Tuesday, January 19, 2021

review of Steve Keil's 'Vanishing Fair'


"a collection of ruminations on the ruins of the last year and a half, so you can imagine how cheery it is. If misery loves company, you've come to the right place."

- Steve Keil on his eighth collection of poetry 'Vanishing Fair'


the binomial observer   

a review of Steve Keil’s Vanishing Fair


Steve Keil’s recent book of poetry, Vanishing Fair, is a bold and unwavering examination of self doubt, self-critique, and an ever-observant eye for the quotidian effect of simultaneously subtle yet searing annoyance - annoyance emanating from the minds and mouths of what Keil somewhat bitterly describes in an early poem as “human interaction." 

            I use the word quotidian in order to - perhaps pompously - blithely draw attention to the infrequent yet remarkable peppering of a not so everyday word, among others, scattered throughout the 148 page collection.  As seen, early on in A home that’s far from it - the poem sets the tone for a stark commingling of longing for and dismissal of the domestic trappings of fulsome relationships within a queer context. Line seven sports the lilting rhythms of the word binomial, a startlingly satisfying collection of syllables that marks the poem with a fine conscious rhythm.

Todd Haynes would have a field day  / In this multi-acred plot / Of suburban New Jersey / Where countless down low lovers / Are looking to be experienced / Ive already had too many to count / Knocking on my binomial door / But, Im sorry / With all respect / I am not here to teach / Remedial homosexuality / I have more than enough problems / At hand / Without courting new ones / That could end in vengeance / Or a rope around the neck / So, I will let that parade /Pass me by /Along with all the others / Content to be on the side / For now / And take a much-needed respite / From human / If thats what you want to call it / Interaction 

A home thats far from it, p5

“Remedial homosexuality” follows “binomial’ a few lines later, comically intimating a kind of sexualized distribution with two possible outcomes (thus binomial), lending the poem a fine sense of the clinical, frequently impersonal, ways in which actual emotion attempts to insert itself,  at times awkwardly, into our lives - casually, carnally, and maddeningly comic. The prefix bi, as part of a relatively uncommon word, allows for the hint of unnamed titillation, infusing the poem with the mystery of language, emotion, and sexuality that Keil interrogates throughout. 

            Binomial appears again on page 14 in the title of an equally satisfying and sexually discontented poem through the use of a finely tuned title that casts off intimate physicality in search of a warmer connection - reprising the idea of human interaction that occurs in the first ‘binomial’ poem. The following section displays the mixture of emotional longing and considered dismissal that lingers throughout the pages of Vanishing Fair.

So many lead with their jawline / Instead of their heart / And thats the part / That leaves me instantly cold / A connection thats dismantled / Before it begins Because what I need most / Right now /Or anytime for that matter / Is true human interaction / With complexities that come from / The conditions of living

Binomial freeze out, p14

            These human/domestic trappings - these “conditions of living” - set in a home that is far from one near the beginning of the collection - are revisited in a decidedly more biting way in the wonderfully dry, acerbic observational poem Stretching the canvas for more space -

Hey, the new issue of / Southern Living is in / There’s a sentence I never thought I'd say / Mostly because I have never heard / Of the magazine before / But since I am in a current phase / Of reading what I ordinarily wouldnt / And realizing that the Sunday New York Times / Was too much of a time hoover / To leave room for anything else / I picked up this magazine from the periodical shelf And dove in / It did have Octavia Spencer on the cover / Which was a good sign / But I dont know if it was by accident / Or editorial design / That the first photo inside / Was one of a pie /Apple, I'm assuming / Without any other ingredients included / I zipped through the articles about / Throw pillows and Japanese maples / All pleasing enough in their scope / Only a clutched paw of more bits of string / To add to my ever-growing sphere / Which may or may not serve any value / In the W.H. Auden sense / Or inspire something of limited or lesser value / On my own 

Stretching the canvas for more space, p39

There is a pleasing anti-bourgeois derision for the Martha Stewart-like list of throw pillows, Japanese maples, and apple pies, followed by the quick-witted unspecified insertion of Auden’s subtly queer sensibility - giving the finale of the poem a perhaps inadvertent query that challenges the the reader to reconsider and reexamine the images and texts we come across on a daily basis. Images and texts that, in this poem, are found on the periodicals shelf in, presumably, a library.

            Keil’s work, in Vanishing Fair, could be considered a library of complaints - or as he so aptly puts it in the poem Next stop, strong drink - his “angry dispatches.’

Yet, there I was in my shorts and bowling shirt / Reading my angry dispatches to a crowd of / Mostly unknowns to me / Who Sally Fielded me when it was over / Then paid me the pass the bucket pay share of Forty-six dollars / All of a sudden, I thought / This might turn out to be something / I guess people are so starved for live performances / Of any kind / That even I will do 

excerpt - Next stop, strong drink, p131 

But these are not merely angry dispatches. They are a continuous narrative, story like, of one poet’s journey through self interrogation and discontentment in a world that serves up plenty on a daily basis. Seeing Keil perform his work live this past summer on an outdoor patio at Buddies In Batshit Times (my typo, not Buddies, rather, the times) Theatre served up a fine sense of performance that matches the acerbic and “angry dispatches” his current collection embodies on the page. One might consider these dispatches sly joyful moments of friendship and sharing, a somewhat begrudgingly accepted joy, but a kind of joy nonetheless, a joy found in poetry, both ‘onstage’ and off. Replete with “Sally Fielded”  moments - a fine and funny turn of phrase -  and a brief Norman Maine citing, Keil’s image/word choice also roots his artistry within a decidedly, yet subtle, sense of queer consideration as it intertwines with light pop cinematic camp. 

            Ultimately Vanishing Fair is a rigorous, frank, and absorbing journey through self critiques and the critiques of others - critiques so many of us simply bury in our consciousness and let them sour in our souls. Keil lets them out and they become a subtly soul -searching narrative romp, allowing readers to revel in his angry dispatches as though they were our own.

            And there is of course my favourite moment, a familiarizing moment regarding shared accommodation, when a room mate pleads, through alleged hard times, for another month of tenancy when the poet decides to move out following an especially annoying argument. And then one discovers the financial hardship, only days later, does not disallow the acquisition of  “The big screen tv he just purchased / With my rent money / I didnt say anything I was thinking / I didnt follow any of my natural impulses / I only went into my room / Kept my mouth shut / And cried myself to sleep / Begging for help / Silently /With each hyperventilated breath 

(excerpt) The end of all optimism, p17

            Vanishing Fair is saturated with “natural impulses” - and not the end of all optimism by any means. Rather, a well-endowed series of poems, at times funny, frequently enlightening, and always dispatching - in measured, direct, and frankly poetic language - an articulate journey through someone’s way of grappling with some of life’s most irritating moments.

Vanishing Fair is available at




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