Friday, July 18, 2014

The Lemon Bars of Parnassus - Lee Kisling (Parallel Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Lemon Bars of Parnassus.  Lee Kisling.  Parallel Press.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2013.

The Lemon Bar of Parnassus by Lee Kisling is a travelogue through trailer parks filled with Vernon's and those lost in the sad adoration of Peggy Lee.

There are moments of the seriously surreal in these poems as Kisling rhapsodizes over Helen of Troy and skies that rain anvils.

These are not distractions, but neon signs that show the way, traffic direction signals for navigating this strange earth.

A Town Full of Owls

This town is full of owls.
It seems unnatural—there being so many.
They flew down from the north in search of food.
They are watching the corner grocery store,
swivel-heads following the delivery boy.

They watch the unlanded farmers and the unhusbanded women
and the men who fish to be at peace,
the swaying alcoholic and the doubting priest.
They see the man on the corner with his hands in his pockets,
a man who built on high ground but thinks of the sea,
the immigrant with an unspeakable language.
They watch the family in the front room watching nature reruns.
They see tattoo boys and apron mothers with wooden spoons,
unfinished dinners, tire tracks on the back road
and the illumination of radio dials.
They see empty clothes hanging from clotheslines
and the barber sweeping the hair from his floor.

There is an owl-dog who follows the mailman.
There is a drooping willow, toys left in the yard
and gray smoke curling from the chimneys
of the houses in this town so full of owls.
There are elbow-on-the-bar owls,
faded sports glory owls and long story owls.
There is a night owl poet with tattered notebooks.

Darkness, closing the day, brings them out—
call and answer hoots from front porch to widow's walk.
A deep, deep and wild repetition—
owls with headaches, owls with crutches,
upstairs owls, back yard owls, full moon owls,
can't go home again owls.


As I read on, I found Kisling's voice strangely reassuring.  His range and choice of song is both esoteric and endearing, ultimately it is familiar in unexpected ways.

Picnic Rain

Where does the picnic rain come from?
Is it the water evaporated from the great sea,
or water spilled over the dikes
that hold in rivers?
Does it come from dripping faucets in old houses,
from leaking pipes, or the sweat of laborers?
Was it once the breath that fogged the windows
of cold-morning cars? Was it beer spilled
on Saturday nights in dance halls?

Is picnic rain the water once flung
from firemen's hoses at burning buildings?
Is it water from the plastic bottles thrown in ditches
or the garden hose spraying the roses?
It it cups poured too full
or the last drops from the medicine bottle?

Is picnic rain the answered prayers of ants?
Is it a gift from a generous god who blesses
by saturation the too-happy
or the too-dry?

Does picnic rain lengthen the weeds?
Does it kiss the tangled root of living things
on its way to dark underground streams?
Does it remember the wind and the sky,
the snap of lightning
and the long descent onto the cushion of umbrellas
or the shingles of houses all in a row?

Do the teardrops of so many
rise again to form clouds
which assemble with purpose
over the plains and picnics
of we, the just and the unjust,
who thirst always and again
for the fair summer days of love?


The Parallel Press series of chapbooks published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries are consistently strong and vibrant choices.  The editors have culled, winnowed the chaff, and it shows.

Lee Kisling is doing his part.  These smart poems have a vibrancy all their own.  They tease at the surreal on occasion but that is playful misdirection, the magician making you watch the left hand while the right hand settles the score.

Waiting for the Sun

Maybe because we are so full of water—
muscle and guts and brains,
but mostly water; maybe that's why
we go always to water, to rivers and lakes,
to pools and ponds and dishpans.
We scan the sky. We look for clouds.
Maybe because we are so many we need more water,
why rain has fallen for days and weeks,
why it comes pouring down
in splashing torrents—black waves of rain
flooding the streets, filling the fields,
tumbling bridges, turning cars into boats.

Maybe because we are full of air—
breath and beliefs and a thousand words,
but mostly air; maybe that's why the wind finds us,
this Jezebel wind,
bending the trees, shaking the windows,
taking the roof, bringing with it
the rain because
we need the air and water.

Maybe because we are so full of dissatisfaction
we conjure the storm. We fear and desire
this furious pelting rain, the howling wind,
the rising tide. Maybe we need to stand and face
the sodden wreckage of our possessions,
of our past, our plans,
to pick through the ruin, the ruin of us.

Maybe because we are so full of longing
we pray for change, a fresh start—
but first, oh merciful heaven, please
rip all this to pieces, push over the house,
shatter the windows, topple the chimney.
Drive us bawling for high ground
to stand huddled with strangers,
wet and afraid through the gray-black night
waiting for the sun.


Lee Kisling, an Iowa native, is an engineer, writer, husband, and father of two who has lived in Hudson, Wisconsin for twenty-five years. In 1992, his first juvenile fiction novel, The Fools’ War, was published by Harper Collins. He has written many songs and poems, plays the piano, and in 2008 had a series of cartoons published in the Wisconsin poetry journal, Free Verse. The poems in this collection are from 2006–2010. He is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing Department at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.


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