The fountain of Kerry Shawn Keys’ poetry is in the Appalachian Mountains, urban America, India, and Lithuania, but the roots go worldwide. From 1998 to 2000, he taught translation theory and creative composition as a Fulbright Associate Professor at Vilnius University. He has dozens of books to his credit. His work ranges from under-mountain vagrant-pastoral and urban-salvage to theatre-dance pieces to flamenco to children’s books to meditations on the Tao Te Ching to a polyphonic epic poem, composed from his South India journals. He has performed and recorded with the free jazz percussionist and sound-constellation artist, Vladimir Tarasov (CD-Prior Records), and now quarterbacks the jazz Nada Quartet. Recent books are Night Flight (poems), 2012; Pienas (prose tales and plays), 2013; Sich einen Fluss verschaffen, bilingual English/German poems, tr by Ron Winkler, Hochroth Verlag, 2017;  New Poetry from China, 1917-2017, co-transl. with Ming Di, 2018; Black Ice, May, 2020 Black Spruce Press; Shoelaces for Chagall ( bilingual English/German selection of love poems, Bübül Verlag, autumn, 2020). Keys received the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1992, and in 2005 a National Endowment For The Arts Literature Fellowship. He was a Senior Fulbright Research grantee for African-Brazilian studies, and is a member of the Lithuanian Writers Union and PEN. He received a Translation Laureate Award from the Lithuanian Writers Union in 2003. He authored a bi-monthly column, Letter From Vilnius: Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions Elsewhere for Poetry International, San Diego State University. He also translates from Portuguese. He is the Republic of Užupis’ World Poetry Ambassador, and Chevalier of the Order of the Silver Garlic Bullet of the Republic of Užupis.

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Kerry Shawn Keys review 02

Some are drawn to leave home, wander the world, in and out of cultures, passing through periods of time by means of humanity’s written heritage, even composing hymns out of wonder at life’s myriad joys and sorrows. Kerry Shawn Keys has been one such orphic wanderer. From his start in rural Pennsylvania, to the Ivy League university of the same state, to the Peace Corps in India, to the joie de vivre of Brazil, and on to the Old World of Europe where he settled in a somewhat mysterious northeastern corner (though, paradoxically, the geographic center), among pine forests and moonshine and the incongruous southern baroque of Vilnius. His wanderings have taken him through a fascinating, re-awakening post-colonial cultural landscape, and I wonder if he himself fully understands how Lithuania came to be home. A Fulbright scholarship made it possible, followed by teaching and translation. It was the 90’s, Eastern Europe was breaking out of its Soviet funk. It needed the West, it wanted the West, and it got this American troubadour, seeped in English Romantic poetry, Sanskrit writ, Samba, the Beats and the rural Deep Image school. Certainly, the influences are broader even than that, from Brautigan to Merwin to Miłosz and on… Keys won the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Winner Award in 1992, and in the ensuing decades has published over a dozen books, most of them poetry. He was instrumental in helping translate Lithuanian poetry into the lingua franca of the contemporary world: English. He became a vibrant part of the local literary community, reading, translating, engaging in jazz-poetry collaborations with Vladimir Tarasov, but never neglecting his American connections, incessantly inviting poets to visit and read at the ever-more-international poetry festivals of his adopted land. His work was translated into Lithuanian (among other languages), giving him a local voice. He married a Lithuanian poet. He started a family there, and was granted citizenship by Presidential decree for his services to Lithuanian culture. Only age has managed to slow him down, but age has also mellowed and deepened his work. His latest collection, Black Ice (Black Spruce Press, 2020), has a more carefully polished feel than some of his earlier poetry. Although I often relished the wild exuberance of Transporting: A Cloak of Rhapsodies (Presa Press, 2010), there was sometimes a sense of the poems being overly stuffed, of too many references and associations. Nevertheless, the long lines and buoyant energy seemed better suited to his voice than the tamer lyrics contained in works such as Seams (Formant Press, 1985), or Night Flight (Presa Press, 2012). I felt that in those long lines (owing something to Whitman and Ginsburg), steeped in multi-cultural experiences, intertextual allusions, the ecstasies of life experienced intensely, Keys gave himself the space to find his authentic lyrical voice. I was wrong. Kerry, returning again and again to the relatively short, free verse lyrics of the sort that dominate this latest collection, has proved himself to be, reductively speaking, more Deep Image than Beatnik, and Black Ice has the indelible feel that he has gotten it right. Here, for instance, is the title poem:

Black Ice

Turn off the lights, all of them,
until it’s pitch dark as a marble tomb,
and then open the gate toward the mirror.
You know how to get there,
as if drawn by the lodestone
of the North Star’s pearly ring.
Fingers’ intuition will lead you on,
following table-top to bureau
past blind faith, and fate,
and then to another gate
until you reach out at the end
and touch the cool surface of the face,
the black ice you are certain must be there.
Timeless, cosmetic, perfection’s facade.
Then say the required mantra:
Sir, give me a face like yours,
pure darkness, to carry back into the light,
a dimensionless, sinless birthmark, birthright.

