John Hopkins University Press, $18.95 (paperback)
Because he writes poems that use meter and rhyme, X. J. Kennedy might seem to belong with those recent formalists— James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht—who could make the well-wrought urn of a poem, well, wring us. Unlike Merrill, whose technical grace “briefly appeased what it could not oppose,” or Hecht, who ended a lullaby with his children’s deaths, Kennedy’s touch is light even when his verse is not; the poems in In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 – 2007 spin out more like silk than like stock cars. Their facility is comfortably lived-in, confident in both subjects and style, yet in Kennedy’s best work, his easy wit frames difficult views.
In the early poem “Nude Descending a Staircase,” the light play of a kaleidoscope reveals crystalline structures. Like many of Kennedy’s poems, this one shines at the end; the poem does not trail off, but makes something of the trail he’s marked. “She wears / Her slow descent like a long cape / And pausing, on the final stair / Collects her motions into shape.”
The cleanness of Kennedy’s endings can be pleasing. “To Dorothy on Her Exclusion from the Guinness Book of World Records” closes its catalogue of odd-to-catalogue feats with a sweet twist. “You merely settle chin / Into a casual fixture of your hand / And a uniqueness is, that hasn’t been.” As with “Nude,” the syntax’s measured swirl does not just snap shut, but makes an image snap into view.
Other poems wander toward assertions of What It All Means via the kind of “wordpainting” Merrill said was virtuosity’s risk. In “Mining Town,” stirring images, such as clapboard houses losing “clapboards the way a dying oak sheds bark,” wind down to a statement of how fear “tells out of the corner of an eye, / A rickety house balancing in uncertainty.” This summation applies the brake very softly to a complex poem. Its final emblem feels untrue to the unbalanced, fearful scenes the poem shows in no uncertain terms.
Generally, though, Kennedy’s closing gestures get a lot of power from the deft structures of his rhetoric; after all, singing a line to the tune of wisdom makes it feel wiser. Unfortunately, Kennedy’s images can feel similarly rhetorical, serving as examples that advance the poems’ ideas, rather than as emotional and intellectual complexes. When he blunts vivid pictures to aid his arguments, Kennedy’s caricatures soften to cartoon. The effect is fun in the vaudevillian zaniness of “The Death of Professor Backwards,” but elsewhere changes compelling portraits—and satire—into the kind of illustrations Kennedy laments in “Black Velvet Art.”
This stylized rhetoric appeals to the strengths of artifice and convention, as do Kennedy’s elevated literary constructions (see, to “settle chin,” and “fear tells,” and the appositive “a rickety house,” above). The problem is when his workaday prosody (stolid rhymes, many monosyllabic lines with lilts one takes on faith) scratches the sheen. The less successful poems express formality, but do not always use form expressively—Kennedy’s “Why do you leave me out here in the rain?” is a far cry from “The small rain down can rain.”
Still, most of the poems, like the much-anthologized “Nude,” have the polish of text book cases. (Kennedy is a prolific text book editor.) “The humor is squarely middle class, often relying on things people already
agree are funny. (I know much humor works this way; who really laughs at “I’d
tell you but then I’d have to kill you?”) Yet Kennedy’s best work shows his
facility challenged by difficult subjects.”
In the newer poem “Thebes: In the Robber Village,” a tour group, that Merrill fixture, resents the un-picturesque squatters on its ruins, but also, naively, tries to help them. Failing, “we make our getaway. / Our archaeologist insists, in sore distress, / That henceforth we take vows of selfishness.” For Kennedy, formal authority is not only a way of writing but a stance toward the world. Here, its order does not erase the difficulties of power and shame, but lets us comprehend what we are hard-pressed to overcome. His confidence confides.