C & R Press, 2011
At their best, the poems of John Estes’ debut full-length collection, Kingdom Come, illustrate a magical ability to balance three, four, even five impulses simultaneously. He also displays a deft hand at narrative structure throughout the book. In fact, Kingdom Come embraces the arc of modern suburban male identity in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century as its overall narrative. And Estes unspools the complexities of his theme in carefully rendered stages (section titles include “IN WHICH he marries” and “IN WHICH a child is conceived and born”).
Here’s some lines from “A List of What Is Found” that well represent Estes’ voice:
I’ve come to Kansas
to do a job,
to inventory a store of books—
the endangered kind
housed in old Victorians
where light switches
hide behind Kierkegaard
What begins as an inventory of books and, more subconsciously, a travelogue as metaphor for domesticity and marriage, eventually eases into a cataloguing of the more prescient cost of current events:
On the news:
in the desert outskirts
of an Iraqi town,
the so-called Triangle of Death,
a patrol is ambushed:
3389, 3390, 3391, 3392, 3393—
three unaccounted for.
Estes, in subdued tones that speak to the bottom line we’re often overlooking in the fine print of our lives, in lines too shocked to consider tools like enjambment, so effortlessly (and refreshingly) shows us the fluidity between the self and the world, the current events of the heart and the current events of the headlines, what Whitman liked to call the “me” and “not me.”
When Estes showcases this juggling act, no subject remains beyond his grasp, even poetry itself. Yet his touch, so delicate, avoids the typical drain-clog-effect of making poems into meta-narratives or worse. “State of the Art,” full of fervor and bravado, might be the book’s best poem. It’s almost Neruda-like in its playfulness and reach:
A poem in Sioux Falls, itself once saved
like this, talked a jumper down.
A poem takes you by the hand, compliments
your shoes, makes you ask for its number.
In these and other poems, you get a sense of Estes’ humor, which also manifests itself in the kind of self-deprecating tones usually reserved for 30-second spots at halftime of the football game: “Standing at the center urinal,” one poem begins, “waiting on the urine….” But more importantly, he uses humor as vehicle into male consciousness, and not just as the context in which important life events occur. Consider these lines from “Birth Class”:
And when the striped-tie Smart Guy
said, “It has a terminus,” I heard
Plath say, “Boarded the train
there’s no getting off.”
When the Second-Timer called it
I’m sure, I thought, I heard a Fly buzz.”
If there’s a flaw to the book, however, it resides in Estes not obeying the less-is-more principle. At 58 poems split into 5 sections over 111 pages, with over 20 epigraphs spaced in between, some trimming would provide room for the high moments of Kingdom Come to ripen in the reader’s imagination.
Call it inclusiveness. Call over-enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter. It’s hardly a crippling flaw. The best thing about Estes’ book is that we know the direction he’s heading in, and we’re equally as glad he’s the one taking us there.
Jay Robinson is Co-Editor-in-Chief / Reviews Editor of Barn Owl Review. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 32 Poems, Anti-, The Laurel Review, The North American Review, and Whiskey Island, among others.