by Kate Newton
It may have been over 40 years in the making, but Raymond Keen’s first volume of poetry hardly fails to resound in the here and now.
Love Poems for Cannibals, which Keen self-published using the Amazon company CreateSpace, is the result of decades of accumulated inspiration. His dabbling in writing began when Keen was finishing grad school in the early ‘60s, but hit a peak when he spent a year serving as a Navy clinical psychologist in Vietnam. He filled entire notebooks with “sentences and particles” during his time there, a rough framework of poetic snippets that resurfaced in 2011.
The framework began to evolve into a full volume of work, and in the meantime Keen’s work was published in a series of literary journals, including the American Poetry Review in 2005. Publishing a book, though, remained a goal, and CreateSpace proved a relatively easy outlet for achieving just that.
Described by Keen as at times “topical and political,” other times “dark and difficult,” the poetry of Love Poems for Cannibals is often a bitter reflection of a lifetime of experiences. Controversial figures from Richard Nixon to Charles Manson are referenced and routinely mocked, immersing readers in moments of history that often leave a bad taste their mouth.
“A lot of my stuff is about actual human figures (in history), but by the same token I’m writing in the 21st century,” said Keen. “...The stakes are higher because of the damage we can do, so quickly, to each other.”
This “take-no-prisoners” approach to digesting contemporary society through poetry can be bitter and provocative, but also have its moments of thoughtful reflection. The second section of the book, "Est Deus in Nobis," is comprised of poems written from 1969 to 2012 that have a religious and spiritual theme, in stark contrast with the Vietnam war imagery in the previous section. And the last section, “Prose Koda,” contains perhaps the most controversial poem of the book: a 3-page prose piece meant to mimic an anti-American “fatwa” by Osama bin Laden. Satirizing the voice of one of the most hated figures in history is no easy feat, but Keen simply sees it as a humorous dimension of his writing.
“Some of the poems are just outrageous, but because they’re so outrageous I think they’re almost funny,” Keen said. “There’s a lot of wit in this that redeems the anger. ...That seems to come easy to me.”
Exploring broad issues from the focal point of a single historical event is another recurring theme of Love Poems for Cannibals, seen perhaps most strongly in “Saying Goodbye to John Lennon,” a poem Keen wrote in the 1980s shortly after Lennon’s death. In the poem, a gossipy radio announcer fixates snidely on the petty details of celebrity’s lives, and at the end of his broadcast offhandedly mentions, “John Lennon was killed last night, in America. I’m not surprised. ...Let’s go to commercial.” The poem was partially inspired by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and the filmmaker’s recurring theme that in a commercially-driven life, everything is for sale...including humanity’s ability to truly mourn the loss of a fellow human being.
Having served as a psychologist around the world (his former places of residence include Germany, Turkey, Panama, and Japan, to name a few), Keen is well-trained in the art of observation and took it upon himself to subvert the clichés he’d encountered throughout his career. Transcending the “banal and unimportant” into something profound served as the driving purpose of Love Poems for Cannibals, and Keen has taken it upon himself to give readers a much-needed break from the talking heads of mainstream media.
“It’s cool when we can say as human beings something that’s never been said,” Keen said. “If my poetry is about anything, it’s about trying to escape (these clichés).”
Keen now lives with his wife in Sahuarita, Ariz., and is working on self-publishing his play, The Private and Public Life of King Able. You can buy Love Poems for Cannibals on Amazon here or visit his website to read some selected works featured in the book.
Love Poems for Cannibals, Raymond Keen, 155 pages, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform