Demolition in the Tropics by Rogan Kelly (review by Alina Stefanescu)

by | Aug 3, 2020 | Blog, Essay, Reviews

Rogan Kelly. Demolition in the Tropics. Lewisburg, PA: Seven Kitchens Press, 2019. 28 pages. $9.00.

Some readers expect to be punched in the gut repeatedly. Demolition in the Tropics is not for them. Rogan Kelly’s poetic line is wistful, impressionistic, similar to pointillist painting techniques. 

As “the action or process of demolishing or being demolished,” demolition designates the opposite of construction or recreation. For Kelly, the demolition involves a divorce. In order to understand what the poet is doing, one must study what he is avoiding, or purposefully not doing. In this case, Kelly enacts a slow, interior demolition within his poems by alternating the point of view and using the softest brushstrokes to reveal how something falls apart slowly. He alternates between focal points and allows multiple dots to create the light and tone in each poem.

The poet begins with renovation, or an attempt to refashion and make new. “Renovation On Main” describes a couple pulling insulation from an old funeral parlor. The lines begin with different pronouns–I, You, We–setting up a soft tension inside the voice itself. Deeply committed to seeing from the perspective of others, Kelly continuously sees himself being seen. In “Tending Garden At Twilight”, he wanders outside at night to bring his dog in from picking at the tomato vines, and notices:

My neighbor, Nicole, moves as if a Tom Waits love song plays, watches from her second floor deck. She waits for the new boyfriend with the new moon in the sky. I can feel her eyes, a bewilderment at watching a man dancing around tomato plants, balancing a small dog, carrying broken eggs.

As a form, the prose poem is energized by these tiny shifts in perspective, and the layering of details which create a scene that brings a neighbor into the room. Empathy and co-imagining is part of the pointillist technique, the willingness to trust that each dot will create a larger picture.

In certain poems, silence is a space the poet fills or attempts to overcome through sympathy. “Elegy For the Funeral Director” ends with the silence of death: 

The three of us alone, wrestling with an empty vessel in the viewing room dark. 

The final image of ease is disrupted by the word order, with the modifier ending the sentence rather than occupying its proper place before the noun. Kelly leverages small disorders in syntax to add turbulence to the line. 

“The Exploding Heart Technique” uses second person and crosses temporal boundaries within the poem, moving from the past tense of what she did into the action: 

You try to walk it off. Quietly seek treatment in the form of dating or therapy or a 

joining a shuffleboard club while on a cruise for seniors, which you thought for 

singles, because the touch of death makes you misread stuff like that. Ever since 

you’ve been dying your life has gotten interesting. And you wonder if it’s your 

exploding heart’s intent to love her straight through to your end.

The motion of the poem mimics wandering, getting lost, being displaced in time and unmoored from the self-knowledge that provides the basis for solace. Loneliness is Kelly’s metier, and one is bound to believe him when he lays it out in “Courtyard Goddess”:

I knew the sunrise intimately.

The sound of the typewriter against the ocean breaking, the length of time in a 

cigarette or a cup of tea. The changeover from music videos to French porn that I often left on to feel less alone. How the Thursday night American movie started nineish.

The clocks are external, time continues to happen, and the poet’s essential position is that of observer, whether in a courtyard or at the Grand Gondola Senior Living Center.  Silence returns in “Silence At the Borderline Bar,” where Kelly describes a scene in a bar with the eye of one who sees himself outside it, and I am never sure if he is talking about himself or imagining his shadow. 

The purpose of these poems isn’t to present a coherent narrative across time-space (that would make them closer to flash or micro creative nonfiction). I feel their purpose is to invest in human interiorities, to feel alive as one form of self is dying, to explore the parchment of imagined intimacies when the imagination is both sustenance and communion.  

“Nancy, I Love You, Begs Alice” was one of my favorite poems in this chapbook for the way the poet uses a post-it note left on a door to reveal larger questions of human hunger and alienation, or a “grand gesture when we are desperate to be known.” I can’t imagine a world where one is getting divorced without growing suspicious of grand gestures and massive declarations. In “Through The Divorce,” Kelly describes the divorce-time, its particular ticking:

It was also the summer of arms unfolded, fists unfurled, Irish dance. Of trying 

new things. Of saying yes, goddammit, yes. Of reimagining….

Beginning in renovation, the book ends with the titular poem, “Demolition in the Tropics“, where Kelly’s voice again pivots around the gaze, around the seeing and being seen, around what the eyes say by watching. It begins:

All week, I watched her try on other men with her eyes. We were at a couples 

resort, no longer a couple. She was on a path of self-discovery and I was blocking 

her view of the sea.

There is a slow horror in this poem, in its helplessness, perhaps even in its avoidance of confrontation. And this is the beauty of Kelly’s technique, the demolishment it brings to the page in gestures and gazes, in points of discrete detail, in complicated tapestries saturated with images rather than rage.

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