James Naiden reviews ‘Broken Gates’ by Ken McCullough















This poet was born in July 1943 in New York State and so will soon be 70. For graduate school, McCullough moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where he earned his M. F. A. degree and then began a university teaching career in Montana. He also traveled intermittently and widely – all over the United States, and to Mexico, Italy, the British Isles, Ireland, Colombia, India (where he lived for a time and did manual labor), and eventually took a teaching job in Winona, Minnesota, in 1996. When that ended, he became a college administrator at a different university in the same town, where he is now. He fathered two sons along the way and married fairly late in life to Lynn Nankivil, a playwright.

His poems have always reflected his myriad adventures. Broken Gates is his latest collection, bringing poems together from the last fifteen years or so. The book has three arbitrary sections – Driftless, then Westering, and finally Portals. McCullough’s questioning, searching tone has always had fervor, as if the poet is amazed that he’s still alive and energetic enough to create art through disciplined lines, taut images, not overwhelming the reader but instead offering portraits, some short, others longer, of those he has known or situations where he’s instinctively looked for the affirmative instead of negatives, for the latter are always around – as we know too well.

Here is cogent memory of a friend:



In memory of Kay Louise Amert


                               You, sitting on the back steps smoking, glass

of lemonade, as cicadas start up

in the trees. Sweet breeze jumps up from the ravine:

faint bouquet of plum just as the sun sets.


An infrequent lapse into banal metaphors (“Diet for the Small Planet”) does not deplete from the verve of superior poems such as “The Cottage” (the marriage of two friends), “Remembering Bill” (for another lost friend), and “Wolf Point” (for Lynn, his spouse). Or indeed “Abbey” – with the epigram for Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his final days:

I saw the black shirt of the oracle

disappear into elderberry shade,

shadow of three trees on the barn opened

for a flock of purple-black marauders:

“unk, unk, unk, talulah,” they exploded,

wittgen, wittgen” in response – oh, holy

                              afternoon. Never saw him face-to-face,

his words like frozen bliss in the air,

every word an impossible challenge.

A tinge of old leaves, a slow riverbank –

a chance to fall in familiar steps.

And snow falling in the iron light.


There are many longer poems here, shorter ones, all adding up to a fine distillation of a lifetime’s passage in different places. Not that at the end of seven decades an artist’s life is done. No, for some it’s merely a continuation of what one started out doing when young, invariable digressions along the way, but poetry always pulls one back and says: Write – for you are not a brick or a tree! You have the ability to describe this! Do it! So Ken McCullough’s conscience and natural inclinations have never let him not write – and we are all the better for it. Broken Gates is a gathering, a rich harvest, of poems to savor.



Order your copy of  Broken Gates by Ken McCullough published by Red Dragonfly Press. Northfield, Minnesota, here.


Comments are closed.