t. kilgore splake
winter river flowing: selected poems 1979-2014
Presa Press
ISBN: 978-0-9888279-6-7

Reviewer: George Wallace

          For lovers of American poetry that flourishes under the radar, wandering through the slow, steady experience of recollecting the past with poet t. kilgore splake will be an experience of ineluctable delight.

          In single poems that have basked in the underground, splake offers captivating memory-pieces characterized by fleeting, impressionistic brushstrokes that mount and layer with an inexorable and satisfying sense of inevitability.

          To be short, splake writes like a “lonely lake superior lighthouse keeper with time to muse and write”—and asks of his readers that they slow down and listen with the same level of commitment and patience.

          Yes, the tales are sometimes told in a disjointed, incomplete way; sufficient to reignite the author’s memory, no doubt, and often capable of rewarding the reader’s faith that, at any moment in the seemingly endless litany of fragmented memory, a golden nugget may emerge.

          It requires a certain frame of mind, of course; the ability to take a deep breath, take it in slowly, to fully savor the steady pace of a storyteller with all the time in the world on his hands.

          One approaches a splake poem with wonder and anticipation—wait and listen, through the aggregation, for that special moment which will claim the attention.

          As much as that may be a challenge for the modern reader when simply confronted with a single splake poem, how will the fast-paced 21st century American make the time to listen to this marvelous voice for a full 150 pages?

          For those who can, the rewards are plentiful. There is an incantatory sweep to the author’s voice which invites the splake-savvy reader to trance out with the speaker, go with the flow—mesmerized, as if by a stranger’s monologue in a dusty Upper Peninsula bar, dust motes dancing against the sun-spattered windowpane as the rest of the patrons hunch heavy-shouldered over beer.

          splake is an “endless sentence” poet, with a twist. There’s a regularity of rhythmic shorthand that runs consistently through the body of work, an accretion of short sentence fragments that offer snapshot glimpses into a “continuous past” where the present is not only present, but unshakeable.

          Still, that’s a Kerouac trope, and the author tips his hand to the beat author in the epigraph to “trout dancing sonata” (2012): july 1947, sal paradise leaving new York with a few veteran benefit dollars, crazy long-hair hipster, dawn of jazz america, following the purity of “on the road” to denver, visiting larimer gang, old colfax bars and poolhalls with dean…”

          splake is all-in with Kerouac, it seems; he’s picked up Jack’s old stylistic baton and run with it, dropping articles with abandon and, more importantly, putting down brushstroke after brushstroke of truncated noun phrases and verb phrases that start with –ing.

The opening lines to “far northern dream” (2012) are characteristic:

late afternoon
long quiet pause
january thaw
warm chinook winds
melting long white drifts
graying poet
finishing new verse
surprising words
“suddenly summer old age”
hard to imagine
years rapidly passing

          splake’s true to this stylistic approach throughout the 35 years’ worth of poems covered in the book. Turn to almost any page and you’ll find poems that are detailed, minute remembrances reminiscent of Proust, yet yielding—also in Proustian fashion—to the inexorable parade of imagery and moments.

          For all the sense that, across the pages, we’re dealing with the writings of a middle-aged man, there is a wilderness-loving, hard-drinking rawness, and immediacy to the early poems which is fundamentally unlike what splake offers us in later poems.

         In the early poems, he’s prone to rev up his engine in fine fashion, an angler gripped with fisherman’s fever, going on“tunnel vision odysseys” across southern Ontario, sipping beer and chewing down sausages for untold hours until “bending into motel-service station complex, crashing on pickup truck front seat.” (“journey to climb a mountain,” 1991).

          Or he’s picking up strange women outside a bar on some middle-American city street and taking them off to a cabin for a one night stand, then “sneaking away with carom off basement furnace, relieved to be outside, see the sky…” (“the trophy room,” 1993).

          It’s not all macho display. splake adopts a worshipful, wistful tone in poems like “winter prayer” (1980), asking the returning sun to “green the spring forest…and bleach my gray beard red…one more time”; in “memories in spring” (1990), taking “communion in the woods...almost like aging primal druid seeking soul mood in quiet sacred nemeton….”

          All things must pass, however. As might be expected, the energy level, sense of virility, and pure spunk shift perceptibly as the years pass and splake approaches 80.

          In later poems we’re more likely to be confronted with the“graybeard poet angler/ passing misty memories” (“cocaine rainbow trout,” 2001); an “old man on nightly hike/…deep in december tides/” with a "hated millstone career/ alcoholic suicide dance/ avoiding seductive nothingness,” anticipating waking up in the morning with a “wild tiger/ roaring in his skull” (“long white musings, 2006).

          It’s worth noting that Ernest Hemingway is one of the many male/macho characters to whom splake tips his hat. In early poems, Hemingway’s invoked as a macho figure with hard-drinking ways, who jumps out of boxcars with seeming abandon. But by the end of the collection, splake reduces Hemingway to just another literary suicide, in a list that includes Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan, and Richard Corey.

          Our author, thankfully, spares us wondering too much about the whole suicide thing. In fact, he leaves us with a taste of his irreducible impulse to hang on, “wrestling with another/ poem two or three/ until mind shuts down/ body wears out…” (“tommy,” 2014).

          For those of us who have enjoyed the poetry of t. kilgore splake all these years, and for new readers about to enter his world, that impulse is certainly good news.

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