by Jason Whitmarsh | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 17, Richard Kenney will read at Seattle Central Community College—Broadway Performance Hall.
In 1997, I moved from western Massachusetts to Seattle so I could study poetry with Richard Kenney. I had no idea what he was like as a teacher; I just assumed that a brilliant writer (which he was, and is) must be a brilliant professor. I imagined, based on his books, he’d have some way of showing me how meter worked, how rhyme could still be an interesting and useful effect, and, most of all, how I could become a poet. That’s a ridiculous set of expectations, of course. That’s asking not just for the moon, but for Kenney’s moon, the one that appears in the poem “Good as a Mile,” from his new collection, Terminator:
Not “the moon,” I’m telling you! Not a pale communion-wafer, but an astral entity, curving, stippled, dented, an entire rock sky yawing steeply away on the shadowed side, adrift. It was bigger than gibbous. It looked sensational as one of those artist’s impressions of “Callisto rising, as seen from the surface of Ganymede.” It felt like science fiction. I almost swerved the car.
I bring all this up not to say how right I was back then (though I was: Kenney was by far the best teacher I’ve ever had), but because I think that everything I learned from his teaching, all the insights into sound, image, and tone; all the playfulness; all the intensity and precision; all those things are part of his poems, too. Kenney’s work is as alive and thrilling and fully human as anything I’ve read. It’s the result of an extraordinarily curious mind and a world that is deeply felt—and it somehow includes us in that mind and in that experience. I read these poems and I see and think and (most astonishing of all) feel more acutely.
The first love poem in Terminator is one of Kenney’s best, imbuing the ordinary and the exotic with a direct tenderness:
As hours back up in the clogged drain
of the glassy water clock,
as the assignation of the wind and spun vane—
I’ll love you as the foghorn vague in rain—
Magnetic swipe to the blinking lock
is me to you.
As cat’s-paw cowlicks eddies in the spring grain—
that’s my eye on you.
How camels catch the scent of far water clear
through obfuscating myrrh,
that’s me for you. True:
I love you as the summer hammer
stuns the wold
I tell you what:
I love you as our mer-
child loves the strong signal of the world,
as the whorled fingerpad loves Morse,
but more so. Worse.
It’s hard to hear a foghorn the same way after “vague in the rain.” Hard, too, not to imbue your hotel cardkeys with all sorts of feelings. And those eddies in the spring grain: there’s a moment to notice, next time. But it’s the ending that carries the poem, that devastating and funny and oddly intimate “worse,” which is somehow more loving than its opposite.
A second, more philosophical poem on love offers a debate between wolves and dogs:
There is no man in our moon above.
Our howl is the extruded second syllable of eleutheria,
the longing middle of moon. What else is there?
Weak Dog, despicable Dog!—who’d trade this for a chain.
Listen to old Shit-for-Brains
howl is hoary old dinner-for-freedom theory!
Ow-woooo! Really, it’s too much. Now attend care-
fully, Wolf: not food; God. Not chain; Love.
If you’re like me, you had to look up “eleutheria” to know it means liberty. (If you’re like me, “old Shit-for-Brains” made you laugh out loud, even when you read the poem a second and third time.) The serious tone of the first stanza—a stanza that is entirely convincing, on its own—is rendered self-serious by the exhausted and impatient irony of the dog. And it’s the combination of that irony and the shedding of that irony that makes the ending so convincing: We believe in the claim of God and love not despite our laughter, but because of it.
James Merrill, in his introduction to Kenney’s first book, The Evolution of the Flightless Bird, wrote my favorite description of his poetry: “With it’s agreeable eddies of temperament, reflections that braid and shatter only to recompose downstream, this book moves like a river in a country of ponds.” Twenty-five years later, his poems still braid, still shatter, still move:
if the fibrillating willow,
water as it mostly is,
is a sort of slow
that leaves all of us, aloft, alow
swifter over the ground,
more of a river.
To see a willow as a fountain is wonderful enough, but to show it as an actual fountain, made up of water, demonstrates a precision of sight which leaves us all aloft, all swifter over the ground. It’s a precision that extends to Kenney’s explorations of science, of love, and, above all, of language. “Definitions,” the first poem the book, sets the stakes:
Word: an interval,
a needle biopsy
of a waterfall
the rinse of experience
by jot and tittle.
