Book Review: Salt Pier by Dore Kiesselbach

Salt Pier (Pitt Poetry Series)
by Dore Kiesselbach
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0822962175

reviewed by Mike Walker

Dore Kiesselbach brings forth in this slim volume a true, robust, and fully novel burst of poetry—an outpouring that appears like a new crop, with a lot of little things to find in the market-sized assortment that it tallies as a whole. Poems such as “Infection” and “Bullet Ant” speak with a sudden and powerful economy of illness, danger, and other conditions of bodily harm. Dore Kiesselbach writes in a narrow sense on the page, taking up little room and having few poems wander longer than the slight piece of paper allows, but he is able to both fill up a massive space with the ideas he brings forth even when on seemingly simple topics. In this sense, his work reminds me a lot of the songs of the British pop group Saint Etienne insofar as how this band can place an entire wide concept—urban planning, for example, or British coastal towns—in the space of a three-minute song. Using easy, topical, titles such as “Commute” or “Balance”, Kiesselbach proceeds to interrogate every possible aspect of the extended meanings of these terms, in all their varied applications, but with a real sense of thrift and gravity, never toying with his concepts nor his reader but instead also furnishing only the most-useful of truths plainly told. If that does not sound, at first mention, like what we expect from poetry, we’re missing out on the greatest of powers that poems can hold, which is to offer truncated communication of the most-universal and expansive of ideas and subjects.

One of the most outstanding poems in the collection for me was “Protect and Serve” which tells the tale of the author stepping off a BART train—probably in Berkeley, certainly somewhere in the East Bay as he’s above-ground and Oakland is later mentioned. It is night and the author is lacking cab fare for the rest of the journey home so instead, he walks across a high bridge—a bridge a person shouldn’t be walking across at night nor in this odd manner. Passersby see him and fear the worst, summon the cops, and soon the author is under arrest for his own protection as an apparent suicide. What makes this poem stand out in part is that I also lived in the Bay Area and know the BART well—I can see this in action, I can see the policemen’s faces and their ease in guessing they have yet another depressed kid (as the cops in the poem do call our hero) on their hands. I can see the humor and I can see the very San Francisco nature of the whole absurd scene. Beyond that though, the aspects I marvel at in this wonderful—and also, like most of those collected here, short—poem are the wealth of small details included and the ability of the author to make this into . . . well, truly authorship. There is story-telling here, this has the tenor and command of a good short story. While a poem, there is a clear voice of the author—not only because he is speaking apparently from life experience but also because he demands from his poem the purpose of relating a story, a narrative, just as one would over a beer at the bar or a professor might at the start of class or a man on the radio would have in decades past. This is story-telling in the smart guise of a poem.

Most of Kiesselbach’s writing has a narrative tone to it, an event he has in mind to speak of, and the very best examples in this book are often those concerning nature:

Startled from snow-day slumber
by a neighbor’s mutt, it
banged its buzzard’s head
then couldn’t solve
the problem of the white
pine’s limbs with wings
nearly too broad
for a planned descent.
Somewhere a lumbering
angel knows whether
it was dead before
it hit the ground.

This is the poem “Turkey Fallen Dead from Tree”, at once funny and morose, absurd yet perfectly true-to-life in its telling of a very unfortunate incident for a rather awkward bird. These things do happen: as an avid hiker and woodsman I can tell you they really do, and the way such incidents unfold is caught here in a manner both adroit and unique.

Kiesselbach constantly walks the line between personal and universal, between science and the realm of myth-prone emotion. “Beach Thanksgiving”, one of my favorite of poems ever about the beach—and that I say as someone who adores and gobbles up all literature I can find of quality on beach-oriented topics—makes plain the magic of fellowship on the beach but also is true and sincere with its ample details. How, exactly, Kiesselbach fits so many details such as these into his poems I’m not quite certain even after reading them over and over again. In a poem like “Green Zone” we see bright flashes of Dylan Thomas but we also see the articulate voice of an architectural historian or social scientist looking down the busy rush-hour street and taking copious notes.

At points Dore Kiesselbach’s forthright plain language spills too many raw emotions out into the open and seems to lay naked to the eye things better wrapped in layers of dressing. His poem “Volley” concerns his father and family and is one such example, but when his poetry seems to suffer even in the slightest way from his honesty, we have to remind ourselves of all the poets—indeed, all the writers—who suffer from not giving enough instead of providing far too much. Another poem—which like “Volley” also speaks of his family—entitled “Apology” is more engrossing simply because it provides a shorter moment, a very direct and specific moment, for the reader to consider in relation to the expanded topic at hand.

Salt Pier is just full of energy—were the poems longer, they would feel like a full soccer match played with no half-time, such is the energy they carry. Some poems, such as “Ward”, feel long despite their economy. Some invite outside references while others are properly self-contained in their own little frames. Always, what he is doing is something both humble and bold. The poem “Windmill” reads like a thesis on contemporary life but it wasn’t meant as such out of the box, I feel pretty certain. Kiesselbach knows there is such a thing as trying too hard and overall avoids that in these poems, providing very nuanced readings of life that are powerful but never try for a higher goal than their immediate specifics foremost, and whatever other asides they contain are simply a bonus round for the reader. Rock and roll is alive and it lives in Minneapolis, Prince once sang, and poetry it appears also is alive and well and it lives with Dore in Minneapolis.
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