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Keyser tells of life in his first book of poetry

Raising the Dead

Poetry by Associate Provost for Institute Life Samuel J. Keyser.

Garden Street Press.

By Ann Ames
Arts Editor

The verses in this volume are trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, between poetry and prose. They begin with a curious sense of morbid humor; sitting on a wall in a graveyard, the author reads the want ads from a newspaper to his dead mother. That first page opens a tiny window into the loneliness, the bitterness to come, but its wit steals a little of the bite, intriguing the reader, leaving him wholly unprepared for the powerful tales that follow.

This is Associate Provost Samuel J. Keyser's first published book of poetry. Keyser refers to it as a single entity, "this poem," though it is comprised of 38 individual poems written over the past three years. Some tell of episodes from his life or from the lives of family members. Others describe images of a strange world that weaves itself around each of the people in the book, animating them, turning them into characters in a unreal play. And between these, Keyser sits in the cemetery talking to his mother in language so genuine; it is hard to categorize these conversations as anything but real.

The tone of the entire book is detached, like intellectual storytelling, further blurring the distinctions we would usually make between life and death, real and unreal. It presents the philosophy that all the characters and situations exist together in some undefined state, and it is only our perception of the world that changes. Keyser himself, when asked which of the images were real and which fabricated, said he was no longer sure.

He tells his stories in sentences wrapped around lines, creating stanzas that become irregular paragraphs. Left in unstructured free verse, we would not question the fantastical nature of a woman on the roof, dressed in a chicken suit, pretending to lay eggs. But the simple added formality of capital letters and punctuation marks lends this image and others like it half of a shadow, the outline of three-dimensional form.

In many cases, the dead seem more alive than the living. The author's mother haunts her son so thoroughly that when he goes to his father's grave for one of these talks, the voice that answers is hers. She critiques his life, offers frank and insulting ideas for improvement, and makes acrid quips that leave little uncertainty about the hard life she must have suffered.

Keyser's language echoes this unwavering woman's straightforwardness. The only rhymes are internal and unforced, the meter easy and not strict. Shocking or florid vocabulary is absent; Keyser lets detail dictate the emotion of his pieces without resorting to gimmicks. He had no intention of publishing when he wrote these lines, and that attitude translates into literary honesty. We see the author and his family as he sees them, not as he would have us see them.

The picture he paints is disturbing, as familial roles shift and change. Women try to form intimacies with their sons to smooth the pain of loss. Insanity, wavering like everything else between the realms of real and surreal, frosts their world with icy tension; rarely are situations hostile, but the potential always exists for the impossible to happen.

And yet this poem is far from humorless. Keyser's sister, "dead in her eighteenth month," visits one day to tell him she is a Jehovah's Witness and ask if he has found God. An unexpected rhyme, "Sam discovered he wasn't covered," describes an uncle's sudden loss of his shoe store in a way that evokes a wry smile, and makes us wonder if this very believable episode is not another scene taken more from imagination than from life.

Keyser wanted his poem to be accessible, and he has achieved that. With few exceptions, the meanings here are not hidden. When his mother says she does not remember when she died because she had things on her mind, we laugh. When in a story from his childhood she kisses him on the cheek and whispers in his ear, we shudder.

It is amazing that these poems, written discretely and interspersed with others not included here, should come together to form so cohesive a whole. Through a succession of stories remembered or retold they vividly describe many lives, focusing on the one that will not let itself be forgotten. Even death does not daunt the author's mother, until almost accidentally he finds the key to her deepest sorrow, which also releases him from his imprisonment in her image. The moment is so final, it seems like Keyser might never write another line of poetry -- his ghosts have been put to rest.