by Carl Dennis
(Penguin, 2018, 112 pp., $20)
Terminator: Poems 2008-2018
by Richard Kenney
(Knopf, 2019, 224pp., $28.95)
For years now, I have carried with me, like a commemorative coin, the memory of a grad school colleague’s assessment of Carl Dennis: “It’s beautiful writing,” he said, “but I don’t understand how it’s poetry.” He intended no disrespect; he was expressing genuine puzzlement. I think I understand what he meant.
The problem does not arise from subject matter. Dennis writes about small domestic concerns, to be sure, such as the house that blocks a neighbor’s view, a borrowed book found behind a bookcase, and Christmas gifts mailed late, but he also tackles metaphysics when he considers “the border between the past and the future” as a spatial entity; or when he writes, “It must be troubling for the god who loves you / To ponder how much happier you’d be today / Had you been able to glimpse your many futures”; or when he identifies “this feeling / Of incompleteness” that “Is merely the ghostly residue of the restless, / Unappeasable, ravening will that Schopenhauer / Wrongly identifies as our essence.” He considers aesthetics when he asserts that stories are “fashioned in the high style / Not to escape the world but to remember it” and are offered to “the dead bright ones / Whose gestures, vivid as they are in song, / Were doubtless in the flesh more dazzling.” He invokes Henry James and Hector, Joseph Smith and Job. His work ranges. This is all to say, he does what poets do: he contemplates the quotidian, he engages with the tradition. He examines the high and the low. He pays attention to the world.
So why did my colleague offer that quip? (Surely, he meant it, at least in part, as a quip.) It has everything to do with tone. Over the decades, Dennis has cultivated a poetic voice so insistently modest that one can easily miss what a sophisticated rhetorical construction it is. His diction is aggressively middle-register: rarely flosculent, rarely guttermouth. (Lexically, he is the Anti-Clampitt, the Counter-Catullus.) He often includes a semi-identified “you”—a neighbor, a student, a customer at a wine store—and a characteristic rhetorical approach is to offer advice. Sometimes this advice even shades into what we, in our graduate program, identified as the dreaded Wisdom Statement—an aphoristic line or sentence that one might earn every eighty or ninety lines, at best. Frequently, Dennis speaks as a representative “we,” an articulator for the culture, whether the culture be that of late-twentieth-century America, New England, or simply a nameless small town. Complementing these rhetorical strategies for the construction of a fictive community, he likes to include local place names, whether real or notional: it’s not just the owner of the wine store, it’s “The owner of the wine store at Hodge and Elmwood,” and it’s not just that music is coming from the record store, but rather that “Tribal music is throbbing tonight from River Records / As I leave the warmth of the Hunan Kitchen / And make my way along snow-struck Niagara Street.” (Incidentally, Google tells me that Hodge, Elmwood, and Niagara Streets all exist in Buffalo, NY, where Dennis lives. There is, in fact, a liquor store at H. & E. I can’t find a River Records, though.) Although his sentences are poised and often use parallelism or antithesis to achieve their effects—one of which is, understandably, remarkable balance—he favors conversational syntax: sentences often begin with a coordinating conjunction or pass-the-baton adverb (“And if the stars we discern above our roof / Don’t seem as numerous as we’ve supposed them . . .”; “Yes, they were present at her conception . . .”), and even when his sentences stretch out over six or eight lines, they never feel that long. He does not engage in the kinds of syntactic pyrotechnics one finds in Joseph Harrison or Anthony Hecht. His tone—so carefully constructed, so perfectly even—risks sounding like small talk. The overwhelming impression I am left with, reading Carl Dennis’s poems, is that they are all to be spoken sotto voce.
What this means is there are two ways one might classify Dennis’s work. The more generous classification would be as that of a Horatian as Auden describes him: someone who has a “knowledge of local topography” and whose
……………………………………………….tastes run to
…..small dinner-parties, small rooms,
…..and the tone of voice that suits them,
neither truckle nor thrasonical but softly
and who might say, along with Auden’s Horace,
…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..…..We can only
do what it seems to us we were made for, look at
…..this world with a happy eye
…..but from a sober perspective.
