Review of Michael Kriesel’s Chasing Saturday Night: Poems about Rural Wisconsin by Charles Ries
Let me cut to the chase for all you poetry review skimmers our there. (You know who you are.) Chasing Saturday Night by Michael Kriesel is one of the best books of poetry I have ever read. Go out and buy it right now.
It is great because, like every seminal work of poetry, it is thematically rich, technically strong, readable, surprising, insightful and entertaining. Michael Kriesel drills for meaning in the middle of no-where-Wisconsin and produces a truly remarkable work of art.
I asked Kriesel when he started writing, and how the hell he got so good at just 44 years of age. “I started writing poetry at 16,” he said. “It was an outlet for my emotional distress, and I was blessed with not one but two teachers who spent hours every week with me outside of class, critiquing my poems. And there was a small zine that started in my home town in ‘78, at the same time, and the editor & I became good friends. A classic example of when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The zine was Jump River Review, edited by Mark Bruner.”
I commented about the thematic richness found in Chasing Saturday Night with its subtle and economic use of words. Kriesel said, “Perhaps some of the thematic depth you mention results from the highly charged nature of some of the images used. For the last 7 or 8 years I’ve been studying a number of esoteric systems, part of which has involved working with symbols, archetypes—studying the myths they sprang from, the purpose they serve in our collective unconscious, how we construct our own personal mythologies, creative visualization, striving towards psychological unity & self-balance. Things bleed through. Then you get that economy of words with revision. Tons. Each poem’s at least 5 hours, often up to 20. In 2 or 3 hour work sessions each morning. With much strong coffee, a formica table, a picture window, an easy chair.”
Kriesel writes like the owner of a crystal shop must walk—with gentle, alert attention.
Here is one example of such a poem, ‘Drinking with Your Ghost After the Funeral”: “Sitting in a pickup in the middle of a field / the engine ticking down to nothing / windows filled with rows / of corn stalking into shadow / I drink until you’re sitting next to me / though we both know / you’re really at the cemetery / what was left of you after the accident concealed / by oak and bronze and varnish and miraculously healed / in everybody’s memory / still the whiskey / lurches back and forth between us in the muddy / light until the bottle’s dry / and dark as that smoked glass / we used to watch eclipses through / though tonight / there’s just a wobbly moon / and a few raccoons / stealing corn like no one’s there.”
His work walks poetry’s razor’s edge again and again, and never falls into maudlin soup on one side or excessive cleverness on the other. He is masterfully aware of the place he is creating. I noted the often fragile, forlorn and wry quality to this collection. How did he acquire this quality? He responded: “Harsh experiences I’ve had: from growing up with an abusive, alcoholic dad; from my decade in the Navy’s paranoid environment, from my own tour of duty as someone who drank too damn much on a regular basis. Plus it’s a common reaction to the way the world often is. Especially in the arts, where intelligent, emotionally hurting people often go to heal themselves.” What is marvelous about poets well-schooled in form and word is their ability to take the personal and turn it into a universal. Kriesel excels at this. His poems are as well calibrated as the best poems I have ever read.
Reading Chasing Saturday Night I could have extracted stanzas that describe place with such economy and beauty, it would have been quite enough for me just to read these stanzas alone. Such as these lines from “Grampa’s Old Place”: “tar paper shines across the yellow wheat / the basswood siding’s gone // so soft your thumbnail could mark it / but it soaked up paint like sunshine.” Or this one from “Communion”: “It’s cool / the way a basement is in August / dark except for one small window / floating high above us / like in church / the bottom half cut off by grass // the only other light’s a bulb / tiny as a child’s night-light / mounted on a grinding wheel / bolted to a workbench.” Or this from “Saturday Morning”: “while between the fresh air and the sun / part of me starts to doze / my body grows light as sawdust / far away a chainsaw buzzes / like the season’s first mosquito.”
I asked Kriesel about place. He said, “A friend recently told me, ‘Everybody lives someplace and the work should show it. Homeless poetry doesn’t interest me.’ I got a good chuckle from that. All poetry is regional poetry, to some degree. Chasing Saturday Night is set in rural Wisconsin, peopled with relatives & farmers. But the poems deal with universal human themes since humans are the same everywhere at their core, despite differences in customs, education. I’ve also been writing minimalist nature poems for several years. Which have a long tradition in the Far East. And in even these, place plays an important role. Seeping through in an image or two. You see, we live in the world, much as some poets would deny this. Genius loci. The spirit of the place we live in fills us. People in rural environments know this intimately, living it each day. Their urban counterparts exist at a further remove from this. I grew up in rural central Wisconsin. Have always been more sensitive to my natural environment, sometimes preferring trees to people. That’s changing as I grow more social. Also as a teen I loved the long descriptive paragraphs in H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction. Setting really sets the mood, personification of an aura or emotion, again that genius loci that that makes puppets of the players sometimes, other times just coloring our souls.”
He does not use punctuation and this only serves to accentuate the clarity of these poems. Nothing weighs them or holds them to the page—not even a comma. When asked about this lack of punctuation, he said, “I started doing this in ‘97 when I started writing short bursts of image-based spiritual poems that were trying to convey the epiphanies, the insights and breakthroughs I was having as a result of meditation & other disciplines. It was hard trying to verbalize these abstractions, ideas of a basically often nonverbal nature; so stripping things down, purifying the language seemed a good idea and did help. Now, later on down the line, it keeps my lines clean, pared. I’m writing longer narrative pieces without punctuation, and to do that you have to write clearly, clean.”
Retrospection collides with place in Chasing Saturday Night. We find a man at middle age looking back. I asked Kriesel about his childhood. “I lived in my head, and still do, pretty much,” he said. “I was born in 1961 in Wausau, Wisconsin, a town of 40,000 in the middle of the state’s dairyland. My father worked in pre-fab housing construction, and was a foul-tempered drunk. My mother was (and is) a saint, with a heart as big as a duck. But this was 1961, and women weren’t independent like today. She was stuck at home with no job or driver’s license. I was an only child until I was 10. My brother’s a trucker. I was quiet and orderly. Read lots. Played by myself. I wasn’t happy or unhappy. I didn’t have much for playmates out in the country. But there were a few friends at school. When I discovered comic books at 12 it opened a universe for me. It possessed my imagination. If there’d been comic book teachers in high school instead of English teachers, I’d be drawing & writing Batman today, instead of versifying.”
Okay, now that all the review skimmers have left us, let me make this offer to you—the good, the true and beautiful reader of this review. You must have a copy of this book; so I will buy it for a few of you—or ten to be exact. That’s right; I will take money out of my pocket in order to put this book into your hands. Here are the rules: since this review will appear in various publications at different times, the first four readers who e-mail me their name and address in November 2005 will get Chasing Saturday Night free and delivered to their door. The first three readers in December 2005 and the first three readers in January 2006 will also get free copies—one per person. Reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes a “reviewer” falls in love. Sometimes he gets off the fence and gets swept away into the poems, suspending disbelief and discovering a few hours later that he’s been Chasing Saturday Night.
Marsh River Editions
M233 Marsh Road
Marshfield, WI 54449
Paper, 39 pages