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Selected Poems of Kell Robertson
Edited by GL Brower (Lummox Press, 2021)
Review by John Macker
Outlaw troubadour and poet Kell Robertson lived for many years in New Mexico and died on a friend’s property near Santa Fe, in 2011, after seventy-one years of mostly hard living, songwriting, nomadism, playing guitar and composing poetry. He knew most everyone of the era, especially those who came through Albuquerque, Taos and Placitas: Robert Creeley, Gene Frumkin, Larry Goodell, Ed Dorn and others.
Placitas poet and publisher Gary Brower has worked for years getting Ride Easy! assembled and published. A labor of love! It went through several exploratory publishers over the years before RD Armstrong’s Lummox Press finally took it on⸺ a thorough and respectful 333 pages of essays, tribute poems, interview and Kell’s own word slingings; most of them resurrected from well-meaning but woefully obscure small press chapbooks.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote that Kell was “one fine cowboy-poet” and “the voice of the Real America out there.” This volume illuminates how Kell strived beyond just “cowboy” and sought a loftier profile full of memorable songs and renegade words, even if his physical existence was often at odds with his aspirations.
In this collection he’s feted by both close friends and poetic associates in generous essays and tribute poems. But it’s his own work, I think, that will last beyond his image as a result.
Brower, a retired professor, author and once editor of the excellent poetry journal, Malpais Review, has collected all of Kell’s chapbooks and painstakingly reprinted his best work, the poems that truly capture the spirit, textures and landscapes of Kell’s hardscrabble life: yes, he was possessed by the fire of alcohol, he writes of guns as much as he does women, his landscapes are not necessarily compassionate witnesses. He spends too much of his time at the mercy of the elements; but there’s an obvious nobility to his mission, the writing is still sacred ground; the Greyhound bus stations, the marginal American motels and certainly, some of his more colorful predicaments are all fodder for his imagination.
The titles of his chapbooks tell us much of what the songs and poems were about: Outlaw Fires, Oh, I’d Sing Alright, The Eyes of Jesse James, A Horse Called Desperation, Honky Tonk Cantos & Drunkard’s Dreams. There you have it, Kell’s musical soul reaching out to the sometimes rapturously aloof heart of America.
But as Ride Easy! demonstrates, America never really closed down on him, it shared its deserts, honky-tonks and rich sunsets and he persevered with six-string guitar and manual typewriter.
In an older poem to a friend, he writes what could have been a desperado’s epitaph:
We have our lanky anarchy & what dreams we save.