Black Lawrence Press
November 23, 2019

Welcome, Steve Kistulentz!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Steve Kistulentz, author of the poetry collection The Mating Calls of the Dead, which will be published in 2021.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

Steve Kistulentz is the author of the novel Panorama, (Little, Brown & Co., 2018) and the forthcoming novel, The General Secretary.  He has also published two award-winning collections of poetry, Little Black Daydream(University of Akron Press, 2012) andThe Luckless Age (Red Hen Press, 2010), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award. Kistulentz was born in Washington, DC. He earned a BA in English from the College of William and Mary, an MA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a PhD from the Florida State University. His shorter works have appeared in such journals as The Antioch Reviewthe Cincinnati ReviewCrab Orchard ReviewMississippi ReviewNew LettersQuarterly WestQuarter After EightThe Southern Review, and many others. He directs the graduate creative writing program at Saint Leo University in Florida and lives in the Tampa area with his family. Prior to writing, he spent nearly 20 years in national politics in Washington DC, directing political strategy for corporations mostly in the transportation and infrastructure areas.

On Writing The Mating Calls of the Dead

I’m not sure I can identify the exact wellspring from which the poems in The Mating Calls of the Dead came. I do know that I faced the same problem I’ve faced with every book I’ve written, including the ones I threw away; the opening has to offer a kind of panoramic view of the whole project. That is, I like to think of the first poem, or the first paragraph of a novel, as an invitation. And in the category of how all art is homage, I’ll freely admit that I’ve stolen this idea from no less a poet than Bruce Springsteen. 

Springsteen often talks about the challenges that writing the song “Born to Run” gave him. It’s a town full of losers/and I’m pulling out of here to win, he sings at the beginning of the album, but that implies a set of rhetorical questions: where are we going? And who is coming with us? It was a huge announcement to the audience, and a huge challenge to the artist. But it’s also the important first step on the journey for both. 

When I finished the book’s opening poem, “It is All Falling Indelibly Into the Past,” I could see now in its ending lines the locus of points that ties the whole project together. That poem gave me my marching orders. “At my first Christmas,/ they gave me a hymn to sing at funerals, Eternal/ Memory, as if they knew I would be stuck looking/backwards forever, learning to read the past/ as if it was a treasure map, its enormous X/ a bold hieroglyph that begged me, Dig here.”

So dig into the past I did, coming at it from many angles, approaching it almost asymptotically until I could learn to take all of these slanted visions and shape them into something resembling a coherent picture. When I talk about that literal excavation of my past, it meant that a kind of meditation on the text could be a decoder ring. It allowed me to see how a somewhat disparate pile of poems I’d written over a very long period of chronological time were in fact all children of the same source material. 

If, as the painter John Singer Sargent once said, a portrait is a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth, then poems about the dead and dying presents an equally slanted undertaking. Because they are often the dead and dying people who have surrounded me in my life, those poems necessarily should feel personal and revealing and intimate, but I knew they needed to offer that they should also offer what Springsteen’s other songs on “Born to Run,” the album, do. They needed to be an invitation, an explicit request that the reader come along on this highly metaphorical and personal journey. At my desk, surrounded by notebooks and sticky notes and marked-up manuscripts, this one note kept returning to the top of the pile, a pair of lines from the Robert Lowell poem, “Epilogue,” which felt like an almost incantatory chant to summon the work I was doing. Lowell wrote: 

“Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy”

So I have told what happened. But don’t look too much for literal truth here. The truths this book offers are emotional ones. The Mating Calls of the Dead was written in conversation with my previous book, Little Black Daydream, a kind of post-apocalyptic fever dream that provides an alternate history of the end of the Cold War. In the writing, I discovered that even when we are pressed upon by the most unimaginable griefs, the things that make us the most human—passion, anger, love, pain—survive. I noticed how often the imaginary world of those earlier poems had their antecedents in the real-world experience of my own life. I’d taken the incidents and behaviors of real people and used them to populate an imaginary landscape. These new poems then are an attempt to do the same work without the artifice of an imaginary world. These poems are the ways in which the dead, alive and busy, have spoken to all of us. 

Excerpts

It Is All Falling Indelibly Into the Past
 
My first blue car, the opened noise gate
of its quadrophonic announcements

and in the back seat, stolen champagne
which led directly to stolen kisses

and a borrowed life, which, once I’d opened
its gift, I wanted to return. So many

objects to envy, so many abject lessons,
petite kindnesses like when the cop,

end of shift drained and tired, waved us home.
Soon my newfound program of meditation

will fall away into forgotten habit,
taking its place alongside Lincoln logs,

the backbreak of day labor, the ritual
applications of eyeliner, steel toe boot

and bottled-in-bond whiskey. All of that
is the past, and I keep reminding myself

history is a list of lovers or fractures,
and most of mine are now healed. Most.

I like to say retrospection is the greatest
gift, that memory drives me to stand on top

of the hollowed out mountain of my past,
which has been strip-mined of all its meaning

by this poem and so many others, but sometimes
progress means admitting that we are driven

to repeat our great failures. My grandparents,
dirt farmers and bootleggers, mined the earth

for the black gold of anthracite coal; they dug
the same meager life from the hills of Ukraine

as they did near Hazleton. At my first Christmas,
they gave me a hymn to sing at funerals, Eternal

Memory, as if they knew I would be stuck looking
backwards forever, learning to read the past

as if it was a treasure map, its enormous X
a bold hieroglyph that begged me, Dig here.

