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A More Bizarre Proteus

Posted By Catherine Tufariello On April 1, 2008 @ 5:46 pm In April 2008: X. J. Kennedy Special Issue,Featured,Reviews | No Comments

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1961-2007 by X. J. Kennedy. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Reviewed By: Catherine Tufariello

I like poems where you don’t really know whether to laugh or cry when you read them. I like what Auden said once, that poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings.
– X.J. Kennedy

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1961-2007 spans X.J. Kennedy’s more than fifty-year career, including over two dozen new poems as well as a rigorous winnowing of nine previous books and chapbooks. It was published more or less simultaneously in the summer of 2007 with the provocatively titled Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008. His decision to publish two separate New and Selecteds has interesting implications. In the past, Kennedy has included some children’s verse and light verse in his major poetry collections. But this time he has elected-or attempted, since he candidly admits in the foreword to Peeping Tom that he’s never entirely understood the distinction-to separate his light verse from what he, not without irony, calls his “poetry.” In an explanatory note, he tells us that the book under review selects the “less contemptible verse” (as he characteristically puts it) from his past collections, omitting children’s verse, epigrams, and “things primarily comic, not quite fit to call poetry”; he directs readers in search of these to Peeping Tom’s Cabin. Kennedy has achieved his greatest renown as a writer of children’s verse and light verse, and as an editor of perennially popular textbooks and anthologies. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus (PBS) represents his bid to be taken seriously as a poet.

[private]In addition to being best known for work other than his poetry for adults, Kennedy has numerous other strikes against him. He has written almost exclusively metrical and rhymed verse and been outspoken in the defense of such verse, earning him the condemnation or (worse) the condescension of some critics and reviewers. Relatively few of his poems are more than one or two pages long; he not only has never made the requisite failed attempt to write the Great American Long Poem, but has remarked that he finds such poems tedious. Though one of his most famous poems is titled “First Confession,” he is anything but a confessional poet. He is, for one thing, too interested in other people, including people very different from himself. And unlike many contemporary poets, he deflects questions about his aesthetic philosophy and disavows any interest in social or political statements. Recently he was asked by an interviewer with The Hub, a Boston online literary magazine, whether there was “an over-arching aesthetic approach” to his first collection, the Lamont Award-winning Nude Descending a Staircase. Kennedy answered, “If there was any, I can’t imagine what it was.” Asked later in the same interview, “Do you often feel compelled as a poet to deal with major political and cultural events in your work?” he replied laconically, “Nope.”

Nor does Kennedy project a quirky but lovable persona with whom readers can easily identify. His sensibility is more prickly and aloof than warm and cuddly. His poems, while often very funny, are also often dark and discomfiting. He edited an anthology called Tygers of Wrath, containing “poems of hate, anger and invective,” and anyone who has chuckled appreciatively at “A Curse on a Thief” will understand why such a project attracted him. Kennedy has been defiantly unafraid to show himself in an unflattering light in his poems-as an ambivalent father, for instance, although the darkest poems about domestic life are not, wisely I think, included here; or as the stereotype of the narcissistic visiting poet, ogling the college girls at a reading: “I offer Hardy’s ‘Ruined Maid,’ on watch / For hints of acquiescence.” There is a good deal of the satirist’s contempt and self-contempt in him, and readers can’t be entirely certain that they escape a share of it. His acerbic wit is a palate cleanser for a reader gorged on self-absorbed, autobiographical lyrics. But the sourness has bite. Like J. V. Cunningham, for whom he wrote a fine elegy collected in this book, Kennedy refuses to ingratiate himself. It’s a rare quality and one to be respected, but it represents a challenge for his readers.

Finally, Kennedy’s oeuvre does not display the sort of developmental arc that critics, if not more casual readers, look for in a poet who manages to keep at it for over five decades. A chronologically arranged collection spanning a poet’s entire career can be expected to throw its various phases into sharp relief. Probably few poetry lovers read such volumes methodically, from front to back (I know I don’t). But one who did so might see, as in time-lapse photography, a poet move from metrical to free verse or vice versa; or evolve from writing short lyrics to extended narratives and dramatic monologues; or in some way repudiate the style and subjects of his or her younger self, turning to pastures new. This is not the case with Kennedy. We see him drop a few early experiments in surrealism and gradually begin to write more character studies. But PBS does not show him making major alterations of course over time. Rather, it underscores how early he achieved his mature style and how consistently he continued to mine the themes and preoccupations of his extraordinary first book, using mainly the same forms-ballad, sonnet, couplet, quatrain, blues lyric-that he had mastered, with precocious verve and virtuosity, in his 20s and early 30s.

