Friday, March 27, 2015


After reading poems in Ken Fontenot's book, In A Kingdom of Birds, a young poet decided to use some lines from his poetry that inspired her to create a "found poem"—one in which she repeated words from lines of Fontenot's work that had carried a certain charge for her, then added her own lines to create a new poem.  However, when I finished reading Fontenot's In A Kingdom of Birds and Just A Trace of Moon, Selected Poems 2006-2013, I felt that I couldn't possibly be among those who wrote "found poetry." I'd be unable to incise any of his wonderful poems and create a new poem for fear that I'd lose some of the wisdom and delight Robert Frost says is inherent in a complete poem.

In Just A Trace of Moon, Fontenot deftly shows readers a wide range of subjects from a poem capturing the energy and capers of young boys in "Friends, 1956" to a profound piece entitled "Things Both Practical and Sublime." Through his investigations into memory and speculations about a "good life"—sometimes cryptic, other times, philosophical—readers experience "just a trace of moon" that provides new and translucent approaches to the real world.

I loved the opening lines of "Friends, 1956," which aptly characterizes young boys about to enter puberty who're filled with "...pure energy without wisdom." Although the time is set in 1956, the poem elicited investigations into my own memory of boys in the mid-forties—"the embarrassment of short pants/and short hair./ We were dust creased in the neck,/fingers around a baseball bat..." and a line not confined to boys of that time (every young person had dirty knees!): "We had green knees forever..." In his relaxed style, Fontenot captures the tone of past time in this piece about a halcyon period in American history, taking his readers back as "lovers of lost time."

Fontenot inserts classical musicians and writers into his work, giving readers a taste of Beethoven and Mahler and quoting lines from Goethe in "That Is the Way" to achieve the idea of the sense of balance needed for old age: "When Goethe said, 'Two souls live in me,' he must have/meant the angelic and the demoniac And he/lived the balance: he could take both into old age. /But the snake sheds its skin. That is the way/There is/no other."

My favorite in this new volume of selected poems is a nostalgic piece entitled "Back Then," in which Fontenot reveals his family's Cajun background and describes his mother's occupation as a "housewife" or "homemaker," relating how she crisscrossed the country with Western Union and "teletyped her way into marriage and 1946." The poem culminates in a touching picture of Fontenot's father ministering to his wife, getting her drunk for a toothache and later making iced tea because she felt "too bad to make it herself." Fontenot closes with the poignant end lines: "I know it was my father. /I know he would/have fought the whole terrible War (WWII) just for her." Some readers might consider this condensed sentimentality, but I read it as a tender portrait of married love.

In "Winter," Fontenot moves from the concrete to a larger, transformative context, describing the need for warmth on a winter night where he invites his mate to "relearn the tenderness of clouds, /how once long ago only the angels/could see whatever it is we see now."

Here is a poet who has come to terms with life as revealed in "Things Both Practical and Sublime," showing his deep philosophical bent when he combines poetry and enlightenment in a concluding verse: "The best we can bargain for is authenticity/and gratitude (even more than love?), /for the cow is grateful to the grass, each/showing its true self. So remind me to serve up/a meal of life, the main course of which is grace."

Fontenot reminds me of William Blake's wife's description of her husband as having one foot in this world and one foot in the next!

Although Fontenot's finest contribution to literature is his poetry, he donated his personal collection of hundreds of volumes of poetry by renowned writers to the Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection at the University of Texas. Fontenot, a native New Orleanian, now lives and works in Austin, Texas. His third book of poetry, In A Kingdom of Birds, won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters award for best poetry book of Texas. Both In A Kingdom of Birds and Just A Trace of Moon were published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, an independent press on the rise in the "world of letters."

Available from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, Colorado 81403.

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