Poetry, I think,
is the distant-thunder sound
in the drying ink.
How can poetry, with only words at its disposal, work on us the way the world works on us? Words are just a digital transformation; how do we smuggle real sensation into those jots? How can we take the needle biopsy of Niagara and recreate the rinse of experience on the page?
Posing the question is fascinating enough: I love reading these poems and watching Kenney think through that frayed tether between word and world. It’s in the answers to the question, though, that the poems realize their full power. Kenney gives some hints in the last stanza: Words may be needle biopsies, but they carry far more than their denotative meanings. They have sound (that distant-thunder) and they have a living history (that still-wet ink), a history that’s brought into the poem, where it plays off against all the other words, with all their other histories.
He returns to these definitions in “Reason May Not Mean to Be the Sophist”:
Slip the Problem from its sleeve. The vinyl’s
scratched. And that’s the problem, finally:
the nature of emotion’s analog,
while languages are digital. Too few long-
playing feelings, inkily remastered,
long survive by heart. This mystery
runs deep, requiring deeper magics. Look, we
say, by darksome sleight ventriloquy,
referring to a nerve potential triggered
by a pressure in the world, recurring
now in a lung, in a laugh, in a poem of Sappho’s.
That “look” is language, and that nerve potential is our experience of the world: the sensation of the world, but through words, through what’s spoken, through a laugh, through a poem. (And in case they are overlooked [overheard?], notice those rhymes: “remastered” and “mystery”; “look we” and “ventriloquy”; “triggered” and “recurring.” There’s some deeper magic.)
Kenney’s poems are generous and lyrical and, in the best sense of the word, difficult. Their difficulty isn’t, in the end, because they’re arguing about the nature of language and mathematics (though they are) or because they use words we have to look up (though they do). They’re difficult in the way that Dickinson is difficult: they ask for our full attention, just as a great conversation does. And who has time for that, these days? Poetry is supposed to fit into the small spaces of Twitter, isn’t it? Spaces that seem ready-made for poetry, though they’re anything but.
Still, there’s that ask, for our attention, for our time. The center poems, “Memento” and “Mori,” a tour-de-force whose lines read as Spring and Summer in one direction and then, reversed, as Fall and Winter, comfort and chill us in that respect:
Time sharpens—So? So what?
And now you’re shaving . . .
Becomes, on the way back:
And now you’re shaving
Time sharpens, so . . .
Kenney’s poems do not simplify or summarize. They make their arguments with digressions and sound effects, with all the details of an examined life. He has shown up to the abacus convention with a contraption whose beads are boulders, bird’s skulls, and meteors. Look, he seems to be saying, how much better it is to calculate on this.
And throughout, in the love poems, in the philosophical poems, in working out of the nature of mathematics through alien set pieces, this book is lyrical. Not just songlike, but an expression of feeling. “The Drake Equation” starts with a torch song about pi and ends, five sections later, with plain heartbreak, with sudden joy:
. . . In the same blink of the clock
the pupil of a black hole was seen to matter,
some dinosaurs grew feathers, and (this one for Ripley’s)
Pluto got demoted from a planet to a rock.
Also my family died. Also I had a daughter.
That last line, as Kenney might say, is the sound after hammers.
While writing this piece, I read John Seabrook’s article on A.I. text predictions in the latest issue of The New Yorker. It turns out that the cloud is much further along than I thought: it’s not hard to imagine that all of us are going to be written over at some point, that the machines will generate new versions of whatever we thought we were going to do next, and they’ll do it better. And if you agree with that—you likely don’t, but maybe you haven’t read the article yet—then a second claim: the last writer on earth that the machines will capture, the very last one, several years and a dozen gigaflops after they get all the others, will be Richard Kenney. His is the work that will escape their predictions, their educated guesses, their inputs and outputs and deep learning. So there’s reason enough to read him: insurance against the machines; a guarantee that you’ll experience a human voice, a human mind in all its complexity, a human heart and its river of joys and sorrows.
Jason Whitmarsh‘s first book, Tomorrow’s Living Room, won the 2009 May Swenson prize. His second book, The Histories, was published as part of the Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series in 2017. His poems have appeared in Poetry Northwest, the Yale Review, Fence, the Cincinnati Review, and the Harvard Review. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children.
Cover photo by Behzad Ghaffarian