***

The Stories My Father Once Told

begin in Germany, the slog of a wet and late spring, last days of the last just war. The Iron Men of the Metz, having stolen a town from the Germans by hiding in the woods, waited on the banks of the Saar River, where the trucks sank into the cold mud and the nations melted around them. Engineers built pontoon bridges and the sergeants waited to smoke, when the displaced persons began to emerge on the other bank. To be a displaced person meant you were an upstanding citizen sandwiched between the chaos of advancing armies. In the stories my father once told, there were always men whose history is a history of terror, as peasant histories often are. Another word for peasant is victim. My father came from a long line of peasants, and took his place alongside the other peasants of this man’s Army. You may identify the approaching peasants by their generous coating of soot and mud. The displaced, first one, then three or five, carried a pristine flag of surrender, a sheet somehow starched, blued, near spotless. There should be more to say here about the displaced persons, about the gauntness of their ribs, the one man with stomach distended enough to see the aorta’s outline emerge, a blue afterimage in someone’s sunken chest. Or the yellow eyes. The missing teeth. The ghost mouth, an opening in all that mud. I assume that you have seen the photographs. It was a Tuesday. The displaced came dazed out of the woods, Stalin’s hellhounds nipping at their bloodied, shoeless heels. One of them pointed to my father, asked, are you one of us? Meaning are you my people? Meaning are you from the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, the villages overrun at the beginning of eight centuries worth of European wars? Because you are one of us, surely you must know our histories. This is the question that haunts, not knowing its meaning. Are you one of us men, fleeing from the obvious terror? Are you one of us men, sent on our usual urgent missions for help? Are you aware that what is left of the women has been left behind to watch what is left of the children, and are you aware that there is almost no one left? Are you one of us, meaning do you hear what we do, the thousand or so refugees plus ten carts, as many horses, one mule. This is the tableau. My father, to his dying day, wondering aloud why they did not eat the horses. The army waiting for the end. A river. Beyond, a defeated army, and beyond them, the pillaging third force, pressing for Berlin. The displaced identify themselves with pride, sons of Bolsheviks and Hussars and Cossacks all. My father offered the man coffee, water, a cigarette, all of which he took. There is never greed in desperation. This was what just war looked like, refugees on all sides, emerging from the burned-out village, raising a flag of surrender once they exit the ghostwood. The survivors told how a chorus of whispers chased them through these burned out fields, the looted mausoleum of central Europe, how they spent the last two hundred miles marching cadence to a chorus of voices, Slovak, Slav, and Pole, swelling and dirge-like, a liturgal song. The church calls it a hymn. Eternal memory, blessed repose. My father knew this plain chant for what it was, a song to learn and sing in all its tones, a summons to worship, the mating calls of all the dead.

***

TUMORS: A GENEALOGY


I. 
Everyone in my family died from it, that “C” word; 
most of them grew up in the South, where
losing pieces of your body seems normal; 

machine blades claim fingers if you work
a hard crop, something like peanuts or tobacco.
At the Rotary or the Kiwanis,

men who don’t farm anymore wear cheap suits,
eat country ham on Wonder bread,
talk about Tarheels, Wolfpacks and Demon Deacons. 

You listen, savoring the salted meat.
Looking them in the eye, you are hard pressed to tell
which one is glass, blinded by a glancing staple

that should have fastened a storm fence.
Gnarled fingers mash their sandwiches, 
someone else gestures with the blunt half

of an arm threshed to bits
by a John Deere attachment that cost more
than your first house. Toes are just as disposable,

and someone talks about a gout-riddled leg,
a foot lost to gangrene after stepping 
off the porch onto a rusted pitchfork. 

What I am saying is: you expect to lose fingers
but never a breast, or a kidney
or the right lobe of your liver.

II.

When I tell you everyone died from cancer,
I’m not being entirely honest.
Cancer was the cause of their deaths;
sometimes that means something other than
cancer killed them. My grandfather,
prowling the statehouse, would say it like this:
Cancer created circumstances 
that contributed to their deaths. 

He didn’t want to put blame on something
as tangible as a tumor, even when
they cut out a kidney, told him not to smoke,
fastened parts of his leg around his heart,
sewed those leg parts to an aortic valve
harvested from a brain-dead teenager.


III.

Great aunt Bernice died from breast cancer,
smoked Larks before and after radiation.

Her hair fell out with this treatment;
she bought herself a blonde wig

and a Thunderbird convertible, 
smoked and drove fast, fishtailing along

route 12 between Greenville and the hospital,
fingers kneading the purple canyon of her scar. 


IV. 

At a university hospital, I held  
the cold hand of my grandfather.
They removed a cancerous kidney 
and transplanted a valve in his heart—

it was considered experimental. 
He rose from the table,
unable to shake the delirium;
the surgeons eased away from the cutting tray,

put themselves between him and their sterile tools,
and underneath their masks,
gaped at his anesthetized beauty,
the strangeness of oncoming death.


V.

In college, I read O’Hara, because he stopped drinking 
and I could not. One of O’Hara’s men saw death

in London, and fled all the way to Africa
to find the waiting specter in the Samarran marketplace. 

My grandfather survived the teaching hospital,
the probing of earnest apprentice doctors, 

the batteries and wires he joked made him bionic. 
An unrelated stroke shut his mouth for good. 

Still later, we buried him, the cancer cut out, 
blue leg veins tunneling highways beneath his chest. 


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