Among the threads that run through Kennedy’s career, making the poems in widely separated books feel very much of a piece, is his affinity for people who live (and die) on the social margins-drunks, prostitutes, beggars, the insane, criminals, the poor, veterans alienated from the society they fought for, pariahs and underdogs of all kinds. He writes with keen observation and sympathy of old men playing horseshoes, a fellow Navy veteran who scrupulously repaid a small loan “in dribs and drabs” after the war, Hells Angels at a “blessing of the bikes,” the broken old men who straggled in to the late Sunday service, the “Hangover Mass,” when he was a boy. Even as a translator-and he is a wonderful though not a prolific one-Kennedy is drawn to Rimbaud, versions of whose “Ladies Looking for Lice” and “Poor People in Church” are collected here.

In conjuring the voices of people who are rarely heard as well as in his mastery of traditional verse forms, Kennedy is a direct descendant of Edwin Arlington Robinson. He shares Robinson’s compassion for people regarded by society as losers and failures, finding stories worth telling in lives stunted by isolation and disappointment. While Kennedy spent much of his professional life as a college literature teacher, he comes from a working class Irish-American background-his father was a timekeeper in a boiler factory-and in crucial ways his poems have remained rooted in that background. Supposedly Kennedy appended the “X” to his name because he was tired of being teased about sharing it with Joseph Patrick (“Joe”) Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s father. Reading his work, one can see why he would want to disavow a connection, even a coincidental one, with the powerful and aristocratic Kennedys. The X seems to me at once a marker of Kennedy’s unique brand of humor, a great conversation starter (how many names start with X?) and of his sympathy for unknowns and nobodies. It’s the unsolved x of an algebraic equation, the X as signature on a document, standing for a name that the signer cannot write. X is also, ironically, a symbol for Christ-the anointed one who loved the poor in spirit.

Kennedy has a strong impulse to memorialize people who might otherwise be forgotten. He gravitates to the elegy as to no other genre, and it’s one in which he excels. In PBS there are, by my count, twenty elegies as the term is conventionally used, and many others that are in some way elegiac. The subjects range from a mouse killed in a trap, whose corpse serves as a memento mori for the one who set it (“Brotherhood”), to God Himself, whose funeral is “a ten-Cadillac affair” (“God’s Obsequies”). Four elegies are for poets, three of them well-known-J.V. Cunningham, Yeats, and, funnily, Allen Ginsberg, who gets an affectionate sendoff although it’s hard to think of a poet more different from Kennedy. The fourth and most ambitious is a ten-part tribute to a young poet, John Brennan, who was one of Kennedy’s students at Tufts and who committed suicide by shooting himself. Most are for people whose names no one would recognize-reckless young hot-rodders killed in a game of chicken; a childhood classmate injured in a car accident; a professor shot in a convenience-store holdup; a kind but needy aunt whose visits were always too long.

Among the poems newly collected in PBS is “Death of a Window Washer,” an elegy for an anonymous city worker who plunges to the pavement below when his harness suddenly breaks:

He’d made the city pause briefly to suffer

His taking ample room for once. In rather

A tedious while the rinsed street, left to dry,

Unlatched its gates that passersby might pass.

This is how, Kennedy reminds himself and us, human beings in modern cities and suburbs respond to the deaths of anonymous strangers. The tragedies of others are at most a passing inconvenience, forgotten as soon as the light turns green or the victim’s blood is hosed from the street. In “At the Stoplight by the Paupers’ Graves,” from Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), the speaker briefly ponders the unmarked graves of the poor, who have only marginally less space now in which to rest than they did when alive:

Skull against skull, they won’t stretch out at ease

Their jammed arms, won’t set grass to root for good.

Perennials that came up only once

Struggle and dry down from their stones of wood.

My engine shudders as if about to stall,

But I’ve no heart to wait for them all night.

That would be long to tense here for a leap,

Thrall to the remote decisions of the light.

A collective elegy for the impoverished and forgotten, the poem is also an elegy of sorts for its narrator, who mourns his inability to mourn. The mechanical engine shudders, as if with human feeling, while the poet has “no heart” in that his heart pumps on impassively; the leap of empathy cannot be made. These two poems suggest why it would be difficult, if not impossible, to guess accurately on the evidence of a poem alone when in Kennedy’s career it was written. “Death of a Window Washer” had its first periodical publication in 1991. Setting “At the Stoplight by the Pauper’s Graves” and “Death of a Window Washer” side by side, a reader wouldn’t guess that they were first published thirty years apart.

