Poetry Review: “The Briar Patch” — Crafty Poems, Accomplished and Sly

Poems of concise and precise description and philosophy find their way among poems of memory and daily life, money, art, love, and the oddities in giving names. J. Kates’s technique is alive and various throughout.

The Briar Patch: Selected Poems & Translations by J. Kates. Hobblebush Books, 112 pages, $16.

By Marcia Karp

It becomes increasingly clear during the reading of J. Kates’s The Briar Patch that the book’s epigraph is an ars poetica, one that is addressed both to the poet and to the reader. In it, as in the poems, there is rhythm and rhyme and a notion of what is:

Rule Number One: Everything’s attached.
In the briar patch whichever way
you turn, somebody gets scratched.

Compressed particulars:

    Your oldest friend
needs that woman, that job no more
than you do.

There is thought supported or undercut by word play: “Friendships mend // if they are meant to.” Order arrives with Rule Number Two: make a place for blood and tears. Relaxed order comes next with imperatives that are unnumbered. And everywhere, here in the final line, there is wit:

Above all, look out for Number One.

The volume is organized into four named sections; the final one contains translations. The poems range widely in subject and approach. Poems of concise and precise description and philosophy find their way among poems of memory and daily life, money, art, love, and the oddities in giving names. Kates’s technique is alive and varied throughout.

“Chief Joy” makes its technical intricacies one of the book’s own joys. It takes its title and epigraph from Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon”:

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

It begins in religious and familial blasphemy:

Christ! I wish I could write in Irish,
deal down rhymes to rout black rats

I curse my father for the name of Katz.

The XABBA rhyme scheme is constructed within and between its five-line stanzas. Here are both ends of the first lines, the X rhyme, in each stanza.

Christ! ……………………. Irish,
Jesus …………………….. English
Father omnipotent! ……… Welsh and Scottish
I hear America singing, … Lord,
Israel ……………………… anguish—

The pattern of invocation and nationality/language is reversed in the fourth stanza (America … Lord). It is restored in the fifth, where anguish completes the X rhyme and takes the place of Jewish, which has, nonetheless, been heard in a list of trials:

Jesus, I’d like to write in English
and carol the queen of the azure snood,

but I’ve been cheated, screwed, and jewed.

The final pledge restates the epigraph in a simple language that contrasts with the Christian (foreign) languages that have come before:

Israel, hear my present anguish—
forgive me for the craft of longing.
The promise is no substitute
for certain country underfoot
and the impossible belonging.

The capital difficulty, as Arthur Quiller-Couch might have put it, of formality is its taking over the conversation. Kates allows himself rhyme and meter that can guard against distortion of thought and feeling and often give wonders like these:

warns curly-bearded kings they are one flesh
 with Gilgamesh

[“The Last Great Poet of Sumer”]

laden with gold, meat, and an oily royal promise
 he will be famous

[“The Last Great Poet of Sumer”]

hymning and humming in rhythms of jazz
the wonders of new Utopias

[“Chief Joy”]

Where living animals grow fat,
we’ve looked at shapeless megaliths
scattered around the pastureland.
The clumsy stones of country myths
show us a death we understand.

[“The Cherubim”]

Kates is well respected for his years of translation. Included here are translations from Latin, various ages of French, and Russian. Here, as in the original poems, Kates is occasionally freed from meter and rhyme and shows how phrase and idea can be powerful ways to shape a poem, as in the unzipped “Blood Orange” (from Jacques Prévert’s “Sanguine”). “Paradise County Seat,” Sergey Magid’s long poem of history and attempted escapes from its crushing control, brings Eliot back into English from Russian. The brilliance of the poem’s ending owes something to the coincidental claims of several languages on the final syllable:

I am singing a hymn to love. Da-da, da-da.
I am singing a hymn to love. Da-da, da-da.
I am singing a hymn to love. Da.

Other writers make their way into the volume via allusion. For Keats, what might perhaps be shared through time is the self-same song, while for Kates it is

For sure, the selfsame oxygen

[“The Air”]

we all of us end up breathing. Next, a phrase with one word left unsaid is put to new use:

No things but in things,

[“Unlawful Entry”]

In changing W. C. Williams no ideas but in things, Kates, whose intelligence shows in all these poems, introduces a moment of wit, William Carlos Williams / no things but in things.

Milton’s two inerrant great lines make their way into “To an Irish Landlady”:

So, while we two with wandering steps and slow
from Dublin take our intertwining way,
we chant this curse along the road we go:

Poet J. Kates — he calls for a certain kind of art.

The lovers are not solitary, as are Adam and Eve, because they are the ones to do the cursing. Kates’s Mrs. M.— is not the first of her profession to rouse a boarder to the magic of bad words. George Farewell wrote the almost-eponymous “An Adieu to my Landlady” and then “Privy-love for my Landlady” in the eighteenth century. His was a Catching, conceited, choleric old fool whose cheapness in the first poem calls for thrashing upon her buttock-bubbies and whose bewitching look in the second serves as a welcome laxative in the second. Kates is no less unrestrained in his poem, where lovers are forced out of a bed of love, though not out of Paradise, by one who is sniffing disapproval / of lust. The curse concludes

and may your fingers (when you next seek sleep)
inch under bedclothes in between your thighs,
caress, explore, and in recesses creep
with restless purpose and a vague surmise;
may you hold dear what you consider cheap
and cheapen yet with territorial cries,
and ride all night, unsatisfied, the hand
that now you raise against us in your lovely land.

Kates is so crafty—both accomplished and sly—that sometimes the poems create the response he describes in “Industrial Steel, Quai d’Orsay”:

There is something in me that turns to industrial steel
when I hear of stone Buddhas blown to savage rubble
or irreplaceable watercolors seared in a fire.
I care, but I do not grieve.

Emotions are sometimes hinted at but not rendered. There is no reason they must be; a good poet’s particularities of language come in part from particularities of personality, and the part that feelings play in art is the artist’s to determine. Yet, Kates ends this poem with an implicit call for a certain kind of art:

     Life is its own tidal wave
and washes away whatever grows or is built—
sooner or later Venice and Angkor Wat, the Spiral Jetty
and oh, this last Monet sketch of his dying wife
that makes me weep new tears every time I see it.

None of the poems in the volume is less than accomplished. Those that are more, that have everything attached and don’t turn polite about what has been scratched, make the leap from ah to oh.


  1. Marcia Karp on February 12, 2013 at 10:28 am

    What a pleasant surprise to discover this morning that J. Kates is one of the Arts Fuse contributors.

  2. Shelley on February 12, 2013 at 11:12 am

    “A vague surmise” is a bending of Keats too, no?

    • Marcia Karp on February 13, 2013 at 4:41 pm

      Likely so, I think, Shelley — coming in the vicinity of “explore” and “territorial cries.” Thanks.

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