I grew up in a house with a shortage of oxygen. One person would take deep and disquieting breaths while the rest of us relied on the air tucked underneath our clenched jaws to make it from room to room. It’s been a long time since I experienced that level of intensity from familial reckonings, but in Keith Kopka’s Count Four., I could taste that adrenaline again. It is not a small thing that this debut collection accomplishes. I’ve lived in scenes like the ones in some of these poems, but Kopka is able to stay steady in themes and locations that I’ve tried to avoid since my childhood. Even when the speaker in these poems is vibrating with fear or showing off muscles in the mirror to solidify a place in each of these powerful vignettes, the lines he uses give explanation for the doing, reasons for the re-doing, and ideas for the un-doing. From “Interrogation”:
Once, I ran a whole length of forest
lifting anything I could manage: bees’ nests,
flowers, bird’s eggs. I even got
some rocks and used them to kill
a few, minor animals, so I could lift them,
too. I wish you could’ve seen it:
Right in the opening poem, “Interrogation,” the young speaker attempts to quiet the life right out of nature so that he can arrange it in a tableau that might make his father proud. But this father has him undo all of it so he can repeat a catchphrase about not lifting with his back. This establishes a flailing that every male voice in this book possesses. Almost every man in this book believes the oxygen in the room should be all his, and that the surrendering of that oxygen is just that: a surrender, a weakness. Each male voice wants to roar their importance instead of admitting that all of us are “minor animals,” constantly being arranged or fighting the arrangement of each of our scenes.
As the poems build and play off of each other, from familial stories, to wild characters, to a basement tour of a band, we never find a moment where the world isn’t itchy and bothersome. This book never surrenders its viewpoint that tragedy can and will emerge at any point. There is alcohol, cocaine, arrests, guns hidden all over this landscape, and fires that you cannot escape. The burns will happen, and if you’re smart, you’ll turn your back to the flames, you’ll be strategic with the scarring. If you end up drunk in a snowstorm, the idea is not to curl up and sink into the white, the idea is that you start shoveling, and maybe you’ll make it out of there. Kopka proves over and over again in these poems that it makes sense to say, with a tender heart, “I’ll never leave again.”
Normally, when I read a collection, I find myself mapping the poems, figuring out how they worked, and allowing my appreciation of the poems to grow with each reading. I did that with Count Four. as well, but my normal word nerdery seemed to not matter as much as the content off these poems. What I carried out of this collection wasn’t a technical result, though Kopka writes each poem with a tremendous amount of skill; what I carried out with me was often the speaker in these poems can take a punch and refuse to judge the fist that struck him. These poems are so warm, even to the ghosts in them. From “Georgic on the Boston Comma”:
Comma that says yes, I believe
in heaven and hell, but I’m too broke
to be scared about it. Comma that admits
there are limits to your dreams
when you live in the same row house
you were born in. Never use the comma
out of anger. Instead, keep it as a prayer
exalted in syntax.
Home is a moving target for us all, and these poems can handle the moving and target portions of each scenario. A shot fired is not immediately a wound, and sometimes the smoke that rises to the ceiling is just a cigarette finally giving up the spark. Regardless of the mannerisms in each of these poems, you cannot shake the feeling that to be living is to be a threat, and to understand that you are a threat is a gateway to hope, to change. From “All We Do Is Begin”:
Through the wall you heard a song end,
and in its ring the singer counted
to four. You were just starting
to understand how he’s count four
thirty times a night for twenty years.
It is easy to hate what we’re given,
especially when it’s all we know.
I loved this book. Count Four. is insightful, intriguing, and avoids the fragmenting of complex people and their occasional violence by never flinching from the whole person they present themselves as. This collection is a challenge to the philosophy of ugliness, rendered in an energetic and beautiful way. What Kopka can do, what he has done with this book, is keep our terror perpetuated by masculinity directly lit, not let us ignore the tragedy in front of us, all the while guiding us home. There lies the way of escape. Take the stairs down. Find a car you can open with a tennis ball. Go.
Count Four., by Keith Kopka. Tampa, Florida: University of Tampa Press, September 2020. 108 pages. $14.00, paper.
Darren C. Demaree is the author of fifteen poetry collections, most recently, Burning It Down (8th House Publishing, 2020). He is the recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Louis Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Best of the Net Anthology and the Managing Editor of Ovenbird Poetry. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and children.