Given, however, the middle-register diction, emphasis on address, the advice and wisdom statements, the “we” of shared understandings, the local flavor, the straightforward syntax, and the conversational tone, the less generous classification of his work would be as that of a small-town newspaper columnist, albeit perhaps a syndicated one. That, I believe, is what my colleague was getting at when he said, “I don’t understand how it’s poetry.”
Which is it, then? I have compiled these impressions, examples, and quoted lines from New and Selected Poems, 1974-2004, Unknown Friends, Callings, and Another Reason, but the purpose in presenting this stylistic sketch of Carl Dennis is to try to answer the question by looking at his most recent collection, Night School. I recognize the question may remain unanswerable—it may involve too many a priori assumptions, too many divergent definitions of poetry—but I hope that by invoking it, the strengths of Dennis’s work might come into clearer focus.
Night School evinces all of the characteristics identified above, although I am struck by the force of Dennis’s commitment to a poetry of community. In “Know Yourself”—tricky, that titular pronoun, as (a) it suggests an isolated Everyperson, yet through its genderless referential elasticity, (b) it also suggests Everyone Everywhere—Dennis writes about waiting in line
On the day of a concert to buy a ticket,
Thinking about the music I could be hearing
At home on the stereo, though I knew the concert
Might make me feel part of a ritual
That ushered beauty into the world.
But now I welcome the urge to join the audience.
The interesting implication here is that a “private ritual” would be oxymoronic: in these lines, a ritual must be public, and only then will beauty be “ushered . . . into the world.” Listening to music “[a]t home on the stereo” will not serve. In poem after poem, Dennis makes these gestures of reaching out to the other: neighbors, strangers, fellow inhabitants of Planet Earth. In doing so, he often engages in the other most striking feature of the collection: counterfactual contemplation.
Permit me a digression. George Steiner writes, in a rhapsodic passage from Real Presences, “Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything” (emphasis in original). He goes on:
Every other human instrument and performative capability has its limitations. . . . Thus in respect of personal existence and personal consciousness, at least so far as we have evidence, time and being, and the sum of time which being experiences, are finite.
Only language knows no conceptual, no projective finality. We are at liberty to say anything, to say what we will about anything, about everything and about nothing (the latter is a particularly striking and metaphysically intriguing licence.)
There is so much more worth quoting, but the present purposes invite summary: Steiner identifies “the counter-factual” as “a capacity absolutely central and specific to man,” and he identifies the future tense as of key importance because it permits us a “grammar of hope.” If I understand him rightly (and Steiner is something on the order of 77 times smarter than I am), it is our language-given ability to articulate that which does not exist—anymore, yet, ever—that makes us human. Our ability to articulate the counterfactual grants us extraordinary power.
It is this extraordinary power that Carl Dennis, in his modest and soft-spoken way, harnesses in his poems. Sometimes it is the substance or central procedure of the poem. “Two Lives” imagines the speaker’s “other life,” weaving that contrasting thread into the same tapestry as the speaker’s real life. “Power” begins,
It’s a good thing that man is a god in ruins,
As Emerson calls him, not a god in his prime,
Considering that just yesterday,
When a driver cut into my lane on the Thruway
To make the turnoff—forcing me into a skid
That flung my bag of groceries to the floor—
My wish for revenge, had it been backed
By a godlike capacity, might have resulted
In his car’s crashing against a guardrail
And flipping over into the river below.
(See what I mean about his longer sentences not feeling long?) “To the People of 2060” invokes the future tense Steiner identifies as crucial to hope, albeit Dennis’s here is a markedly less hopeful one, and “Favorite God” describes a deity “grateful for help from other gods.” “Another Horatio” begins with this fancy:
After fifty evenings of playing the part of Horatio
As Shakespeare wrote it, isn’t it natural
For a thoughtful actor to wonder how the evening
Might end if he added a few more lines?
