Book Review: Tap Out by Edgar Kunz
To tap out: in martial arts, to surrender, to admit defeat; in gambling, to lose all your money; to signal the end of something. The title of Edgar Kunz’s debut poetry collection evokes a certain tension and panic. Though not all to the same degree, the poems in Tap Out revolve around situations where things are tested and they either bend or they break – they observe the moments where things are about to change.
Edgar Kunz is from New England, though his family moved around a lot when he was young, living in, he says, “working-poor neighborhoods in Massachusetts and Connecticut” and in his twenties he lived in various place across the United States. Moving around informs the overall atmosphere of Tap Out, as he writes about different people and places, but which are unified in his particular writing style. The poems rarely zoom out enough to portray a big landscape, but stay focused in small details and actions that in turn accumulate to portray something much more substantial than observational lyricism could. It’s not about living in New England (or San Francisco or Nashville) but about the small individual experiences – the writing is always beyond the point of pointing out differences, and in the territory of the collective sameness at the core of everything. The imagery is formed of synecdoches that form a wider landscape beyond the confines of the lines on the pages.
The emotional core of the collection, which is explicit in several poems like “Natick”, “Graduation” and “Close”, is Kunz’s relationship with his father. The question of autobiography, of the overlap between the author of the poems and the speaker of the poems, is often recurring in conversations about poetry books like this, but despite the arguments against it, the real life background can often provide an in for readers to engage with such poems. Kunz describes his father as a self-employed handyman with an alcohol problem whose behaviour was in turns sentimental and violent. In “Graduation” Kunz creates a palpable tension between moments of shame and moments of empathetic affection – he juxtaposes his father’s drunken arrival at his graduation with his father’s attempts to show support and even love, but never overcoming the circumstances of that tension. This complicated relationship is shown in different moments throughout the book – every other poem eventually falls back to it, thematically, and is an exploration both on the part of the reader and on the part of the speaker of the poems, if not the author of the poems.
Tap Out is interesting in the way it is embedded in the current poetry landscape but it also stands out for its style, which is often more reminiscent of a style prominent a few decades ago than it is of other poetic voices that have emerged in recent years. The confessional tone and the attention to small aspects of mundane life are combined with the sort of free verse and lyrical freedom that is a staple of contemporary poetry. In many ways, however, Edgar Kunz writes in the style of dirty realism from half a century ago, but without the emotional distance, and what’s more interesting, his style is not reminiscent of the poetry of, say, Bukowski, as much as the short stories of Raymond Carver. The “dirty” part of dirty realism is more in the rejection of something elevated from everyday life, so when everything is grounded the whole experience is elevated in the poems. It is minimalist in the way it centres in on an object or an action, leaving out everything else that might clutter the image, but at the same time it evokes a certain honest and unashamed sentimentality that was perhaps absent or avoided in Hemingway or Carver.
A stand-out debut poetry collection by a writer who has built a distinct voice, Tap Out paints a landscape of American life that is vivid in the small, mundane actions of the characters that inhabit it, and overwhelms with its sincerity.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.