By Sarah James
October 6th, 2023
“Child wolves, get out of the city before sunrise, consider the times we live in. Keep running,” Keenan masterfully writes. Former poet laureate Rober Pinsky once stated of Sylvia Plath’s work; “her poems throw off images and phrases with the energy of a runaway horse or a machine with its throttle stuck wide open.” It would be impossible to not draw connections to Keenan here, her vivid passion is palatable and enchanting, each poem its own story. Her poems so keenly evoke memory, dancing spiritually from the page, bold and fearless even in their simplicity. She writes with wisdom even when musing over the banalities of everyday life, the markings of a truly astounding poet, one not contained and frustrated but enthralled by modern living and the ponderings of the human experience.
Keenan grew up in Bloomington Minnesota, on what she lovingly describes as a dead-end street, on three acres surrounded by nine-mile creek, protected parkland and forest. A familiar setting for many readers as I imagine. This is evident in her newest work, ‘The Saint of Everything’, where set and setting truly encapsulate the soul of each poem, references to the wonderful nature of Minnesota is strewn throughout, fields, farmlands and forests. There’s a lonely midwestern energy, locations tinged with a liminal space feel, the emptiness of Midwest suburbia, a marker of Keenan’s craft; although and it is much appreciated at time; she does not feel the need to just contain herself to this rural setting, and has a penchant for referencing dreamy faraway destinations such as the Island of Corfu, Scotland and Hawaii as they return through dream and memory. This distance stretches not just in the physical realm but between characters too, most poignantly in ‘The Story that Covers the Story’ where a daughter is sitting vigil with her dying mother. Both women, lives well lived have now surrendered to the inevitable, feel peace from long protected stories which Keenan describes as “entombed”, there’s a protection in knowing that death is imminent and in that there is nothing much more to say.
Keenan writes of her work, “Some ways I see my life are visible in my collections of poetry. Some ways I see life are visible in my college work. Some ways I see life are visible only to my students, who have been my companions in honour of writing for so many years. Editor at Milkweed editions, teacher and Founder of the Laurel poetry collective Keenan has done much for the literature scene here in Minnesota. Attending Macalester College, she worked in and directed the Minnesota Writers and Artists in the Schools Program. I encourage you to check out her website if you are interested in her extensive and impressive discography. Author of ten collections of poetry and a book of writing ideas Keenan received The Minnesota Book award for Willow Room, Green Door: New and selected poems.
This is my introduction to Keenan’s work. One word that was conjured in my mind on my first read through was – soulful- but not in the traditional sense. These poems equally comfort and provoke an eerie wondering, there’s something so familiar, yet so uncomfortable. She employs repetition often, there’s a nagging cyclical feel to the poetry itself and structure of the collection, the repetition of saints appearing, the saint of everything and the saint of common murders juxtaposed against each other, numbers repeat, motifs of letters and liars, Keenan isn’t always clear- and she doesn’t need to be, that’s part of her spell. We’re always left at the mercy of her wonderful craftsmanship. Keenan leads us through landscapes of midwestern nature the all too familiar flickering of familial memories with this overarching theme of the female melancholia, a genre so often polluted by male writers it was refreshing to see it clawed back here effortlessly.
With another almost Plathian influence, Keenan includes many references to animals, they are visceral, biting and spiritual, notably in ‘They Ran in the Autumn Rain’, where the wild band of animals fall loose, the fox and her babies become directly compared to the human mother calling for her son. The references to butterflies in the aptly named ‘The Butterflies’ are a little less subtle, Keenan exploring the well-known notion that departed souls return to us after passing, it feels deeply personal, Keenan uses what I can only describe as “girlish” language as she tells us of the ‘daises in honour of Jeanette’ whom she imagined would live forever, she’s shrouded in butterflies and pines, there’s a transcendence here, it’s all so very peaceful. Ever a master of the juxtaposition Keenan is quick to equally disturb with her animal imagery the most unnerving reference being the coyote, appearing multiples times, perhaps as a totem or omen, it feels distinctly American, distinctly belonging to this collection. The harrowing image of the neighbour ‘cradling’ the limp body of the coyote in ‘Animals Above Me’ is guaranteed to linger with you for a long time.
Keenan speaks equally on betrayal and loyalty, the fleeting moments of love and affection and the inevitable process of grieving and loss. She speaks on the art of appreciating the little moments in life, something that is so lost in our modern world. ‘A Better Promise’ opens with an homage to ‘Modern Painters’ by John Ruskin, a five-volume work from 1842 where he argued that art should devote itself to the accurate documentation of nature. Keenan so lovingly describes her son, her surroundings, what the flicker of a deer’s tail might look like if they were to see one, she holds us in the moment that is so precious and will go so quickly, Much like the human soul itself, The Saint of Everything reflects the intrinsic human experience we have here on earth, the pain, pleasure, that come from around us and from within us, the power of thinking, feeling and moving through life.
With a voice that is meditative and inward we explore rich Minnesota landscapes, comforting in their isolation, even when we dip into the darker and more disturbing images and themes, Keenan reigns strong, never shying away from reality, she is not afraid to make us squirm. The images are so crisp and new, sometimes slipping into whimsical and fantastical with the imagination of a children’s fairytale with lush references to creeks, queens and many animals. My personal favourites here from the collection would be, ‘Blue Fish Heights, ‘The Saint Of Everything’, and ‘Who are the animals with you in times of jubilation?’ I don’t want to say too much else, it’s dreamy, and wild and rattling, moody and maybe a little maddening, an absolute recommendation to anyone new or returning to Keenan’s work.
The Saint of Everything
Lynx House Press
by Deborah Keenan