At the end of this poem, I think we get a sense of what these counterfactuals mean for Dennis: “We know where the right-hand path / Will take us, Horatio says to Hamlet, / So this evening let’s try the left.” Are not all counterfactual considerations a way of exploring, and perhaps even building, a new world? Yet it would be reductive to limit them to just this function; they also serve the purposes of dry runs for this one, as in “Mrs. Gottlieb’s Course in World Literature,” where students are advised to read Anna Karenina to “find out at once how choosing passion / Above all else can sometimes leave us / Hemmed in more tightly than we were before,” and where boys are recommended Crime and Punishment to “consider what makes a crime a crime / And who is the proper judge of penitence.” In this reading of the counterfactual, it is a thought experiment that allows us not to envision a future or better world, but to better understand the one in which we find ourselves.
Yet not all poems take as their central premise some counterfactual consideration; some arrive at it through the door of the ordinary. In “Clippers,” the speaker tries to imagine (yet there it is again, the counterfactual!) why a lender has not returned to retrieve a pair of borrowed clippers long overdue, and as the speaker strolls through the many possibilities, he arrives at one in which the lender himself encourages a contemplation of the counterfactual:
Try to guess, I can hear him saying,
Whether the wind now ruffling the boxwood
Is bringing a fragrance from woodlands
You visited often in times gone by
Or whether you never glimpsed them
But have no trouble believing
That if you had, you would have enjoyed them.
What we have here is a counterfactual in a counterfactual, a daydream within a daydream; yet the conclusion Dennis comes to is rather startling in light of this insistent emphasis on counterfactuals.
It doesn’t matter which, I hear him saying,
So long as you recognize the day as ideal
For working outside. Devote yourself to the trimming.
Don’t feel obliged to ask if this is the first time
You’ll be giving the ritual your full attention.
Don’t waste time wondering if it’s the last.
One wonders if this lender shares Dennis’s views of the power of imagination or contemplative thought, especially since he uses the word “ritual” to refer to an individual practice rather than a communal one; yet I detect more than once in Dennis this tension between the power of imagined possibilities and the necessity of a practical, practicable reality. (As the editor of LM has pointed out to me, Dennis won the Pulitzer Prize for a collection called Practical Gods. It is humbling for a reviewer to realize the poet has suggested in two words what the reviewer has taken four pages to discern.) Indeed, in one poem, the point of imagined reality is to practice something untrue with the hope it will become true:
I have to admire my neighbor across the street
For deciding to be insincere
Where I’m concerned, now that she recognizes
How sincerely she dislikes our chance encounters . . .
The options for a person in those shoes—which the speaker, in a counterfactual scenario, is trying on—are to succumb to the petty dislike of her neighbor or to continue in hypocrisy. The speaker here imagines the benefit of the latter option: “If she goes through the motions, she reasons, / She may take the first step on the road to change.” (More than once, I have heard it argued that we have to practice generosity or kindness or even love long before, or after, we feel such things.) Yet that is not where Dennis leaves the poem:
The more she practices, the easier it becomes,
Or should become. And if it doesn’t, too bad.
The show must go on, graceful or awkward,
A pleasure to be a part of, or a chore.
For me, this is where the poem gets really interesting. The given world will continue as is; the speaker and his neighbor will remain neighbors, they will continue to have “chance encounters,” and they will quite possibly continue to live with the muted distaste of the first stanza. The question is how much they will enjoy the whole thing: will it be a pleasure or a chore? Because whatever else it will be, it will be. In this reading of the function of the counterfactual, it is a method of accommodation to certain immutabilities—proximity, chance, disinclination—that might result in something unexpected: pleasure. The pleasure here would be a species of aesthetic pleasure, for the title of the poem is “The Actress,” which explains the otherwise flatfooted cliché in the penultimate line: “The show must go on.”