Kennedy’s poems are preoccupied with the ways in which contemporary urban life turns people into faceless “human integers.” “B Negative” is spoken by a man who picks up trash in Central Park. The title is his blood type, and an epigraph gives us more of the kind of demographic information that might be gathered by a government on its citizens, an army on its soldiers, or a hospital on its patients. In abbreviated form, we get the speaker’s gender, age, height, race and religion: M/60/5FT4/W PROT. The rest of the poem introduces us to the person behind the cryptic title and epigraph. It starts off humorously-the speaker knows that it’s spring because he starts to find the underwear of lovers in the grass-but soon becomes strange and enigmatic. In the middle of the poem he suddenly addresses as “you” a former lover whom he still loves, but who no longer reciprocates his feelings. He admits that he still haunts her street and peers into her windows, catching glimpses of the life she has carried on without him. Since losing her he has grown old, and barely survives while performing his menial, alienating job. Toward the end, we see the effect on him of being treated like the string of data in the epigraph:

Down blocks in sequence, fact by separate fact,

The human integers add and subtract

Till locked away in some flea-bag hotel

You wake one day to find yourself abstract

And turn a knob and hear a voice: Insist

On Jiffy Blades, they’re tender to the wrist-

Then static, then a squawk as if your hand

Had shut some human windpipe with a twist.

Spearing trash with a stick by day, his nights spent in a flophouse while radio ads blare or in the subway under a blanket of newspapers, the speaker contemplates suicide and murder. In the stanzas about being made into a “human integer,” the referent of “you” shifts-he is no longer talking to a specific woman but to himself and the reader, drawing us into complicity with his despair and his urges to violence.

The form of “B Negative” is essential to its power. Kennedy has talked about how much he loved The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in Fitzgerald’s famous (mis)translation, as a boy. The elegant, self-enclosed Rubaiyat stanzas might seem an odd choice for a monologue by a character like this one. But by using it, Kennedy can both convey this character’s story and present it in disjointed, compressed flashes, like the flashes of memory. The form also allows him stanzas of aphorism that give this outsider’s story a claim to larger significance:

The springer spaniel and the buoyant hare

Seem half at home reclining in mid-air,

But Lord, the times I’ve leaped the way they do

And looked round for a foothold-in despair.

By using the form he has chosen, Kennedy suggests that his character’s sensation of being suspended in his life, with no solid ground beneath him, is not merely his own but the contemporary human condition.

In the final stanza, the narrator identifies with the sinister loners who loiter in the park at night:

I know how, lurking under trees by dark,

Poor loony stranglers out to make their mark

Reach forth shy hands to touch some woman’s hair-

I pick up after them in Central Park.

The “loony stranglers” seem “out to make their mark” in a literal fashion, on their victims’ necks, and also by getting the stories of their crimes in the papers. These implications are chilling, yet the narrator’s use of “poor” and “shy” to describe them suggests that he pities the stranglers. What is it that he “picks up” after they’ve gone? Is he a strangler or would-be strangler himself? Or is it his own loss of the woman he loved, his sense of being cut completely adrift, that makes it possible for the narrator to feel for those even worse off than he? Kennedy doesn’t say, leaving readers to their uneasy speculations. He draws us into identification with the narrator, then makes us confront our own fascination with tabloid stories about sexual predators and serial killers. It’s a complex, troubling, and masterful poem.

Other Kennedy poems similarly show a rare understanding, even empathy, for male characters whose behavior society condemns. Despite their aggressive impulses, these males are vulnerable in relation to women, precisely because of frustrated sexual desire. In “Street Moths,” adolescent boys “old enough to smoke but not to drink” hang out in front of a video arcade, propositioning the girls who walk past. A woman poet (and many men) would focus on the boys’ intimidation of the girls, but Kennedy presents the situation another way. It’s the girls who, in their short skirts and tight jeans, are tormenting the boys, whose “vain efforts to get laid” are met with “a mere Get lost and death-ray eyes.” Disdainfully, they “turn noses up at cries of agony.” The boys may appear to be “a pack of starving wolves,” males on the make. But Kennedy challenges us to see them as less menacing than pitiable, moths blundering around a candle. Like the red-eyed, quaking alcoholics in “Hangover Mass,” who “mention girls with withering contempt,” the boys are defending themselves against failure and shame.

