EP&M Online Review


Review by Jan Schreiber

X. J. Kennedy, The Lords of Misrule: Poems, 1992-2001
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 93 pp.

Some PhD student will one day write (or perhaps has already written) a treatise on the structural similarity between short poems and jokes. It will anatomize the tension between economy and controlled elaboration, the critical role of craftsmanlike construction abetted by deft word choice, the effect of a well established rhythm, and the crucial placement of the punch line. It will then compare and contrast the tonal differences between a serious poem and a broad joke, despite the formal qualities they hold in common – and it will founder completely on the work of X.J. Kennedy, a writer who takes evident pleasure in blurring all distinctions between the two forms.

This latest book collects, as its subtitle and an author’s note tell us, mainly work of the past decade. It thus represents Kennedy as a senior practitioner of a style of poetry that is easy to spot, hard to describe, and nearly impossible to imitate.

Salute sweet deceptions:
At break of morning
How the firehouse
Seems carved from amber,

Beer cans in river
Mime stars dissolving.
A seed pearl necklace
Of rain wears phone wires.

It comes close to cliché, but avoids it. The grungy world is not stinted. A young poet might say the phone wires wear seed pearls of rain, and we would stifle a yawn, but this old pro says the necklace of rain wears phone wires. Ingenious conceit or broad humor? Evocative or a wheeze? While you are deciding, Kennedy is taking aim at a new target – maybe Allen Ginsberg, maybe Henry James.

This is a book of considerable range. Its offerings include nostalgic and tender portraits of long-gone schoolmates, a consolation for parents of a dead infant, imaginative literary biography, satires, tributes, and what purports to be a conversation overheard through the walls of a seedy motel. Many poems are quite moving. Almost all are ingenious. And few can resist a broad joke. The woman who steps into traffic, whom the poet is relieved not to have killed, rouses his ardor, he says, mainly (we suspect) because the word rimes with car door. And she steps with “languid Sapphic / Grace into brisk rush-hour traffic.” Perhaps a reader is not entirely sure what Sapphic grace is (does it pertain to Eros or Erato?), but the rime is sure to evoke a smile.

One poem builds an elaborate conceit on the humble act of taking an aspirin:

 Go, boats of the blood,
 Carry your cargo of ease to the ports of the body …
– and this apparatus proliferates to the penultimate line of the poem, which imagines the discoverers of aspirin walking “in radiance by the streams of Lethe” only to be brought unceremoniously to earth by the line:
 Bayer-assed in starched hospital dickies.
In Kennedy’s world, if you find yourself on an elegant and spacious lawn graced with classical statuary, you can be sure it is strewn with banana peels, and a staged pratfall is probably just around the corner.

One might call Kennedy a natural enemy of pretension, but he is even-handed in his deflationary efforts, lancing both left and right. So not only is Henry James affectionately skewered (in “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James”):

 Henry walked down Great Ormond Street.
 He lifted gaze to the air
 And asked, “Tell me, my sensibility,
 Was there aught of which I wasn’t aware?”
… but Allen Ginsberg as well:
 Foe of fascist, bane of bomb,
 Finger-cymbaled, chanting Om,
 Proper poets’ thorn in side,
 Turner of a whole time’s tide,

 Who can fill your sloppy shoes?
 What a catch for Death. We lose
 Glee and sweetness, freaky light,
 Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright.

In our clamor to classify, we ask in frustration, Can this man be serious? And the answer is Yes, but not all the time – which presents us with a problem. We want to put light verse into a separate category, where it can be appreciated without affecting our more sober reflections on human experience, where it can be a guilty pleasure rather like the empty calories in a box of chocolates. So we encounter Kennedy with mystification. What is one to do with a lines like these (from “The Purpose of Time Is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once”):
 Einstein was right: That would be too intense.
 You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
 Recital before an indifferent audience
 Equally slow in jeering you or clapping.
 Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
 You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?
Compare this with:
 Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
 That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
 And then is heard no more.
The difference in content is minimal, but the difference in tone is as vast as that between tragedy and situation comedy. Arguably, in our time more people understand and respond to situation comedy, so perhaps that is an appropriate idiom for the material. Wallace Stevens opined that “disaffected flagellants” proud of “Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk” might whip from themselves a jovial hullabaloo while making widows wince. And indeed a jovial hullabaloo often seems to be Kennedy’s aim and one of his signal achievements.

