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Resurrection of the Dust,
Selected Poems by John McKernan
© 2007. The Backwaters Press. 223 pgs. ISBN: 978578252

A Review by Sonja James


Resurrection of the Dust, John McKernan’s first full-length collection of poetry, is not only the wise work of an accomplished poet chronicling life’s tempests and tediums but also that of a tender-hearted magician normalizing life’s coarser realities, namely death. These are poems to be enjoyed as well as analyzed, and reading these poems is to become invigorated by the consistent presence (and pressure) of mortality as the shaping influence upon the quest to address humanity. Take, for example, “Coded Message,” his poem about his vigil by the bed of his dying father. The final stanza utilizes images of silence describing the hospital vigil which is already past to carry us into the present reality of the poet as the silence of that death still molds him to this day:

I was
Quiet as floor shadow
Silent as a quart of black paint
Still as a bottle of India ink
I have never left that room     Not once

In other poems such as “Death’s Rummage Sale    Way Down the Block,” McKernan presents death as it swallows entire civilizations. Death vaunts his power as he proclaims, “Maybe you like the sex & the pretty ladies? I got/The gems Cleopatra Semiramis Theodora/Remember Marilyn Monroe?” And in the poem “Elegy for a Cranberry” death is underscored this time in relation to the poet’s own mortality: “I praise my death who can’t read a road map/& has slept years in his cave of urine.”

However bleak the theme of death may seem, the title of the book is, after all, Resurrection of the Dust, with the implied promise of victory over the finality of death.
The poet teases us with this promise, beginning with the poem “For a While I Have Escaped from Death” where he states, “Today   My contempt for Death knows no bounds”.

If you want to read poetry that ends with a note of triumph over the certainty of our ending, this book is not for you. However, if beauty and the human will to create perfect images of our ultimately imperfect and finite condition will satisfy at least temporarily as much as the longing to endure, this book is for you. Here’s the final poem of McKernan’s Resurrection of the Dust:

Your Skull (pg. 223)
Fine white powder
Color of smeared daylight

Sharp white teeth
Brighter
Than the North Star

All the words
You will never hear
Float elsewhere now
Anchored in dirt

& the syllables
Whispered at night
When you needed
Something more than history
Since you are soluble in water    Water


Sonja James is the author of two collections of poetry: Baiting the Hook and Children of the Moon. She resides in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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