Other poems about relations between the sexes are still edgier and more provocative. In “Absentminded Bartender,” Kennedy again confronts the kind of random violence that fills American newspapers. He gives us the perspective of a murderer haunted by memories of a woman who, it seems, he decapitated and dismembered, although he’d only “meant to scare her.” Startled out of a daydream, the bartender sees a “cut off head dribbling from the tap,” the head on a glass of beer merging gruesomely with his victim’s severed head. The end of the poem implies that he might be a serial killer, as he dreams that he shares his bed with still-warm dismembered limbs. Another poem about sexual violence is “Loose Woman,” in which the violence that the boys in “Street Moths” only seem to threaten is acted out. A woman who behaves like the girls in “Street Moths,” walking past oglers with her head held high, has her throat cut. No matter how many times I read the opening lines of “Loose Woman,” they retain their ability to shock:

Someone who well knew how she’d toss her chin

Passing the firehouse oglers, at their taunt,

Let it be flung up higher than she’d want,

Just held fast by a little hinge of skin.

Like “Richard Cory,” the poem is narrated by a choral “we”-the townspeople who gossip about and try to make sense of a violent death. But while Robinson’s “we” are baffled by what could have caused someone so rich and privileged to kill himself, Kennedy’s more cold-blooded “we” see the woman’s pride and promiscuity as contributing causes of her murder, which remains unsolved. It seems reasonable to assume that the collective voice of “Loose Woman” understands the woman and what happened to her no better than Richard Cory’s neighbors knew him. But the shock of poems like this, however effective they are in seizing the reader’s attention, can feel gratuitous, even prurient. Kennedy’s strongest poems on sexual desire and violence do not merely shock but, like “B Negative,” enter fully into their characters’ minds, inviting readers to take the same risk.

Quite a few of Kennedy’s poems feature “loose women.” The most famous is this book’s title poem, “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day,” in which an old prostitute and former junkie laments her lost beauty, singing of the desire she used to arouse in her suitors. Like the Wife of Bath, whom she resembles in some ways, she takes pleasure in boasting of her sexual seductiveness and the power it gave her over men:

All the men used to swear that the white of my calf

Beat the down of the swan by a length and a half.

In the kerchief of linen I caught to my nose

Ah, there never fell snot, but a little gold rose.

But unlike Chaucer’s Wife, who having outlived five husbands cheerfully expects to marry a sixth, the “lady in skunk” sees all too well that Time, once an attentive “gent” with a classy sportscar, has dumped her by the side of the road. Her version of carpe diem is “grab a man and marry while you can.” Toward the end of the ballad mourning her decline, she warns young women not to follow her example, as they too will be assaulted by Time:

Let you hold in mind, girls, that your beauty must pass

Like a lovely white clover that rusts with its grass.

Keep your bottoms off barstools and marry you young

Or be left an old barrel with many a bung.

Her advocacy of marriage is not zestful, like the Wife’s, but desperate. The poem is great fun, especially if one has the pleasure of hearing it sung (to the tune of “The Old Orange Flute” or “Sweet Betsy of Pike,” as the epigraph cues us) in the poet’s inimitable whiskey baritone. The old lady recounts her plight in lightly swinging anapestic tetrameter, with irresistible gusto and humor. But with its Swiftian revulsion at the betrayals of the aging female body, the poem is also unsettling. At the end of her song, the old barfly laments being left with nothing but “two toadstools for tits and a face full of weeds.” Those are her last words before a patrol car arrives to haul her away.

For a poet whose humor is often bawdy, Kennedy has a surprisingly dark view of sex. His isolates and solitaries use it to try to escape their fundamental loneliness, seeking connection (even violent connection) with another person. But they remain alone, and grow more alone as they age. Even early in his career, Kennedy associates sex with aging and decline. In “Two Apparitions,” from his second collection Growing Into Love (1969), the speaker, in bed with his lover on a moonlit night, has a sudden vision of their bodies grown old. As he reaches out to touch her, “[a]nother man’s hand” steals from the sheets: “A scaled hand, a lizard’s, blotched over with bile / Every knuckle a knot on a stick / And in her cheek, dug there, a crone’s wan smile.” In part 2 of the poem, the moon is itself cold, ancient, and diseased, “a genital hardly able to rise.” Other poems are even more explicit in equating sex and death. In “A Little Night Music,” from the 1971 chapbook Breaking and Entering, the male lover beckons his lady to bed with mordant humor and a skeleton’s finger:

In love we tune for death.

So if you’re not averse,

My dear, undress. In bed

We’ll dress-rehearse the hearse.

Here is the carpe diem argument boiled down, with Kennedy’s sardonic wit, to the bitter truth that Metaphysical seduction lyrics only pretend (strategically) to acknowledge. Though lovers may seize pleasure in each others’ arms and laugh in the face of death, in bed they do not triumph over their extinction, but practice for it. The humor here is not “comic relief,” a lightening of a dark theme to render it bearable. The “light” in Kennedy’s verse is less apt to banish the darkness than to make it palpable.

