Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who Needs Adverbs? Life, Death, and Beauty in Ken Rodgers' Passenger Pigeons

Ken Rodgers taught me to write without adverbs.  He loathes them, those lazy lounging “ly” words that let the verbs get away with murder. I found just one offender in Rodgers’ latest lean and sinewy collection of poems, Passenger Pigeons (it’s on page 43, and it works hard, for an adverb).  Rodgers excels at communicating—with strong verbs, whenever possible—the essence of two essential things: nature’s immutable, infinitely variegated beauty, and death’s heartbreak/horror/joy (yeah, you heard me—I said “joy.”).  

Since it deals with lots of big, uncomfortable stuff—death, war, heartbreak, loss, Joseph Stalin, for starters—this little book can be tough to chew on--no amuse-gueule here. But the stringy parts are seasoned with lines of sheer beauty, especially when Rodgers juxtaposes life’s little, banal horrors with nature's impartial and placid beauty. In the first poem, “La Luz Canyon” (which I can and will argue, with fists if necessary, tops Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), the themes of change and permanence settle around the reader like aspen trees shedding their leaves in autumn. In the Spartan, elegant “Japanese Poetry” (perhaps the most succinct description of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ever written), nature provides a respite from “memory’s black scent of death” (p. 40).

I like words that make me uncomfortable (“Jap Camp/Hard words/Bleak words/Jap” p. 12); words that challenge me (“small asteroids delivered by the god of cuckoo clocks” p. 16); words that force me to look them up in the dictionary (“Lenticular clouds glower over the front behind the town” p. 46). I like images that pile around me (“Arrow leafed balsamroot/stabs the noon-day light/devoured by a vast tyranny of yellow” p. 28); that drift like snowflakes {“And the light    a subtle syrah/Like rubies” p. 6); that come on sudden like a Texas thunderstorm (“And the glass shards on the piazza/And the shattered hands of baby dolls” p. 32, in a poem with the delightful title, “Are Disney Stars Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas an Item?”). There are plenty of those kinds of words, those kinds of images, in this book.

Don’t be afraid to die. More importantly, don’t be afraid to live, to see, to experience the aching, transcendent beauty of your existence.  That’s what I took away from this powerful collection, a lifetime’s work, from a man who has, at times, been afraid to live—but is not afraid to find the words to tell about it. As long as those words are not adverbs.