Honest Engine

By Kyle Dargan


University of Georgia Press
April 2015

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh


Pain is all encompassing. When we feel it, the rest of the world melts away and we only focus on the burn or ache of our individual body. Dealing with prolonged pain makes us enter the world, seeing our pain reflected in everything around us. When this extended pain is loss, everything from music to strangers can be a reminder of what used to exist. Our whole world is empty space and our reflected pain is our life. Kyle Dargan's fourth book of poetry, Honest Engine, delves into what it is like to live with this reflected pain.

Dargan begins his collection with an author's note that talks about the loss of five people in his life over a short period of time. He describes the way he felt leaving his grandmother's room, which is a perfect description of pain's overwhelming qualities as well as an excellent entry into the rest of the book:

It was a pain that my body could not contain, likely because it was not sourced from within my flesh. It was the pain of one pillar of my world crumbling and burying me beneath debris. I would eventually dig myself free and find an altered landscape awaiting me.

From the very first section, titled "Equity," the reader sees pain that cannot be contained within a body. The poem "State of the Union," which starts the collection, imagines what the Secretary of Agriculture does while being "excluded / and tasked with waiting to resurrect / our country" if something were to happen to the rest of the cabinet. The poem ends with the speaker imagining the secretary:

hunkered in his undisclosed location,

listening to the speech on battery-powered radio,
sifting seed through his dusty palms, deciding
what must grow first in the aftermath of fire.


Dargan brilliantly establishes, at the onset, an exploration of "what must grow first in the aftermath" of extreme loss.

The rest of "Equity" expresses pain toward the world around Dargan. He takes American culture and politics as a specific focus, expressing frustration at "our god complex" or demanding we "erase one smudge from humanity's / horizon." In the stunning "A House Divided," Dargan defines the difference of racial understanding in America:

In your America, blood pulses
within the fields, slow-poaching a mill saw's
buried flesh. In my America, my father
awakens again thankful that my face
is not the face returning his glare
from above eleven o'clock news

The speakers in these poems use a large political body or issue as a vehicle to express pain. As Dargan moves into the next section of his book, "Jagged Serenade," this pain starts to become more focused and tangible.

"Jagged Serenade" explores the idea that "There is such a thing as a local apocalypse" by dealing with large issues that are localized to a single person. "Beastheart" deals with race, as many of the earlier poems do, but this time the "you" of the poem is frustrated with "'white' friends for the ease with which / they couple" and with the negative responses the speaker gets for wanting to "love someone / like you, birth someone like you." In "Capture Myopathy" he states that "Men are myths of composure," going on to deconstruct the ridiculousness of male bravado. In "There is No Power in Sex," the speaker talks about how he does not like receiving oral sex, but enjoys giving it. This poem seems to encourage eye rolling until the end where Dargan exposes the speaker's desire for control and his inability to completely abandon male privilege. The speaker states to a woman, "Do you want me to stop?—/ to retreat, I ask disingenuously. / I ask without removing my lips." Honesty on this level of vulnerability and self-critique within these poems is unusual and admirable from any standpoint.

In "Dirge in April" the idea that "Renewal's season always starts with this / extinguishing" of cherry blossoms is Dargan subtle reminder to the reader that loss is constant throughout these poems. This continues through the third section of the book, "Conversations with Sleep," a series of poems in which a speaker talks to a personified Sleep.

Dargan directly connects sleep to death in "Conversations With Sleep (V)":

Each night that we've survived you,
Sleep, we've spared ourselves
a death . . .

. . .

. . . One evening,
rest will come for us—that release
deemed heavenly, called peace.

Coming right in the middle of the five sections, Dargan makes it clear that this section is a transition into directly approaching the pain of loss and absence.

In "Eschatology," the collection's fourth section, Dargan provides some of his most powerful and imaginative poems. The poem "Barcode" starts, "Morning does not begin until / the sun's pupil scans my face." Dargan imagines a world without identity where a person's "history is becoming data." In "Goliath," Dargan imagines a group of men standing up to a "goliath, slayer of common men" as a profound metaphor for the lower classes taking the brunt of economic disaster.

In between these symbolically complex poems are works that deal directly with loss. "Fool's Therapy" starts "Robert Peace is dead. Those words, writing them, / should assuage something. They do not." The poem simply talks about how the speaker wants the "simple pleasure, the release of releasing / the ball" on a basketball court after hearing of Peace's death. In these straightforward poems, Dargan approaches the loss he feels head on. He even comments on the difficulty of writing about loss in "Words For The Departed" by saying, "we often cannot / speak the words we yearn to give / the people who have left us." By the end of this section, Dargan explicitly addresses, in poetry, the subject of his book, transitioning us to the final part, "The Mediocrity Principle."

"The Mediocrity Principle" calls back to the second section by using the pain of the individual to reflect on larger issues. At first this feels like a return to a stage of loss already passed, but Dargan adds the directness from "Eschatology." We get "Points Of Contact," a ghazal that asks, "Father, must I also think like a fist?" But we also get "None Of Us Saints" which asks for "a man, not a rock" to preside over Dargan's grandmother's funeral. The pain has not gone away, it is just more controlled and tempered by time. This is clearest in the last line of the collection that looks back at Earth from the Voyager spacecraft and says space is "wider than any sky we'll ever face."

Dargan's book is exquisitely structured. The completeness of the conversations surrounding loss and pain is enviable, as is the richness of Dargan's world. Whether he is pulling from Gwendolyn Brooks, N.E.R.D., or the comic Watchmen, the poems remain relevant and grounded. Honest Engine pulls from so much to allow us the chance for connecting to the issues of race, masculinity, and loss, and for beginning a conversation about dealing with the universality of pain. "Soon / none of us will need our given names" because we will all want to become Dargan's Honest Engine.