Review by Lynn Houston
In At Whatever Front, Les Kay brings his readers to the daily battlegrounds of working class life and excavates them for the commentary they provide on cultural notions of masculinity. Kay’s tightly coiled voice invites us to look at manhood the way Dante gives us a tour of hell or Prufrock invites us to walk lonely city streets with him. This act of looking, of providing witness, is essential to the collection, just as it is to any true war story. Because both war stories and the daily lives of the working class involve bodies that are broken or breaking, ones that die without media fanfare. About the speaker’s father, in “Blue Memento” Kay writes: “his ears hummed / like alarm clocks. . . fresh paper cuts / remapped the calluses of forty years / with tributaries of blood, and his eyes blurred with the repetition of movement. . .” The speaker establishes his lineage as cyborg—part human and part of the machines in the warehouse that formed his father’s physical appearance.
Machines, not just of military war but of the economic war on blue-collar workers, become important symbols in At Whatever Front—even the most inconspicuous, like a wristwatch. In “Theories of Ghosts,” it is one of the accoutrements of cultured life that is reimagined in working class terms: “His watch ticks, stutters like a dull-blade plough.” Nature, too, fails the human figures in these poems (“a man breaks the dirt, a drought breaks the man”). The only reprieve from suffering is the clumsy love we gather in passing: “a lover’s unskilled hands / smearing mortar into shattered foundations.” Even the unskilled hands of a lover-stranger, hands that become a mason’s trowel, can patch a body and soul back together again.
But ultimately, in the climate of war and economic disparity underlying this collection, even the act of love cannot ensure the growth of a hopeful future. The collection ends on a heartbreaking poem about an abortion, more collateral damage of a hostile economic system that makes men feel like failures to their families, a haunting invocation of the next generation that Kay’s speaker is unable to help bring about.
Les Kay’s first full-length book is an upheaval, an endearing disturbance.
Lynn Houston is the author of The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press) and two forthcoming poetry collections: The Mauled Keeper (Main Street Rag Publishing Company) and Chatterbox (Word Poetry Books). She is the editor-in-chief of Five Oaks Press.