As Reviewed By: Andrew Goodspeed
Rhinoceros by Kevin Ducey. American Poetry Review. $23.00
Kevin Ducey’s great strength is his daring. He frequently appears silly, he risks silliness in his work, and this silliness sometimes succeeds admirably. Few modern poets have that sense of daring, and it is a point to Ducey’s credit that he has attained this in his first collection. At his best he is genuinely amusing, and he writes serious poetry with an eye for the offbeat, the unexpected, and the peculiar. Yet he also possesses a fine lyric ability, one that appears suddenly, unexpectedly, and arrestingly. Amidst the hurly-burley of Rhinoceros, one occasionally glimpses lines of such unforced beauty that the general welter of cultural reference suddenly grows still, and one senses that one is reading poetry of substantial accomplishment.
[private]The most notable characteristic of Ducey’s poetry is this vast cultural referentiality. His work loops together bizarre associations, mixing a group of characters and locations not commonly incorporated in verse. In Ducey’s world Edie Sedgwick and Stephen Hawking brush up against conquistadors and Neanderthals, Batman and Tarkovsky vie for place with Saladin and strip malls, Kerouac and Osiris appear and vanish. The danger of such an approach is that such disparate materials will spiral from his control, and sometimes they do, rendering Ducey’s poetry more confused than controlled. Yet although this wide range of subject and character occasionally leads Ducey astray, one accustomed to the dreary pomposities of poetry journals must applaud any poet willing at least to risk, with a smile, falling flat. When his approach fails, it does so lightly; when it succeeds, it is remarkably refreshing and impressive.
Ducey’s skill is subtle and offbeat. He is not a poet of great cadences, and he will disorient readers seeking solidity: he is quicksilver, with all the uncertainty that implies. He would appear to be incapable of sustained Yeatsian force and, to his credit, he does not attempt it. Yet before dismissing him as primarily a light poet one should note that he is capable of great lyrical seriousness. Indeed, one is occasionally stopped cold by the genuine beauty that flashes through his work. It would be difficult to improve upon the Cummingsesque verbal rush of these lines:
All praise to your body that you are
inside and I hold in my arms
and these places you go when you dream
Beautiful. Here the poet perfectly matches the breathless and hurried syntax to the subject matter-the exhilaration of holding a loved one in one’s arms-to create a verbal equivalence of expression and experience.
Where Ducey is at his most skillful and exploratory is in his utilization of humor to make serious statements. Employing Richard Nixon, of all people, to discuss poetry, Ducey amusedly reveals more about verse in contemporary American culture than have any proclamations by our recent poets laureate:
Is this our
“the [expletive deleted], still itself
among the [expletive]”
is this what-
we’ve come to?
Longfellow, it ain’t-
But I never uh, I never
liked that crap.
Longfellow it ain’t, but this is something unusual. The passage above represents the general tendency in this collection to risk intermingling the profound and the absurd, the serious and the frivolous, and it embodies Ducey’s rare readiness to strike out in his own direction. Ducey has ventured into an uncommon terrain, and is generally assured in its exploration.
His approach has its weaknesses. One is as much irritated as amused by the intrusive frivolity often evident, particularly when these intrusions are utterly unnecessary:
Praise to Allah for my love
is here with me tonight.
All praise to GM’s biggest truck
for my love speaks my name
and doesn’t waste my time.
This fruitless inclusion of “GM’s biggest truck” is symptomatic of Ducey’s unfortunate willingness to throw anything and everything at his reader, as though the sheer volume of oddity will keep the reader attentive because off-balance. There is value indeed in Ducey’s readiness to shift tonally and deflate what he is building (even as he erects it), yet the anarchic energies of his iconoclasm occasionally cause him to force intrusive irrelevancies into his poems. This is a doubly dismaying occurrence when it distorts otherwise striking work.
Oddly, Ducey’s major weakness as a poet is his desire to be poetical. When he gropes after poignancy he finds himself on unsteady ground. Where he begins “Leviathan Singing” with the desperately overblown
Those pebbles on the beach don’t struggle for position
or do they? The whisper of the ocean may be
all the suppressed desire of an age
…the reader is likely to reply, impatiently, No, they don’t, and No, it isn’t. Ducey suffers from a tendency to make overly explicit his turns toward the serious. When he allows himself gravity without affectation he is effective, yet too often the urge to underscore his seriousness mars poems that had proceeded, thus far, admirably. The poem “Natural History Museums” would have been unimprovable had it ended at the charmingly odd lines “Um, I said: um- / What is it you wanted to show me?,” yet he then vanishes needlessly into pointless ruminations (“All my life I’ve taken / comfort in these long, cool museum / hallways”) and ends with a hopeless and unwelcome clutch at profundity:
Still, she was going to show
me something. The sweet trade
of a kiss against
that dark green strip of Cambrian
hunger, these millions of days,
all the aching dreams
of paleontology pressed to my back.
The aching dreams of paleontology?
Ducey is as exasperating as he is impressive, yet this exasperation is provoking and worthwhile. One becomes irritated by his constant wavering between exquisite lines and profitless indulgences, yet Ducey offers a real challenge to his readers. Amidst all the chaos, there are passages of great stability and stillness, lines worth reading several times, and contemplating:
Lazarus, we know
the gift of sleep
and the waking chant
O let me rest here,
splinter of light . . .
Will I regret
this time of death
as I did the mistakes
These unexpected lyrical passages reveal the appealing skill that flares through Ducey’s work. His is a strange world, excessively cluttered, but occasionally profound and moving. This is verse that, for all of the provocation it offers, is worth encountering.[/private]