Blood on Blood
Unnamed Press (2016)
Reviewed by Andrew Sargus Klein
This is a review of Blood on Blood, Devin Kelly’s re-imagining of the classic Bruce Springsteen record Nebraska. There’s a lot of history when it comes to written responses to music, and Kelly’s is a fine addition. But I first want to turn to a quote from Lester Bangs’ essay on another record of equal, if far different, import: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.
Both records are singular, sorrowful takes on human existence, albeit from two very different points of view. Nebraska’s version of romantic nihilism is rooted in roughed-out, blue-collar America.
Blood on Blood lands mid-landscape and effortlessly assumes Nebraska’s implicit and explicit narratives of small towns, the life and death of the American dream, love, serial killers, faith, highways, and brotherhood. Song titles appear as poem titles. The narrator is both inside and outside the album, though the speaker often brings figures from their own life (a father with cancer, a track-star brother) to add another dimension to the collection. Kelly pushes on the boundaries by adding baseball fields, snowy highways, and diners.
The New Yorker described Nebraska as “one of the more mythical events in pop-music history.” Do Devin Kelly’s readers need to know this? Possibly not—in fact, I think the reader would be better served not knowing the record all that well. While Kelly’s poems don’t quite match the spare beauty of Springsteen’s work, to couch a collection so thoroughly inside an iconic work takes courage.
And there is much to gain from that courage. Kelly’s poems aim straight for the sweet bruise on the heart that marks the best type of blues and folk music. It’s astonishing how much blood he wrings from tunneling into Springsteen’s material and giving voice to that space in-between song and guitar, record and ear, ear and brain. Despite its name, Nebraska takes place in New Jersey. It’s about blue-collar, gritty people living blue-collar, gritty lives. As it so happens, Kelly’s poem “Nebraska,” gets the closest to naming the unnamable. It begins:
If you know a quiet that sings
the song of footsteps, if you know
an open window is an invitation
to trespass on another home’s
scent, if you know the lesson
of the Bible that says the man
who holds the taste of blood
in his mouth is the one who holds
the truth […]
The whole poem is a series of “if” statements, with no “then” to tie them off. It’s complete in its fragmentary existence, as if there will always be another “if” before coming to a “then.” It’s my favorite poem because it leaves enough unsaid that I can fill in the rest. It’s a risk. Kelly writes in “Atlantic City”—a rumination on mob hits—that “a poem is a kind of gamble & language / has no truth other than its taut & curved / existence.” I love that.
There is also a relentless, thousand-eyed-stare masculinity in this collection—dirt, death, sweat, murder, men, fathers. In “Watching Your Father Drive” there’s a scene of son and father and brother, a cooler of sodas, stars, the father’s struggle with melanoma (“You ache years later when he is not around.”), dust, and hot dogs. I read this line, “Time is better spent / narrowing the space between what you love / & where you are,” and felt the immense need to call my father, to call my brother and tell him I love him. Women are not characters so much as foils for said masculinity. Even “Why Women Make the Best Kind of Killers” isn’t really about women:
The next day the papers reported
a dozen shooting stars. You know
there were wishes too.
It does not matter what’s real
or what is simply the gleaming leftover
of another’s attempt to escape
what they cannot ever leave.
There are many existential shrugs—wondering what’s real and what’s worth living for, wondering if they’re the same thing. These poems don’t wallow, and while they’re not sad sacks, they’re not exactly hopeful, either (“most men can’t see past the next roll of hill”). They bridge the divide between terrible and beautiful, between death and more death. They’re about baseball, about how “a boy can know something for sure / but never give it a name, the softness / of not using a tongue to kiss / or of a ball drifting further from your hand.” They’re about “a cloud made blue again.” Life continues regardless of how terrible or beautiful it is.
I’m not lying when I say that pretty much every time I listen to “Reason to Believe,” the final track off Nebraska, it lives like a fist in my heart. Kelly gets close in his poem of the same name:
time I dreamed
upon my father’s
gut, I found
morning in my own
bed. He carried me,
I know. He carried me
kind & gently.
Like a song,
you say. Like
the dark, you say.
I still don’t know what’s a better word than “re-interpretation” to describe this book. The poems run with the same blood, the same call to being. I don’t know if there’s a perfect word for that. Maybe that’s the point.