“A book of poems is a damn serious affair,” says Wallace Stevens. If so, a book of one hundred seventy-seven pages is mighty serious. That’s the length of Richard Kenney’s newest book, a sprawling yet coherent collection in which he harmonizes serious chords with playful notes to make a metrically brilliant, tonally various, emotionally resonant, sometimes scathing, sometimes silly book that impresses as much with its technical virtuosity as with its intellectual and emotional power. Appreciate poems, admire lines, marvel at turns of phrase and acrobatic diction—fine: the great accomplishment is how everything comes together and it works as book.
The One Strand River opens with an epigraph from a nursery rhyme, and the movement from that quotation through the first section of poems (in which a goose crosses the road, bikers move about like birds on the wind, and the diction migrates between the conversationally colloquial and the jargon of science and mythology) signals both the layering of tropes and the lyrical and lexical flexing to come. The themes are familiar (growing older, losing parents, having offspring, various complaints against time, politics, art, and circumstances); and the shape of the poetry as poetry is equally familiar (quatrains, sonnets, here there be rhyme!). The landscapes through which the speakers move with fluency (literal, historical, mythical, scientific) are sometimes not as familiar but still usually of our shared worlds. All of which is to say that this book feels and reads like a book of poems—tradition and the sense of a life lived in our world are touchstone throughout. And yet, frequently, the diction, the syntactical gymnastics, the sheer original limberness with language demand that we tune in, pay attention.
As Peter Quince or the Comedian might say: multiplicity manifests metrically (and tonally: sometimes cranky, sometimes cagey, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes understated, always witty and observant); simply, the poems ride the scales of diction and emotion in ways that make them memorable. To put it another way, whether engaged in the small business of excoriating the self-righteous crowd at a food co-op (“While not a Wiccan coven, quite, the local / Food coop’s a colloquy / of gray braids above those wool felt clogs”), pillaging academic posturing (“Like gas dirigibles / Endowed professors drift about the room”), eviscerating the brutal boundary between coach and first class flight (“Up in First Class, the gorgeous flight attendant / Is breast feeding a middle-aged man in a cashmere / sweater”) or lambasting the profiteers of war (“as who shall / Hold that archaic smile when Iraq shatters / Like a piñata full of bees”), the speakers share a little bit of Larkin’s snarkiness and a little bit of Yeats’ gray-haired public scarecrow and a lot bit of a man tuned into his lived moment in history. Take that combo and add Kenney’s skill with traditional shapes and absolutely original ear—from accentual hammering to deft syllabic stitch work to jabberwocky mouthfuls only fully appreciated said out loud—and the final result is a rather astonishing collection of poems.
The literary music that lurks behind these poems varies from Hopkins to Auden to Crane to Yeats. The traditional shapes include rhymed quatrains, tercets, sonnets, and many nonce forms that metrically range from dimeter to pentameter. While working within those traditions, Kenney’s idiosyncrasies are his own: he is never bashful about jarring substitutions, and his quirky slant rhymes always garner attention for their pyrotechnics. Stevens declared “the essential gaudiness of poetry,” and Kenney obviously loves to revel in that concupiscence of language.
Tod Marshall lives in Spokane, Washington, where he teaches at Gonzaga University. His most recent collection of poems, The Tangled Line, was published in 2009 by Canarium Press.
The One Strand River
Knopf, New York: 2008
$26.95 hardcover, ISBN: 9780307267634