Thoughts on Lucien Zell’s Tiny Kites by Michael Templeton

I’m just going to go ahead and admit that I love everything about this collection of poems, and I am now a confirmed fan of poet Lucien Zell. There, no pretense of objectivity from here on. I hope to offer some sound reasons for why I have come to feel this way.

About midway through Tiny Kites, in the section called “Threshold Poems,” Threshold being his name for his adopted city of Prague, we read of another “fine poet” who happened to have “spent twenty-five years in prison for murder.” This fine poet, the poem explains, would wait in his cell every evening through those twenty-five years as the guards made their rounds to lock the doors. Just as the guards would approach to lock him in, the poet would push the doors closed himself and defiantly say: “You’re not locking me in – I’m locking you out.” From almost the precise middle of the collection, we find this magnificent act of defiance and self-reclamation—one that speaks directly to my heart. This simple act also represents something deeply philosophical.

The rather obscure philosopher Arnold Geulincx, who was critically important to Samuel Beckett, is known for the deceptively simple maxim: “Wherein you have no power, therein you should not will.” This is Geulincx’s response to the age-old question of free will, and Beckett took it to mean that where you have no power to act, your will to act can only take you just so far. If you are on a west-bound boat, you can only head east as far as the boat. Zell captures this sentiment so perfectly and with all of the force of a character right out of Beckett. Think of the relentless self-naming we find in the nameless voice of The Unnamable. And so I am a fan of Lucien Zell. It gets better…

Tiny Kites begins with a series of quatrains. Like the haiku that comes later in the collection, these simple formal exercises contain germs of ideas that grow throughout Zell’s poems. Finding the seeds that form rain is part of the joy of reading these poems. Quatrain III offers the following:

The first well
was formed by the tears
of those who could not find
the first well.

A circular line of impossibility creates the conditions of possibility for what is to come. How perfectly this poem leads us into a Moebius loop of futility and possibility. The first lines cannot know what the final lines have already revealed. I want to read it backwards to make it fit my preconceived ideas of cause and effect, but it just will not work that way. What is more, as I alluded to above, the conditions of possibility contained in the first two lines which give rise to the results of the final two lines find a more dramatic complement in a poem further on in the text.

In poem XXII of “Threshold Poems,” we witness a larger account of the ideas found in quatrain III. As if the abstractions cannot remain abstract, Zell’s poetry keeps pulling them out of the ether and rendering them concrete:

In the garden of was,
will be trees still grow.
Past the Museum of Melting Snow,
the Museum of Shapes of Silence
drapes its neon light over shivering hills.

Again, I almost need to read the lines in reverse. The “will be trees” contain the past implicit in the “garden of was.” Each successive image contains the germ of the previous, and so on. Shapes of Silence retain the successive line from melting snow, or that which is fading into another form—form retains form as content cannot remain constant. Like those who could not find the well and whose tears formed the well, it is the form of what is and what could be that takes precedence over the content which fills form. Perhaps this is why Zell’s poetry relies so heavily on formal qualities like haiku.

More than just the formal constraints of haiku, Zell manipulates words on the page in order to enact forms. More than syllables, Zell’s haiku can play with the arrangement of the words. One example, which seems to allude to our prisoner from an earlier poem, demonstrates this structural play:

prisoner’s notebook—
between each burst of words
wide open space

The words say space. The words are spaced. And the prisoner creates his space in the space of his notebook, and by locking his own door. Static words become actions as they describe actions. Form itself becomes the content even as content is explicitly named.

There are a few other reasons why I am so enthusiastic about Lucien Zell. I once had grand ideas of running off to Prague and living out my own poet dreams. Zell did it, and even though all of my training in graduate school told me that there is “nothing outside the text,” and all that, I still think it is heroic that he writes from a place of relative anonymity and enjoying the luxury of “blurry time,” as the biographical note tells us. There is no finer time than blurry time, if you ask me, even if all that is blurry comes into focus in Zell’s poetry. The mysteries contained in these poems become quite clear, but not long enough to say more than the poems already say. If I made things any clearer, I have done Lucien Zell a disservice.


Michael TempletonI completed my Ph.D. in literature at Miami University. My area of interest was the British Romantic poets. I have a fondness for William Blake. After spending some years as an adjunct professor teaching at area universities, I decided to strike out on my own as a freelance writer and independent scholar. In addition to writing blogs, I have written several essays which have appeared in The Culture Crush, Culture Matters, and Aurore Press. I am fond of the literary fragment in both poetry and prose, and I have begun experimenting with this form in my own work. I have also read my own poems at Cincinnati Word of Mouth. In addition to writing I am a professional musician, cook, and barista. More accidental jack-of-all-trades than renaissance man, I have learned to do many things over the years. My involvement Dos Madres Press began when I hosted readings while I was a barista at the Bonbonerie Café. Working with Robert on these projects has led to writing these blogs. I live in downtown Cincinnati with my wife who is a talented photographer. We spend our time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while I always seem to be staring at the ground.

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