The latest poetry collection by Collin Kelley reads like a snapshot photo album of one person’s emotional and sexual development. As the book unfolds and the poems accumulate, they tell a wry and heartbreaking story of parental dysfunction, homosexual stirrings, pop culture crushes, longings for power and, above all, for love.
The poems enact multiple meanings of the book’s title, Render: to depict; to represent in verbal form; to give what is due or owed; to submit for consideration or approval; to pronounce formally; to reduce, convert, or melt down; to surrender or relinquish. One might say that the main mission of Render is to represent ineffable elements of past experiences and memory, to bring them to light and to life.
It is no accident that the author himself appears on the cover, as a blurred face behind an old-fashioned camera, his thumb poised above the shutter button, because self-exposure through photography is the major structuring device of this collection. Photographic terms title the book’s four sections. The poems not only frequently describe photographs but also act like photographs themselves, the visual converted into language.
The first section, called “reticulation,” includes a single poem, which sets out many of Render’s themes and obsessions. In “A Broken Frame,” Kelley examines an old family photograph in which one relative “has been marked / out, maybe with black wax.” He speculates that this crossed-out figure might have been “[t]he one who kissed other boys,” an ancestral precursor of the author’s own homosexuality and familial alienation.
The book’s second section, “aperture,” chronicles the poet’s early life, beginning before birth and ending at the close of adolescence. The poem “Wonder Woman” explores another of the book’s central subjects, the role of powerful female popular culture figures in the development of a gay male identity: “[M]ore than the dolls, mind you, I wanted to be / Wonder Woman.”
Though Kelley senses his parents’ alarm at his early abandonment of G.I. Joe, someone still sews him a Wonder Woman costume, with “blue underwear with glued-on stars, a red bustier,” and he wears “the length of rope [his] father had / spray-painted gold in the yard hooked at [his] side.” The poem depicts a complicated family dynamic: while his parents indulge his unconventional childhood fantasy, the poet is still aware that his father would have preferred his son “dressed as Superman or Batman.”
“To Margot Kidder, With Love” revisits the theme of male identification with a strong yet vulnerable female character. In this poem, the young poet is dropped off at the movies alone while his mother conducts an extramarital affair. Many of this section’s poems (“Parallel Lines,” “Tuscumbia, Alabama,” “Squelch”) feature his mother’s infidelity, clearly a defining event for the family. In a characteristic gender reversal, Kelley envisions his mother “flying off to her other life faster than Superman,” while the abandoned boy empathizes with Lois Lane, “[f]eisty, brave, stubborn, in perpetual need of rescue.”
The poet’s affinity for Lois Lane extends to her difficult emotional conundrum, since she is “in love with the one man / she could never truly have.” This trope of unrequited love and loneliness dominates the book’s third section, “blowup.” In “Sex in My Parents’ House,” “Hustling,” “Bare Back” and “Confirmed Bachelor,” among others, the poet depicts a variety of sexual encounters, some with intimates, some with strangers, the poems a nuanced blend of frankness, tenderness, longing and anger.
“Why I Want to Be Pam Grier” utilizes a sonic inventiveness to describe Kelley’s identification with this complex female figure. For example, the playful internal rhyming in the following lines: “I want to flim you and flam you and just say / goddamn you.” And “I want to be exploited, overworked / and underpaid but look damn good doing it, / cause I’m always getting laid.” This lyric exuberance also expresses the poet’s inevitable yearning for love, for “one last sweet kiss from the man / who actually gave a damn.”
The section’s final poems return to the poet’s parents. His father is now blind, his mother beset with “selective amnesia,” and Kelley strives for closure. Though in “Broken Things” his father “will never forget her space exploration / when she looped her tether to another,” Kelley forgives his mother, understanding that “[e]ven broken things can still fly.”
The collection’s concluding section, “resolution,” like the first, comprises a single poem, the book’s title poem. “Render” alternates an italicized description of the process of creating a glass plate negative with a reflection on the photographs of Sally Mann. Here Kelley sees Mann’s famous images of childhood, their “postmortem stillness,” as deathlike in their freezing of time.
The poet ends this honest and earnest book with a caveat about the always already incomplete achievement of his own project, the difficulties inherent in capturing life’s complications and intricacies on paper. “Note that a blue sky and clouds are impossible to render / Expect imperfections and subtle debris.”