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Kerry James Evans


Kerry James Evans
Lilacs and Razor Wire

Bent over in a folding chair, my arm a rag of oil,
I scrape the carbon from my M16
with a pipe cleaner here in the armory
named after a young colonel
                who hanged himself.

No one sitting here really knows
whether or not the colonel
was a homosexual.
I bring up my mother-in-law,
                who is.

Outside the window the local convicts
have decided to mow down the lilacs
blossoming along the roadside.

We go back to talking about homosexuals
and homosexuality, and I say:
We are all a little gay, which lands me
on the floor in a wrestling position.


Seventeen, April: the month
of five flats, skittering
down freshly graded
limestone gravel roads
in my ’92 Buick LeSabre,
picking up a nail, stopping,
pulling out a four-pronged tire iron
and hydraulic jack
(having learned
from the first four flats),
and changing the driver’s side
front tire amid a downpour.


I was learning a common necessity:
how to change a tire and be on time
to roll dough at Little Caesar’s.


Trigger on the stock, chamber
and barrel, those convicts
mowing lilacs, my own hands
greased on the weapon.

I think of my mother-in-law,
who called New Year’s
with a message for my wife:
I will always love you, hon.

Cape Cod. Winter. People
leave the Cape this time
of year. I don’t know
if it was loneliness, but

my wife’s mother turned up
a bottle of pills and swallowed.
I would say more, but I wasn’t there.
I can’t give the image.


But perhaps those pills began in the pistils of flowers,
and perhaps those flowers are these lilacs.


There was nothing we could do, but we drove
the fifteen hundred miles to Cape Cod anyway.

We took the old U.S. highways, a full moon
blueing the mountains around us.

We slept in the hospital until she recovered,
until she divorced her wife

and said that if she could do it all over again,
she would have stayed married to my wife’s father.


But on the trip out there,
my wife called the mountains gods.


I let her and I drove,
the lilacs dead,
having yet to blossom,
this M16
in my hands
buried beneath the moonlight,
stashed in the freezer
with my youth,
and when we
popped a tire
and my wife asked
about the dark,
the North Carolina
State Penitentiary
tucked behind razor wire,
Do we have a flashlight in the trunk?
I told her no,
but I have done this before.


I pulled out a jack and tire iron, and I lifted our car from the road,
the words I offered of no use, so I asked her: Kneel with me,
our hands numbing on the lug nuts, the two of us, changing a tire.

The winter I abandoned Guin, Alabama,
I left its projects—a conglomeration
of 1960s governmental housing
passed by Congress to maintain
the needy and ignorant. Barbed wire
ended a potholed asphalt road,
and on the left: our apartment, mud
running up the side, staining the brick,
and in the yard, the rusted springs
of trampolines stretched limp
between the few needless patches
of switchgrass, where my brother
and sister piled into a red wagon.
I’d pull them up the hill. No sooner
than we’d reach the top, I’d hop in
and steer the three of us down the road.
One day our hollering interested
an old couple sharing a cup of coffee
on their porch. Baby oil. You need
baby oil on them wheels. You’ll see.
Of course we needed baby oil.
We greased the wheels on that wagon
and flew like hell, until we had mangled
ourselves in that barbed wire,
throwing a wheel into a snake bed.
Walking here, now, fifteen years
later, I think of Sisyphus
and what he might have said:
Get up and climb that hill,
before you lose track of your lives.
And he would have been a wise man
to say such a thing. That night,
my father drove down from Hamilton
to ask about our collision.
My soon-to-be stepfather spat tobacco
into a Mountain Dew bottle,
my mother standing in the doorway.
Halfway through the interrogation,
my father buckled. My father
spat in my mother’s eye.
I’d like to say the two men
courting my mother in their own ways
fought in the living room,
but these were southern men:
egalitarian—men of the backhoe
and the tiller, gardeners of a common
Alabama childhood. From the couch,
Glenn told my father: That is enough—
what I hear echoing off the asphalt.
My mother moves into the kitchen,
wiping spit from her eye. This is a family,
I tell the wagon rolling down the hill,
my brother and sister filtering
into their rooms, my stepfather
shutting the front door. I ask for violence.
Instead, these men cry, my arm
broken—the right arm of my father,
stitches in every room of the house,
and in the yard, the wagon’s shattered
wheel, my knowing that I have nothing
but this cast holding it together.
My father: nothing but his spit to offer
my mother. And today, I leave a house
crying at the bottom of Alabama,
and in the yard where I left my brother
and sister, the whites still hang
from the clothesline, and beneath the wire
from where we’d swing, a child
digs at a root with a spade. He stabs
the ground, then waves, pointing me
away from that home, and there I am,
drifting up the hill with my father.
I am pulling an empty red wagon.

