Review: In a Beautiful Country, by Kevin Prufer
by Allison Harden Moen
As the blue and white pills spilled on the cover suggest, Kevin Prufer’s fourth collection of poetry, In a Beautiful Country, is reminiscent of a self-medicated half-drunken dream. As such, it acts as the aperitif to National Anthem: the former is sober enough to mourn the loss of a society, whereas the latter whispers from the daze of one too far gone.
Immediately in the first two stanzas of the title poem, Prufer lures readers into his world of resignation, subverting expectations of beauty and love into what reads like a twisted advice column:
A good way to fall in love
is to turn off the headlights
and drive very fast down dark roads.
Another way to fall in love
is to say they are only mints
and swallow them with a strong drink.
Perhaps, herein is where Prufer’s greatest strength lies: by revealing the darkness underneath the “good” surface. In this “beautiful” country, falling in love equals committing suicide; love is violent like “broken glass” and is likened to scissors. In this poem and throughout, Prufer shatters images of the loving, darling and angelic, and tosses them like broken shards of glass to be crushed under the feet of their traditional definitions.
Similarly, in “Love Poem,” Prufer exhibits anything but the traditional idea of love. The speaker woos his love by describing the bomb he’s making, warning his love to be “careful of when it decays, careful, it may implode.” The theme of destructive love also reappears in Prufer’s series of “Ars Poetica” poems exploring the philosophy of his art.
Readers of his previous collections shouldn’t be surprised to see he includes a series of “Ars Poetica,” this time devoting six pages to the topic. In the first poem of the series, Prufer employs a metered form, which is rather ironic considering the majority of his work doesn’t take on such constraints. This iambic tetrameter poem speaks of how art is birthed out of destruction: a bomb blows up a barn and makes the speaker think of art. The barn burns, and a poem rises from the cinders. The speaker thanks the “kindly God” who “tore the town apart” for the sake of the art that resulted. Perhaps in the following lines, Prufer most clearly sums up his aesthetic, and the theme of In a Beautiful Country altogether:
The artist’s mind does well
to look on human ill
and find in it
Turn the page, and the second “Ars Poetica” is less straightforward. In this landscape, a phone rings, and a brand new poem appears out of the first snow of spring. Finally, in “Four Artes Poetica,” Prufer uses four visceral snapshots to represent his art — each taking place in an empty yard. In the first, art is a blind eye “bloodshot and enraged” inside the center of an onion. In the second, it is personified as a heart “like a giant insect / in a cage” that devours squares of pages. In the third, it is a butterfly dissected. In the fourth scene, the yard becomes blank like an empty page, and out of this emptiness “a little ink pulsed out.” It is a trapped art, but it survives nonetheless.
Formwise, Prufer maintains his signature, somewhat rambling free verse couplets primarily throughout. Yet herein also lies his greatest weakness: his inability to know quite where to end. A handful of poems, particularly “Love Poem” and “In Some Parts of the Movie We’re Comrades,” seem perfectly complete after the first page, only to continue on with a stanza beginning with “then …” or a second page of continuing exposition. The overall effect isn’t completely lost, just watered down a bit.
Consequently, Prufer manipulates page breaks to his advantage with a great deal of skill in the striking “Burial Hymn in Winter,” one of the collection’s strongest poems. Here, after the en dash on the bottom of the page, I wanted to read more but found a blank page.
Prufer also sprinkles in a few metered pieces, such as “Cartoon Featurette,” written in ballad stanzas; “What I Gave to the 20th Century,” a hybrid-style sonnet based in a Petrarchan-type rhyme scheme; and “The 20th Century,” also a hybrid sonnet with a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, showcasing his ability to utilize metered verse just as effectively as free verse.
Finally, in the concluding poem, “Postscript,” Prufer ties the collection together in a matter-of-fact fashion, cataloging the previous 109 pages like items on a grocery list:
Here is my receipt for the paper
Thank you. It snowed the whole way to the store,
which was crowded with secretaries. Thank you
for reimbursing me for my expenses.
It is as if Prufer is stating to readers: here is my best attempt to create beauty, take it or leave it. Though the world from which his poetry arises is falling apart, balancing on an ever-spinning wagon wheel, Kevin Prufer manages to do just that — and give it wings.