BOOK REVIEW: Next Door to the Dead by Kathleen Driskell

By Mary Popham (Contributor)

As sure as we live, we continue to be intrigued about what comes after. Kathleen Driskell’s new poetry collection, Next Door to the Dead, out of The University Press of Kentucky, takes us into that enchanting mystery quickly. Beautifully arranged like a graveyard of monument stones, and sometimes like the flight pattern of a flock of birds in their seasonal migration, the poems have an unhurried, studied, and meticulous composition. The poet recognizes that our dead have all the time in the world, and she has given their deaths, and the suffering of those who live on, the respect of carefully thought-out supposition. For in the poems we are the observer, through this poet’s eye not only of what is written on the headstones, but what happens on the surrounding earth, and in the sky. Driskell personifies the animal life, and weaves it into the cycle of life and death. She also filters her own life events into her ritual visits to the one hundred twelve headstones—so far—in the graveyard next door to her home.

These poems show Professor Driskell’s expertise at its finest. She is an award-winning poet and teacher who serves as the Associate Program Director of Spalding University’s brief-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program in Louisville, Kentucky, and is its Associate Professor of Creative Writing. She is also a homemaker who has lived for many years with her family near the graves she studies. The conjured lives of the dead make fertile ground for her poetry.

The collection is divided into four parts and begins with “Ars Poetica,” Latin for “The Art of Poetry by Horace. It’s a tip-off to what we’re about to read: artful poetry arranged in a conversational mode. We are invited to stand with the poet as she lets imagination carry us into her world of knowledge. With deep family roots, and a capacity for understanding, Driskell exhibits the authority of her knowledge of literature, history, psychology, and the ancients. It is her heart of recognition and her conclusions written in poetic form that artfully discuss the possibility of buried secrets. It is her challenge and her joy to give voice to her neighbors interred nearby, close in proximity, yet far away in time or death.

In the first offering of “Ars Poetica,” we get an idea of what we’ll find by delving deeper:

ARS POETICA  

Most headstones are covered with green and purple
lichen, ruffled frill humble as cabbage,
so ancient they can only be read with fingers,

but besides those, there are the more recent graves dug
by men with long hair and cigarettes, shovels and yellow boots
while I have watched from my laundry room window. How is it

I have come to take carrion comfort looking out over all resting
in the little churchyard next door? No matter. With this dark
nourishment,
imagination, lifts, takes wing.

The poet gives honor to the dead, and also praises the living: those who dig the newer graves. They carry shovels, do the work that must be done to keep order in the realms of the living and the dead. Each in its place. She talks about buzzards, recognizing them as doing their jobs. “All ready pallbearers” for a dead deer in the cemetery culvert. She ties their connection to a dead woman, when a vulture, “the one in particular has come to squat atop/ the humble lichen-covered monument/ of Sarah Blakemore.” She uses appropriate, evocative words: darkening, black, bare, weeping.

Driskell’s poem “Living Next to the Dead Acre” tells of her and her husband having purchased the unused church building as a home to raise their children. They were told that the graveyard next door had been filled up years ago. But before she has a new kitchen sink, before her new front door key has lost its stickiness, there is a funeral. She sees the purple flags on top of the cars parked in a long row at the edge of the cemetery as “banners pronouncing the new patriots of this strange country.”

New burials continue. For a “Funeral in February” she writes four lines comparing black coats of the mourners moving like the notes of a dirge; again in “Up and Against the Sky,” she sees birds like musical notes—one in a nave. The sky is a church, the bird is music. Deeper in the book, the words on the page take the shape of its action: a flock of birds flying. And the words make pictures of things that look like birds: a boat coming in with sailors leaning over waving.

Driskell watches anything that moves near or in the silent graveyard next door. “The Mower” has things he must steer around. She’s tuned into the grief of the Saturday riding machine that comes in with engine emitting a slow moan the closer it gets. She learns about the grieving woman who visits and leaves small memorials. She’s the one “who had sent the ruined boy up the ramp and into the black mouth of the Army’s transport plane.”

Sometimes at night the poet looks out her bedroom window, and imagines knots of white floating above the graves. She arranges her words on the page like wispy blown kites, the sheets of white spirits, some large, some small, “they seem tied to nothing, nothing but their narrative—(or to mine)” she says, knowing she has summoned them and can let them go.

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Title: Next Door to the Dead
Author: Kathleen Driskell
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky (June 29, 2015)
ISBN:  978-0813165721
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 102

Mary Popham holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays and book reviews have appeared in the Courier-Journal; LEO; New Southerner; Appalachian Heritage; and The Louisville Review. Her novel Back Home in Landing Run was published by MotesBooks.

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