It would be wrong to suggest that this book contains only broad humor. While it is true that pretension of any kind moves Kennedy to deflate it, those considered humanity’s dregs elicit genuine sympathy. In “Others” he surveys a wide swath of sad depravity, then sums up:

  … Watching the nightly news scroll by,
    We say, There but for the grace of God go I,
 As though their lives were our vicarious trips.
    But where we walk they loiter on the sly
 And sometimes when we kiss we taste their lips.
And in a poem called “Heard through the Walls of the Racetrack Glen Motel” he evokes in a few convincing lines the tenuous relationship between a woman who has herself been around the track too many times and a young man temporarily hers but now eager to break out of the gate. “You ain’t much,” she says to him, “but you’re all I got to lose.” Going out, he protests, “I’ll only be an hour or so.” And she, knowing better, pleads, “Stay here.” This dialogue is carried on in strict meter and a regular rime scheme, and yet every idiomatic phrase feels as if it was invented on the spot. We would welcome a verse play from this pen.

 The overriding aim of this collection, it would appear, is to see if a scene, presented in accurate, cool light, can convey feeling and lead to understanding. While part of the effect depends on the details chosen, form is an indispensable component of this enterprise. Kennedy’s rimes are often unpredictable, which is a relief, and perhaps for that reason they are usually satisfying:

 The watermelon kept cold in a stream
    Slid through our hands and shattered on the rocks,
    Yet here it is intact. The magic box
 Whose simple click froze summer’s passing dream

 Has fastened you in childhood, long before
    You opened like a new-built house a life,
    That of a threadbare country doctor’s wife.
 How few the years till cancer closed your door.

Because the form is so successful overall, the few occasions when it lets the poet down are the more noticeable. The poem called “On Song” opens with a trimeter couplet: “How odd that verse that’s song / Should so displease the young.” This is strange, because the other rimes in the poem are exact, not slant, and the word sung would be more idiomatic. Perhaps this is only a typographical error.

“Visit” tells of a meeting between a visitor and an elderly woman whose life has passed her by. The medium is a fine, fluid, unrimed iambic trimeter, loose enough to admit extrametrical syllables. It is excellent for setting a scene and carrying a mood, but not quite up to pulling the poem together at the end:

 You both fall still. The well
 Is boarded up. The gods
 Who once bestrode this house
 Have gone upstairs to pack,
 Their wings clipped, lips sewn shut,
 Leaving this ruined estate
 To wild, impersonal things –
 The clover patch that snarls
 With bees, the incessant grass.
The gods going upstairs to pack is Kennedy’s wonderful, humanizing touch. But we miss a final rimed couplet at the end to punctuate the poem and sum things up.

Occasionally the final riming line disappoints. “Meditation in the Bedroom of General Francisco Franco” takes as its starting point the observation that a relic consisting of the left hand of St. Teresa of Avila graced the general’s bedroom. The poem comments on the disjunction between the saint’s compassion and the general’s brutality, then imagines that the hand might with poetic justice have throttled Franco as he slept. The poem concludes, “Teresa, you had your chance. You blew it.” This banal ending in a poem that earlier surveyed the death and torture of thousands seems a punch line’s triumph over sense and decorum.

But these are cavils. There are many other poems where tone, technique, and strong feeling come together in impressive and moving ways. One such is “Daughter Like a Pendant,” a study of an aging woman whose departed beauty is now reflected in her young daughter’s features. The poem is addressed to the daughter. Its conceit is that she is her mother’s remaining jewel – one that both distracts from the older woman’s wrinkled skin and reflects the vibrancy she once possessed – and that this jewel will soon be taken from her:

 Already, dear, you loosen in your setting,

 Inviting theft. But still, who’d not applaud
    Her thrust for inattention. You achieve
    What she desires – before, that is, you leave
 And leave your wearer wistful for her gaud.

Even the archaic word “gaud,” with its suggestion of deceptive decoration, is right here. The poem is a quiet success.

Another fine achievement is “Maples in January,” dedicated to Edgar Bowers, a poet whose austerity and sobriety seem to bring out the best in those who write with his art in mind. The poem edges close to a pathetic fallacy, suggesting human motives in the leaf-shedding cycle of the maples, but in fact the maples are only a metaphor for the process of putting away all superfluous decoration: “They’ve shrugged the rustle of desire, / The chore of being scenery.” a renunciation  that was at the heart of Bowers’ own procedures:

 And now impervious to thirst,
    No longer thrall to summer’s sway,
    They stand their ground as if to say,
 Winter and wind, come do your worst.
Among the minor ingenuities that give pleasure in this poem is the word “sway” with its double meaning of control and graceful movement.

For readers and writers who long ago imbibed the image of the poet as a vatic figure, exercising a priestly function that commands awe among all within range of his voice, reading Kennedy requires a mental adjustment. He refuses the priest’s robes, but he also rejects the jester’s cap – or much of the time at any rate. He prefers characters to abstractions, and his characters are most often enfolded in a tone nicely balanced between pity for their weaknesses and amusement at their pretensions. The poet’s function is to entertain, he seems to tell us, but it is also to move. As a result, very little human experience is beyond the range of his keen eye and his well turned lines. We are fortunate to have him working among us.

                                                                        Jan Schreiber

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