Parsing the Relationship Between Sensibility and Memory: A review of Paul Killebrew’s TO LITERALLY YOU


To Literally You
Paul Killebrew
Canarium Books, 2017

Space, Henri Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space, is “a whole set of errors, a complex of illusions, which can even cause us to forget completely that there is a total subject which acts continually to maintain and reproduce its own conditions of existence.” Lefebvre cautions that “there are many lines of approach to this truth…[t]he important thing, however, is to take one or other of them instead of making excuses or simply taking flight (even if it is forward flight).”

Paul Killebrew’s interrogation of the variously tense negotiations between spatial imagination, memory, and what Lefebvre calls the (in)visible “lines of approach” to increasingly obfuscated truths spans his career, from his 2010 full-length collection Flowers, 2013’s Ethical Consciousness, to 2017’s To Literally You. “Even the form your basic sensory experience takes has ethical dimensions,” Killebrew said in an interview with Travis Nichols about Ethical Consciousness. To Literally You demonstrates the same sociological concerns and meditative lyricism a reader expects from Killebrew, but newly locates these qualities in a formal and argumentative architecture that both positions its set of errors as an essential design feature for the exposed discontinuation of reproducing the old conditions.

“What have we done that our great unity is grief?” Killebrew writes in Flowers. To Literally You—whose title question-begs if “you” is newly literal, concrete, or definitively singular in its address from the speaker—returns to this seven year-old concern with a devastatingly nuanced revision of “what have we done” as now what did we consider, or how were we constricted by choice, and—most complicatedly—how is it possible to separate the memory of an event from what we imagined during the now differently remembered event. Before reading particular poems from Killebrew’s collection, I want to make explicit that, as a singular book and as a moment in Killebrew’s career, To Literally You signals the work of a poet reconstructing a series of selves, denying the consolation of blurred memory for the rare work of how to live and relive, daily, inside an empathy that necessarily produces disappointment, and brushes against the self-preserving errors and illusions of our imaginations.

Killebrew’s first poem, “Common Pointless,” introduces the book’s thematic occupations and their frame: a seemingly deflated title, whose first lines read, “I was born in Tennessee. / I was raised on ideas. / Now I fall down / as a person / in bodily emulsion.” The poem’s epigram from O’Hara’s “For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson” which reads, “I wonder if I’ve really scrutinized this experience like / you’re supposed to if you can type,” undercuts the frontloaded pathos of “Common Pointless” to present a tension less concerned with fallen emulsification and more with the tenuous relationship between authority and scrutiny regarding this or any experience. “Common Pointless” quickly argues scrutiny owes as much to merely noting the existence and timing of things, as asking how that notation, in the words of Lefebvre, “ignores what things at once embody and dissimulate, namely social relations and the forms of those relations.” Killebrew continues:

Repetition as a form of time travel?
Conservatives prefer repetition in service
of an incantatory mourning for a lost world,
but one plagiarizes the self
in the commission of boredom.
Maybe it’s the difference between new meanings
and a complex weave of old ones,
or those who hold no new meanings are possible.
Or maybe all that’s possible
is a new ordering of priorities within experiences.
A sensibility and its chosen course are what matter most to me.

A sensibility, not its speaker, chooses a course—as if the direction/destination was as important as its animating disposition. “Common Pointless” introduces the key players in To Literally You, a collection that certainly trades in images of State Departments and governmental leaders, but otherwise engages an internal relationship between sensibility and speaker—considerations nearly analogous to O’Hara’s scrutiny and experience.

