Reviewed by Laura Rashley | October 26, 2021
Driftwood Press, 2021
Paperback, 37 pages, $7.99
In Ben Kline’s latest poetry chapbook, Dead Uncles: Poems, Folklore, Reverie, we’re cast into an environment that is both vast and incredibly specific, grounded yet otherworldly. Illusions are built into illusions, and reality becomes a question of perception and what we believe is possible. For Kline, what’s possible is most anything. The opening poem, “The Pile,” closes with the line, “It’s not a daydream if / you must suspend all disbelief.” And off we go into a collection ruled by mystery, magic, and makeshift reality where we are asked repeatedly to pick a card and see if the magician will return the right one to us.
The central idea driving the magic of this collection is family, specifically those fringe relationships we have with non-immediate family members—uncles, aunts, cousins. Kline deftly moves between the dimensions of these relationships and the lore and legacy of the extended family. From religion to sexuality to addiction, so many truths go untold and mistold that the lie, the illusion, is what remains. An illusion designed to establish a perception of control that the people who populate these poems do not, in fact, possess.
Throughout the collection, we see the speakers and characters of these poems desperately clinging to this idea of control by trying to be prepared—for what? Again, almost anything—keeping a “packed bag / under the bed,” just in case one needs to run (“Be Prepared”), holding “an extra Jack / of Spades between my thighs” to cheat in a card game at an opportune moment (“Euchre”), even rigging elections “for the family” by writing in the names of dead uncles to keep another uncle in office. “Think it through,” the speaker is begged in “Cemetery Precinct.” And yet, these efforts are always in vain. No amount of preparation will give these characters the control needed to change the outcome they’re really afraid of: death. Just as we see in the poem “Be Prepared,” (“The worm had / no idea” in the moment before the robin dived, “beak wide, ready to show me / every moment is survival / or not,”) the human characters throughout this chapbook are similarly trying to do much more than cheat a card game or an election; they’re trying to cheat death. The worm “had no idea” when it was time to meet his end, and as Kline writes in the chapbook’s final poem, “Corpse Reviver,” “no amount of knowing” that you will die, or even that death is imminently upon you, “changes the outcome.”
One way or another, you always get caught: “No amount of knowing // changes the outcome: dead uncles / blue in the face, red / leaving their lips.” These final lines of the chapbook remind us of what we knew from the beginning—Dead Uncles. While they’re living, the characters are deeply concerned with leaving a legacy. But once they’re dead, the family left behind twists that legacy into folklore. And the folklore of family is one, as Kline writes in the dedication, of “truth without proof.” Throughout the collection, the living use the dead in service of this illusion of control, and as a reader, it’s easy to get lost in the illusion among Kline’s calculated use of form and setting.
Prose poems and long lines abound in this collection, forms that Kline uses expertly to imitate not only the vastness of the familial experience rooted in a landscape, as in “Part Time Jobs in Appalachia,” but also the musicality and performance of something akin to a fireside ghost story, as in “Murder.” In these poems, Kline stitches a malleable seam between the living and the dead, the conscious and the unconscious, truth and fiction, almost in a formally literal way through the use of internal line breaks created by forward slashes. The title of the poem “Will / Inherit” (and the poem itself) is a concise and powerful example of this—the past on one side of the slash, the future on the other. The dead / the living.
This chapbook is a beautifully rendered montage of smoke and mirrors, of ash to ash and dust to dust, of the language of families spoken and unspoken and the ways we do and don’t survive each other. Dead Uncles is as mystical and haunted as it is purposeful and performed. After all, “It’s not a daydream if / you must suspend all disbelief.” Dead Uncles is poetry, it is folklore, it is a reverie, and through the vehicle of these forms Kline has made impressive work of storytelling and blurring the white space on either side of the dead / the living.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Kline lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, writing about our modern digital existence, former lovers, the eighties, assorted concepts in astrophysics, and growing up Appalachian. His chapbook of outer space/astrophysics poems Sagittarius A* was released by Sibling Rivalry Press in October 2020.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Laura Rashley is a poet and editor from Charleston, South Carolina, where she lives with her husband and their two cats. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Grist, Poetry Quarterly, and Fall Lines Magazine, among other journals.