When I was first starting to publish my work, a small press editor named Kendall A. Bell not only published my work in the online journal Chantarelle’s Notebook, but also released my second chapbook Ordering the Hours. Since Kendall has a new chapbook in the world, I wanted to spend some time reading his work and introducing it to you.
Into the Undertow by Kendall A. Bell – Indigent Press, 2016
Starting with a “desk chair that/ leans on the precipice/of a tumble,” Into the Undertow immediately welcomes the reader into a world that seems at the same time familiar and unsettling. The latest chapbook from Kendall A. Bell, poet and editor of Maverick Duck Press, titles its poems with the names of songs from sludge metal band Jucifer, and it purveys a sense of grinding through daily moments, never quite bright or clear.
The pull of the undertow is strong in these poems, the speaker seeming to swirl in a haze of menace. In “Amplifier, we are told “All I hear now is feedback,/a sour note. I cannot mute a nightmare.” In “Dissolver,” the speaker refuses a companion’s play in the snow, choosing instead to “hide from anything that shines too brightly.” On a day when more sleep beckons, the speaker decides to “peer out the door and watch the town spill at the seams. It is not soft…” As we read through the collection, the speaker moves us toward dreams of drowning in the poem called “Undertow,” dreams where the mere act of waking is a panic: “ Waking is paralysis, is continuation. The hands always haul me back below.”
There are also images in the collection that give the reader new phrasings for ordinary experiences: eyes that “flutter a Morse code of illness” in “Little Fever;” the comfort of a fleece blanket “a warming bastard” in “Lazing.” With this, the poet slides us easily into the world of these poems, puts us behind the counter with the clerks rejoicing at the downfall of a former employee, at the gym with a self-absorbed “queen bee,” being disappointed by the mundane girl with the exotic name.
But these are also intimate poems, offering glimpses into the moments that shimmer in the undertow. “When She Goes Out” gives us a portrait of an unnamed she including details that only time and closeness could know, the she laboring “over how her shirt hugs/her waist, calls herself a sausage.” However, my favorite poem in the chapbook is the deceptively simple “Firefly,” both a nature poem and a meditation on living in the undertow, in a place where one feels anonymous and unsettled:
I flash in the blades of grass
on a low float above the green
in this ongoing quest to be
noticed – to get one answer.
There are hundreds of us here
who crawled out after the deep
sleep and dried our wings in
the stiff breezes. In the dark,
we are a quiet fireworks display.
We are hungry. We are restless.
If you like your poems served straight with a chaser of attitude and a splash of dark realism, then Into the Undertow may be just what you’ve been looking for. You can find it here: