Direct and accessible, the poems in When Kerosene’s Involved blaze with memory. As the title suggests, fire is a common motif in the book, but it kindles in unexpected places. While the tone remains steady throughout the collection, Romo creates several personae, alludes to a broad range of pop culture icons—often reimagining them in other times and places—and merges textbooks, lab directions, and jokes with the prose poem. I have a habit—perhaps a bad one—of attempting to identify possible antecedents to poetry collections, and in Romo’s case, it seems that Joe Brainard’s I Remember is the most likely progenitor. Reading When Kerosene’s Involved is a bit like watching a fascinating home movie in which a TV plays, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground.
“Singe,” a poem in which the speaker remembers Grandpa Manuel playing “agricultural matchmaker” and killing chickens before suffering an unspecified accident and moving in with the speaker’s family, begins the collection. The speaker does not attend his grandfather’s funeral because “[i]t was the first day of high school and [he] convinced [himself] [he] didn’t want to see his [grandfather’s] eyes closed so tight.” The poem ends with the speaker admitting, “I got C’s throughout high school and relied on Cliffs Notes. There was nothing about mourning.” Romo frequently juxtaposes the emotional and the academic, blurring the lines between the personal and the public and artfully rendering the speakers’ attempts to make sense of their lives. For example, the following poem, “Pancho As Protagonist In The 9th Grade Grammar Book,” begins:
Pancho lives in Mexico with his family.
He sells Chiclets on the streets to help provide
Pancho appears again in “Pancho As Show Not Tell Mini-Lesson In The High School Creative Writing Textbook”: “Pancho is a hot mess is not good enough.” The poem continues with examples:
He is dirty.
Pancho’s pores hold filth hostage. His skin is
a grimy husk. He scratches his head for a glint
of relief, but lice are immune to fingernails the
color/scent of cow shit. The ringworm on his
back keeps growing and laughs at this attempt.
Similarly, “Variables” uses algebra to deal with the “long, hard-ass problem” of “figuring out after they die, beautiful people return as clouds,” and “Direction” intersperses recollections of youth between instructions for a dissection:
Find an artery attached to the heart and another artery
near the backbone.
It was the year The Cure sowed the seductive
seed in my ear, and I grew a hallway of high
school scenarios to bloom to fruition in which
Debbie would say, “I’ll run away with you. I’ll
run away with you.” Instead I joined cross-
country and took third in state.
Romo also uses TV and movies to frame memories. In “Spoiler,” The Young and the Restless becomes the point of reference for the summer during which the speaker was a “[j]unior college freshman,” a summer during which his family was on welfare, someone named “Baby Joker” broke his leg, and he was hopelessly in love with a girl named Mitzi. The apparent opulence of the soap opera contrasts sharply with the speaker’s life, yet through the contrast, it helps the speaker order his experience. In “Table Manners,” “cannibals” discuss “juicy celebrity gossip, sweetest swing in baseball, hottest Spice Girl ever.” Romo writes, “Tonight under streetlights, they’ll gab about the best Golden Girls episode ever—burping up grandmothers, picking their teeth, licking their lips.” While the poem displays Romo’s sense of humor, it also demonstrates how pop culture cannibalizes itself in order to survive. In some ways, people also cannibalize images from their pasts for the same reason.
In other poems, Romo uses TV, movies, and fairy tales to show how memories of childhood inform and shape the adult mind. Alfalfa writes a love letter in which he confesses his love for Darla: “I hate to say your guts have abided in my belly all these years.” Later, Alfalfa writes, “You’re scum between my toes, and I’m leading a safari to your fungal jungle, my sweet.” In a trio of poems late in Kerosene, Zorro becomes a rapper, a couch potato, and a poet. In “Pinocchio, Breaking,” unable to deal with the existential despair of the freedom that “comes when there’s no strings attached,” Pinocchio commits suicide. These ageless characters paradoxically grow up with the speakers, helping them navigate the adult landscape of lost love, cultural shifts, and generalized despair.
Because Romo bends linear time into a kind of hula hoop, almost all of the poems have a dark undercurrent, even when they’re funny. However, “Newborn” and “Stillborn” exude a darkness that borders on the horrific. “Newborn” begins, “The babies are on fire.” After describing the failure of “flame retardant Onesies,” Romo ends the poem: “Mothers don’t speak. Sit in rocking chairs—eyes the color of infant smoke. Back and forth, back and forth. Shake rattle, shake.” “Stillborn” is in first person: “I died before birth.” The speaker remembers little but “the shrieks of [his] mother,” who “bakes an Angel Food Cake and places it on [his] grave” in remembrance of his birthday; “[s]he’s convinced the Santa Anas are [his] premature breath, and [he’s] an infant ghost, seasonal offspring. Full-term breathing haunting her every October.” Although sensitive readers might find these two poems difficult to read, the poems show that a good poet can make beauty from the ugliest of events.
The final poem in the collection begins, “Remember when the match was lit. Remember when the taste of fire was tangible? Remember you said, “Anything can happen when kerosene’s involved.” At the end of the poem, the speaker asks, “Remember when you were afraid of the dark? I try to forget it too. But it was beautiful…remember?” Here, kerosene fuels a fire that illuminates and darkens at once, much like memory, much like these poems. Romo writes like a fire entertainer on a tightrope: the danger intensifies the beauty of the flames as they “carve constellations into the night.”
When Kerosene’s Involved, by Daniel Romo. Detroit, Michigan: Black Coffee Press, forthcoming, 2013. 100 pages. $12.95, paper.
Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Caketrain, Double Room, The Fiddleback, Phantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins Critic, Rain Taxi, and other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.