To long for transcendence and ultimate meaning, yet be moored and mired in a body that decays and will someday die, is the fundamental human dilemma at the heart of Kennedy’s poems. It’s the also the paradox that religion attempts to resolve. The Catholicism in which Kennedy was raised assures believers that their souls will live on after their bodies die. How does he respond to the Catholic view of death? The writer of the brief and dismissive Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on Kennedy, Thomas Goldstein, accuses him of two mortal sins-writing in meter and rhyme, and using his outmoded traditional forms to convey “a strident atheism.” But his relationship to the Catholic faith of his youth is much more complicated than Goldstein’s phrase suggests. For one thing, “strident” implies a lack of humor, and Kennedy treats the Church, like all powerful institutions, with lacerating wit. More importantly, though, his relationship to Catholicism is far richer and more ambivalent than simple rejection. The symbolism of incarnation, Eucharist and crucifixion pervades his poems, even poems that are not explicitly about faith and doubt.

Kennedy’s pugnacious wrestling with Catholicism, his sporadic wish to believe and his inability to do so, has produced some of his finest work. The struggle makes its debut in the first poem of his first book, the justly famous “First Confession.” Narrated by a young boy, it recounts his reluctant enumeration of his sins-his “slothprideenvylechery,” run together, suggesting the rushed and formulaic nature of the encounter-to “the robed repositor of truth” in the darkened booth. Among the specific sins to which he confesses are having given a dime (one that was supposed to go to charity, no less) to a girl in exchange for her letting him “spy her instruments” while she urinates. The priest imperturbably metes out a penance of prayers, which the boy, to “double-scrub” his soul, “intone[s] twice at the altar rail,” the rail where he will soon receive Holy Communion for the first time:

Where Sunday in seraphic light

I knelt, as full of grace as most,

And stuck my tongue out at the priest-

A fresh roost for the Holy Ghost.

The boy’s final gesture, sticking his tongue out at (not for) the priest, brilliantly distills Kennedy’s irreverent skepticism toward religion. But at a literal level, this stanza also faithfully describes the doctrine of transubstantiation, which seems here at once comic and marvelous. The boy really is “as full of grace as most”-all of the parishioners are viewed by the Church as sinners in need of grace-and as far as the priest is concerned, his stuck-out tongue is not rude but receptive of a miracle. Similarly, earlier in the poem when “the universe / Bow[s] down its cratered dome to hear” the boy’s sins, we can see the cratered dome as the priest’s bald, pockmarked head, and smile. But it also is the universe, leaning down breathlessly to listen to the misdeeds of one embarrassed boy. Catholicism is a religion that takes sins and their repercussions seriously, as if the fate not only of the individual soul but of the entire universe can hinge on them. And at some level Kennedy seems to respect that seriousness, even as he pokes fun at it.

The ambivalence about faith and doubt carries through in later books. In “Cross Ties,” the speaker walks abandoned railroad tracks “tensed for a leap,” imagining destruction “bearing down Hell-bent” from behind him. Hearing the screeching of a hawk’s prey, unable to believe in “a dark void all kindness,” he ponders having nonetheless turned to the Church and the sacrament of baptism when he became a father: “I let them sprinkle water on my child.” In “The Waterbury Cross,” he wonders whether there is “Still a pale Christ who clings to hope for me, / Who bides time in a cloud?” The poem implies that there is not, but a “strident atheist” would not have asked. In “A Scandal in the Suburbs,” Kennedy satirizes neighborhood homeowners who give Christ a chilly reception when he reappears among them, attracting beggars and getting his feet washed by whores. Among the new poems is “Sonnet beginning with a Line and a Half Abandoned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” in which the speaker is “a desperate castaway” who, thirsty for a faith he cannot have, is left “[q]uaffing salt water, powerless to stop.” The sestet sums up his predicament: “To praise God is to bellow down a well / From which rebounds one’s own dull booming voice, / Yet the least leaf points to some One to thank.”

