Monday, November 15, 2010

Backwater Poets: Greg Keith

Greg Keith is a poet whose work not too many people know, but he is one of the poets who contributed to the headwaters of my own poetry, one whose work I sometimes forget still abides (he lost his battle to cancer in 1998), faithfully flowing for decades, full of rich nutrients from the ground of the giant watershed, still feeding my work and helping to shape the standard against which I measure all poetry. In short, he is a part of my own personal canon, and you could do much worse to make him a part of yours.

Keith has no major awards to his credit and only one published book of poems for his decades-long love affairs with language and science, but his legacy is a body of work that joins the empirical (hard science) and the lyrical aspects of the human condition in a rare marriage that retains the romance inherent in the new and the unfamiliar, while moving beyond youthful infatuation into a mature union that holds up over time. Hear the title poem to his book, Life Near 310 Kelvin:

Life Near 310 Kelvin

Air so still stars barely twinkle, still busy inside.
Just step out into the dark yard and the air starts
eagerly stripping momentum from the skin.

Her cheek so chilled it made cool fingers hot--heat
needs these directions to go, some difference to erase.
Iron straight from the forge, fierce with tiny agitation,
donates freely the deep KE it has just received.

Hot's whatever gives you heat and cold is how heat goes.
Either way, something has happened and you know it.
She arrived. She departed. Sunlight has finally
reached the tables on the eastern side of the street.

Heat falls out of the intervals between breadcrumbs.
No trail home. Birds have devoured every morsel.

Heat, the ratchet keeping time from slipping back.

Although Keith was an expert in computer technology, his measure of artistic success was not quantity of output or publication credits. He considered '94 a good year: "one article, one story, three poems published." Keith's hesitation to "rush to publish" either in print or on line is now even more poignant than it was in his creative non-fiction story, "Literary Passions," (published in 1998), in which he pits his wit and humility against a Bukowski-type anti-hero who challenges him to a poetry write-off in a Santa Cruz bar.

The story reminds me of Bill Henderson's comments in his introduction to Pushcart Prize XXXIV about how in the literary world speed kills: "Another lust that consumes our culture today is speed, not the drug but the electronic version. This is especially deadly to writers. On-demand vanity publishers will zip out your efforts, no questions asked (and usually no readers found). It's a mistake for writers to be in a huge hurry to be takes years, maybe a lifetime, to figure out what you want to say and how to say it. Because you can burp out a poem or short story on line, you will not immediately join the ranks of the immortals. Indeed you will be embraced in the Pantheon of Twitter. Or maybe The Kingdom of Kindle will admit you. Fast books, no binding needed. Toss when done."

Even though slow and steady does not always win the race, in the case of Greg Keith, allowing the thirteen and one-half billion year-old universe to reveal itself in his work through a diction both aware of science and the human condition, connects its history with our story, and can render the quantum just as easily as the galactic to be the quintessence of existence. And consciousness: listen to the neuron's story in "What the neuron knows:"

"How to listen, to mull the rumors in its thousand ears
and what size grain of salt to take with each.
How to speak its one word or keep mum. Given time,
how to change its little mind about the weight it gives its sources.
What the net is is
gangs of such neurons and weighted connections.
What the net knows it salts away in blind trust at the nodes,
its wealth spread out in unnumbered accounts."

Greg marveled at the discovery that photons disintegrated on their long journeys from the stars to earth. How then, do we see them? On the way, these dying particles meet up with younger free-roaming photons that become excited from the transfer of energy and information, which is carried to its final destination by those who have never seen their parent-stars.

Such is our mission--to receive the recognized pulses of light flashed by others, to add our own visible energies, and to carry the resulting message as far as we can! Gregory Keith is one of those photons. You may never have seen his star, but you can be energized by him to create your own!