Photographers Unknown, Murmurs Linger After the Blue Frost
when night hovers in the square
moon sheets the avenues and glare
from headlights glaze the lone chestnut
murmurs linger after the blue
frost and subdivisions arriving
in crates like tangerines from the ghost
orchards of Chile
beauty is especially dangerous under pressure
to feel your lips on my throat like a wire
or a Beretta slowing firing under water
remember what I cannot bear the leaving
lost hours the embarrassed fragrance of surrender
like a midnight novena on November first
still standing on the naked slopes after dynamite
shears away bedrock and rangers sweep over
brush searching for missed embers and clues
whatever you find there pocket for yourself
keep the lock of my hair sulphur tang of my skin
still burning on your tongue a signal fire
black as your fingers on a compass I turn
on and on never ceasing to ponder the strange
economy of ladders or breakdancers
men’s eyes when they lie writhing
like dolphins through a narrow strait
out into the broad way of a bay the sound
of phosphorous as it catches fire
which is the soul rising into the air without
fear; you, your eyes or dawn, opening
John Keene, The Soul is Always Beautiful, Punks: New and Selected Poems, 2021, The Song Cave Press
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1965, John R. Keene Jr. is an American poet, writer, translator, educator and artist. Born into a Catholic family, he attended parochial schools and graduated from the Saint Louis Priory School, ministered by the Benedictine monks of Saint Louis Abbey.
John Keene earned his Bachelor of Arts from Harvard College where he was a staff member of the art and literary magazine, the “Harvard Advocate”, and member of Harvard’s Black Community and Student Theater. Elected a New York Times Foundation Fellow, Keene received his Master of Fine Arts from New York University. He is both a lifelong member of the Dark Room Collective, an influential African-American poetry collective that promotes greater visibility to emerging writers of color, as well as a Graduate Fellow of Cave Canem, a Brooklyn, New York-based organization that supports MFA programs and writing workshops for African-American poets across the United States.
Keene’s fictional debut was his novel “Annotations” published through New Directions Press in 1995. A fiction work of experimental poetic text, the novel explored those questions that revolve around identity in its forms of race, social class and sexuality, both gay and straight. These issues were examined through a re-creation of Keene’s life as a black youth in St. Louis with references to the historical and cultural events of the 1940s and 1960s.
In May of 2015, John Keene published “Counternarratives”, a collection of thirteen short fiction stories and novellas. This collection, which ranges over five centuries of history, examined lives marked by the pressures of their time. Its stories, drawn from memoirs, detective stories, newspaper accounts and interrogation transcripts, created new perspectives of our past and present. In one story, Huckleberry Finn meets his former raft-mate Jim after an absence of several decades; in another story, Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia meets American poet Langston Hughes in New York during the Depression. In 2016, “Counternarratives” received the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, an organization dedicated to the promotion of multicultural literature.
Keene published his first collection of poems “Seismosis” in 2006. Featuring line drawings by Christopher Stackhouse, this sophisticated conversation between writing and visual art is a cohesive study of abstraction in both mediums. In 2016, Keene published a second art-poetry book “Grind” in a collaboration with photographer Nicholas Muellner, best known for his two photo art books “In Most Tides an Island” and “The Amnesia Pavilions”. In the same year Keene published “Playland”, a collection of old and new poems.
In December of 2021, John Keene published “Punks: New & Selected Poems”, a seven-section collection containing historic narratives of loss, lust and love. Keene’s poems, whose cast of characters include historic Black personalities as well as friends and lovers, addressed the issues of grief, AIDS, desire and oppression. All the stories are told through a wide range of poetic forms, all of which Keene has mastered. “Punks” was the winner in 2022 of the National Book Award for Poetry, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry.
Keene was formerly associate professor of English and African-American studies at Illinois’s Northwestern University and has taught at Rhode Island’s Brown University, New York University and at Indiana University’s Writer’s Conference. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Chair of the African-American and African Studies Department at Rutgers University-Newark, as well as a teacher in its Masters Creative Writing Program. In addition to all his educational positions, Keene served for several years as an editorial board member of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s African Poetry Book Fund which promotes and publishes African poetry.
Among John Keene’s translation work is the 2014 “Letters from a Seducer”, a translation of Brazilian magic-realist author Hilda Hilst’s novel “Cartas de um Sedutor”, one volume of a tetralogy that tells the story of an amoral, wealthy man who seeks an answer to his incomprehension of life through sex. This translation by Keene was selected for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award Fiction long list. He has also translated French, Portuguese and Spanish works by such writers as Jean Wyllys, Alain Mabanckou and Mateo Morrison, among others.
Among Keene’s many awards are the 2000 AGNI John Cheever Short Fiction Prize, the 2005 Whiting Award for Fiction/Poetry, the 2016 Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the 2018 Windham-Campbell Literature Prise for Fiction, and the 2019 Harold D. Vursell Award for Distinguished Prose from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Notes: An extensive interview with John Keene by American poet Jeffery Renard Allen on Keene’s “Annotations” and “Counternarratives” can be found at the online literary site Big Other located at : https://bigother.com/2022/06/18/from-the-archives-an-interview-with-john-keene-by-jeffery-renard-allen/
The Brooklyn Rail has a conversation between John Keene and his fellow professor from Rutgers University, novelist Akil Kumarasamy, in which they discuss each other’s work. This discussion can be found at: https://brooklynrail.org/2023/02/books/John-Keene-in-conversation-with-Akil-Kumarasamy
Photograph Eight of the Header Collection: Romy Maxime, “Brothers James and John, Cape Town”., Brothers and Sisters Series, Gelatin Silver Print, OATH Magazine, South Africa
Romy Maxime is a Swiss South African photographer and videographer known for her enigmatic portraits, fine art prints, lifestyle, advertising and fashion work. She is based between Cape Town, South Africa and Zurich, Switzerland. Maxime’s photo “Brothers James and John” was the winner in 2023’s annual Lensculture Portrait Awards. Her website is located at: https://www.romymaxime.com