I have written so much about this tendency because it is everywhere in Night School, yet I hope I have not suggested this is an unconscious gesture on Dennis’s part: this is the poet, after all, who writes, “Deeper than the history of my opinions / Lies the history of my wishes,” and who even more explicitly begins the poem “Not Description” with an abstract of my case:
Often a sentence that’s true,
Like “The window is closed,” is less interesting
Than a sentence neither true nor false,
Like “Let’s open the window
So the air of April can enter the room,”
A proposal that doesn’t describe what is the case
So much as nudge it in a new direction.
Clearly, this is Carl Dennis’s project in this book—in fact, I would argue it has been his project in book after book—but what I have not argued here is whether this is the general strategy of much, or even all, poetry. (For those who might immediately agree to such a proposition, I would suggest as counterexamples confessional poetry, documentary poetry, or the classical Chinese tradition.) John Hollander says yes: in more than one essay, he draws a distinction between “poetry” and “verse” that suggests that trope (a counterfactual identification) or fiction (a counterfactual reality) must be present for something to transcend verse and become poetry. Here he is in Rhyme’s Reason:
The building blocks of poetry itself are elements of fiction—fable, “image,” metaphor—all the material of the nonliteral. The components of verse are like parts of plans by which the materials are built into a structure. The study of rhetoric distinguishes between tropes, or figures of meaning such as metaphor and metonymy, and schemes, or surface patterns of words. Poetry is a matter of trope; and verse, of scheme or design.
Given that definition, and my perhaps loose equation of “nonliteral” with “counterfactual,” all poetry must involve the counterfactual; thus, Carl Dennis’s emphasis on the counterfactual would mean he writes not only poetry, but also deeply poetic poetry. I say this, in part, to return to my grad school colleague’s initial assessment—“I don’t understand why it’s poetry”—but also to explain why it seems to me that Carl Dennis might be a counterintuitive inheritor of Wallace Stevens. But whereas Stevens was concerned with the imagination as it could be described, sung, and celebrated, Dennis is more often concerned with it as it can be put into action: he models the kind of generous reimagining that, I infer, he thinks necessary for civilization to survive. For Dennis, as I’m sure the preceding examples make clear, is a deeply civil poet: his work falls into what Earl Miner, in his study of The Cavalier Mode from Jonson to Cotton, calls the “social mode,” as distinct from an introvertedly personal poem or an overtly political poem. Dennis’s work reminds us that the preservation of our communal ties requires of us healthy imaginations, imaginations put into action reconsidering the motivations, circumstances, possibilities, and futures of both others and ourselves.
The question that remains, then, if we agree to this assessment of Dennis’s poetry as deeply poetic, is why he insists on a tone that can sound, at times, so unpoetic. (For the reader who requires proof, perhaps these lines will suffice:
Why don’t we set aside for a day
Our search for variety and have lunch
At the same café where we had lunch yesterday
And order the same avocado and Gouda sandwich
On whole wheat bread, toasted and buttered?
Apart from the phrase “Our search for variety” and the placement of “toasted and buttered,” I submit that this could be mistaken for prose.) I have only a tentative, highly debatable suggestion. I think the choice derives from Dennis’s commitment to the civil functions of the imagination. To put it simply, counterfactuals are too important for ornament. If we are to invite all readers into the full potential of the counterfactual—because the health of the community depends on our ability to imagine deeply and comprehensively—then there can be no distracting bangles nor obstructing veils. The reader must be persuaded of other possibilities, other futures. This is no time for rhyme! Furthermore, I submit that Dennis has long believed this about poetry, for in “Useful Advice,” a poem from his first book, he imagines a scenario in which the poem’s hypothetical “you”
…..suddenly saw out the window
A great star float by,
Or heard on the radio sweet voices
From wandering Venus or Neptune,
A little hello from the voids.
Who would believe you in the morning
Unless you’d practiced for years
A convincing style?
Dennis has indeed been practicing that style, and for years, so that readers will feel “certain / Whatever [he’s] written or will write is true”—although he also knows that truth itself must not be too exclusive since, as he suggests at the end of Night School’s “On the Beach,” a world “Will be claiming too much / When it claims it’s the only world.”
