Have you ever walked down the sidewalk and suddenly discovered a big red stain on the cement where someone had been badly injured or maybe murdered and the sight of that bloodstain is so unnerving that it leaves you shaking for the rest of the afternoon? And, you don’t exactly know why because you’ve seen blood splattered walls on tv or in the movies and they never made you feel that way. But, this is somehow real and you can see where someone has tried to wash the stain away but it refuses to disappear. Instead, the blood has gone into the pebbled texture of the cement and it is going to take many thousands of indifferent feet to make it go away.
Discovering a Kell Robertson poem can have this effect. Robertson brings a certain rawness, a certain primal feel of life, an authentic viscerality to nearly everything he writes. The best of his poems almost seem like something that approaches the final apocalyptic reports from the last american psychic frontier. Beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner, we have been repeatedly told that there really are no more frontiers, but if you live in any part of the american west you know that there are little pockets of wildness that still survive. They persist in the geography of places like the Gila in New Mexico, they persist in the ragged terrain of the way we all dream. Here, in america.
Kell Robertson’s latest chapbook THE GOOFY GODDESS ON THE WALL is the latest installment of his ongoing picaresque adventures lived right at the edge of american culture. This is where Robertson has lived for most of his life. The title poem takes place in an abandoned filling station where the poet discovers an old calendar advertising Jimmie’s Foxlake Feeds flapping in the wind on the wall. And, the pinup on the flaking calendar portrays a beauty queen from thirty years ago. Some trickster has used a pen to ink out here teeth. Yet, somehow enough of her beauty is left intact to allow the poet to dream what she might have been like thirty years ago. In some ways, she becomes part of Kell Robertson’s dream of a pastoral america. A dream that is fading or has already disappeared like Jimmi’e Foxlake Feeds and the filling station itself. This part of america is not coming back and Robertson knows this only too well. And, he laments it in poem after poem.
In some ways, Kell Robertson could have been a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. He is part of John Grady Cole’s world or Billy Parham’s world. While Robertson is not a Cowboy Poet, he is a poet from a nearly vanished time. Born in 1930 in rural Kansas, he was on the road by the mid forties and certainly had seen a good deal of the west by 1950, the same time period that the major characters of THE CROSSING TRILOGY lived through. The fact that Robertson was living in the west and southwest in the forties and fifties goes a long way in giving his voice and vision the kind of authenticity that is lacking in most so called Cowboy Poets. Robertson’s best poems have a sound in them that you find in the very best moments of a Max Evans’ novel, a Cormac McCarthy novel, and especially in William Faulkner’s short novel THE BEAR. Robertson heard the best of all talking and somehow he was able to get that voice, the sound of that voice, the bourbon gravelly shorthand drawl of that voice into poems that I can only call masterpieces. Not every Kell Robertson poem is a masterpiece. But poems such as Bear Crossing, Almost Suicide, For My Stepfather, A Horse Called Desperation, Pretty Boy Floyd, and The Gunfighter are almost certainly the best of all talking.
The best poem in THE GOOFY GODDESS ON THE WALL comes near the end of the book. I Forgot The Name Of The Movie But It Went Like This: is the kind of poem a poet writes near the end of his life. Here, Robertson really isn’t talking about a movie. Instead, he’s playing with memory and desire. He’s right on the edge of inventing the movie of his life except that he has already done that through poetry, through promoting his legend of having been a Hollywood stuntman, through sounding a little like Robert Duvall in LONESOME DOVE, Edmond O’Brien in THE WILD BUNCH, and Tommy Lee Jones in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. And, also, maybe Walter Brennan in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. I Forgot The Name Of The Movie is one of those summing up poems. The poet is asking himself what he has done, what kind of legacy is he leaving behind.
Kell Robertson’s poetry is both easy and difficult to define. Easy because for most of his life Robertson has been a kind of cultural outlaw. He has gone against the grain at almost every turn. In the classic Beat period, Robertson lived at the margins of the Beat world but he was never part of the movers and shakers in that world. In fact Robertson’s first book TOWARD COMMUNICATION appeared in 1967, right on the cusp of the Hippie Revolution, but Robertson was anything but a Hippie. A free spirit like John Grady Cole, yes, but not a Hippie.
And, Robertson’s poetry is difficult to define because it is not Surreal, it is not necessarily Confessional, it is not part of the Language School of poetry, it is not Beat, it was never Modernist. And, it is not Cowboy though it has horses and cowboys in it. It resolutely defies easy definition as all strong poetry should.
The fascinating thing about Kell Robertson’s poetry is that it could just as easily have been written beginning in 1920 as it was beginning in the 1960s. Robertson’s poetry never really depended on T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Robert Frost. In some ways it depends more on the stories of Ernest Hemingway and the song lyrics of Hank Williams. The core of the best of Kell Robertson’s work depends partly on the leanest of american sentences. It’s very possible Bukowski figures in there somewhere except that Bukowski’s poetry is heavily urban and situated right at the street level while Robertson’s poetry is heavily western and rural, situated somewhere between a cantina, a mesa, and a bus station. Bukowski’s poetry is a celebration of the visceral. Robertson’s poetry has always been a viscerally raw western lament, a kind of death song in the best tradition of Sam Peckinpah. Every death song should have some blood in it.
Maybe at this stage of Kell Robertson’s career as a poet, the question inside the question is does a small press poet actually have a career, someone needs to ask just what is Robertson’s legacy as a poet? What has Kell Robertson accomplished as a poet? If he has written a long poem, that is a poem at least as long and significant as THE WASTE LAND, he has never published it. If he has written a novel, it remains unpublished at this date. If he has written a memoir, I have never heard about it.
I suppose what I am talking about is style. Passing out after a long day of drinking at the Shuler Theater in Raton, New Mexico. Now, that’s style. Having a car run over your foot while you are trying to push it out of a ditch. Now, that’s style. Slapping your holsterless thigh while arguing with a bartender over the drink tab. Now, that’s style. Or, writing a poem as spare and wonderful as Pretty Boy Floyd. That, amigo, is style. You can see that kind of style in the photograph of Kell Robertson smoking a roll your own on the last page of THE GOOFY GODDESS ON THE WALL. You can see it in the way that he has crouched himself against the impudences of the ignorant world. He’s all trickster in that snapshot. He looks like he’s getting ready to conjure a story or a poem.
Robertson’s real legacy lies in the way that he writes, the way that he says things. There is virtually no one who writes the way that he does or sees things the way that he sees and dreams them. Robertson may be one of those poets who resist being labeled. However, if Kell Robertson is anything, he is an Outlaw Poet. His heroes are John Wesley Hardin, Charles Arthur Floyd, Lash Larue, Woody Guthrie, Billy the Kid and Ken Maynard. His poetry calls to the Outlaw Poets. His legacy lies strongly in that tradition. And, it has been overlooked too long as a legitimate tradition in american poetry.
The one thing that we can all be sure of is that Kell Robertson has published maybe two dozen or more chapbooks and one book of a hundred plus pages of poetry. Maybe he has produced a body of poetry at least as large as the work of Weldon Kees or the Greek poet Cavafy. Not terribly long, but a poetry that has a groundedness to it. A poetry with a unique voice and a raw power that is as original and as hypnotic as any poet I know of. Kell Robertson is unique. There is no one writing like him today and I don’t think we shall see his kind again. — Todd Moore