You start up Ole Maude and we take gravel to all your hangouts: the coffee shop,
    the iron bridge,
and your favorite, the county dump, where you found the stove Grandmother
    cooks supper on today.
Except for that back left eye, the thing works fine. I helped you clean it.
    We meet Cecil

at the coffee shop, where he pulls mints from his pocket—he thinks
    they go
with everything, and you let me know quick that coffee is good with nothing else
    but coffee,
yet behind your back, I’ve been stirring in cream and sugar for years.
    I don’t drive a pickup

like you did, but I’ll take the gravel roads to the bridge where you
from the top as a boy, and when I’d ask if I could jump, you’d say no.
    I understand now,
but since you died, I’ve leapt several times into that snake-infested water.
    The current

took hold of me one time and sent me nearly a mile from the bridge.
    But I’m dry now,
and Ole Maude’s waiting. Nothing beats a couple of Swisher Sweets
    to give you cancer
and a Chevy Luv to send you to the dump. Plundering’s harder than it looks.
    Just because I’ve grown

two feet since the last time we’ve come out here doesn’t mean I can see it any better.
    The smell is worse
and the caffeine doesn’t hold as long. So I pop a mint in my mouth and breathe
    in the stench anyway,
but I don’t find a stove or anything like it, just junk, piled up and buried,
    from someone else’s memory.
               -from Bangalore


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

Kerry James Evans earned a PhD in English from Florida State University and an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published in Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Narrative, New England Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals. He is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon Press, 2013).
A Review of Kerry James Evans' Bangalore by Travis Mossotti, first published by Saxifrage Press

The debut collection of poems Bangalore by Kerry James Evans is a beautifully constructed book. It’s a bit bulky and oversized (6 x 9 inches) so it sticks out on the bookshelf, and it’s nice to see a book of poems built with consideration for the poems inside. The construction lets the lines run as far as Evans originally envisioned, and he does extend them as far as he can across the page. Take the second poem in the book, “An Instance of Love,” which establishes far more than just the formal concerns he’s after. It starts:


   “Reader, it doesn’t matter what you think happened to those wheat fields

reaped by the slow

                        threshing of steel.”  


By demolishing the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly, Evans achieves a level of intimacy with his audience that many poets would prefer to avoid at all costs. And even if this intimacy is only a gesture, it gives him the freedom to take risks, to be himself, and to offer up each fragmented stanzas and disjointed image: “the multicolored/ ball pit/ of ketchup and syringes.” The images Evans offers seem to exist both literally and figuratively—as lucid and untenable as the memory that created them—and the more they build up inside these broken and sprawled out stanzas, the more I found myself as a reader implicated:


                        “You and I have harvested nothing more than the stench

                                    of middle age,

            dropped here by a stopwatch

                                                and a bottle of Gatorade.”

His poems are as varied as any book of poetry and include such things as: a frozen peach, a ’66 Falcon, a red wagon, some Kudzu, some Alabama, a pinch of Rome, rotting blackberries, a game of Monopoly, an elephant on Silk Road, and a Persian rug. But Evans is after more than building a catalogue of objects and images. Evans is after love and anger and class and identity, and he’s not afraid to spell things out (in jarringly flat declarations) for the reader who’s only going through the motions, who’s reading at an emotional distance and trying to remain unaffected. Here are just a few of the assertion he makes:


 You cannot escape your family,”

                       ~from “Soldier’s Apology”


“I do not belong here.”

                      ~from “A Treatise on Violence”


“We will all be driven back to the sea.”

                       ~from “Seven Chants, A War Cry”

Each statement is part confession and part affirmation, and they are, at their core, examples of a larger strategy behind his poems. His speaker is reaching out, again and again, trying to communicate as plainly as he can. Evans is masterful at challenging his readers to be better readers, at keeping them invested in the poems and the implications behind them, and with each lyrical turn of phrase or declarative statement he’s turning the screws tighter and tighter.

Bangalore is a powerful first offering from a poet who’s clearly got more coming our way, and its bright yellow spine looks especially unique on the shelf, sticking out from the smaller, blander, more conservative books of poetry out there.
     Click here to read a review of Bangalore at The Rumpus


An Interview with Kerry James Evans by Dana Jennings, first published by The New York Times
Kerry James Evans, who’s just 30, has hard-knock credentials for a poet. He grew up in the South among the working poor, then spent six years as a combat engineer with the Army National Guard. And the poems in his first collection, Bangalore, just published by Copper Canyon Press, reflect (and reflect on) those seemingly sub-poetic experiences. In a recent e-mail conversation Mr. Evans, who recently received his Ph.D. in English from Florida State University, talked about his poetry and subject matter. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Dana Jennings: How did you come to poetry?

