Poetry and Bruce Springsteen: A conversation with Erin Keane about her new collection of poems

keaneBruce Springsteen shops at a fancy supermarket, a roller coaster languishes in the ocean, ghosts play in a haunted kitchen, Queen plays on the jukebox while a poet balances geometry and existentialism on a pool cue. This is the world of Erin Keane’s newest collection of poems, “Demolition of the Promised Land,” a land where whimsy meets heartbreak for a bottle of beer at the corner bar.

The opening poem sets the quirky yet melancholy tone for the collection. “A Chemistry Exam Cheat Sheet” is a clever look at love and loss as filtered through the language of a high school science text:

The burning question, for extra credit: Will you love
me tomorrow? And will I? Craft a plausible
hypothesis, you optimist. Outline an experiment
in which you go to bed then get up every day
until you don’t. Your data is all we have,
so be honest. Repeat as needed. Show your work.

What follows are poems of heartbreak, memory, more poems about science (geology, decomposition, physics and entomology), homages to her home state of New Jersey, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen.

Keane began writing the poems for this collection seven years ago. It wasn’t until she began writing the Springsteen pieces that she felt the collection began to coalesce. Keane explains, “I really didn’t know what this project was until the introduction of the Bruce poems tightened it up, focusing it.”

Keane isn’t a stranger to anachronistic juxtaposition and pop culture references. Her previous work has included poems about side show performers, Johnny Cash, science fiction, Shane MacGowan, and popular children’s literature. In “Demolition of the Promised Land,” Keane focuses her eye upon the modern landscape as seen through the eyes of a different kind of hero.

“I like to think of Bruce as a kind of superhero / power animal. He’s someone you can look up to, and he’s someone who seems to carry a lot of thought and care with him regarding his position in the world.

“So in thinking about what it means to be an American in a particular time and place it felt interesting to me to consider how Bruce might approach some of the sadness and absurdity of modern life. The fancy supermarkets that make you think about income and security inequality. The grounding effect of your native artifacts, even when they’re elephants and roller coasters instead of, say, mountains or rivers. Ambivalence about American wars and nationalism. That sort of thing.”

demoThere is an air of sadness underlying the Springsteen fantasy sequences. The Boss contemplates mortality in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy which pushed the Star Jet roller coaster off of the Jersey boardwalk and into the Atlantic. He scales the Washington Monument questioning war and nationalism. And Springsteen hides inside a giant Elephant on the coast of Margate, New Jersey. Keane captures the universal feelings of disconnectedness and loneliness or just the need to be alone. If Bruce needs solitude maybe, we wonder, it’s not so strange that we do as well.

Springsteen doesn’t haunt the halls of the entire collection. Keane has ample ghosts from her past — family ghosts found in “Mother Says Dead Boys Live in the Old Kitchen” and friends who have died young, whose memories haunt the poet’s mind in “West Kentucky Heartbreak.” What is most striking about these poems of memory and mortality is Keane’s lack of sentimentality. The reader never knows the speaker’s relationship to the boy who died at the bottom of the Mississippi in “West Kentucky Heartbreak,” and there is no wringing of hands and renting of clothes. What is conveyed is the ache of absences, the “vinyl school bus seats bereft/ of paperclip etchings — your name, the year, oh,/ plain artifact.”

More ghosts wander the houses and conversations of “This Is What I Know About Ghosts,” “Reading The Old News,” and “The Phone Only Rings When Someone Dies,” as the poet reflects on loss and memory. Other themes abound in the collection. Many of the pieces take the reader on road trips, often honoring the hallowed halls of country, folk, and pop music (“We have left / the pews of Ryman for the untold / wilds of Beale”) or visiting the cemetery from “Night of the Living Dead” or the wilds of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. There is fortune-telling and science accompanied by the clinking ice inside a glass of bourbon.

“Demolition of the Promised Land” is a meditation on the fragility of life and love in our modern world with Bruce Springsteen as the reader’s tour guide and teacher. “I got all your facts, / Bruce,” Keane writes, “learned real good right now.”

By Erin Keane
78 pp. Typecast Publishing. $15.95

Erin Keane will formally launch her latest collection with a party at The Bard’s Town — “Greetings from Cherokee Park, Ky.” — a soiree replete with Springsteen-inspired songs, mad-libs, karaoke and more…