Demolition in the Tropics by Rogan Kelly
Seven Kitchens Press
Prose-poetry is one of those murky genres of writing that no one can definitively define. It’s a bit like a band saying they’re “experimental.” But what does that actually mean?—That you can just do whatever you want and not be criticized for it because there are no standards in place?—Well, that’s how people treat these genres and Rogan Kelly is no exception.
Honestly, this whole book can be summed up by the opening piece, “Renovation on Main.” Since it’s somewhat short and since it’s important to understanding my criticisms, I’m reproducing the whole piece here:
From the basement of the Dangler Funeral Home, we emerged, having pulled insulation wearing only workman gloves and paper surgical masks. No sense of death then. We rose from that dinge in a dark cloud pleased with ourselves. Circa 1993, you jackhammered the sidewalk along the avenue: your long hair against the breeze, bare-chested, tattooed arms animated with the kick from the machine. Women and men drove by, catcalling and honking at what, I imagined, was your majesty. You couldn’t hear the com- motion you caused over the ruckus you made. I stood idly by. You nearly caused a fucking accident. We had proper permits for everything but the asbestos. (Kelly, 1)
The prose is decent enough if this were part of a novel but it’s not part of a novel. Instead, it’s just a somewhat decently crafted paragraph with no real context given and thus, no real emotion conveyed. The entire book reads the exact same way—As if Kelly has a couple dozen unfinished novels sitting around and decided to collected his favorite paragraphs from each one. The book is lethargic, tiring, uninspired, and worst of all, devoid of discernable meaning.
The best piece in this collection is “Saint Queen of Soul Lend Me.” Not only is that a hell of a title but the piece is genuine in a way that doesn’t come off as trying to be genuine; and that’s important because trying to be genuine seems to be all that modern writers pursue these days. The piece is about Kelly not having enough money to pay his toll on the New Jersey turnpike. It’s the day of Aretha Franklin’s death and the woman in the tollbooth is singing along a song of Franklin’s that is playing on the radio. Realizing Kelly doesn’t have enough money, she implores him to, “Sing, sugar! Sing!” He does and the woman pays the rest of his toll out of her own pocket.
It’s sweet, it’s real, it’s moving. If Kelly is going to insist on working in this format, he needs to continue pursuing this particular direction. This is the one piece where he really shines as a writer.
Good poetry is supposed to punch you in the gut and leave you crawling back for more. Prose-poetry allows you such an extreme amount of freedom that it’s absolutely necessary you deliver; that you punch the reader in the gut. Unfortunately for Kelly, Demolition in the Tropics does no such thing. It’s barely a tap on the shoulder, let alone a punch in the gut.
But as always, I encourage you to check it out for yourself. Perhaps you’ll find something in the work I didn’t. Kelly isn’t a bad writer by any means, I’m just not sure he’s really found his voice yet.