I’ll be honest with you: I had no clue what a biscuit joint was, or that it was even a real thing. I thought, probably guided by the cover design, that it might be something like a malt shoppe, or that Kirby might have just made it up for a (cool) title. Well, now I know better. And after reading Kirby’s collection The Biscuit Joint I think the title is very appropriate: just like the biscuit joint’s parts are virtually invisible but still make for a strong connection, the broad range of topics each of Kirby’s poems covers has little in the way of obvious connections (kind of in the “I do this, I do that” manner of O’Hara, at times), but the whole still comes out strong. The poems carry a good measure of weight, without weak joints that break as soon as more than coffee table book is placed on them. David Kirby is, by the way, married to poet Barbara Hamby, and you can read about her in this earlier post.
Kirby is a breathless, playful poet with (I assume) a great deal of lingual dexterity: some of his word choices are not just delightful but also a mouthful (“psychodynamic electrohelmet” — I rest my case). Like many of the poets I’ve recently discussed here, Kirby is very much aware of language, of the awkward charm of expressions, the ephemeral meaning of words like “whatever,” “awesome” and “cool” (see “Breathless“), the multiple layers of meaning each word carries like skins that can’t quite be cast off even though time and elements are tugging on them. When everyday language begins to play of its own accord, as it does in mnemonics, it’s no surprised that Kirby’s interest is caught by it.
In “Roy G. Biv,” Kirby invents an American poet from the beginning letters of the colors of the rainbow, arguing that “Richard of York gave battle in vain” doesn’t really work for Americans. Working a number of other mnemonic phrases into the poem, he delves deeper into what that poet would be like, what he would write: “He’d write poems with titles like ‘Are Nudists Nuts?’ — the question / of our time, to my way of thinking — and lines / like ‘We approve of intersections but are opposed / to streets'”. He even gives Roy G. Biv a biography of formative experiences (a teacher whose sister wins the lottery, a dog, an older sister). From simple (and often nonsensical) mnemonics we’ve moved on to comments on culture, city life, and what makes a poet, complete with tongue in cheek.
Kirby’s poems are busy, they are constantly moving from one thought to the next, which sounds messy, and kind of is, but he makes it work. I think the reason he can make it work is that even though there is so much happening, all of these thoughts work together to form an idea, and that’s what keeps the poems from seeming like random accumulations of thought.
My favorite piece in the collection has to be “If Any Man Have An Ear, Let Him Listen.” It is more narrative than most of the poems, and longer than most, which makes it an unlikely favorite for me (yep, I have a thing for short poems). The poem is quite simply wonderfully odd and strange. The poem’s storyline, if you will, is this: the speaker is at the beach with his mother in law. She leaves to get hotdogs, and while she is gone, a monster — think the creature from the Book of Revelations — appears. The monster is looking for her. The speaker tries to make small talk and calm the monster down. True to Book of Revelations prophecy, a dragon and a whore also appear. When our speaker explains that “Jesus is going to kick your ass, you know,” they all vanish back into the ocean. The mother-in-law returns with an extra hotdog.
The poem is funny and irreverent in a constructive and interesting way. Which sounds really boring, but isn’t. You should read it. And you can, without even leaving your chair: Conveniently, The Missouri Review has it online, right here.
With all his verbal energy, Kirby can still be very lyrical. There are some calmer moments, some more ‘poetic’ descriptions, such as in “Siberia,” where he explains “The birch trees are / so slim and silvery that you expect them to thrum / / like harp strings as the wind rushes through.” The Siberia poem reminded me of this (amazing) talk by Chimamanda Adichie: “The Danger of a Single Story” (transcript)
Like Adichie, Kirby points out that we tend to have a single story of places and people. In this case, the people of Siberia, who are not all (and not always) freezing and starving, but at times laugh and swim and are full of life.
More: hear David Kirby read, or read interviews with him, right here (http://www.davidkirby.com/online.html)