Lauren Goodwin Slaughter
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2011. 70 pages. $16.00.
America has been bedazzled to death. According to the knee-buckling prose poems in Ennui Prophet, Christopher Kennedy’s fourth collection, grocery stores, chain bookstores, all-terrain vehicles and other symbols of Western excess have embellished the landscape and also our selfhood in the most boring, indulgent ways. Our connections with each other, the world, and ourselves are in danger.
Kennedy’s portrait of an introspective and inadequate “prophet” conjures the temperament of Prufrock. In “Are You Looking for the Self-Help Section?” the speaker grasps the illogicality of existence while lurking in a bookstore: “We’re hurtling along, incomprehensibly, on this rock, strewn among rows of shelves in uncomfortable silence, ashamed of our coffee and tea’s inadequacy.” The image is typical of Kennedy as he exploits the threat hiding in seemingly benign settings and objects—the chain-type bookstore, the silent shelves, the defective drinks—to show how American individualism has backfired. The result is catastrophic; people go through life as “dead sel[ves]” who will inevitably “burn.”
We are guided to a similar vision of identity’s failure in “Need Some Eyes for your Next Puppet?”; the speaker struggles to assemble a puppet in his image:
Did you feel complicit when I began to shape the head of my next puppet? Did the way I covered the Styrofoam ball with cloth and tied it shut at the neck remind you how strange it is that we make something in our own likeness?
Obliged to construct the self through meaningless, manufactured materials, individuals hate what they become; with a sense of accomplishment, the speaker relates how he used “cloth” to suffocate this thing, strangling it “shut at the neck.” As the poem develops, the promise of self-invention gets frustrated by a lack of options:
There are several plastic buttons to choose from, or would you prefer I use the ones from my own head? And maybe I can cut off my lips and tongue and sew them to the puppet’s face. And my ears and nose, they can be easily removed, and then attached to the blood-soaked cloth that is my head. If anyone comes to visit, I can put the puppet on my hand and let him speak for me.
This brutal image depicts one doomed to repeat his blunders; body parts are simply “cut” from the old self and transferred to the new. It’s a grueling, hopeless process, but it leads to a startling affirmation. “I could sit in total silence,” the poem finally confesses, “and show you what it means to be God.”
Throughout Ennui Prophet, obsessive individualism makes people think they are “God[s]” with authority to concoct whole worlds from their dull perceptions. The result can be alarmingly funny, as in the solipsism of “Museum of Wrong Turns”:
And here’s to the roommate who thought Mt. Rushmore was a natural phenomenon. What a coincidence, she said, proud of her powers of deduction.
Kennedy’s arrogant America has failed this young lady. “And I defend her right to be so wrong,” the speaker comments, using the jingoistic language of a political slogan. Still, he is jealous of the roommate’s naïveté: “I envy her her sense of wonder.” Ultimately it is time to “get with the program,” which here means simulating a quintessential ad for an American-made truck:
I’ve purchased an expensive vehicle, fur-lined, all-wheel drive, to take me to the top of any mountain. I’m headed west this weekend to ruin as much of the pristine forest as possible. In no time, I’ll be perched atop Lincoln’s head, popping wheelies on his scalp, where I’ll fire round after round from the semi-automatic rifle I pried from the cold, dead hands of a fallen icon.
Can one have too much fun writing a poem? I imagine Kennedy offering the reader an enthusiastic high-five at the end of this one. Yet, humor turns to horror as we are finally forced to recognize ourselves in Kennedy’s paralyzed “Ennui Prophet” who can no longer distinguish a “scream forming” from “a yawn.” Kennedy’s work delights in such ambiguity and also finds ways to keep speaking through its sleepy screams.