A deserving winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, The Primitive Observatory by Gregory Kimbrell delivers what its title promises. Typically, an observatory either contains instruments for examining the world or provides a broad view, but Kimbrell’s book does both. Its poems are tools for observing many characters in various times and places. Inspired by history and myth, this poetry collection achieves a powerful blend of realism and fantasy that focuses on primitive behavior.
In “The Four Cousins,” relatives wager their pets in a tile-based game. Kaspar celebrates his victories by stuffing the animals and arranging his “trophies around / the room as though it were a tomb.” Elsewhere, villagers submit to the will of a man wearing a crocodile mask, and men wearing black overcoats approve an execution as though it were simple business. “The Burial Plot” mentions how a mob killed a murder suspect, then left him “hanging on the notice board in the town square.”
Rather than demonize characters or excuse their conduct, Kimbrell wisely depicts their behaviors as desperate responses to loss or turmoil. In “The Ruin at Drax End,” Leighton not only wears the crocodile mask because “the word of the crocodile” is “law” and village girls court him; he also plays the part in reacting to the death of his disapproving father. Many family members in the book die, fall ill, or disappear. Brutal seasons, natural disasters, plagues, class conflicts, and wars torment isolated survivors. What will come after all this destruction, symbolized by the front cover’s depiction of a collapsing tower?
That’s not the only question Kimbrell leaves unanswered, no—he fills the book with fascinating mysteries. When an anthropologist visits a village, why do its men say they dreamed about him? Why does Mal keep finding his things stacked in pyramids? Is there any truth to the rumors that Maurice’s grandfather, a psychotherapist, used hypnotism to secure his patients’ love and favors?
Kimbrell trusts you enough to let you answer such questions and make connections between the different plots and characters in his accessible narrative poems. Several conflicts involve thinkers contending with the suspicions, superstitions, and prejudices of others. Take, for example, these lines from “The Fire That Cleared the Valley of Oster:”
Arion threw in after her the letters from her suitor,
Georg—that mere dealer in agricultural machines!
How often she had spoken of their shared passion
for science and the exhibition where they had first
met, the way their fingers had touched in reaching
to scrutinize the frond of a dwarf palm. Arion spat
the soot from his tongue.
Clearly, Arion thought that the suitor’s mutual interest was irrelevant and that she, his sister, was too good for a working-class man.
In most of the poems, Kimbrell uses objective narration, letting details speak for themselves. Occasionally, he uses limited omniscient narration or a participant narrator, or he writes in a lyrical mode. Whatever the case, he evokes an emotional response without telling you which one to have. Especially affecting is the series of six poems interspersed throughout the book. The title of each begins with “Nocturne,” and each has the same speaker who grieves his brother’s death and, thanks to Kimbrell’s deft use of apostrophe, talks to a shadow. Part of “Nocturne (Wind from the Hills)” reads:
never came with me into these fields.
Far from here he died, and he sleeps
as the wheat sleeps, in a bed of frost
polished like a mirror. Again the line
of black alders along the road begins
to move. You, shadow, leap the wall
and climb up the ladders of the silos.
Like many things in this book, the shadow in each nocturne poem allows for multiple interpretations. Here, it’s the speaker’s shadow, another physical shadow, a Jungian shadow, or some combination of these.
Not only do the nocturne poems delve into a character’s psychology; much of this book hints at characters’ deepest fears and desires—sometimes impossibilities, frequently revealed in dreams. One character dreams his brother returned from the grave. Others dream while awake, as Sergeant imagines future architecture in “The Succulent Flowers:”
In theory, whole cities could be made of glass.
Glass walls, glass doors—even roofs of glass.
Citizens of glass cities would grow very close.
Dreamers in other poems imagine a new palace and hybrid crops that could end hunger and heal people.
Few desires are fulfilled, and many fears become realities. In the darkest poem, “The End of Time at Four Heaths School,” someone recalls being among those who—unable to survive a frozen wasteland—were stuck in a school and started “counting survivors, not weeks.” When the food ran out, they resorted to cannibalism. But the book doesn’t end there. The final poem, “The Coming Winter,” is about Galen making toy animals to cope with losing his family. He “held up the ruddy / silk lining of a jacket to a fox’s unfinished paws,” and if he “ever dreamed something else, then / he must have forgotten it.” Ultimately, Kimbrell’s vision is not devoid of hope, not bleak as can be.
And what a captivating vision it is. The main reason I find this collection so easy to settle into is because it’s formally consistent and cohesive. Every poem is free verse that blurs the line between poetry and prose. Every stanza is a tidy rectangle. Every line is strong. Every poem has subtle music, such as slant rhyme. Every poem uses lush diction, usually containing at least one name such as Pendragon, one term such as balustrade. Every poem’s tone is mostly serious.
At times, Kimbrell adds wry, non-trivializing humor. “The Hour of Study; or, The Concept of Moral Genealogy” may initially seem to be a mere funny portrait of a man kookily obsessed with growing “a truly gigantic moustache.” However, re-examining this satire reveals its significance:
Mars felt within himself a capacity for a moustache
at least the size of his grandfather’s. After breakfast,
while annotating Götzen-Dämmerung, he reflected on
the utopia of possessing a moustache that obscured
one’s face, like an executioner’s mask. The moment of
the shortest shadow drew near, when the errors of they
who had thought Mars unworthy would be exposed.
The poem illustrates the impossibility of achieving an authentic sense of familial, intellectual, male, or social identity by basing it on something beyond control, such as the ability or inability to grow a Nietzsche-style ’stache. And that’s just one example of how rereading Kimbrell proves fruitful. Yes, you see more every time you take in this extensive view, every time you use the instruments in this remarkable observatory.
About the Reviewer
Nathanael Tagg has an MFA from Rutgers, where he was a Truman Capote Literary Trust fellow. His poems and reviews are published or forthcoming in Barrow Street, The Pleiades Book Review, Arts & Letters, American Arts Quarterly, The Raintown Review, and other magazines. He’s an assistant professor of English at Cecil College. His website is www.nathanaeltagg.com.