■ ■ ■ ■ ■
Richard Kenney appears to be from a very different world, poetically speaking, compared to that of Carl Dennis. One cannot mistake that Kenney is writing poetry: here are the jagged lines and startling juxtapositions, the virtuosic rhymes and molasses-viscous syntax, the bravura gestures and sky-high registers of capital-P Poetry. None of this is to say that Kenney inhabits just one style—indeed, some of his most satisfying effects come from the collocation of the colloquial and the poetic—and he is certainly capable of writing poems that aim for the simplicity and accessibility of a folk ballad, nursery rhyme, good joke, or haiku. Kenney just aims for much more, and as often as not, he nails it.
Terminator: Poems, 2008-2018 not only collects a decade’s worth of work, but also clocks in at 204 pages. It is a beast of a book, with eleven “chapters” (as the poet calls them), three prefatory poems, and an author’s note that includes some verse and implicitly concedes that with so much poetry and such a complex arrangement, the reader might welcome a bit of situating. That note begins:
Outtake, Concerning This Book’s Aggressive Title:
Hat-swoops to Hollywood!—that’s de rigueur,
I guess. Regards to Mr. Schwarzenegger,
by all means, no mens sana meatier.
My title, though (see Wikipedia)
refers to the other firmament, where a moon’s
chiaroscuros curve like nesting spoons . . .
It says something about the density of the poetry and the power of the intellect here that this constitutes a clarification. Later, in prose, Kenney adds,
[This book’s] divided into chapters, five on either side of the medial abyss. This is partly to keep sugars from vinegars, and partly to check exhaustion—following Poe, it seemed to me that a long book might hospitably be measured in a string of “single sittings,” one coffee spoon each, and that’s my recommendation here. . . . Death and its modal auxiliary have lighter and darker shades, and so have these poems. If chiaroscuro is the painter’s word for it, those syllables are in the correct order here: intermittent sunshine to the left of the terminator; steady discouragement to the right, remitting somewhat before moonset.
If anything emerges for me, as a reader, after encountering the author’s note, it is that though I may expect some sort of book-length arc, what I should really expect is a whirlwind of poems that cover ten years of writing and a multitude of subjects, and so they do.
What unifies the collection more than any scheme or theme is the texture of the writing. To begin, we should note: Richard Kenney rhymes. He rhymes a lot. He likes rhyming the way children like freebasing Fun Dip or snorting Pixy Stix. (Same manic energy, too.) One can grow dizzy just trying to find, much less chart or classify, the many varieties of rhyme that bind this book together. In his inventiveness and fecundity, Kenney might claim as his nearest rhyme-kin Paul Muldoon and Joanie Mackowski. The impulse to list grows irresistible.
* lexicon / sicken
* Sophist / Sappho’s
* Look, we / ventriloquy
* poncho / banjo
* Oprah, yet / inappropriate
* actually / patchouli
These are both representative and not: other, more recognizable species of rhyme proliferate in this book, but these flashier, jazzier versions catch the eye and, on occasion, seem a poem’s reason for being. Two other qualities of Kenney’s rhyme deserve notice: first, he sometimes buries rhymes in unexpected ways. In “Money; Worse,” for example, the end of each line gestures musically toward the beginning of the next, sometimes through very clear pararhymes and sometimes through looser alliterations.
Money is killing the world, you worry?
Re: murdering democracy, oiling the shore,
shearing the rain forest,
fracking the aquifer,
quaffing the rainbow from the bloom of the future?
Phht, the Arrow of Dream.
Drum hope, we’re thinking. Draw straws at which to clutch.
