by Ben Kopel
VICTORY, Ben Kopel’s stunning full-length debut of poetry, isn’t interested in how you won first-place in anything, or who you shoved out of the way to get there. As a launch pad for thinking about its title (and a gesture of kindness I think, to its readers), VICTORY begins with an epigraph by the poet Alan Dugan:
You can’t win, you can’t draw, sometimes you can’t even lose, but to even train up to such a fight is Victory.
These lines lay the early groundwork for the kind of hard-to-spot triumphs that Kopel is interested in. Teenage boys with broken hearts and sonnets written outside of a CVS drugstore weave their way in and out of a collection where the “I” is always present, even if it is obsessively paying attention to recounting the past. These poems remember when things were different, but they adamantly refuse hopelessness. In one of the books briefest poems, “The Happiest Days of My Life,” Kopel writes:
The Happiest days of my life were those when ugliness found no lit vacancy and I spent the night fukt inside your skinny arms.
It becomes difficult to stop oneself from playing “spot the victory” for each poem in this collection, and here the underlying triumph is a recurring theme for the collection—gathering the courage to look back is painful, but elegy itself is also Victory.
Though 7 numbered sections of the book initially seems like a few too many, each section of VICTORY is purposeful (with 7 tidy poems each) and microcosmic in its explorations of theme. Some of Kopel’s most amazing work is done in the book’s very first section, where poems like “Gymnasium of the Sacred Heart,” “Like a Song Unsung,” and “Ciao Mein, Morning Star,” give us confessional-esque lines imbued with hope:
My life. The life of it and the life in it. No, not who am I but
what I was. One-third-dog. One-third-man. One-third-
star. A mind out of time and almost brave.
These kinds of tight, matter-of-fact lines establish the speaker of VICTORY as both wounded and confident—accepting of himself as part animal, part man, and part timeless astral body of light. Later in the poem we get:
You: Roller-skate skinny Me: a box of blood
These dichotomies of poetic self-definition (vs. definition of the book’s “you”) help us to understand another kind of Victory: the ability to recognize who we understand ourselves in relation to. Who makes us matter, who makes us feel like we exist. In the next poem “Dead Bird Tattoo,” this idea is reiterated in the lines “& yet here I am / with you / not rotting.” Kopel masterfully imposes these ideas onto a landscape of contemporary adolescence, a place where boys bleach their hair in the bathroom of a YWCA, get into bar fights, and burn down the local Dairy Queen. The tonal setting for these poems feels as Kopel writes “Part mutilation. / Part victory.”
The series of beautifully sincere sonnets peppering VICTORY are some of its best parts. With titles like “Academy Fight Sonnet,” “Street Sonnet,” No Surrender Sonnet,” and “Song of Joy Sonnet,” these poems speak irreverently on courage, especially in the book’s seventh and final section. “Song of Joy Sonnet,” the collection’s penultimate poem, ends with these shatteringly courageous lines:
From the target of my t-shirt I tell my ill friend you will wake up. You will wake up and you will run. You will run and you will rise. Like the sun. Like a star. A nova. An idiot.
It seems right that VICTORY builds to a song of joy, following a sort of sustained, slow burn through heartbreak and rising to fight again. Here Kopel speaks to his friend, himself, and to the reader—all of us too stupid and beautiful to be finished. “With one hand nailed to the wind,” this book straddles the sadness of elegy and the propulsive demands of being alive. VICTORY for Kopel is every second our hearts are not dead, and these poems kneel down earnestly before the people and moments that keep us alive. From the first poem to the very appropriately titled last, VICTORY keeps us saying “Amen.”
Wendy Xu is the author of the chapbooks The Hero Poems (H_NGM_N), and with Nick Sturm, I Was Not Even Born (Coconut, 2013). She lives in Northampton, and is the co-editor and publisher of iO: A Journal of New American Poetry / iO Books.