A few days ago, I sat down with the reprint edition of Kelley's chapbook Slow to Burn published by Seven Kitchens Press, and I quickly fell in love. In many ways, chapbooks can showcase a poet better than a full length book. Chapbooks, at their best, are tight and focused collections that don't rely on filler poems. Slow to Burn is exactly that.
As I read, I realized that I might just be Kelley's target audience. His poems are packed full of pop culture references that add to and illuminate the poems in the best ways possible. In his opening poem, "Freedom Train," there are references to the Bionic Woman, Farrah Fawcett, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. These references never feel forced, but rather build the world of the speaker. These are the things we remember and the things that shape us.
My favorite poem in the collection is titled "Wonder Woman." I have a soft spot for any poem that deals with superheroes. This poem is one of the shortest in the collection, but one of the most powerful. It opens with these lines:
"The day I told my parents I wanted to trade in
G.I. Joe for Wonder Woman must have set off alarms."
Immediately, we are intrigued. The poem continues to explore the complexity of gender roles, budding homosexuality, and the relationship between a gay son and his father. I've read countless poems on this topic, but this one succeeds where others don't, because it feels rounded and not so black and white. The father in this poem is not a villain. We can feel his embarrassment as much as we can understand the excitement of the speaker, at 7-years-old, running around his yard lassoing things. Kelley brings a real and balanced perspective in this poem that is often missing from poetry that deals with these issues.
Many of the other poems in the collection are about loss and suicide. These poems also walk a careful line. They feel honest and never rely on cliches. While many of these poems are dark, Kelley throws in some good humor from time to time. This is most apparent in his poem "The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass." This poem is funny, thought provoking, and well-crafted.
Chapbooks are a great way to learn about a poet and to support small presses. Chapbooks almost feel as if they are from another time. They are often small and handmade. You can see the care and dedication that went into the making of Slow to Burn. I highly recommend getting yourself a copy.