Kenney carries this end-of-line-to-beginning-of-next-line rhyme pattern through the entire poem. Second, Kenney will sometimes explore the same rhyme declensions throughout a poem, as he does in the tercets of “Science Tuesday,” which presents these sequences across six tercets:
first line of tercet: chimera, camera, Merck, America, Meerkat, miracle
second line of tercet: today, data, added, Saturday, soldered, satyr
third line of tercet: Boston, starburst, Press, depressed, best, breast
final line of poem: said
Interested readers can find an excellent discussion of rhyme varieties in an interview Kenney did with Amy Beeder, available at https://plumepoetry.com/the-neural-lyre-an-interview-with-richard-kenney-by-amy-beeder/. (Totally worth a read. For instance, Kenney describes the end-of-line-etc. rhyme-a-majig as a “rivet” and credits his study of Irish and Welsh prosodies for this technique, as well as for other sonic effects such as the “use of voiced-unvoiced consonant mutation”—a hallmark, I note in passing, of Paul Muldoon’s rhyming practice. I wasn’t completely crazy about that whole rhyme-kin thing.)
Although it may be one of the most noticeable textural elements, rhyme is hardly the only one. Kenney also favors tonal juxtapositions, including the interruption of dense poetic passages with a conversational interjection. (One sees the same impulse in the interview when Kenney tosses in the sentence, “Nobody imagines we’re speaking in person, here, Amy.”) Thus, in “The Arcturan Vivisectionist Explains,” he writes,
This specimen’s common name is Mirroreye.
Observe (retractor, please) just here—a rare
non-adaptive anomaly in the so-called third
lid—common enough, of course, in lizards, birds,
sharks, et al. . . .
In “11.99,” Kenney tries to get as talky as possible:
The grocery store sommelier smiles.
I figured that’s about where your palate’s at,
he adds, as he rings me up. His decimals
amuse me: Eleven nine-nine (?!) I call that
a twelve-dollar bottle. I always pick in the middle.
It’s a trick I have. Keep the wallet in quality! Lordy,
who on earth—for wine?—I mean, it’ll
be a chilly day in Mudville when I pay forty
If the first three lines seemed conversational enough, they’re nothing compared to the self-interruption of “Lordy, / who on earth—for wine?—I mean, it’ll / be a chilly day in Mudville . . .” These conversational gestures strike me as natural complements to other textural gestures that rely on typography to connect the world of poetry to our regular old commonplace world of children’s games and bureaucratic forms. “Self-Portrait in Lemon Juice” ends with the line, “Lie: here writ one no name in lemon juice,” the typographic fade-to-gray of which I have tried to reproduce, and “The Man in the Iron Magnet” includes these lines:
Confessions first: no history of _________,
nor _________, nor _______,
require that I leave these fields blank.
Those examples, however, present the relatively accessible Kenney. Other poems, and particularly those including scientific material, can be more challenging:
My friend the Geometer, when asked if π
were in the sky or in the skull, replied
π’s the pontification of a ratio.
Bisected, so, the circle: π. To show
that in a well-formed sentence, well, that’s human, sure.
All language is. So ever since that fateful shore
of Lake Turkana where tongue forked, where first
flaking syntax split the atom into force
and mass, thing and verb, the copula
has groped to reanneal it . . .
A reader might find these lines and leaps tricky despite the folksy gesture of “well, that’s human, sure.” At his densest, in fact, Kenny reminds me a bit of a type you see in public libraries, tweed-coated yet disheveled, who mutter to themselves over marble composition notebooks containing a not-yet-proven GUT. One senses, in their conversations with themselves, an intensity and compression that come from knowing a great deal and expecting any auditor to know as much, too. (Which is fine, when they’re talking to themselves. When talking to others, it can become problematic.) This is all to say that Richard Kenney is very, very smart, and for this reason, his poems can be intimidating the way a mountainside is.
Mostly, though, they are not. Partly, this is because he recognizes that one cannot pack a book with nothing but recondite speculations—in the aforementioned interview, he says of The Invention of the Zero, “I’m told the book is unreadable”—and has consequently included poems appropriable by the masses; and partly, this is because so much of the book consists of epigrams, which rely more on the sting in the tail than on string theory. Here, in its entirety, is “Biography”:
Darling! I think our toddler just said amour!
