Book of the Month

Book of the Month: ‘Vagrants and Accidentals’ by Kevin Craft

(University of Washington Press

A decade after the release of his first book, Solar Prominence (Cloudbank Books), University of Washington professor and former Poetry Northwest editor Kevin Craft has published his second: Vagrants and Accidentals, a dense, lyrical volume of poetry. Craft has spent the majority of the last decade helping, teaching, and promoting the work of other writers—and it’s apparent in the book’s intricacy. (Wanna learn to write? Try teaching someone else.)

“Vagrant” here is an ornithological term referring to birds displaced by violent weather or human trade. An “accidental” is a musical note that doesn’t belong to the scale or mode indicated by a composition’s key signature—it’s out of place, in a way, just like the birds. This is the book’s motif and central metaphor, from the inside jacket: “Vagrants and Accidentals is part vade mecum [a handbook or guide] and part songbook, trafficking in the personal effects of migration and estrangement, exile and return.”

Birds in poems are usually a huge cliché, but in Vagrants and Accidentals, animals usually mark a trajectory of loss. I never thought a description of shellfish would make me want to cry—but that’s what happened when I read Vagrants and Accidentals. (I cried several times.)

Every creature and object in the collection is like an ancient pottery shard alternately covered and exposed by wind and sand. While writing the poems in this book, Craft visited various museums and ancient sites and became interested in how personal family experiences mirror the turmoil of human history, and how the development of the individual mirrors the development of the species.

The emotional plausibility of the tectonic life events chronicled in Vagrants results partly from the eclectic, kaleidoscopic details surrounding them. By magnifying everyday details and imbuing them with emotion, Craft produces a kind of hyper-realism reminiscent of a Chuck Close painting. In “Matinee,” a poem framed by the love of the speaker’s mother for traversing New Jersey boardwalks, we learn of a significant death: “Never mind the hopeless weeping/she all but buries herself inside that summer/Christopher was lifted, blue and lifeless,/from the bottom of the pool.” We assume Christopher is the speaker’s brother, but this poem is followed by poems about the ghost of Mark Rothko, about the meeting of the speaker’s parents, about a doctor trapped in time by a passage from a history book. The siblinghood of the speaker and Christopher isn’t confirmed until “Fuzz,” which describes their morning observation of rabbits as children. The poem concludes, “Christopher Craft, 1970–1974.”

For the non-poet or new poet navigating this literary cyclone, it’s important to pay attention to the larger structure of the book, which serves as a guide to interpreting the less accessible poems. Formally the book parallels its thematic concerns—accessible narrative poems alternate with fragmentary ones reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness narration in Ulysses. As in reality, personally significant events resist being made sense of, swept around in the violent weather of life.