Book Review

Keith Gaustad, High Art & Love Poems, Broken Bird Press, 2012

Reviewed by Freesia McKee

In the time of the MFA-industrial complex, when creative writing has become its own form of capital, Keith Gaustad’s High Art & Love Poems (Broken Bird Press, 2012) refreshingly scores the very heart of what it means to walk through this world as a day-to-day poet apart from academia, competition, and achievement for the sake of achievement.

Gaustad, publisher and editor of Milwaukee’s Burdock Magazine, has been billed as an accessible, easy-to-understand poet who simultaneously entertains “the big questions.” No where is this more evident than in “The Intermittent Gardener,” where Gaustad writes, “I’ll tell you/ in blurred vision/ the kink/ in the hose/ went out/ as I spun/ in the grass./ Now, is there/ any way/ we can replicate/ this easy/ solution/ to an obvious/ problem?” For readers, Gaustad anchors philosophy to the ordinary—the garden hose, a bookshelf, tequila, an abandoned street’s red light where a patient pedestrian says to the narrator, “I always wait for the light to change. I’m a taxpayer.” Reminiscent of Frank O’Hara, Tim Dlugos, and others in the New York School, for Gaustad, anything is fair and relevant game, be it the ancient Greek Apollo, emoticons, the Bible, or James Bond. The mixture of cultural entities composes an unguarded, honest poem.

“The Fate of Love Poems” describes a poet’s act, vulnerable and familiar to many, of taking the most intimate ruminations and repackaging them as nicely as possible—“a cryptic/ un-lifted/ French-fold/ affair”—in order to submit them to review and rejection by an outside party, be it a lover, an editor, or someone who happens, unfortunately, to be both. The thoughts and feelings that some, perhaps more reasonable people, would keep to themselves are the ripest fodder for many poets. High Art & Love Poems explores the urge that poets and other artists have to push these thoughts into the outside world for the necessary purpose of self-recognition. 

Nearly every poem in the book explores the relationship between the intimate and the exterior. In the first stanzas of “Love Poems,” subtitled “Different Sexual,” Gaustad writes, “To think of you as a preference/ as modern as I can be/ in the wooden shadows/ I live under./ They have fixed us up…” He continues in further stanzas, “Every time I walk I think of new mistakes/ and meditate on old ones. :( // We walked to the lake/ I said I do this/ when bad things happen :! // Not to show you I mean it when I say/ This could be something. :< // Not to toast a rejection the way real poets do. 8)” The levity of Gaustad’s excess punctuation paired with expressed doubt is a shout-out to all the poets who have never been quite sure if conveying their sadness to others is actually worthwhile, not only after submission or publication, but even as they write.

As the first sentence of his author’s bio notes, “Keith Gaustad has never won a single poetry contest.” And yet, he doesn’t need to. These poems are not drawn from an MFA credential, a PhD, a Pushcart Prize nomination, or any other accolade granted from outside a page-based relationship of poet and reader. High Art & Love Poems is a refreshing and relatable exploration of the daily-beautiful, the mundane-extraordinary that any poet interprets. Gaustad knows that we are meant to mass-mail out our renderings of the world after we create them, that as poets, we make meaning:

“All the pigeons gawked at this/ and discussed the color gray// This is a school/ said one/ This is a movement/ said another/ This is a sign of the times/ they all agreed.// Then they all agreed that the tattoos stood for something/ each splatter signaled a lifestyle/ heralded an individual/ like no sunlight could”

No Tattoos

          And there stood a cement statue
of a boy with tattoos
   and a boy with no tattoos
the birds were in debate

All the pigeons gawked at this
and discussed the color gray

                    This is a school
                    said one
                    This is a movement
                    said another
                    This is a sign of the times
                    they all agreed.

Then they all agreed that the tattoos stood for something
each splatter signaled a lifestyle
heralded an individual
like no sunlight could

There they cooed

as the day warmed up

as hobos woke up


Freesia McKee is a lifelong Milwaukeean and poet. Her work has been published in Stone Highway ReviewMagnoliaThe Boiler JournalThe Undergraduate Journal of Service-Learning and Community-Based Research, and elsewhere. A longer description of her work can be found at