On Ron Kolm and “A Change in the Weather”
Poet, editor, archivist, bookseller, raconteur, man-about-town, downtown icon: Ron Kolm is all of these things and more. With A Change in the Weather (Sensitive Skin Books, $9.95), a slim but explosive collection of verse, Kolm continues to burnish his reputation as a vital historical and creative voice.
A veteran of New York’s downtown avant-garde, Kolm writes poems that are tacitly autobiographical, using as their narrative the writer’s own experiences coming to New York City in near-poverty and moving through the upstart bohemia of what was a rougher, wilder place. Kolm writes of driving cross-country in a beat-up pickup (“Badlands”), of taking a job at the Strand Bookstore (“Hell’s Kitchen”), and of seeing a sullen Jimi Hendrix performing for an all-white crowd in Philadelphia (“Jimi”).
At times, the poems seem like a catalogue of the doomed and broken, as the everyman narrator — a sort of Beatrice to the reader’s Dante — bears witness to jarring and ominous confrontations. In “8th Street Station,” the narrator is menaced by a mentally ill woman:
“Don’t look at me, bitch!” she screamed.
“Do you want to get pushed
In front of a train and die?”
She yanked a bottle
From her jacket pocket
And smashed it against the wall,
Just like in the movies.
He also encounters priests, junkies, Vietnam vets, and even Charles Bukowski — in a bookstore, natch — all pinballing against each other against a backdrop of an apocalyptic urban wasteland.
Kolm’s language in these miniature vers a clef is sturdy, utilitarian, unembellished; he is fond of breaking a series of declarative sentences into short lines, generally of five to seven feet, that have a staccato energy:
When we reach street level
I see a horrendous sight:
The sky is blood red
And though it’s summer
Snowflakes are falling
And coating everything.
For Kolm, one senses, poetry has a documentary function (this seeming holocaust was the result of burst power line); these lines have the grabbed-at, semi-improvised feeling of real life, a lived-in recording of modern chaos. They thus convey a certain onrushing energy, as well as a degree of interest simply as historical documents, but to my mind, the more successful efforts are the ones where Kolm veers away from his formula.
Two of the poems are found-poetry collages, taken from old bookmarks, notes, and other realia he has collected during his bookselling career — a verbal scrapbook of the lost and forgotten — and they are evocative and visually robust (“A gaucho broke her heart / with his bullet-studded belt”; “They’ve drawn a circle in chalk around his chair”).
Best of all are the fantasia in which Kolm lets go of the quotidian and allows his imagination, and his humor, to run unleashed. In “Finnegans Joyce,” James Joyce comes back from the dead to explain himself in a high-velocity rant; in “Hope Springs Eternal,” Andy Warhol winds up re-incarnated as a potato chip (“I silk-screened / Monroe for this?”) We are all, ends “The New World,” just “living in the shadow / of the new tower of Babel.” Luckily we have Ron Kolm, and poems like these, to illuminate our way.