Kerry James Evans: I became interested in storytelling at a young age, sitting underneath my great-grandmother’s quilt rack, listening to the speech of women who had lived through the Great Depression. Whoever had the “better” story had the floor. I listened, not only to the meaning of the stories, but also to the rhythms, the interjections and the falsehoods. Later I realized it had always been there. Poetry was always around me, music in the clacking of dominoes, the creaking of the porch swing, the inflections of daily speech — all of the violence and tenderness that can roll through a day. Poetry doesn’t exist solely on a page. The lines are all around us.

DJ: Who are the poets who inspire you?

KJE: Charles Wright’s “Grave of the Right Hand” was a great inspiration to me. He has a way of moving through language, meditatively. I was also drawn to Rodney Jones’s “Elegy for the Southern Drawl” for its mastery of narrative. Then there is Louise Glück, Larry Levis and C.D. Wright. Mostly, poetry that inspires me is poetry with bite.

DJ: What exactly does a combat engineer do? And how does that dovetail with your poetry?

KJE: I once was told that in World War II combat engineers had a life expectancy of 12 seconds in combat. Today, combat engineers build bailey bridges and rope bridges; they also blow up bridges, and they are responsible for laying minefields. In addition, combat engineers are trained to clear paths through minefields using a variety of methods from the Bangalore torpedo (a slender explosive device manually implemented into a minefield) to the Python Minefield Breaching System (a hose of explosives projected by a rocket across a minefield).

Like a combat engineer, a poet is aware of many things at once: narrative, musicality, line length, image, rhythm, syntax, etc. A poet is always looking for a balance of literary elements to keep the poem alive. For example, three long sentences in a row will leave the reader out of breath. Too many polysyllabic words can cause a reader to trip over his or her tongue. However, when a poet finds the right balance with concern to formal technique, the poem’s meaning has a better chance of being understood.

DJ: Your first book is out, and your father, a major in the Army National Guard, is about to go overseas. Tell me about that.

KJE: My father has orders to go to Afghanistan, but he has seen “Bangalore” in print. I’ve been out of the military for seven years now, and yet the military is still a part of my life. My father’s father was a Green Beret who served in Korea. My brother-in-law and I served together for a while, and he’s been to the Middle East twice. A good friend of mine (he and I were enlisted together at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri) served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am worried about my father, just as I have worried about my brother-in-law and my friends and fellow soldiers who were sent and continue to be sent overseas.

In many ways “Bangalore” exists between these juxtapositions, a father going to serve abroad, while the son stays home. It’s backward.

DJ: You like classic country. Who are some of your favorite singers?

KJE: I like older honky-tonk, bluesy country. My wife calls it “music to die by,” but I’m enamored with the storytelling of these musicians: George Jones’s “She Thinks I Still Care,” Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash; Patti Page’s “The Tennessee Waltz” is gorgeous, and I like Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” — a song my brother and I like to sing on occasion.

DJ: Given what you’ve become, do you feel a sense of exile?

KJE: Exile is chosen. I have made decisions in my life to position myself to feel a sense of exile; therefore, yes, I feel it deeply. I often visit my brother in Hamilton, Miss. — a rural community whose lone grocery store recently closed down. My sister drives in from Memphis; sometimes my father will fly in from D.C. We throw darts (very competitively) or sing karaoke — something I should never do. We are all happy enough, but we know this will end, and it does. I return to Tallahassee. My father returns to D.C. My sister, Memphis.

Each time I return, I dredge up memories that are difficult to shake. Many of the poems deal with these feelings of exile. In “Waiting for Fire,” I am trying to “understand the rot,/a junkyard drowned in a rebel yell —” The poem ends with a couplet that I think speaks to this question: “Where am I in all of this nostalgia?/The river is a liar. It will give you nothing.” My relationship with my home is complicated. I may never fully understand it.

DJ: Do you feel that many of your poems are for people who don’t read poems?

KJE: I like to think so. I want my poems to be accessible on a first read, but to compel further examination.

DJ: Given your roots, what does being a poet and a Ph.D. mean to you?

KJE: It adds pressure to write well. I cannot become lazy. I come from a working-class background, and I don’t forget that when I am writing poems. I’m going to work, and I take pride in wanting to do the best job I can.

       Interview with Kerry James Evans, Jimmy Kimbrell,
              and Erin Belieu at Best American Poetry


                  Kerry James Evans reading at FSU
           Kerry James Evans reading with River Styx

Click here to buy Bangalore by Kerry James Evans

Kerry James Evans

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