Key Bridge
By Ken Rumble
Carolina Wren Press, 71 pp.

Key Bridge starts with a bang. In a poem called “15.may.2000,” the narrator has sex with “Jenny, blond, doesn’t/ like sex in bed… in an empty lot at the west end of Georgetown.” The presumably white speaker observes, in re the police, “that if seen & black/ what a difference that’d make.”

Thus begins Ken Rumble’s exuberant free-verse tour of Washington, D.C., loosely framed by notions of race and identity. These 79 poems (depending on how you count) use the bridge named for “Star Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key as a vantage point for “seeing all/ about/ the city,” which is, in Rumble’s expropriation from Ferlinghetti, “a D.C. of the mined.”

Rumble, who now lives in Greensboro, writes cerebrally slaphappy poems full of bopping word repetitions and irrepressible yet self-conscious wordplay. He is, by turns, a rapid-firing auctioneer; a restless, obsessive urbanite naming city streets and neighborhoods (virtually whole poems are toponymic litanies); a freestyling rapper who boasts “D. Chocolate City: the first one”; and a garrulous, ebullient punk poet in love with sheer language. The poems read much better on paper, their sporadically punctuated word-spools spilling all over the page, than they do aloud, where they tend to trip up the tongue, grow involute, and sometimes leave the reader breathless and lost and soaked in the spray of language. Most of the pieces are shortless than a pageand the one- and two-liners sometimes seem more like ideas for poems than poetry.

Rumble likes to riff on a word, idea or image: “the bridge bridged the bridgeable river/ bridgley bridging the bridged river […] Bridge be bridging,” muses “18.march.2001.” Its companion piece, “17.march.2001,” contains an open letter of epithets to a character called Metaphor. Rumble is ultimately more interested in the idea of bridge, metaphor and bridge-as-metaphor, than in getting the real Key Bridge to convey meaning. (It’s a staunchly postmodernist stance.) Key Bridge evokes Hart Crane’s sweeping Depression-era epic, The Bridge, but Rumble isn’t a world-historical poet, as Crane is, and his prosody couldn’t be less like Crane’s romantic formalism. He isn’t even much interested in current events; although these date-stamped poems span 2000-03, albeit not chronologically, 9/11 is mentioned just once. Even the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002 only get a couple of glances.

It may be that Key Bridge isn’t really about Washington at all. Many of its poems take place on the edges and fringes of D.C.: aerial views of the city, or driving into and out of it, escaping across Key Bridge into Rosslyn, Va. Rumble’s work longs to escape from semi-suburban, middle-class comforts and visit thresholds of danger, e.g., having sex in a vacant lot in Georgetown, which is on Washington’s far western boundary. The resistant punk band Fugazi is invoked in two poems, and, in “3.august.2001,” Rumble captures a mouthy, excitable adolescence who can’t find the proper site for rebellion:

there’s a party somewhere
somewhere, there’s a party
somewhere, somebody’s parents went somewhere else
& somebody isn’t being watched by somebody
like they ought to be being watched

But Rumble also has an unexpected tenderness that is as rich in tone and language as any of his manic wordslingings. In the closely observed “3.october.2002,” the narrator watches a “page-turning girl” at a concert:

does she lick her finger before
each page?
Does she love the pianist?
the cellist? the violero?
Conquered by the music
she turns & is not
conquered […]
the greater creator.

An even more graceful and vulnerable note is sounded by the intimate “1.april.2001,” a childhood memory of mother and father getting dressed before going out on the town for the night:

then my dad hot-steps by me
half-dressed on the to & fro in
steam & Old Spice.
I do my best to ignore
those bodies that made me grow angry.

The narrator falls asleep to the TV, then finds himself

[…] awake asleep
against my dad’s wool coat
on the way to bed. He passes me to my mother
to lay under the covers there
I’m in the midst of their scents their wool
& velvet lost
in their there

Rumble’s D.C. may be “my fractured/ & monstrous diamond,” but what it (barely) contains is nothing more or less than his own identity, which he chases in Key Bridge all the way to the edges of language and city. For all his circling around race and otherness, his portentous symbols and his overspilling verbosity, the poet and Washington may come most closely together in this most limpid and simplest of Rumble’s lines: “& what am I here?”