Charmi Keranen’s ‘The Afterlife is a Dry County’

The Afterlife is a Dry CountyThe Afterlife is a Dry County by Charmi Keranen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I believe–// In extinction”, Keranen declares in the poem ‘The Great American Interchange’, a poem that like so many in this stunning chapbook manages to articulate scenes of complex juxtaposition that would be hilarious and evocative even if incorrectly taken to be mere happenstance. Simulacra, simple blotting-outs, and sincere questions about what is genuine and sacred run through many moments of Keranen’s work but the nihilism of the succinct line above is never really on the menu. Keranen effuses wry bits of it, however, like a choice spice drawn from a kind of wise, even warm cynicism.

Keranen’s speaker seems always ready to take the world sincerely but, again, what does it mean to be sincere? In the poem ‘Late Cretaceous’, we see the search: “100,000 years out from the homeland// We’re still dreaming// Of a mother tongue or a passport// Something personal// To touch against our skin”. Time scales in and out without much quibbling machination, Keranen’s speaker seemingly always at peace with how little relative time separates our world of plastic surgery and mundane train-ride conversations with our own struggle away from the savanna.

Keranen’s speaker sees and enacts blasphemy–a stolen bike chained to a crucifix, selling her mother’s bones in town for nothing–while also bearing witness to quiet, small moments of arresting intimacy that stand out with chillingly elegant language: ‘Touch the white of his back, the coldest/ parade.”

Spare, surgically-steeled poems move alongside more voice-driven, narrative pieces with an accomplished, comfortable momentum. There’s definite flair throughout these poems for texture and stand-alone images that invites a kind of coy symbolism while also brushing it away. We seem privy to a speaker as ready to forget the totems and callings to God that are familiar as she is to find new ones in the architecture of the unconscious–the five clutched pennies of a man uttering forlorn, broken Italian, a shaker full of hail found in a torn-open wall. Keranen has invited us into the erratic, ornate folklore of a mysterious yet familiar landscape.

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