by Helen Losse
by Collin Kelley
Sibling Rivalry Press
Collin Kelley’s first full-length poetry collection Render is a near-perfect book—a book most poets would die for, a high mark to hit. The subject matter—growing up as a gay boy (then youth and man) in America—is handled openly and honestly, but the book’s structure is its biggest strength. Kelley, a prize-winning novelist as well as poet, has taken keen care in developing all the elements of story writing. This is no mere collection of poems; it is an organized book, one of the most well-planned I have seen. Unity and coherence are evident throughout.
Render has theme, character development, setting, plot development, and, of course, a strong voice in a clever frame story in which the plot develops. Render is both the subject and the process. The theme is growing up gay; render is the process of doing so.
There is no question that the poems are auto-biographical. Using terms that represent stages of development in photography—reticulation, aperture, blowup, and resolution—Kelley weaves a fascinating tale not only of what it is like to grow up gay but of what it was like for him growing up gay in a particular time and place with his particular family. And as they say, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” but in this case, the cover itself, a photograph of the author working with a time-release devise on an old camera, adds dimension to the story.
Each poem in this 70-page volume is a photograph, a well-crafted image.
The first section “reticulation” contains only one poem “A Broken Frame.” In it, we see a photograph of Kelley’s ancestors before they left England, and a foreshadowing of the theme. In the picture, one family member “has been blacked out….” But why?
Did he die in transit…
…the ruin of the family?
The one who kissed other boys….
(“A Broken Frame”)
The actual story begins in “aperture” with a family of three: Collin and his parents at Collin’s September, 1969 birth. Readers see Kelley’s childhood through poems about family vacations, accidents, childhood toys, and Kelley’s childhood memories. We see his parents drift apart, his mother’s adultery, their reconciliation, his mother’s stroke, and Kelley’s early sexual encounters. At six, he knew.
I only wanted to see one thing: the ruby red slippers
Dorothy wore in The Wizard of Oz.
those shoes to click my way out of the coming storm,
the dread I already felt at the age of six.
So that’s how it feels to know you are gay. One wonders, as the story progresses, how (or if) Kelley’s life would have differed if he had had siblings. But he did not. Collin was more than enough for his parents.
In the third section “blowup” Kelley is older, experiments with various homosexual partners and sexual techniques, and has a brief crush on a woman. Yet his parents could no longer deny what they had always known. The poems in this section are more sexually graphic, but never burdened by language that I consider vulgar.
Lee first gave me head
behind an abandoned restaurant….
And then we see what the poet imagines his mother saw:
…the image of her son
impaled on the floor…
The truth…no longer at
the edge of their thoughts, but overtaking them like a baby
blue shag tidal wave.
(“Sex In My Parents’ House”)
Concerning a later encounter, Kelley writes,
…we haven’t met,
but you [Michael] will appear
…a bag inscribed “sexual confusion”….
then I’ll never see you again.
Later Kelley becomes a confirmed bachelor and reaffirms his love for his “broken” parents.
Now that I’ve given up on a ring
scrape my knuckles as I
surrender to the no name night.
Time brought Kelley to the point where his parents are older. When the Kelleys gather for the holidays, Collin’s father is blind, his mother subdued with memory loss.
Small talk will turn to accusation,
Grandmother will retreat to the kitchen…
We are suspended here,…
waiting for the world to spin again on its axis.
The final section “resolution” contains the single poem “Render.” Written with a voice-over, rendering an actual photograph, that ends with “Note that a blue sky and clouds are impossible to render/ Expect imperfections and subtle debris,” the poem, written for Sally Mann, does not conclude on one high, positive note.
Your darlings are poison
… son waist deep in rising water
…the moon turns silver to blood
And the children again, older
…the boy’s eyes fixed and dilated
three perfect funeral masks
No one here is living a fairy tale.
An autobiography in verse, Render by Collin Kelley is a book to be admired, its quality sought after. It is one of the best, if not the best, poetry book I have read this year. But Kelley’s memory is, of course, a human one, embellished and distorted by purpose and time. He, like everyone, remembers and records what he needs to go on. Yet the poems in Render give readers a good idea of what it is like to grow up gay in America.