“We ride the dead as on a breaking wave”
— “Alive” by Greg Keeler
Oklahoma native Greg Keeler is a singer-songwriter and painter. He received his Doctor of Arts in English from Idaho State University in the 1970s and then taught English at Montana State University from 1975 through 2014. He published two memoirs, “Waltzing with the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan” (Limberlost Press) and “Trash Fish: A Life” (Counterpoint Press). “Almost Happy” (Limberlost) is his latest collection of poetry. NPR’s “Car Talk” aired his song, “WD-40 Polka” and Garrison Keillor read his poetry on three segments of “The Writer’s Almanac.”
An accomplished folk guitarist, Keeler performed publicly while attending ISU. Over 6 feet tall with a pony tail and a pronounced Oklahoma accent, there was something almost anarchistic about Keeler when he played original satirical songs like “Cold Dead Fingers, “ Beam Me Up Scottie” and “Bad Science Fiction” or recited his surreal poems like “Duct Tape Psalm.” The late Bob Perky, then an instructor in the English Department, once remarked while watching Keeler on stage, “Could you imagine giving that LSD?”
One of Keeler’s poignant songs, simply known as “The Idaho Song,” has already stood the test of time. The narrator, after facing disappointment and finding few answers, longs to “wander back to Idaho” where “the aspens turn to yellow and the clouds they turn to snow.”
Now, years later, Keeler has created a book of sonnets. One could argue that writing 14-line sonnets with their strict rhyme schemes and closing rhyming couplets is confining. John Keats criticized the Shakespearean sonnet for imposing a kind of “tyranny” on the poet, and for a modern writer, the sonnet structure has many traps, with the ending rhyming couplets often sounding forced—more sound than sense.
The Greg Keeler who wrote “Getting halfway lost isn’t half bad” seems an unlikely poet to attempt the more formal sonnet structure, but here they are in his book, The Bluebird Run.
The opening poem, “The Bluebird Run,” brings the reader into Keeler’s vision:
“Call us silly, flawed and left behind
Call us followers of trickles gleaming
in the wind, too fickle for a made up mind,
too stubborn for a life devoid of dreaming.”
“Sonnet 116 Revisited” evokes the famous love poem by that “old-style British Bloke” and displays Keeler’s humor: “Love’s not time’s bitch,/ though what time does to our bodies blows.”
Though not all the sonnets completely work, it is remarkable that so many of the sonnets work well, indeed. Keeler is most effective when he focuses on nature and his joy of fishing and forests and just being alive. There is also much awareness of death and hidden spirits. “A Rising Breeze” has these haunting lines: “I am one of those voices across the lake. / You can hear me best in the summer when/the wind is still, your fire out and you’ve been/asleep briefly. If you listen closely, I’ll take/ your dream under a surface of stars and make/ of it a glass ornament.”
Keeler writes run on lines avoiding the awkward stops found in sonnets, and also uses rhymes within lines effectively: “To be alone yet not/ takes practice, like the trees that retrieve/ their souls and shed their leaves to get them through the winter...”
Quoting snippets from these rich varied sonnets doesn’t really serve Keeler’s art. The sonnets should be read in their complete form. As Rick Ardinger of Limberlost Press observed, Greg Keeler is a “true poet of rivers and all the lonely roads to get to them. Greg Keeler seems alone and far away and yet his voice is always right there.”
I sincerely believe the better sonnets will endure, including “Blessed Confusion” about renewed love:
“Your eyes changed as the sky changed—fair
To cloudy then cloudy to fair. By the sun-flecked showers
Of a small stream, you were a vision from Yeats,
A trout turned girl with apple blossoms in
her hair: Such blessed confusion calls us mates…”
There is much to celebrate in these meditations on love, life, death, fishing and the sorrow found behind all beauty. Greg Keeler has a unique American voice.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.