Another new poem, “God’s Obsequies,” is a raucous ballad that gives the famed “death of God” a literal reading. Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and other famous atheists who “helped do Him in” show up at the funeral, smirking; meanwhile the Pope bemoans his sudden unemployment and Jesus comforts himself on his old dad’s passing with clichés. “We all must go sometime,” he tells the mourners, adding, “It’s a comfort to me to reflect that He / Had been getting along in years.” This is another seriously funny poem that a reader might expect to encounter in the comic verse collection, but that finds its proper home in PBS. Coming upon it in the context of this book, one can see that God-deniers are as much the targets of Kennedy’s satire as believers. “Friedrich Nietzsche, worm-holed and leechy,” having pronounced God dead, is himself indisputably so. And the funeral ends not with God’s burial, but with his corpse’s disappearance-a scandal that the panicked undertaker hopes won’t make the papers. Another delightful and hilarious ballad, “The Blessing of the Bikes,” was inspired by an annual ritual in which motorcyclists gather to have a priest pray and sprinkle holy water over them and their Harleys and Yamahas. Now there’s a priest Kennedy could like! The ritual is ridiculous, but there’s something life-affirming and genuinely joyous in it too. The epigraph reveals that Kennedy got the story from a news item, but it’s easy to see him at the ceremony, having a great time. The poem’s narrator, one of the cyclists, clearly does. The pleasure spills over into the language and rollicking rhythms of the poem, as the narrator’s “pimple-faced skinny old lady” clambers onto the seat behind him, and having been duly sprinkled, they’re “off like a clean whoosh of whaleshit”:

Superhuman, I peer through black plastic,

Passing Jags like they’re nothing but wrecks,

For the Virgin is perched on my handlebars

Keeping watch on our breakable necks.

Kennedy’s most ambitious treatment of faith and skepticism is the three-part poem “West Somerville, Mass.” The second part, “The Ascent,” is set on Easter morning. Sitting on the porch in his bathrobe, working on a stalled villanelle, the poet watches communicants walk by on their way to Mass. He ponders following them, but hangs back as the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body looms up, blocking his path:

My body, risen, back, the old hale fellow,

All the same hangnails, chilblains, the whole bit,

Arms out for soul to re-embrace with it.

He’d be hard tack to swallow . . .

Some Catholics might like the idea of getting their bodies back after they die, but Kennedy recoils at the notion, imagining not a spiritualized or perfected body but the old, imprisoning flesh, still subject to all its mortal ills, reaching out to reclaim him in its clutch. Similarly, the Assumption of the Virgin (impishly and impiously referred to as “Mary’s hoist to heaven”) seems impossible to swallow, except as a myth-and myths are “pale stuff” (light beer, perhaps) for slaking thirst. But instead of continuing in this vein, he turns his satire on himself:

My faith copped out. Who was it pulled that heist?

Wasn’t it me, too stuck-up and aloof

To spill my sins? If knocked on for a roof,

I wouldn’t have a chair to offer Christ . . .

Just as he seems to be working himself up to repentance, though, the narrator veers back into doubt: Christ wouldn’t stop at his door, and if He did, it would only be to frown at the narrator’s “snotty kids.” Occasionally he feels “pregnant” with the “vague wings” of hope, as if on the verge of some annunciation or epiphany, but the feeling can’t be sustained. His neighbors celebrate the Resurrection while the narrator, in that secular American temple, the supermarket, shops for pagan Easter eggs. Again he castigates himself, paraphrasing the reproof of Christ to the Laodiceans (Rev 3:16): “O lukewarm spew, you! Stir yourself and boil / Or be not chosen. Strike with your whole weight / At hook line, sinker-be fished or cut bait.” At this point his son approaches, chewing the ear of a chocolate rabbit. The poem ends with bitter resignation:

Each dawn the children rout me out. What profit

To shrink back like a dumb bulb? At a loss,

I stretch forth arms, fix feet as on a cross

Till something says, Come off it.

As he often does, Kennedy brilliantly combines high and low allusions, to the Gospel of Mark (“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”) and a bit of American slang (dim bulb). The “I” of the poem is “dumb,” in both senses. Like a tulip or crocus that fails to stir in spring, he cannot respond to the warmth of Easter and its invitation to believe. He is too self-aware, too skeptical, too modern; his self-denigrating wit won’t allow him to imitate Christ with any conviction. Like the Roman soldiers who taunt Jesus, daring him to prove that he is King of the Jews by coming down off the cross, Kennedy’s satiric intelligence-ever vigilant for the slightest sign of hypocrisy, pretension or self-delusion-mocks him. It deflates his half-hearted, embarrassed spirituality, his struggle to think that the “strait gate” might “still stand open a crack.” Perhaps he is also too Irish to pull off this theater of belief. Come off it: come down off your high horse. Who do you think you’re kidding? You look ridiculous. This is the castigating voice, the Irish Catholic rebuke of someone who puts on airs, that Mary Gordon sums up as, Who do you think you are?