In “Elegy for 39,” Killebrew writes:

We sat on the porch while the kids napped
and watched light rise and fall
through clouds moving quickly across the sun
like distractions from a vital and complex truth
that requires too many pages of exegesis
for people with days like ours…

Contemporary critics have bandied about notions of “intimacy” in etherized ways for years and piles of blurbs, but—in this sequence, which follows Killebrew’s focus on “what matter[s] most” in the preceding poem—To Literally You slyly embeds within “intimate” images (parents enjoying their porch while the kids sleep) a nearly anxious preoccupation with distraction, with present-mindedness, in which the image’s pleasantness is undergirded by the experience of some partially articulated urgency. “[O]ur obligations mount / around sensations that folded out of us / from zones of our beings we hadn’t / seen before,” the speaker continues. Intimacy in “Elegy for 39” radically becomes more about an emancipatory, perhaps frustrating, awareness of limitations, and a rejection of assimilationist recollections of sun-soaked porches and the light of truth we assume they offer rather than conceal. In the wake of this, “so much for art, some might say, / but not me, I just learned / how many people have put videos online / with the words ‘spectacular sunset’ in their titles, / there’s one after another.”

Killebrew continues to parse the relationship between sensibility and memory in “Dad at 63;” he writes, “Marriage is an unreliable narrator. / The self in its messiness calls for various forms.” The poem continues:

My kids aren’t monsters,
but when we had them
the life the world draped over us
was the world’s impossibility…

What I can never tell
is whether this force springs
from the roles that contain us
or the resistance to containment itself.

This recalls a line from “Diseaseless Cure” in Ethical Consciousness, “My disease, if I / have one, / is life / in its entirety— / the white drapes, / the faceted expression…” Unreliability, impossibility: since the opening lines of Ethical Consciousness throughout To Literally You, memory recurs as one of Killebrew’s chief concerns. Not only in the rote, formal sense of how it operates; rather, more as a narrative force, where memories encounter a condition (disease or diseaselessness, matrimony, birthdays) uncensored, without a guarantee of which, if either, will be left intact. The springing force of roles that contain, or resist containment, become a function of how un-navigable the “fabulous vanity” of the present tense becomes, and whether our pasts offer any protection from how “the imagination is emptied / of fathers and sons, / of men, of concrete and abstraction, / now is just a line on a surface / curved into a letter…”

Many poems in To Literally You are concerned with failure—not with any bathetic nihilism, but more subtly how Killebrew’s speaker confronts the new inabilities, errors, or disfluencies of a moment. From “To Literally You:”

Speak? That hardly seems feasible
in the crosshairs of a microscope
where each particle of meaning
is far too much as it seems
for anything like sympathy
to cloud the elegant formulas
by which the extent of my love
is divided by its failures.

Utterance and sensitivity are magnified to granular levels. Division here, again, deploys not as an order of operation, but as a tool to re-focus a reader’s attention on the question of which container holds all the particles: “the crosshairs” or “clouded, elegant formulas”? At what point does an insistence in either’s capacity to articulate our roles reconfigure space such that “we gerrymander a mood together / around these artifacts of feeling”? (“What I Took To Be Resignation”)

For all his explorations and interrogations of memory and space, Killebrew never traps his poetry in the position of relying on the soothing logic of dreams to conceal what his work exposes. Mark Fisher reminds that “dreamwork produce[s] a confabulated consistency which covers over anomalies and contradictions.” It would be easy for any reader to reduce To Literally You down to precisely the pair its title invites but expands: the “you,” addressed by a speaking “me,” whose reduction would quickly place in line an easy summary of domestic life and its challenges. Such simplicity, I think Killebrew argues implicitly, is the work of dreams—a means for forgetting the total subject acting continually to maintain its own conditions. Truth, in To Literally You, owes as much to failure and denial as to assertion: denying the consistent dreaminess that smothers productions and reproductions of culpability; asserting that some shared things, like absences, are nearly unbearable. From “To Literally You:”

We share that blame
like a last name
among those of no relation,
a default setting
requiring constant readjustment.

Paul Killebrew was born in 1978 in Nashville, Tennessee. His other books of poetry are Flowers and Ethical Consciousness, both published by Canarium Books. He currently resides in Maryland with his family.