A Happening in Hades
Leonard Cohen had a line that I remembered reading this book—'I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far’. Add in a familiar Zen colour filter, an incendiary sense of hard humour and a vast facility with language then you have SK Kelen’s A Happening in Hades.
I’m just living on the planet,
absorbing what’s said on television,
on the internet. What are you?
(We’re all dust, anyway.)
Don’t care at all, but believing,
still believing everything I want to,
Kelen hints that his journey beyond-above-below, but rarely within, had a beginning in year 8 with ‘The Outsiders with Ponyboy and Soda Pop’ (59). While The Plague Animals sees the ‘I’ character firmly embedded in every page, this book more or less starts in an airport and traverses a panoply of ‘worlds’, destinations and perspectives. There is a loving cynicism, he can’t be part of so much of this, but that distance allows him to write it all, whether it be wrapped in loss, barbarism, neglect or inevitability.
But there is yet a further contradiction. In the process of writing he too becomes a part of the whole—I have the image of the poet skating on a frozen pond, looking down, being appalled at seeing so much drowning beneath the black ice. The cynicism and distance contains the uncontainable for those of us lucky enough to know his work.
Leading on from his worlds concept much of the book takes us on travels: Paris, Venice ‘is the ocean’s pet’ (44) and Chang Mai where ‘Noodle–fed dragons/and happy buddhas/hold up the sky.’ (46) to name a few. Only he could sum up the history of China from 1959:
You used to be a
bony wreck now you’re fat, cashed
up, and oozing sex
Writing a location one passes through is a process fundamentally divergent from the perspectives a long-term resident brings to their home. One is not automatically more valid than the other, but Kelen’s aerial photography is so well suited to this exercise.
There are moments in the book where the personal emerges to great effect. ‘Kiss’, ‘Packing up the House’, the remarkable ‘Teetotal’, ‘Soldiers’ (‘the Sword’) and ‘Dog Day’ in differing ways, all let us in to the poet’s own ‘world’. This is a privilege.
From an environmental perspective, our outsider has pretty much given up—'hotter here than in the last world, things fall apart fast’ (12). Everywhere he sees ‘Humans mistreating Nature (and hoping they get away with it)’ (13). What hope when ‘the future was electricity’ (17) and ‘Happy Days’(24) paints an incandescent picture leading to the brutally sad last line.
Kelen gives us a dystopian universe, but you’ll never get bored travelling across it.
A Happening in Hades S K Kelen. Puncher and Wattmann 2020. ISBN 9781925780611