A fierce debut collection from NEA and Stegner fellow Edgar Kunz--spare and intimate narrative poems that sprawl between oxys and Bitcoin, crossing the country restlessly as they struggle to reconcile a troubled young adulthood with the working poor New England of his youth
Approach these poems as short stories, plainspoken lyric essays, controlled arcs of a bildungsroman, then again as narrative verse. Tap Out, Edgar Kunz’s debut collection, reckons with his working-poor heritage. Within are poignant, troubling portraits of blue-collar lives, mental health in contemporary America, and what is conveyed and passed on through touch and words?violent, or simply absent.
Yet Kunz’s verses are unsentimental, visceral, sprawling between oxys and Bitcoin, crossing the country restlessly. They grapple with the shame and guilt of choosing to leave the culture Kunz was born and raised in, the identity crises caused by class mobility. They pull the reader close, alternating fierce whispers and proud shouts about what working hands are capable of and the different ways a mind and body can leave a life they can no longer endure. This hungry new voice asks: after you make the choice to leave, what is left behind, what can you make of it, and at what cost?
After the Hurricane
miles north, my father beds down in a van by the Connecticut River.
Snow tires rim-deep in the silt. He has a wool horse blanket
tacked inside the windshield. A pair of extra pants bunched
into a pillow. He has a paper bag of partially smoked butts.
A Paw Sox cap. A Zippo. He has state-sponsored cell phone minutes
and a camo jacket hung on the sideview to dry. He can see the Costco
parking lot through the trees. Swelling and emptying out. He wants
to fix things with his wife. He wants a couch to crash on.
He wants a drink. He wants sex. He has a few cans of kidney beans
and a tin of ShopRite tuna. Wrinkled plastic piss bottles line the dash.
Sometimes he walks out to the river and lets the wind sift his lank
and matted hair. Sometimes he peels his socks and stands
in the murky current and thinks about his wife. The birthmark
on her neck. Her one toe longer than the others. Her freckled hands.
He tries to hold her hands in his mind. He tries to remember
the birth years of his sons. He tries to make sense of the papers
he signed. The icy water wetting the hem of his pants. The river stones
sharp underfoot. The wind. I hold him like this in my mind
In the Supply Closet at Illing Middle
Mike pins me to the sink, forearm
levered against my throat, flexing
the needle-nose pliers in one hand.
He and Ant examine the hole in my head
where the pencil lead snapped off, blood
leaking down my temple
and pooling in my ear. I squirm
and Mike presses harder. Hold still.
I know how to do this.
I know what he means: our fathers
used to salvage wrecks in Mike’s sideyard.
Hammer out the paneling,
clean the fouled spark plugs
with spit. Flip them for cash or drive them
until the transmission seized.
If they didn’t know where
one came from, they pulled it
into the garage, sold it off quick.
Now, Ant stands lookout
in the doorway. Half-watching
for teachers and half-watching Mike,
who rinses my hair
with floor cleaner thick
as motor oil. Eases my head
toward the weak light
of the pull-chain bulb. Presses
the pliers to my skull, and starts to dig.
Free Armchair, Worcester
He pinches the j between his first two fingers squints an eye against the ribbon of smoke sliding up and over his cheekbone. It’s me my buddy Ant and Ant’s stepdad Randy a half-ass house painter who’s always trying to hit us up for weed or pills even though we’re thirteen and don’t do pills or have any idea how to get them. We’re driving Randy’s work van into Worcester to pick up a recliner he found in the free section of the Globe. Ant hates his guts and I don’t like him much either but Ant’s always doing stuff for me like asking his mom if I can stay the night or sneaking me empanadas when my dad doesn’t come home so I go along Ant up front me in the back bracing myself against the wheelwells trying not to get knocked around too bad. Randy pulls up in front of the house and we try stuffing the armchair in the back but the arms are too wide. We flip it on one end heave it onto the roof. Lash it down with a tangle of rope from the glovebox and step back. It’s not a bad-looking chair. Fabric ratty at the edges but sturdy. Mostly clean. Randy twists another j to celebrate and buys us sandwiches. We post up in an Arby’s parking lot the three of us cracking jokes Randy belting folk songs in Spanish. Recliner strapped to the van like a prize buck. He flicks the roach into the weeds says but you skinny-asses you little faggots you could barely lift it and we stop laughing. I look over at Ant and he’s sort of picking at his jeans face tight like he got caught doing something dumb like he’s ashamed or something and for a second it’s like what’s gonna happen has already happened. Like the rope’s already snapped the armchair gone headlong into the road behind us. Like we’r...
“Edgar Kunz’s startling debut Tap Out is one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in a long time. These poems interrogate what is received and what is bequeathed in our damaged systems of masculinity, and they do so in ways that are unexpectedly vulnerable. At the same time, the poems are onomatopoeia of humility and busted machismo. It’s as if the poems themselves are surprised by how much harm has been done, how much energy and emotion have been expended simply surviving inside of our toxic patriarchy. Fathers are complicit. Friends and brothers are complicit. The speaker is complicit, too, and yet the poems do their vital work without soapboxing. They search constantly for better ways of being human. These are essential poems.”—Adrian Matejka, author of The Big Smoke and Map to the Stars
"There is no ground of existence that does not require (or fail to sustain) its poet. This proposition, requiring continual re-proving, has found again its confirmation in Edgar Kunz’s first book. In the lineage of Levine, Jordan, and Laux, Tap Out presents the data of blows received and taken in fully. Yet these poems do not return blow for blow; they offer instead an unflinching, continued allegiance to abiding connection. Without summation or comment, they remind us that all alchemies of being are possible. Kunz’s precision-tool language of memory and witness enlarges, pivots, pieces together the broken into a world made new, survivable, holdable, forgiven." —Jane Hirshfield, author of The Beauty and Come, Thief
"Edgar Kunz extends the legacy of James Wright and Philip Levine in these gutsy, tough-minded, working-class poems of memory and initiation. Tap Out is a marvelous debut, a well-made and harrowing book." —Edward Hirsch, author of Gabriel and A Poet's Glossary
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