Shaking the Kaleidoscope by Kate Kingston
(Lost Horse Press, 2012)
reviewed by Nancy Takacs
Kate Kingston weaves culture, language, and myth from Spain and Mexico, throughout her first book, Shaking the Kaleidoscope, in surprising ways, engaging the reader with images from her travels there, as well as from her childhood in Wisconsin and her adult life in the American west. Balancing her desire for humanity and beauty against a world of loss and violence, she observes with a level eye, and reconciles this looking at the world dead on, sometimes with humor, but always with verve.
The book begins with poems about Lorca. Kingston travels widely in Spain, was a Spanish professor, and is currently a poetry translator. Interspersed through her Lorca poems are sections of the title poem, which include memories of an accident when she fell as a child as well as one in which her son almost died. The voice throughout the five parts of this poem cannot suppress her memories of violence:
I cannot recall violence […]
I cannot recall pistachios,
the way the shell cracks between my teeth,
or myself dropping
from a metal
bar chipping my front
tooth on happiness,
the stain of blood in the sand,
nothing like the matador
gored in the groin,
so that my lament rises
up next to Lorca
and smells of wet ashes.
The sections of the poem build with the thread of violent events we might witness in our everyday lives, such as a refusal to someone begging, and the near-death of a loved one in the powerful,“Shaking the Kaleidoscope III,” a piece about her young son’s near-asphyxiation, and the distance and paralysis felt when one force clashes violently against another:
I cannot recall violence,
but one morning my son’s face
turned blue. I forced
my own breath into his lungs,
cannot recall the sound of waves
claiming shore or the way
his feet toed-in, only the cadence
of silence, nothing like
the chain of mountain peaks
suffering from lack of rain.
I cannot recall the way a knife
slices coconut into quarter moon
wedges, cannot recall cleats
biting into cobblestone, nor the bull
lifting his horns to the groin,
the matador spilling onto sand,
nothing like the pomegranate
or the blue face of a child
when his lungs will not pull air,
nothing like exhaust filling
my nostrils or pesetas
dropping into an open palm.
The pulse of the five-section poem is violence, and it is unforgettable. This underscores her compassion for Lorca, his poetry, his perseverance in facing, and not fleeing from, possible assassination.
“What Does Lorca Own?,” placed in his summer home Huerta de San Vicente in Grenada, Spain, also shows Kingston’s connection with him as a writer, in the following lines:
Lorca owns a room full of assonance placating
his pen with ohs and ahs. He begins to float,
and the room becomes a river, current and undertow…
…Twenty-six boots cross
the plaza, worn-down heels bring him men
filled with bullets and lime. When he closes his eyes:
he sees the stray dog approach his knee, the stray
dog sniff his crotch, the stray dog lick his face…
Lorca owns the word Green.
The poet discovers meaning for herself in both Spanish and English, in her interaction with the tangible, learning what is symbolic in one culture could have a different meaning in another, although in her own poetic language, she intersects them both, creates anew. For example, the word “green” connotes death in the Spanish language, as opposed to new life in English. In several of her poems, she uses this word, allowing both meanings to surface, not choosing one over the other, because both languages are on her tongue and in her consciousness. Both meanings add to the context. She also searches in her comparisons for evidence of one world inside the other, cultures skipping boundaries.
As an example, although many of her images in the book point to a less anxious and more gentle Mexico, while visiting Mayan ruins she learns how women were killed or sacrificed, brutality against women evident in this culture, with “bruised skulls / found in the cenote,” how the “the women were struck, pushed, / over an edge into the sweet water / this underground river, and she leaves “clutching the cabled rail ready to steady [her] descent.” Kingston returns to snorkel this underground river in “Mayan Riviera Wedding” after her daughter’s wedding there, alone, to a cave where she pulls out a vigil candle that she lights as she feels fish surface, and watches bats fly around her: “murceilagos, struggle[ing] / with light, not unlike my daughter—her complicated veil, / its lace teeth catching on doorknobs, on coat hangers.” This re-visitation of the place where the women were killed suggests her need to mourn them, as well as to celebrate their lives, to both mourn and celebrate her daughter’s marriage. She begins “a new altar, / a piece of stalagmite.”
Kingston directs our attention to an American misunderstanding of art, another kind of violence. In the poem “Concourse A Exhibit,” an airport art exhibiting Denver was screened and critiqued as “inappropriate” because some of the artists’ works had images of skeletons; however, the poem suggests looking at art for art’s sake is what is important. Travelers are aware of what could happen on a plane and don’t have to be protected from a painting’s “eye socket of the skeleton staring back / as [they] clutch [their] boarding pass and identification in one hand, / [their]carry-on in the other”; or from the image of “bones / when the country is in code orange…”
Kingston writes of the world’s inconsistencies and tragedies, but also writes as strongly about joy. In “History of My Body” she celebrates:
This body remembers trick-or-treat, its Snickers bars
and bruised apples. This body remembers the way dried leaves
scratch the skin when I somersault into the pile
of tattooed veins—oak, elm, maple—then wrap myself
in a sarong of silver water. Inside this body, flies buzz,
this body with cake on its tongue.
In the final poem of Shaking the Kaleidoscope, “When Anna Meets for Lunch,” she intimates to a friend: “We are pearls born in the clam’s lust for sand. We are / coal before the diamond. What can pressure make of us now / taking us by the hand into the kaleidoscope of dark?”
Kingston’s poems embody duende, a term invented by Lorca who believed all good art must have it, saying: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs inside you, from the inside of the feet.’” Christopher Maurer, editor of In Duende, says, “The duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience
, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort.” This is what Kate Kingston’s poetry does. With a forthright and fresh voice, dazzling imagery, and a conscience, it calls us home.