01 October 2012

Victory by Ben Kopel

Victory by Ben Kopel

by Ben Kopel
Perfect Bound, 91 pages
ISBN: 9780983221555
To Purchase: Victory

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli

From the opening pages of Victory, Ben Kopel praises misfits and outcasts, blade-wielding punks that attend hardcore shows and young women that roam parties in bizarre outfits, offering confessions to strangers. His poems are as raw and noisy as a Black Flag record, but as edgy as some of his lines are, Kopel hits some softer notes throughout the book, while showcasing a range of forms and attention to sound.

As early as the opening poem, “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart,” Kopel describes teenage outcasts, two boys in track jackets, “with shaved heads and smooth hands,” who spend their school days huffing Pine-Sol from plastic bags and breaking into cars with coat hangers. Yet, despite their crimes, the speaker pleads, “I scream City of Love! City by the River/Don’t disown your skinny fisted sons/locked inside the locker room/They too are the father of you.”  As a reader, I didn’t want to give up on these characters. Not only did I have sympathy for these oddballs, but I immediately wanted to read on, engaged by their antics.

Kopel draws on adolescence and the feeling of not belonging one page later in the poem “Duende-Tripper.” The beginning of the poem could be any scene in a movie or TV show—two teens in a car, with the headlights turned low. However, the writer immediately veers away from the clichĂ© with jolting imagery and striking lines:

My darkness, it expanded

to fill the space provided, like a melody
or a metal rod placed in a loved one.

Some summer ago, the surgeons

they shoved a goodbye into my jaw.
There was confetti in the carpet.

A steak knife in the ceiling. So what.

So long. In between such stations
my life can save no song.

Like other poems in the book, “Duende-Tripper” mixes gritty, sometimes jarring imagery with well-constructed sounds, including rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, that make the lines soar.

Beneath the lines of other poems, there is a pulsating anger, bubbling to the surface in the actions of the characters that fill Kopel’s verse. In the poem “Untitled,” there is mention of a t-shirt wrapped around a fist, a desire to stay up late, smashing bottles against a levee, and the haunting image of a woman who “satellites” around the room, stabbing an avocado with a spoon. Yet, in such raw, animalistic action, Kopel depicts beauty and release. In “Bar Fight #2,” a fisticuff between friends, or ex-friends, is described as “part mutilation,” “part victory,” “part garden.”

My favorite character woven into the book, and one of the most surreal, is a girl “dressed up as a piece of wedding cake” found in the poem “The Birthday Party.” The character is so strange that the reader can’t help but find her interesting, even endearing, as she confesses to the speaker that she once got so high sniffing markers that she “mistook a man-made lake for her mother.” At some level, the speaker, perhaps as crazy as she is, connects with her and admits to the reader that he loved her for all her crazy stories. Ultimately, he pulls away from her and hopes to find someone who will understand his oddities even better.

In other poems, Kopel captures the tenderness in a moment of connection, no matter how brief it is. In “Teenage Victory Poem,” the reader is introduced to a girl who is “all Halloween and hardware,” and a boy who is “a handsome young skater.” Then, the reader plunges into a scene where the teen lovers go skinny dipping, before having sex a few lines later. Kopel depicts the heat of the scene, of young love or lust, before punctuating the poem with another striking image and a pleasant echo of sounds:

And as the lonesome sun rose over the local
nuclear reactor, the two of them made some great
noises together while two pairs of jet black jeans
dried out along a banister.

Other poems include various references to pop culture, including rock critic Lester Bangs, John Berryman, and Black Flag. Besides the pop culture references, the book also impressed me for its shifting meters, carefully constructed sounds, surreal images, and loose sonnets. Kopel’s poems grip the reader from page one and don’t let go until the end. 

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