The theme of the journey is not surprising for such a journeyman, but in this collection, the journey is more one of inner experience: brimming with mystery, uncertainty, and confrontations with life’s laws of change, loss, and death. Often, as in the title poem, the poet focuses on one strong image (the deep image) that carries the emotional weight of the poem (the black ice of the face), and draws out it’s symbolic ramifications without attempting to reveal or explain that which cannot be revealed or explained in any straightforward, non-poetic speech. Here is another such short lyric:


Impossible in words
to tell what it’s like.
One phoneme would be better.
One flea bursting with blood.
Red wine keeps the heart in tune.
The moon seems to be a gigantic spore,
contagious, poised to strike outside the window.
I am shooting a game of pool against myself.
I don’t know who I am rooting for.
Framed, shifty table. Smoky haze.
Rules amazingly simple. I look
into my eyes and watch
the cue ball spin
and careen over the green felt of the world.

All this is not to say that the intertextuality, the multi-cultural perspectives, and the ecstasies of experience are absent from this collection, but there is more restraint, more meditative engagement with the personal and the passing. His, “Standing Outside the Dream”, begins with a Dantesque confrontation with what “has undone so many” (as the medieval bard put it): “Standing outside the dream / and looking in, / I see the dead on all sides.” The poet struggles against this vision, bringing us into the universal agon (and agony) that is an attempt to escape what is inescapable: “We embrace by embracing / the space between us / hoping to outwit the notion / that the dead die too.” The vision here is too well tinged by modern (or post-modern) skepticism to give us an unearthly release into Paradise or, for that matter, into the hands of an awaiting Beatrice. Our only solace is a final glance:

Holding a crumpled map in one hand,
thumbing the air with the other,
I join their spectacle
and look around to where I had been,
glimpsing for one last moment
our gestures, our genius, our expectancy
on the radar screen.

The struggle with death that gives this collection its gravitas is not merely personal. The poet’s “crumpled map” includes the markings of injustice and human cruelty, as in “They Measure Time”:

they measure ozone over Russia
the monarchs on their way to Mexico
the mutilation in the black sites
the cubic feet of Guantanamo Bay
the Cossacks and Tartars in the Crimea

they measure death

Here, as well, the poem finds no escape-hatch. In this case, the great existential nemesis of all has taken all too recognizable form as the Thanatos of human technology:

and so they set out for the Dogon
but a drone gets there before them
the dogs are all dead
the villagers are all dead
the villages are nowhere to be seen
the stars have been herded into a pen and burned.

Keys’s engagement with injustice includes subtle, yet moving references to the Jewish history of Vilnius. The poet now lives in what was once the Jewish Ghetto, and we can feel the haunting presence of the tragic past. In one poem, “Ant Hills”, he sleepwalks after ants to the forest of Ponar, site of the mass murder of Vilnius Jews. In “The Curse”, the absence of the former inhabitants asserts itself in a nightmarish vision:

Black mold on the wall in the kitchen, presque vu,
in the former Jewish ghetto in tonight’s upper room
drunken delirium, the blood of Rabbi Christ
surfacing as frescoed pentimento long hidden.

All this is not to say that love is gone, or that Eros slumbers. There are love poems, and there are loving poems to his children and friends. The quotidian beauties of life are not forgotten. “Morning Panorama Reverie”, for instance, takes us through a pastoral landscape, tenderly observed:

and the grass that grows long in the evening
                and fondles the icy stars, lies damp
                                      in the dew in the morning,
                                                            asleep on the earth

Yet these verses, flowing from neo-romantic sources, are deeply tinged by this collection’s confrontation with the tragedies of human existence, with the sense of inevitable loss that enhances the experience of life’s fragile beauty.

the embers in the ashes
                in last night’s firepit glimmering
                                      like the down of a phoenix
                                                            greeting the oasis of morning light

Reading this, we might conclude by saying that experience has enhanced the experience of the sensual wonder of the world. In Black Ice, it is as if all the flavors and inputs from the poet’s past have had time to mellow and blend and become something else, something individual, mild, yet unique and unforgettable, with the terroir of Lithuania and America still discernible, but now made – through an unflinching existential gaze, through finely crafted vers libre lines – universal, shared, and well worth sharing.



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