April 30, 2020
I’ve always enjoyed the poetry of Kathleen Winter, author of three collections. You can get a taste of her tremendous wit and daring just by looking at the book titles: Nostalgia for the Criminal Past (Elixir Press, 2012); I will not kick my friends (Elixir Press, 2018) and, most recently Transformer (The Word Works, 2020). She’s always struck me as a poet who takes us to familiar places in ways we haven’t experienced before. There is passion in her work, yes; there is intelligence in her work, yes; there is humor and grief for sure, but there is also something I recognize as the Kathleen Winter edge, always.
“…Winter isn’t afraid to archly remind us that ‘gentle’ isn’t always gentle, but the means to break a horse.'” Rebecca Hazleton
Winter’s first collection, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past, won the Texas Institute of Letters Bob Bush Memorial Award and the Antivenom Poetry Prize. Her second collection, I will not kick my friends, won the Elixir Poetry Prize. She is also the recipient of the Poetry Society of America Award, The Writer Magazine/Emily Dickinson Award and the Ralph Johnston Fellowship at University of Texas’s Dobie Paisano Ranch.
Transformer is the perfect title for her latest collection. In turning the pages we witness transformation over and over again — whether it’s within the emotion-packed worlds of trauma and violence against women, or the incidents of Winter’s own life blended with historical figures like Henry VIII, or even the pace in which the poems travel through time and place. Some of the topics of the poems may seem difficult to read — during the time of this Covid pandemic we can’t help but be reminded of domestic violence waged against women in quarantine with their abusers — but the brilliant, truly powerful language Winter uses to shed the truest light on the darkest corners pulls us in and makes us grateful for having spent time there with her. The epigraph for the book is a quote by the magnificent poet Larry Levis, and it is perfect:
I am the nicest guy in the world,
closing his switchblade and whistling.
“This world is full of knives and slaps, slammed doors, and cruel words…It can seem there is no escape, but the poems in Transformer are spells to bind this violence. Winter binds it with her exquisite knots of interlocking rhyme and rhythm, binds it with her transfixing imagery…These are poems for a new wave of activism, one rooted in telling the truth, in demanding to be believed, in tearing down a silent wall of fear one line at a time.” — Kathleen Nuernberger
Like so many fine books of poetry being released during our current quarantine, Transformer may not be getting the attention it deserves. For more information, you can visit wordworksbooks.org. Please feel free to leave your comments on this WordTemple post or send me any questions. Here now are a few poems from Transformer.
Finally, the girls
just have to talk about their hearts.
My heart keeps me up all night;
I’m extremely adjacent to it.
My heart’s the warm helium core,
I’m a thin film of rubber
which keeps it from escaping into
rain that’s more fast footsteps than
hands, more rockslide is my heart
as it makes itself felt, a horse
in a restaurant corridor,
blocking the bathroom.
How many times did I
try to deport it with poisons —
liquid, pills, or granular —
but my heart is myriad nests
recurring like fire ants in the yard
or in seams between river rocks
that form the porch’s floor.
Louder than storm or dream
my heart accelerates
in the tail lights, mass of leather-legged
or hairless bikers — how many?
fifty sixty seventy? I pull
to the shoulder, it keeps streaming —
foreign & familiar, I can’t think
of anything else till it’s over.
Circles & circles of sorrow
where I let myself go. Narcissus,
I says, you are one sensitive
creature. No one else
can see your wrinkles.
I squint, they magnify.
On the surface find reflections
of hieroglyphic branches,
dead of alder asking:
Can’t I ride the shaft of time,
not be caught in its cycles
like flotsam in a whirlpool,
sport of greater forces?
Flocked by famishing
attendants, cormorant seducers,
I opened a weather eye. Young,
I wrestled with my executioner.
Circles & circles, the mob
surged in to see. Young, I was
the Antichrist of Ingratitude.
Now try to stop my mouth
from saying Please
and Thank you to the air.
South Huntington Apartments
And you were breathless in the laundry room.
Hiding behind a closet door, ajar. Listening
for him to take the cellar stairs. Is it possible he was frightened
he might kill you? You could see his shoes through the strip
between hinges, high-tops that looked innocent even
when he kicked you. Rounded rubber
at the toes is stiff, can bruise a shin thigh
— hell, what’s not soft enough to blacken
when you’re twenty-four. Your ears, eyes
are accurate, are sharp and clear. You stare
at green laces wrapped over his ankles.
Horses drown in the molasses time
that floods a shadow-tinted room.
Until his fear spins him around
and up the cement stairs, a chemical wind
rising to find some spark to light it. Three flights up
he sprints but you just need to gain one floor to leave.
You just need one story
and it isn’t his.