This book changed my mind about X.J. Kennedy.
The poems of his which I had previously read, mostly for school, all dated to the 1950s and 60s. I still didn't like those ones. Not only were they often dated, but largely immature and self-indulgent. Reading them was like being stuck next to a stranger who won't stop telling you about his personal problems. Oh, you have issues with the Church? Women don't like you as much as you think they should? The System is broken? Life sucks? Tell it to your shrink, X.J., because I'm not paying to hear about how bitter you are.
What kept me reading was Kennedy's skill with language. Complex internal structure, interesting word choices, carefully crafted but playful extended metaphors, flashes of humor -- actually a lot of humor, but too often undermined but the overwhelming bitterness about practically everything. And I'm glad I did finish the collection, because I found out that Kennedy really is an excellent poet. He just needed age to give him a little more compassion, a little patience, a little more nuance and uncertainty.
Most of the poems I like best are from his 1992 Dark HorsesAt the Last Rites for Two Hotrodders
Sheeted in steel, embedded face to face,
They idle now in meaningless embrace,
The only ones at last who had the nerve
To meet head-on, not chicken out and swerve.
Inseparable, in one closed car they roll
Down the stoned aisle and on out to a hole,
Wheeled by the losers: six of fledgling beard,
Black-jacketed and glum, who also steered
Toward absolute success with total pride,
But, inches from it, felt, and turned aside.
On Being Accused of Wit
Not so. I'm witless. Often in Despair
At long-worked botches I must throw away,
A line or two worth keeping all too rare.
Blind chance not wit entices words to stay
And recognizing luck is artifice
That comes unlearned. The rest is taking pride
In daily labor. This and only this.
On keyboards sweat alone makes fingers glide.
Witless, that juggler rich in discipline
Who brought the Christchild all he had for gift,
Flat on his back with beatific grin
Keeping six slow-revolving balls aloft;
Witless, La Tour, that painter none too bright,
His draftman's compass waiting in the wings,
Measuring how a lantern stages light
Until a room overflows with rings.
Emily Dickinson Leaves a Message
Because I could not stop for Breath
Past Altitudes --- of Earth ---
Upon a reel of Tape I leave
Directions to my Hearth ---
For All who will not let me lie
Unruffled in escape ---
Speak quickly --- or I'll intercept
Your Message with --- a Beep.
Though often I had dialed and rung
The Bastion of the Bee ---
The Answer I had hungered for
Was seldom Home --- to me ---
These poems show the characteristic that I like best about his later poems: hard work, modesty, appreciation. I wish he'd give up talking about politics and religion; I think he cares too much there to write well. Overall a fine sampling of a long career, including some previously unpublished works.