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John Kerl
John Kerl, author
Brevity, a collection of sixty poems, focuses on how ordinary human lives intersect in brief, particular moments. The author weaves thoughtful paths of interlacing and repeating metaphors through doubt, uncertainty, and solitude, through turns and defeats, to the deeply rewarding joys of generational family — and, ultimately, to a resounding, final sense of belonging.
Composed of poems written over the course of 35 years, software engineer Kerl’s stormy debut collection offers a record of the poet’s life and emotional states from youth to middle age while also exploring the mysteries of cyclical time, all without, as the title suggests, wasting words. Kerl distills his history to essences in Brevity, allowing readers to absorb his life’s trajectory, structured here by shifts in attitude and perspective, from a discerning distance. “Younger, I had been a ghost moving through the world but not seen by it,” Kerl writes in “Touch” from 2006, but for readers, this metaphor has heightened significance—the younger ghost wails into the void not 30 pages prior.

In the striking “Not much” from 1989, Kerl writes “I was feeling like not much at all, except maybe a lifeless rock,” moving through the world listlessly, naming the stars pallid rather than brilliant. Thus concentrated, Kerl’s collection allows readers a far-removed overview effect of his life, something like seeing a photograph of Earth from the moon, and from the fresh perspective offered by the collection’s structure and approach, the concept of time both stretches and shrinks. That’s particularly true in Kerl’s six Perseid and Orionid meteor shower poems, which are dispersed throughout Brevity and mark the transformations and cycles of Kerl’s—and the cosmos’s—existence.

In these surprising and thought-provoking entries, the poet and the cosmos are united; Kerl’s words bridge human and asteroid and show that each is a body of stardust, just differently shaped. For Kerl, humanity is not insignificant and separate from the universe, but as necessary a part of it as gas giants and galaxies. In the collection’s penultimate poem “Kitchen,” which tenderly describes an “old and threadbare” kitchen rug worn by years of use, the speaker writes “say what you want,” about the tattered carpet, “it is the center of the world.” Everything matters, Kerl’s collection shouts, because everything contributes to “more irreplaceable brief sudden-bright moments such as this.”

Takeaway: Moody, reflective poetry surveying love, time, life, and the cosmos over 35 years.

Comparable Titles: Christopher Buckley’s “Perseid Meteor Shower,” Paul Smyth’s “Desert Watch”

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