blends into society as a whole. And even in these instances, the personal details seem to be less about drawing attention to the speaker and more about creating a distance between what’s regular and what’s strange.

For example, in the title poem of Churches, Prufer writes from what seems to be an autobiographical perspective about being in a gift shop in Phoenix, Arizona, as a young boy watching a younger girl twirling a postcard rack until it falls and crashes through a window. But then things take a turn toward the peculiar:

There ought to be a word
that suggests
how we’re balanced at the very tip of history
and behind us
everything speeds irretrievably away.
“It’s called impermanence,”
the little girl said,
looking at the mess of postcards on the floor.
“It’s called transience,” she said,
gently touching the broken window.
“It’s called dying,” she said.

Prufer stretches things this way, blending the voice of speaker and character, the upper-register of poetic exploration and the lower register of offhand speech. He takes history, personal stories, myths, philosophies, and even physics, and bends them into a sort of eerie reality where the reader can look at common poetic topics—mortality, impermanence—in an uncommon way. Reading his work can be a bit like journeying into an uncanny valley. These worlds are almost familiar, but something has gone all cartoon-mirror on us.

In Prufer’s poetry, we can read about that little girl talking about her own impermanence and death, or a bomb praying to God, or horses swearing aloud that they’ll marry someone, or even families living in the shadow of a giant bird:

We lived in its shade.

Sometimes, my daughter ran her fingers along that part of the breast
that swagged low over our camp.

It’s beautiful, she said, smoothing a feather’s twig-like barbs,
gazing past our mountain toward the burning cities.
What kind of bird is it?
Some feathers were tawny, others tinged a perfect white.
Is it a sparrow?
 It may be a sparrow.

Is it an owl?
I can’t see its face.
An eagle? I think it’s an eagle.

We often played this game.

This back and forth, this high-comic debate over things both trivial and important, is another key feature of Prufer’s poetry. His work explores our collective cognitive dissonance, our inconsistencies. Again, we can feel perplexed, but pleasantly so, as though we know exactly what’s going on even though we’ve never seen these poetic landscapes before. In his poem, “Immortality Lecture,” he comes close to summing up the effect of his approachable, yet defamiliarizing work: “There is a way to be both here and not here.”

We shouldn’t worry, though, that this poet doesn’t know what he wants to say, or that he tries to have everything both ways. Instead, Prufer’s poems are filled with conviction. It’s only that he seems suspicious of conviction without questioning, certainty without qualification, action without reflection. For example, in “On Mercy,” Prufer writes about the execution of a man in wartime:

And no one proved it happened,
which was merciful for us all,

the road forgotten, the man gone to root and weed,
to marrow and tooth.

And if it had—
Who would find his jawbone in the loam?
Who would pick out his bullet shells and fillings,
like glitter in the new wood?

And if a man should string them
like words on a golden chain

and make from them a charm,
and give them to his wife,
wouldn’t that be mercy, too?

Here, the speaker declares that forgetting about cruelties might be merciful. But he also asserts that remembering them or even using them for our own ends—however small or chintzy—might also be mercy. The poem itself is a charm given to the reader, so we’re left pondering Is this mercy, too? There isn’t an answer, but we’re left with the suggestion that remembering (and even appropriating) a past cruelty can be an act of mercy. And so can forgetting it.

In this poem and others, Prufer continues to explore our inconsistencies, and what poetry can do in the face of pain and ambivalence. We don’t get much insight into Prufer’s personal views, aside from a wide and varied concern about the harm we do to ourselves, each other, and, well, everything else on the planet. What we get in the place of explicit politics is a better idea about what big questions we should be asking. How do we find understanding in the shadows? What are we to do when what is merciful is also cruel? And what are our responsibilities when we express that relationship in art?

In an interview with the Kenyon Review, Prufer said that poetry “does not complicate the world. It reflects on the complexity that is already in the world.” His recognition of that complexity can be seen in the way his excellent poems cause time and distance to swell and shrink in order to show the large impact of seemingly small acts. But instead of simply reflecting the world’s hopeless swirl of complexity, confusion, and chaos, he writes clearly about our otherwise mystifying circumstances. In Prufer’s poetry, we are all impressionable and helpless, powerful and dangerous. It’s all too much to handle, but he tries to handle it. For example, in “Auto Wreck,” a poem about the speaker’s ailing brother, and ultimately about facing difficult truths like death, he writes:

The old woman is saying that she has to catch her flight. She’s sorry she doesn’t have identification,
it’s at home on the table where she left it, she’s sorry, please let me through.

And the young man shakes his head sadly and tries to explain again—

And the woman drops her plastic shopping bag at the young man’s feet. Her son is waiting for her
in Cleveland, she says, he is very sick. He’s in the hospital and what can she do? Look at me,
I’m an old woman, do I look like a terrorist?

And the young man says his supervisor is on his way, that he’ll sort it out—

Prufer’s decision to focus on the old-woman-terrorist after giving us the context of a badly hurt brother is jarring. The reader is knocked off-balance by its very inclusion, but then Prufer throws us for another loop toward the end of the five-page poem. When he is finally in the hospital with his brother, he reveals that the story about the old woman is an invention.

[…] And the truth is, I never heard a word that old woman said, though she looked half-crazy and,
still, I think they should have let her through.

I flew all night to get here, making up the story about that old woman

and still you can’t hear me, though the doctor says it’s ok to talk, how can it hurt?

Prufer makes clear in his poems that he’s not going to shy away from any painful reality. But his work also finds a wary kind of hope in the persistence of people loving one another amid overwhelming threats and uncertainties.

This persistence can be seen in the title poem of Kevin Prufer’s Churches, when a dying father makes a church steeple with his hands, allowing us to find some mixed deliverance, even through a battered God, even in a quavering, creative gesture.

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