“Kingdom Come: Poems” by John Estes

In 2009, we reviewed here a chapbook published by poet John Estes entitled Breakfast with Blake at the Lacoon. In the review we said that Estes effectively evoked a sense of both the literary and everyday reality. That same characteristic is true of his first collection of poems, Kingdom Come: Poems, published by CR Press, but even more so: Estes is refining his art, honing and polishing his poems to create a mirrored reflection of ourselves.

The poems are structured in four sections and an interlude: “in which love and art seek their measure;” ”in which he marries;” “in which a child is conceived and born;” the interlude called “Home Cosmographies;” and “in which they seek the measure of art and love.” This structure is important, suggesting both a circular movement and well as development and growth, a filling out of a life that is young and new and beginning to mature.

It’s fascinating to see how Estes combines images and even realities, using each to highlight and frame the other. In “A List of What is Found,” for example, he tells a story of traveling to Kansas to conduct an inventory of a bookstore, an inventory framed by an old train rail bed and which in turns frames what’s on the news:

A List of What Is Found

The old Burlington
Northern rail bed touches
the southern edge
of the yard
not a hundred feet
from where we’re staying—
a ghostly, trackless
river of gray gravel
embowered by cottonwood
and hedge, thickened
with pines and red cedar.
Our hosts tell us—
as two wrens zip around
rebuilding their
poorly placed
nest the Doberman
ate babies-and-all—
how an easterly wind would
blow the approaching
rumble off and so a throbbing
hulk of diesel engine
towing 100+ coal cars
could suddenly darken
their back deck,
a paracletic comfort
(in retrospect, at least)
abandoned for a bike trail.

I’ve come to Kansas
to do a job,
to inventory a store of books—
the endangered kind
housed in old Victorians
where light switches
hide behind Kierkegaard
and the bathroom is
a stockroom stockpiling
stacks of bargain-buy lectures
on Aquinas on Aristotle,
titles they account for
in years per turn
not turns per year—
which means forsaking books
to better address
the shelf-worn menace
of our bourgeois
An old copy of Thoreau
sits on the stand
calling out alongside
other diluted (i.e., textual)
libidinal oppositions:
and rational words
of institution
that mock a project’s
scope and scale
but safeguard a life,
so designed, of convention.

On the news:
in the desert outskirts
of an Iraqi town,
the so-called Triangle of Death,
a patrol is ambushed:
five dead—
3389, 3390, 3391, 3392, 3393—
three unaccounted for.
Our host descends
to remind us over 3000 die
worldwide each day
in car crashes.

Estes write from his own experience, and that experience is easily recognizable – the husband, the father, the handyman, the house repairman, the guy dealing hail damage to his roof and car or taking out an insurance policy on his child. In “This Poem is Carbon Neutral,” Estes addresses what it means to be a neighbor, suggesting a kind of trade-off akin to Frost and his “good friends make good neighbors:”

This Poem Is Carbon Neutral

Across the street they think
we’re eco-Kool-Aid drinkers: we sort glass and plastics
into blue bags, organics into clear ones, stuff
paper into paper sacks then treat
everything else like garbage.

But he thinks I’m a good neighbor,
and since we mend no fences I stop short of thinking
he’s like Frost’s old-stone savage
despite the Pall Malls
billowing with grandkids in the backseat,
windows up, despite the herbicide
and fungicide and fertilizer
liberally broadcast fall and spring. We wave
and shout news across the way though I suspect
he’s deaf.

Otherwise our lifeworlds
barely intersect, our privacies mutually assured
except for now and again
when an egg is borrowed, or if the wind litters
his greensward with my recycling—
a magazine blow-in card or a pitched draft
or a crumpled receipt.
Once they walked across to inspect
then carried back a worn-out bookshelf we’d discarded.

Now and again I pop their cat
with a pellet gun to chase him off our feeders.
But when the trash trucks come
each Monday,
doing their slow-maw grinding action-non-action thing
and one truck stops for him
and one truck stops for me, we offset,
we reset, we’re zero-sum.

Several of the poems were previously published in publications like Southern Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, American Poetry Journal, Dos Passos Review, New Delta Review and New Orleans Review, among several others, as well as from an earlier chapbook entitled Swerve, which was published as a National Chapbook Fellowship of the Poetry Society of America and C.K. Williams. Together, these poems form a deeply satisfying and outstanding collection.

The poems of Kingdom Come are polished, almost chiseled to refinement, painstakingly written to use exactly the right word, the right line, the right idea. Estes is clear about what he is doing; as he says in “Object Permanance,” “What’s a poem / for, anyway, if not to make the empty / spaces habitable?” And his poems make the empty spaces habitable, the empty spaces that are everyday life.

You can find John Estes’ web site here. He is an assistant professor of English and driector of Creative Writing at Malone University in Ohio.


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