Seen as pleasant and enriching in easy times, in times of crisis the arts take on greater significance. In his collection Loplop in a Red City, poet Kenneth Pobo uses ekphrastic poetry, poetry inspired by works of visual art, to consider scenes from domestic life as well as scenes from an apocalypse. Intersecting in subtle, but increasingly startling ways, the poems build together, reaching an urgent pitch, absorbing both ease and discomfort.
Domestic scenes including family members, kitchens, gardens, and homelife expose the vulnerability of comfort. Having a home or family suggests losing a home or family — throughout the collection, this dual celebration/anxiety of domestic life repeats in a variety of ways. The poem “Empire of Lights” opens the collection with the line “Inside the house our peace rumbles” (13), setting the stillness and quiet of the house’s interior against external threats: “Gunfire breaks the calm, like cathedral bells…” and “time’s red bear…knock[s] over the mailbox.” Many of the poems in the section “Crow at Daybreak” suggest a similar vulnerability of the home to threats from inside and out. Parents and other relatives appear dreamy and unmoving, presenting a danger of stagnation. The next section’s title, “Get Far Enough Out” reinforces the need of the speaker to move beyond the domestic and into less familiar threats.
The collection’s title comes from the subject of a Max Ernst painting, Loplop Introduces Himself and most of the poems refer to artwork from a variety of painters and artists from the early 20th Century. Poems refer to René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Leonora Carrington, and other artists known for surrealism. Their works depict the fragmented psyche as well as startling violence, many working in the years before, during, and following the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, and Second World War. The work of these artists reflects a changing reality: a clearer understanding of the human potential for cruelty and destruction. The work of many surrealists also reflects a greater awareness of human psychology and how we must break and re-break inherited molds and models in order to keep up with what we learn about ourselves.
Throughout Pobo’s collection, the concerns of the speaker shift from family and household, to nation and planet. In all of these areas, we must face uncomfortable truths and find ways to reconcile ourselves to our world. In the poem, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of a Civil War),” the domestic and the political fold together over a meal while “avoid[ing] the trombone anchorman” (76). The speaker anticipates future bureaucratic indignities:
we’ll have to bleach our bones
before presenting them to the Office
of Bone Collection.
Though “we scream,” the gesture is unsatisfying and further alienates the speaker: “Perhaps / we still look normal.” The following poem, “The Third of May,” offers a similar sentiment:
look as they did yesterday.
So much the same but smells
Though Goya and Dalí were separated by more than a century, their work reflects the evolving terrors of war. In Kenneth Pobo’s poems, the reified threat of danger seen in surrealist art is felt keenly, but internally. The poems’ speakers seem caught between feeling afraid or angry and appearing “okay.” This tension between external calm and interior turmoil runs through many of the poems. In “The Red City,” the figures of Paul Delvaux’s painting appear bored or dull:
alarmed the meaning
of life hasn’t yet been
put in a zoo. (78)
Our response to chaos is often to steel ourselves and carry on, but for many of us, the bathwater is gradually starting to boil. These poems reassure us that we are not imagining things — the world around us is troubled and uncertain.
The final poem, “Pastoral” echoes this sense of uncertainty — “You/can hardly tell human/from animal” (90). And even though the speaker addresses a “you” who wants the world to stop, it is allowed to continue spinning. Though we recognize the harm we do, we still prefer the familiar rotation:
…You say let it spin,
which it does, as if trying to weave
a lethal wonderful calm.
The calm is both “wonderful” and “lethal”; we may not outlive our own masks of ease.
While individual poems set-up and break-down scenarios of familiarity and comfort, taken as a whole, the collection urges the reader to find comfort, if not remedy, in uncertainty. Kenneth Pobo’s Loplop in a Red City offers space to both our fears of destruction and our hopes of avoiding it.