How his mother smiled, eyes abrim
In fact, what the little sport had said was lawnmower.
And that’s how the years ahead would go, with him
Anyone who can do that deserves rereading no matter how many Greek letters or Kuiper Belts he plunks into his poems. Other epigrams lampoon academia (“he mildly envies the thingamajig / they’ve hidden to diddle and swipe in their laps, / wishing his lecture were one of their apps”) or politics (“Look at the tiny senators! / they almost could be real.”), but not all the epigrams smack of Martial’s saltiness: some simply wish to distill something down to its essence, as Kenney does with poetry itself at the end of the first poem in the book: “Poetry, I think, / is the distant-thunder sound / in the drying ink.”
That last quotation provides an opportunity to note the most interesting formal quality of the collection, the abundance of haiku. Sometimes Kenney uses them as their own stanzas, rhyming internally or with each other; sometimes he uses them as individual parts of a multi-epigram or multi-section poem; and a few times he even writes a single haiku and presents it as such on the page. By my rough count, there are nearly forty poems that consist, in part or in total, of haiku or haiku stanzas. If any single book can rehabilitate a form that, apart from the work of a few practitioners (Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter, Rachel Wetzsteon, Richard Wilbur), has been relegated to the grade-school classroom, this is the book.
If it seems, at this point, that I have characterized Kenney’s poetry with a series of aesthetic antipodes, I wish humbly to suggest this is not a failure on my part as reader or reviewer but rather an indication of the sheer range of his work. He can be both pithy and digressive, formally rigorous and formally flexible, intellectual and nonsensical, accessible and hermetic. To give just a little more airtime to Kenney’s self-articulations:
I love nonsense verse for the pure sound and play of it—all poetry is nonsense verse, to some extent—and I love it all the more when music irradiates idea. It’s a deep mystery, the little miracle when a syntactic and perhaps even cerebral proposition gets cast in a succession of such sweet syllables as to precipitate its “felt” understanding—head and heart congruent for the moment, in an apprehension which, though it can’t logically defend itself in Superior Court, nevertheless feels fathoms deeper.
This understanding of “all poetry [as] nonsense verse” might help explain how such contradictory impulses find a place in Kenney’s work. For him, poetry is the orchestration of these often dissonant binaries: nonsense and sense, mystery and understanding, music and idea, heart and head, feeling and fathoming. Whereas Carl Dennis wishes to imagine counterfactuals, Kenny wishes to imagine the unimaginable by way of the medium’s music. As he puts it, “I’m interested in sound-patterns. If I tend to like my music loud—if overwriting’s my obverse foible—let that serve to emphasize the point.” And whereas Carl Dennis might reasonably be mistaken for writing something just a bit too flat, a bit too talk-like, to be poetry, Richard Kenney—whatever else he is doing—is most certainly writing poetry, poetry of a very singing kind, one easily and immediately recognizable as such.
The only question that remains is whether the poetry is any good. Clearly it has the texture and music of poetry; clearly it bespeaks an intellect of deep learning and wide interest. I think back, though, to one of my grad school teachers, John T. Irwin (who passed away recently and of whom I have thought often since I learned the news), a man of immense learning and impressive associative powers who told us repeatedly that if a poem did not make you feel anything, it was a failed poem. I have carried that wisdom with me as a reader, writer, reviewer, and teacher. I bring it now to Richard Kenney’s work. Do I feel anything when I read it?
Let me submit three examples. Here, again in its entirety because it is so brief, is “Apotropaic.”
He spins on the spit of sleeplessness, that the moon
may chill him equally on all sides.
Mummywise, he drags his sheets
as earth drags her tangled mess of tides.
He paints iambs on the ceiling. Blink
eyelash is the brush he’ll use.
Think. Think. Think. Until he’ll think
the sleep is not the least he’ll lose.
