Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo: Reviewed by Cameron MacKenzie

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The title of Kenneth Pobo’s new collection, Loplop in a Red City, both gestures toward the methodology behind these poems even as it highlights the ambivalent role of the trickster-creator—a figure that would simulatneously fashion a text and reflect upon it from a remove. The loplop is a bird-like figure created by artist Max Ernst which functioned as a stand-in for the painter within his own work, both comprising and commenting on the pieces in which it appeared. The liminality of that figure serves as a fitting guise for Pobo here as well, as the author seems to move back and forth between the text of the poetry and the classic works of art that inspired them.

Picasso’s Composition with Glove is a sculpture consisting of a gray frame containing a flat wooden mask, with rough and distorted holes loosely corresponding to eyes and mouth, and rung with tattered, shredded cloth. Beneath it, as though holding or supporting this figure, runs a glove which gestures towards it with all the delicacy of a Renaissance sculpture. The entire piece seems to be coated in a thin accumulation of ash or grime, as though it has been recently drug from the bottom of the sea. Pobo’s poem of the same name begins:

About my birth, the stories
change. My mother is dead.
I try to remember what she said
about my arrival. It’s dust. Mostly.
A Caesarean, I had hair

The relationship between the text and the sculpture only seems obvious once so described, but having been described seem nothing other than natural and correct. With this vision now established, the poem moves out into its own space, carrying with it the image of the sculpture itself like a specter, returning to it in a rhythmic fashion that imbues the lines with a unique and resonant power.

…Even my body
looks like dust when lines
form, the hand that surely
can’t be mine but is

grabbing at a darkness turning
to bright flecks that fall and fade

The triumphs of Pobo’s ekphrastic texts lie less in any consonant relationship between the given poem and the artwork than in the dissonant collisions sparked by the art and extended through the poetry. In the collection’s best moments, it’s as though Pobo’s language leaps out beyond the artwork to another plane altogether—a plane that nevertheless feels as though it was prepared by the artwork itself.

Pobo's “Syssigy, Painting by Leonora Carrington” begins:

We’re not here to torment, to coax
a truth from her closed mouth.
We ask only that she give herself over,
completely, to magic. As we have.

It’s not necessary to know the painting in order to get a sense of the mystery these lines impart, and yet the stanza also functions as a simple, precise and elegant narration of the fantastical scene portrayed in Carrington’s painting.

All her life she’s clutched crayons, coloring
time any shade she prefers. Today
we’re melting the crayons
to give her lightening. She can knit
tulip petals to keep them
from falling asleep when she talks to them,
which she often does. They answer
in a language only she understands.

At this point the text leaves the painting behind with a series of images that ground the scene in the quotidian, aligning the mystery of the first stanza to the mystery felt by a child, the everyday mysteries that suffuse a child’s world that are common and present and perfectly natural. The third stanza returns to the scene of the painting itself, in which an old man inexplicably offers a possum to a seated woman. For Pobo, the possum acts as a trigger that would threaten the consistency of the presentation, both pictorial and textual.

We’re old. My white beard holds
several countries. She doesn’t accept
the branch I offer with an albino possum
that isn’t real but could be…

The insertion of doubt within the poem, doubt about the legitimacy of the possum, rapidly extends to doubt about the intentions of the interlocutors, the verisimilitude of the entire scene of reference from which the text would draw. It throws the poem into a chaos that it casts back upon the painting itself, altering the scene and thereby challenging the authority of the visual over the textual.

…The square
room begins to shake, walls cracking
as magic swells through her every cell—
a single thought can break
the ceiling and call down the sky…

This challenge is, in fact, a summoning, and the final lines of the poem deliver over the voice of the woman, the till-now-silent accused:


she says, is my birthday. I am eighty.
Red boats move through me, perfect
tiny sailors guiding them safely home.

Moving from the painting, through the painting and finally out of the painting, these lines take us elsewhere, into a new place both inspired and correct. It is a freedom of expression earned, borne out of struggle, released onto, and captured by, the page.


Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is forthcoming from Madhat Press. He teaches English at Ferrum College.