CHARLES KELL’S Cage of Lit Glass
Themes of Imprisonment in Charles Kell's Cage of Lit Glass: A Review by Kyla Thomas
There are many times when the art I encounter directly relates to my real life, but sometimes a book strikes me as particularly prescient. Such is the case with Charles Kell's debut collection of poetry, Cage of Lit Glass, chosen by Kimiko Hahn as the winner of the 2018 Autumn House Poetry Prize. One of the primary themes of the book is imprisonment and for the past two years all of us have felt trapped due to the pandemic. We've been caged in our homes and have faced the prospect of dealing with the small thoughts in the backs of our heads that we're usually able to ignore by keeping busy constantly.
In Cage of Lit Glass, Kell dives deep into what it truly means to feel trapped; in specific, he writes about the cages of prison, poverty, and trauma. Kell captures this emotion persuasively through his language, his imagery, and his acute attention to detail. He refuses to shy away from the subject matter to the degree that he might come across as brash and make the reader uncomfortable. This strategy is key, however, to the successful invocation of feeling trapped.
In addition to Cage of Lit Glass, Kell is also the author of Pierre Mask (SurVision Books, 2021), which was the winner of the James Tate Poetry Contest in 2019. Recent work has appeared in The Brooklyn Review, Laurel Review, Hobart, and Miracle Monocle. Kell is an assistant professor at the Community College of Rhode Island and editor of the Ocean State Review.
Kell confronts his readers with the long-term effects of the feeling of entrapment throughout the collection. In "House Arrest," for example, a figure bashes an ankle monitor with a glass bottle in the hopes of becoming free. Similarly, in “Fluorescent Garbage Can,” the speaker discusses setting a garbage can on fire in order to feel warmth. In this way, Kell brings attention to issues that people tend to ignore and simultaneously critiques the inhumanity of a system that breaks people down by caging them. Of course, the supposed purpose of prison is rehabilitation, but the brutality, isolation, and breaking of the human spirit is ignored and chalked up to part of the “process.”
The brutality that prisoners experience directly connects to the other themes in the book, such as trauma and poverty. By highlighting these situations, Kell reminds readers of the ways in which trauma stays with people; it changes the way they think, the way they act, how they perceive situations that to other people are normal.
I thoroughly appreciated the inclusion of poverty as one of the cages that people can find themselves in because some people don't see poverty as a cage. Some are subscribers to the bootstraps myth, or come from a place of privilege where poverty is never a danger to them, but rather something they occasionally see and pay little to no attention to. Through Kell’s poetry, we are shown not only the inescapable effects of poverty, but also are forced to think critically about it. Kell challenges the classist mindsets of individuals who refuse to add any nuance to complex situations and refuse to consider the effects the prison industrial complex has on people: it sets prisoners up to live in poverty.
Not only is Kell’s work eerily beautiful, but it also causes intense introspective thought. I hope this will lead many people to not only realize the cages they might occupy, but also to also consider putting an end to the practice of caging.