There are many things to admire here. The first couplet presents a trope that is the closest anyone has come in centuries to the the baroque sensibility of Crashaw. (Douglas Bush includes as part of his description of that sensibility the “new and bizarre intricacy of sensuous decoration and symbolic metaphor,” which I find perfectly applicable here.) The single word “mummywise” both suggests a memento mori and is pictorially accurate. I think it not impossible that “He paints iambs on the ceiling” is a witty-yet-heartbreaking revision of Goethe’s counting hexameters on his beloved’s back, a lovely contrast to the present speaker’s reasons for insomnia. Finally, there is the insistent repetition of “think” in the final couplet, along with the acknowledgment of the many varieties of loss in the final line. As one who has felt the mounting panic that accompanies sleeplessness, as well as the midnight accounting that ends in the unthinkable, I can say of this poem: this is it, this is it exactly.
As a second example, I might point to “Civics,” a poem painful in its timeliness. A meditation on democracy, it begins,
As kids we’re taught it’s safe as Pyramids,
unshakable and permanent amidst
a sordid history amok with ids
frocked in all those lesser-ocracies . . .
The turning point is punctuated with a single exclamation: “Trump!” (I imagine all the history books of the future will feature the same exclamation. Audiobook versions will probably include the sound of a palm smacking a forehead.) The payoff, however, is the ending.
………………... . . . we thought it was OK.
Thought nothing could go really wrong. We thought
the fire we played with wasn’t all that hot.
We thought we could control it, and could not.
Flexible as the pentameter is throughout, these final lines fall into a markedly regularly version of it, stately yet menacing. That last line may very well be chiseled on the tombstone of twenty-first-century America.
As a final example, though, I turn to a more intimate moment. It comes from the very poem that provided me, above, with the example of Kenney’s difficulty. The poem is a five-part meditation called “The Drake Equation,” taking its name from the equation used to estimate the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. After going back and forth on this possibility (part one includes the lines, “This news just in!—the starry / sky is empty. Spacemen are out. Sorry.”), the fifth part, titled “Postscriptum,” begins, “The aliens are back, incidentally.” What I find moving are the ways Kenney breaks the fourth wall and juxtaposes these comic, cosmic reflections with the mundane facts of a single lived life:
No small relief for this slow versifier,
who, peering through this poem’s decades-long zoom-
lens has seen what changes?—sapphire
heaven bleached of all biology?—shazam!—
and then revivified, less abruptly,
with a thought. In the same blink of the clock
the pupil of a black hole was seen to matter,
some dinosaurs grew feathers, and (this one for Ripley’s)
Pluto got demoted from a planet to a rock.
Also my family died. Also I had a daughter.
Here the true measure of passing time ultimately derives not from cosmological revolutions, paleobiological breakthroughs, or Plutonic controversies; we measure time according to our human deaths and human lives. (The order there is important.) What matters more, in this poem, than the possibility of other galactic civilizations is the reality of our own civilization, the one we are building—or are tearing apart—for the children we are brave enough to have. Do I feel anything when I read this? How could I not?
The ending of “The Drake Equation” speaks, of course, to Dennis’s lines about a world “claiming too much / When it claims it’s the only world.” Although we can—and, I would argue, must—imagine other worlds, we are not absolved from thinking about, railing against, or fighting for the world we actually inhabit. Reading these two collections, I am struck by what at first seem to be their irreconcilabilities: the imagined against the real, the plain against the poetic, the soft-spoken against the full-throated. I can imagine a reader liking one and not the other based on poetic preferences or artistic assumptions. Yet these have come to seem less contradictory than complementary bodies of work, as both these marvelous books present viable ways of being in the world and of making poems. Reading them together has offered me a reminder of how true democracy looks. With so many ways to live and be, we must make room at the table. With a world this big, we can find a home for everything, from the ordinary to the ornate.
Also by Stephen Kampa (see all)
- Someone Else’s Gift - March 2, 2023
- The Magician Contemplates Certain Mysteries - February 23, 2021
- Handsome Devils - February 9, 2020