THE ROADS BEST TRAVELED


The Roads, David Kennedy
[Salt, 9.99]


David Kennedy's latest book contains many poems I have enjoyed reading over and over, and several poems I would like to have written myself. That seems criteria enough for me to call this a very good book! There are lyric poems, prose poems, tender and humorous pieces, surreal dreams, typographic and visual poems, and open field experiments - a variety that shows an engaged and well-humoured intellect and poetic talent ranging freely down whichever roads, and through whichever terrains, it finds itself walking, running at times, meandering at others. Delightful.

But, for me, it is a book of two sorts of poem and, because for me one of those sorts are really excellent - the beautifully humoured lyric poems - I shall tackle them first. In poem the first poem, 'The Enchanted Lake', we read the opening lines,

     Beautiful young violinists of the student orchestra,
     how you make me lick my lips
     as I am carried over the audience
     on the crest of your unsalted concentration!
 
where the influences of French Symbolism and the New York School are clearly evident, as they are throughout the book, but the energy, tone, confidence and subject matter are all Kennedy's own. 'Red Horse', another favourite of mine asks

     and whose granny is that
     going into a wardrobe with Stalin
     and coming out again with a bag of mushrooms?

the surrealist dreamscape unfolding in lines of assured measure and music. Behind this tone a sensitive politics and social awareness makes its subtle presence felt. It is present in 'Indoors',

     The moralists are back,
     cruising heaven in their patched
     and wheezing balloons
     or winding themselves over our cities
     in their cable cars and rusty buckets,
     peering peevishly this way
     and that through opera glasses.'

lines which contain an understated commentary on social and class mores, religion and history. 'Dhromi: The Roads' is one of the most accomplished lyric poems in the collection - again doffing it's hat to Ashbery and O'Hara in particular as influences, with the sensibility of John Ash not far behind - transporting us through landscape and myth; personal journey and universal truths. The poem I would most like to have written, however, is 'My Father's Deaths', a light-touch Elegy and exploration of the small griefs that comprise that one big grief, including the gorgeously sensitive lines,

     My father, dying, simplified his mind
     until it was so thin
     it was able to pass through its own bars
     and escape.

There is a degree of self-awareness - even self-referentiality to some of these poems, carried out with a refreshing humour. In 'A Rare Part of History' there is a delightful skit on a disaffected old poet mumbling through his public reading:

     And the old poet says, 'The instruction
     0X77f52004 is an application error
     and is better half remembered'.
     And the oldest members of the audience answer,
     'The referenced memory
     0X007f4f10 could not be written'.

This humour also characterises a group of dream poems about other poets; hilarious for those 'in the know', (which I imagine some readers might object to). There are also several delightfully funny pokes at conceptual art in the form of 'Art Texts', with a lightness of touch and an irreverent sensibility:

     FILM PROJECT
     Collect footage from CCTV cameras showing deserted urban
     spaces - e.g. car parks - at night. Montage these together so that
     there is a slow, classical rhythm. Make a soundtrack from film
     noir music. Project the finished footage in front of urban CCTV
     cameras.

which should be given to every new fine art student beginning a course this year. Equally funny,

     SEVEN DEADLY SINS
     Collect seven cigarette butts. Arrange the butts so that they
     spell the word 'sin'. Photograph in large format and exhibit.

Whilst Kennedy has really hit on something with these little prose pieces, I can't help but feel that you could substitute the words 'linguistically innovative poetry' for 'conceptual art', and the skit can suddenly be turned against some of the writer's own poems. For example, when we read lines like

     spliced licks reconstruct,
     from lexis down to deictics,
     a period code:
     poetry as agonist alembic;
     the self hurt into utterance
     and so making utterance hurt
     [...]
     draw the reader into
     performing meaning
     as a struggle against
     whatever normativities
     she's internalised
          (from the 'Alum Raptures')

the attack of Kennedy's own 'Seven Deadly Sins' cannot be far from our minds but, this time turned on itself. The above is simply an exercise in theory - because you, dear reader, are being drawn in to 'performing meaning', which you need (don't you know it) because you have 'internalised' your 'normativities'. I would that Kennedy here was more aware of his own brilliant joke: 'Collect footage from CCTV cameras... Project the finished footage in front of urban CCTVcameras.' It works equally well as, 

     Collect lines from other texts... Perform the finished poem in
     front of urban audiences drawing their attention to the text-based
     nature of your work.

This level of self-reflexivity, for me, tips over into too many poems 'about language'. 'The Opposite of Writing' consisting of a block of text containing those words repeated over and over; 'The Haunting' in which survivors 'crawl to safety through a hole in language'; the poems 'Words' and 'The Process of Language', similarly drawing our attention to the fact that as poem they are written with words! They seem to do little more than re-hash the old theories that language is indeterminate, self-referential and, paradoxically, inadequate for its own tasks. 'Found on a Flipchart' is inventive, but seems to do little more than turn the unpleasant world of business-speak back on us as if we didn't already know its faults. Luke Kennard wrote a very interesting review on this website recently to these ends, criticising the type of poem that simply presents us with the echolalia of 'business speak'.
Kennedy, however, does turn his subject of language and writing to his advantage at times, particularly when he uses his sharp wit or exercises his fluent lyricism over the subject, as in 'Books of the Dead' (II):

     Everyone we meet
     writes something in us
     and we in them.
     We leave our words
     in each other,
     maybe just a cadence
     or a stress'

There is a confidence to the phrasing and statement making here; a depth to the theorising that is often absent in those other more indeterminate poems about how slippery language can be. I confess that, by the time I reached 'The Return of the Art of Poetry' on p106, I wrote in the margin: 'Please, no more poems about poetry'.

I began with identifying two parts in Kennedy's book: the delightful lyrics and, then, those poems which are more concerned with the medium of their own making: language. My contention is that the first kind of poem really are dazzling; the others, well, we all know that language is problematic and that poems are written in language. No revelation there. Can't we just get with the programme?

But one of the funniest poems 'about writing' is 'Bohemian Fantasy', after Rimbaud's 'Ma Boheme', which starts with the exclamatory,

     Muse, fuck those corduroyed pretenders
     straining bookworm heads through the skylights
     of their career path,
pied-a-terre attics, trying
     to kiss your arse that way - look at me!

which I found brilliantly self-deprecating, very very funny, and very very true: look at that fabulous word 'trying' just hanging on the end of the attack line against the career poets! This book wins it for me for that word alone!

This is a truly fascinating and inventive book, not least for its style and variety, but also for its accomplished poetic, its mature sensibility and its great humour. I would rather read more of Kennedy's brilliant, individual, lyric poems, however, at the expense of his 'language poems', which I already feel I've read before by other writers in other guises.
 
                 Andy Brown 2005