March 2008

Jason B. Jones

poetry

Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death by Christopher Kennedy

Before the table of contents for Christopher Kennedy's third collection, Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, there are two slightly contradictory bits of text. The first is a dedication to his father's memory -- according to the press kit, Kennedy is now about the same age as his father was when he died. The second bit is an epigraph from Weldon Kees's "The Smiles of the Bathers": "No death for you. You are involved." But who is this "you"? In the source, Kees seems to address his readers in a sort of call to action. Here, however, coming so soon after the dedication, "you" seems to speak to his father: You can't be dead -- you're still involved with me. Look at these poems I've written... The epigraph could also be a kind of riposte: I won't die, because I am involved -- after all, I've now outlived my father! Kennedy's psychology isn’t the issue here; I just want to highlight Encouragement's ambivalent attitude toward death, and suggest its quirky way of signaling this ambivalence.

There is some question in this collection about whether certainty about life and death is even possible. In "Sense," for instance, a speaker finds a fly in his soup, and issues these instructions to the waiter:

When you spoon his Buddha-body out,
lifeless but serene, tell him

I salute his difficult decision to drown,
despite my own desire to swim.

It's striking that he cannot tell the fly himself. On the one hand, I'll grant that the poem relies on the conventions of "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup" jokes. On the other hand, it's hard not to hear -- perhaps through the way alliteration binds the fly's perspective with his own -- a kind of temptation being warded off. There's even a hint that the fly's decision is related to the speaker's desire to swim.

Flies re-appear several times in this book. In an earlier poem, a spider announces its plans "when judgment comes, to ransom/ my weight with the currency of dead flies." Another poem's still-living fly is even more disconcerting, as the speaker is "captured in the prisms of its segmenting eyes. Reflected there, the various selves of my being separated like colors in a spectrograph. Each self a part of the greater self, a lurid, un-evolved aspect of what I aspire to be." As we've seen, however, in part these poems aspire, not to a greater self, but to persist in an un-evolved desire.

Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death moves beyond the surreal prose poems that were the focus of Kennedy's first two books, Nietzsche's Horse and Trouble with the Machine. As the title poem suggests, Kennedy has not left this form behind, but he uses a variety of other forms here, especially the sonnet. It's not quite the case that the structured poems are the ones about grief and death and love -- for example, the prose poem "Exits" has this lovely line: "I could listen to your heart all night, knowing it will stop," and "My Father's Work Clothes" is one of the most affecting pieces in the collection.

Although the poems don't fall into formal camps, there does nonetheless seem to be a stark divide between poems that are largely comic, and poems that seem to strive self-consciously for wisdom or consolation. An example of the first is "Political Poem," in which the speaker "spoke to an audience comprised entirely of gerbils" and "took the lack of applause as a cultural difference." By contrast, poems like "Yes and No as Usual," "Dressed for Church," "Age of Transcendence," and "Work Ethic," among others, are disappointingly conventional. It might be hard to ring too many variations on the theme of persistence after loss, but there is something dulled in these poems. It is as if Kennedy leans too heavily on the formal verse structures, rather than trusting the method that has been his own.

On balance, however, Kennedy's comic timing and gift for improbable combinations give Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death verve. While it may be the case that "If I had a nickel for every time / my name as associated with greatness, I would owe / someone a quarter," this book may well put him in the black.

Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death by Christopher Kennedy
BOA Editions
ISBN: 978-1929918980
72 Pages