What Kills What Kills Us
by Kurt S. Olsson (Kyrgyzstan, 1996–98)
Silverfish Review Press
February 2007
67 pages

Reviewed by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)

    IN What Kills What Kills Us winner of the Gerald Cable Book Award, poet Kurt S. Olsson explores human strivings and failings through engaging voices and evocative brief character studies. In this book which weaves together persona poems and apparent personal memory, power struggles inherent to relationships and the resulting damage, collateral and otherwise, serve as a kind of keynote to which the poems keep returning. The narrative circumstances, however, are wide-ranging — from the mythic to the mundane, from classical to contemporary, from the U.S. to Kyrgyzstan. The poems often speak from unexpected and generative perspectives — in one poem, Ham tells his father, Noah, “You aren’t the first this drought’s driven mad”; in another, a bear, given agency and voice, tells how he allows a photographer to pose his carcass with kids in the park for “the drama, the bite of life/I still instill in children.”
         “Firstborn,” Olsson’s powerful take on the Old Testament Cain and Abel story, is told from Cain’s perspective, focusing on his struggle to get his parents to understand the murder that he has just perpetrated. Cain tells how he has to show them his brother’s body, mime his drawing the knife across his brother’s throat, reenact the crime in his attempt to get his parents to realize, to feel, that loss for which he is responsible. Clear-eyed and utterly untainted by falsifying sentiment, this poem is exemplar of the book entire, suggesting innocence — ignorance — here embodied in Adam and Eve, is what characterizes a truly fallen world, not knowledge, for without knowledge there can be no understanding, and therefore no empathy: “In the end, he has to teach them everything,/even death,” “even life.”
         What Kills What Kills Us confronts its readers again and again with the casual cruelties and acts of ignorance that thrive equally in mythical, classical, and contemporary experience, that survive in our own lives from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. In “The Cool,” for instance, Olsson’s speaker looks back at his teenage years, how he and his friends struggled to be cool by becoming cold, what finally in their eyes would achieve for them a state beyond childhood: “We were men,/a pile of empties as tall as a house.” Aging — as individuals, as cultures — guarantees nothing; getting older doesn’t mean we’ve grown, as the poem “Spoons” suggests; in this poem, a drunk forgets everything in his life, everything around him, except what he continuously begs to be retold: how “he backpedaled blind-drunk off a balcony” and lived, as if this one story was enough to constitute a self, as if his chance survival somehow equaled grace.
         Unmired by nostalgia, these poems ultimately call us not to romanticized memory but to wakefulness; yes, the animal subject escaped from lab-testing in “Devolution,” the one that at any moment “might show up anywhere:/frightened, hungry, drugged, who knew what it was capable of,” is emblematic of the damage we are all capable of perpetrating and discovering in self and world. But we are also capable of astonishing moments of wakefulness, a state of presence and connection captured as well in these honest and searching poems. The collection’s final piece, “Drinking with Li Po,” ends, significantly, with these lines: “maybe it’s the vodka, maybe it’s the atomic bomb China tested 500 kilometers away,/maybe it’s nothing to do with anything, but when I hurtle out/to the roofless outhouse and sway hard into the steam piss makes,/I glance up and — I swear — see every star ever made.”

    Sandra Meek is the author of two books of poems, Nomadic Foundations (2002) and Burn (2005), and a chapbook, The Circumference of Arrival (2001). Her third book of poems, Biogeography, was the 2006 winner of the Dorset Award, and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in November 2008. She is also the editor of an anthology, Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad (Ninebark Press 2007), which was awarded a 2008 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal. Her poems have appeared in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and she has twice been awarded Georgia Author of the Year, in 2006 for Burn, and in 2003 for Nomadic Foundations, which also was awarded the Peace Corps Writers Award in Poetry. She is a co-founding editor of Ninebark Press and Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at Berry College.