Kennedy seems to reach a truce with the indignity of embodiedness in one of his funniest poems, the solemnly titled, scatological “Ode.” In it, he ponders what it means for a creature who dreams and aspires to live in a body that shits and farts. The poem is an apostrophe to the speaker’s “poor ass,” which he rebukes for humiliating him at the worst possible times. Vulgarly, it ruptures the Shakespearean dignity of his “most solemn thought”:

Why, when it seems I speak straight from the heart

Most solemn thought, do you too have to speak,

Let out a horselaugh, whistle as I break

The news to Mother that I must depart?

A poem turning on a flatulence joke might seem better to belong in Peeping Tom’s Cabin, or else (recast for kids, reliably appreciative of such humor) in one of Kennedy’s popular Brats books. But ultimately the lowly ass, like the one that bore Jesus into Jerusalem, is a bearer of wisdom. Incarnation is not just a bad joke, but a blessing too. The poem ends with grudging acceptance of, perhaps even affection for, its addressee: “Without your act, the dirty deed I share, / How could the stuck-up spirit in me bear / Coming back down to earth?” Though the approach is pure Kennedy, the ending is a bit reminiscent of Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” in which the speaker’s untethered consciousness reluctantly swoops down to reinhabit his waking body. It reminds me as well of the balance struck in Frost’s “Birches” between the boy’s urge to launch himself “toward heaven” and the ineluctable pull of gravity that returns him to earth. Fallen and sometimes frightening as the world is, it’s finally “the right place for love,” the only place.

If transcendence-whether of the self or of death-is simply not to be had, if the human condition is essentially bleak, if we “look round for a foothold-in despair,” how is an individual to live? However absurd, unnerving or pitiful mankind’s predicament might be, Kennedy never retreats into nihilism or utter cynicism. He has a satirist’s contempt and disgust, but also a satirist’s moral compass. He hates hypocrisy, cowardice, pretension, faceless bureaucrats, and “craven sneaks” like the one who stole his friend’s tackle box (“A Curse on a Thief”). And he believes in honest work, humility, dedication to craft, the courage to look death in the face, and the willingness to offer comfort where one can.

These values are affirmed in “Veterinarian,” a remarkable poem, though one less well known than most of Kennedy’s best. First collected in Dark Horses (1992), it describes a woman veterinarian at work. Another of Kennedy’s solitaries, she is saved by her religious devotion to her calling: “Working alone / On hands and knees, a carpenter of flesh, / She joins together staves of broken bone.” Her hands, engaged in healing, are infallible in their motions as orbiting planets. Children watch, rapt, as she “prestidigitates” to deliver a live calf, conjuring it from nothingness with a magician’s sleight of hand. She quiets the panic of the animals in her care, who instinctively trust her: “With one last firm caress, / She murmurs words to soothe the languageless.” She mends broken bones, ties off severed arteries, “Leaves like a plowman order in her wake.” At the end of the poem she returns home for a “lonely feast” of leftover pizza and watches “cold dawn break,”

Knowing that some will live-a few, at least-

Though foam-jawed, wild-eyed, that eternal beast

Annihilation with perpetual neigh

Takes worlds like ours with water twice a day.

The “eternal beast Annihilation” is the darkest and most terrible of Kennedy’s “dark horses,” a kind of horse of the Apocalypse. Its “perpetual neigh” is also the eternal Nay, the ultimate negation and extinction that swallows the world and everything in it. The poem confronts realistically what human dedication can accomplish. The veterinarian can save “a few, at least” of the animals who would have died without her care. But she has no illusions about any ultimate triumph over the foam-jawed beast of death.

We first see the veterinarian “join[ing] together staves of broken bone.” “Staves” offers the pleasure of the unusual but apt word: the slightly bowed bones of the injured horse look like wooden barrel staves. But a stanza is another kind of stave (as is a musical staff), and poetry is also a craft that demands long practice and diligent labor. Kennedy labors to fit his own “staves” together, to mend their fractures and imperfections. He too “leaves like a plowman order in [his] wake,” his verses like plowed furrows. At its best, Kennedy suggests, composing poems has something in common with honest manual labor. It is a labor fiendishly difficult and often fruitless, with the poet an ungainly “would-be aeronaut” who, instead of soaring to the clouds, remains earthbound, “[f]lapping upholstered arms, emitting squawks” (“In a Dry Season”).

