The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan
David Allan Cates
Satellite Press 2016
Reviewed by Bob Wake
David Allan Cates, the author of five novels (most recently the award-winning Tom Connor’s Gift), has not until now published a collection of his poetry. The assured voice that emerges from the nineteen poems in The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan shares a sensibility that admirers of his fiction will recognize: politically engaged, erotically charged, and remarkably fluid in shifting between closely observed naturalism (especially of Central America, where Cates does medical aid work) and dreamlike surrealism.
If a lovesick Claude Monet were inspired to peel off his paint smock and dive naked into his beloved water lilies, he might sound something like the besotted narrator of Cates’s poem, “You Could Have Had Me”: “Just so you know, I’ve taken to floating on the fish pond at night / My cock a lily // Chest an empty / Turtle shell without you.” The playfulness of “You Could Have Had Me” comes at a price. There is regret that stings (“The echoing howl of everything I did and everything / I didn’t do”) and an immeasurable sadness (“Then I close my eyes and smell precious / Failure, / Feel on my skin the electric rain / Of bewilderment”).
Love in a Cates poem can be life and death. In “The Purpose of Kissing,” sensuality has the explosive charge of a suicide-bomb trigger:
Think of it like this: lovers
hold tiny detonation devices
on their tongues, hot invisible
wires attached to distant charges
Real-world violence is often right around the corner in Cates’s work. In the poem “San Pedro Sula,” for instance, “Nothing says good morning / like gunshots at dawn, and she, her feet in snow, / steps past pine and hemlock toward a cold car / she hopes will start.” To situate love honestly in the historical moment is to recognize both our fragile impermanence and our connectedness to landscapes alive with ghosts: “Some / were important and others weren’t / and were slaughtered / because they lived on the other side of the river / or down in the valley … Sometimes / they loved— / did I mention that?—like we do” (“You and Me and the Dead”).
It is David Allan Cates’s novelistic eye for detail and the sinister anecdote that breathes so much life into the opening two stanzas of a poem like “What with Light We Might Imagine”:
Before dawn, you greet hotel maids
chatting music, step around dog shit
on the clean cobbled sidewalk past garbage
trucks and taxis in the cold. After
a long night of righteous missiles
over the holy land, the echo of ¡puta
madre! has dissolved down the block
and the fairy glow of streetlights guides
you toward a paling sky, Cinco de Mayo
Still squinting from the Santa Martha
bus, you walk into the shade past armed
guards on broken chairs and the same
one who blocked your way to leave that first
afternoon, said it’s too late, you’ll have to stay
the night inside. Remember the dark
in your throat, the sudden glint in his eye,
a prison joke. Ha-ha.
The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan is an ambitious all-digital project (available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords editions) from Satellite Press. Filmmakers were commissioned by the Satellite Collective to create videos using audio of Cates reading. Two online videos have appeared so far, the title poem (by filmmakers Tim van der Meer and Sietske van der Veen) and the poem “Good Luck” (by filmmaker Kate MacDonald).