Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review: Unlocked by Ryan G Van Cleave

 



Ryan G Van Cleave


Unlocked is an ambitious long-form poem addressing violence in our schools. I like ambitious writing, so I was immediately intrigued by Van Cleave's book. What will poetry contribute to this important social issue?
 
My first thought was that Unlocked would be an epic poem. Memories of Sir Gawain haunted my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see this book is divided into 1-2 page poems with chapter headings. I hesitate to call these lyrics because they are so dependent on each other. You won't see any of the chapters lifted from the book and published independently. So this is truly long-form. On the other hand, the chapters truly are chapters. Each new poem addresses a new thought, a new brick in the wall of the larger story. I found this accretive effect to be quite powerful.
 
Van Cleave's voice was a surprise as well. This is candid, straight-up storytelling from the perspective of a high school boy, Andy. Poetic leaps are subtle and sparse. What struck me about this voice was how wonderfully it captured a teen boy's mind. He relates to the world through video gaming and somewhat conventional metaphors. Poetry (with a capital "P") is achieved through the language of uncertainty, repetition, and the teenaged passion to belong yet be independent. Van Cleave wisely suppressed his own voice and gave it wholly to Andy. As a poet myself, I have to applaud Van Cleave's ability to do this. Effectively, he is letting a lesser poet (Andy) write his book. And I think that is why Unlocked succeeds.
 
The story itself follows Andy's growing relationship with Blake, another troubled teen. They bond through the seductive power of a secret gun.  Other characters abound: misfits, girls, parents, school officials, and bullies. But Andy's and Blake's relationship is what makes the book tick. Andy is completely seduced by the excitement and confidence that Blake's gun represents. The question is will the spell be broken before a tragedy happens? Ultimately, Unlocked is about power. Social power. Physical power. False power. What conveys it. Where does real power come from.
 
Unlocked belongs in the constellation of YA fiction dealing with school violence. You certainly don't have to be an experienced consumer of poetry to understand and enjoy this book. If read and taught thoughtfully, it brings a fresh approach to the conversation and it will reach readers not impressed by standard fiction.

Find out more about the author, Ryan G Van Cleave


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