Kennedy never idealizes poets; at times, he’s inclined to see them as beautiful but useless creatures, like the dumb swans who froze their legs in the lake every winter in his New Jersey hometown (“Poets”), or as Pygmalion figures trying futilely to freeze time (“Artificer”). In “On Being Accused of Wit,” he disavows the misperception that wit comes naturally to him. He crumples and discards innumerable drafts in search of a few lines worth salvaging. Writing poems involves a certain amount of dumb luck, and sufficient alertness to recognize luck when it comes. But “the rest is taking pride / In daily labor. This and only this. / On keyboards sweat alone makes fingers glide.” The second stanza makes a wonderfully surprising turn, alluding to the adoration of the Magi. Kennedy imagines that one of the astrologers from the East entertained the infant Christ by juggling. His deft hands keep the balls in the air, revolving like planets in orbit:

Witless, that juggler rich in discipline

Who brought the Christchild all he had for gift,

Flat on his back with beatific grin

Keeping six slow-revolving balls aloft.

The third and final magician, or magus, in the poem is the seventeenth-century French painter Georges de La Tour, who used candlelight and a “draftsman’s compass” to conjure visual illusions of light and shadow:

Witless, La Tour, that painter none too bright,

His draftsman’s compass waiting in the wings,

Measuring how a lantern stages light

Until a dark room overflows with rings.

Prestidigitators like the veterinarian-and like the poet falsely accused of wit-the juggler and the painter have learned to create their “magic” not through native genius or possession by the muse, but through exacting discipline.

For all his pessimism about the human species and his merciless skewering of human frailties, his own most of all, Kennedy is finally a humanist, compassionate about man’s comic and awful predicament. He continually seeks fresh purchase and perspective on the great themes-aging, loneliness, belief and doubt, the knowledge of death, the longing for connection, the horror and absurdity of being human. For all his native skepticism, he believes in such a thing as truth, and that truths can be expressed-albeit with hard labor-through language. Like the “witless” La Tour, he is a master of chiaroscuro-his most brilliant light juxtaposed with deep shadows, and his darkness side by side with the radiant warmth of wordplay and song.

If Kennedy’s canon displays little of the formal and stylistic evolution expected of a gifted poet with a substantial body of work, neither does it betray any diminution of power with age. The selection of new work at the end of this book includes poems as strong as any that Kennedy has written, among them this brief, perfect lyric:

Rites

a mesolithic burial at Vedbaek, Denmark

I drew my first and last breath by her side,

The one who bore me and in bearing died.

They placed her on a couch of leaves, beneath

Her head spring blossoms, shells of snail, deer teeth,

And so that I who stopped here might fly on,

They made my bed the spread wing of a swan.

Kennedy tells us in a note that the burial took place in about 4,000 B.C., and that the mother was about twenty years old when she died. The child, who could have been female or male-appropriately, we don’t know-speaks to us from the prehistoric past. The ultimate giving of voice to the voiceless, in its spare simplicity the poem resembles the skeletons themselves, which have survived intact to tell us something about the dead and the culture that buried them. The grave reveals that, like us, the late Mesolithic people who lived at Vedbaek had special rituals for burial, and suggests (as Kennedy says in his note) that they believed in an afterlife of some kind. The spring blossoms and the swan’s wing carry, from a distance of 6,000 years, the human hope for immortality. And in mourning and giving voice to the child, so does the poem.

In the interview in which he flatly denied any interest in “over-arching aesthetic approaches,” Kennedy went on, with apparent self-deprecation, “All I was trying to do in that first book was to score a few decent poems.” Phrased in that way, it sounds like a deceptively modest aim. But Kennedy may have had in the back of his mind a well-known remark by Robert Frost. In an introduction to a posthumous volume of verse by E.A. Robinson, Frost had said of poets, “The utmost ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of, to lodge a few irreducible bits, where Robinson lodged more than his share.” The same can be said of Kennedy, whose motivation is not to undertake literary, philosophical, or political projects, but to write strong and memorable poems. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus contains several poems, “Rites” among them, that bid fair to be among those “irreducible bits.”

The “Literary Limericks” in Peeping Tom’s Cabin include one in which Kennedy slyly addresses the pressure on contemporary poets to pander to critics and audiences if they want to be taken seriously. If “On Being Accused of Wit” is a serious Kennedy ars poetica, here is a light verse version, straight from Uncle Screwtape:

The Devil’s Advice to Poets

Molt that skin. Lift that face. You’ll go far.

Grow like Proteus yet more bizarre.

In perpetual throes

Majors metamorphose-

Only minors remain who they are.

Discussing criticism of his work, Kennedy has remarked, “[I]f you’re any kind of a poet, all you can be is whoever you really are. Try to make yourself over in the image that a critic will approve, and you end up a scarecrow on a stick.” No Protean shape-shifter, trying on a fresh identity with each decade or each book, X.J. Kennedy has remained who he is for more than half a century. That’s something for which his fans-and this comprehensive selection of his strongest work will win him many new ones-can be grateful.[/private]


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