Geographies: Cold Storage by Keith Althaus (Off the Grid Press, 2016); Spill by Kelle Groom (Anhinga Press, 2017)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews

In his latest book, Cold Storage, Keith Althaus’s poems consider the premise set forth in Pablo Neruda’s manifesto: “It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest.” For Althaus, metaphor is inherent in simple objects, and in poems such as “A Strange Place,” he muses on their meaning: “…I can’t tell you/if you ask, whether this/child’s collection—/pinecones, feathers, shells—/is about life or death.”

Althaus, like Groom, finds an explosive world waiting within ordinary objects, such as in a fish on ice or a fire lens: “The luster/you look for/in the eye of the porgy/and sea bass/on a bed of ice/will cloud/with new incomprehension,/and the chaos of a sunbeam/strained through a lens/will cut this leaf in half/like a hand of fire.” The chaos he encounters doesn’t clarify itself, but arrives with searing power, running through the things of the world.

Poetry also comes through the witness of simple shifts in perspective, in everyday changes as day becomes night: “From the parking lot/at Cold Storage Beach in Truro/you can see the sun going down/and the moon rising, and in between/the puny beams of Highland Light/like a persistent, solitary firefly.” His poems unfold at the intersection between etymology and elegy. While the Cold Storage referred to is a Cape Cod beach, those words also hold the impression of a morgue—in line with the preoccupations with death that the reader finds here. Althaus’s poems often center around holy ritual and mystery (evident in such titles as “Preparing the Body,” “A Handful of Gravel,” and “Relics”) or explore how we go forwards and backwards in life, seeking an end point. One of the most poignant examples of this is in “From the Pilgrim Monument,” which locates us in Provincetown. In this spare poem, he connects the Pilgrims who first landed on Cape Cod with the people he’s known in his own life, marking the tenuousness of human lives in relation to the much slower shifting of time as it affects the earth:

        …the moon-like dunes,
        forever changing, shifting,
        being taken away…
        added or put back except
        beach grass planted to slow
        the process, and a little dust,
        ashes of friends who loved it here,
        and wanted to stay or go
        wherever it is going.

Althaus’s “Reminder” puts its finger on a similar yearning to locate and find peace, while simultaneously evoking a clipped coldness, the desolation of the individual even in a crowd: “the back beat/that follows you/into the street/where it drowns/ arguing horns,/the noise of crowds,/but not the steps/on sidewalks/late at night/that prove the world/is hollow.”

Landmarks make the tiniest of cameos in the most unexpected places—Althaus summons the path to the Cape in “Fall of the Magician,” and gives the spotlight oh-so-briefly to the Sagamore Bridge.

For both Althaus and Groom, their rootedness in the Cape allows them the freedom to follow what catches their attention in daily life, deepening their experience and ours.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the poetry editor of Salamander. Her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, The Common, and Cortland Review.

The View from the Necropolis
Here as I Am: The Aeneid   by Virgil, translated by David Ferry (University of Chicago Press, 2017).