Sunday, November 03, 2019

That Swing Poems, 2008-2016 By X.J. Kennedy

That Swing
Poems, 2008-2016
By X.J. Kennedy
John Hopkins University Press
Baltimore, Maryland
ISBN: 9781421422442
72 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

X.J. Kennedy knows what he’s doing. Into his ninth decade he is one of a handful of poetry grandmasters who revived the ongoing formalist tradition of rhyme and meter, giving it new life and introducing original beats and jazzy tones. His countermeasures against the status quo not only presented an alternative to the undisciplined brand of free verse popular at the time, but rejected its mirror image, the old, tired, formalist drivel being foisted by academia onto that unsuspecting generation of long-suffering students.   

Much of Kennedy’s verse is light and funny, but not that light, and not that funny. He has serious things to say and significant points to make. His accessible, colloquial language and breezy wit disguise much.  Kennedy’s new book entitled That Swing promises a lot and delivers with a slew  of good poems and a couple of great ones.

In Lonesome George, the opening poem in the collection, Kennedy, somewhat hilariously, meets and identifies with, an ancient giant tortoise showcased at the Darwin Research Station, Puerta Ayora, Galapagos Islands. This tortoise is rather special, the last of his subspecies. Watching this beast eat eelgrass, cactus leaves, and catch the occasional fly, the poet clearly recognizes telltale signs of kinship,

          … Dead-ending male,
     lone emblem of despair,
he slumps on his kneecaps, tail
     antennaing the air.
For a long moment we bind
     Sympathetic looks,
we holdouts of our kind,
     like rhymed lines, printed books. 

Kennedy’s poem entitled Insanity in the Basement dishes out the smells and sights of an early twentieth century man-cave presided over by Kennedy’s father. Once the reader gets by the fish guts (toasted over furnace coals) , the rabbit cadavers (victims of coal fuel vapors), and Uncle Bill (who, expelled by his wife from his own home for a ‘twitching’ proclivity, was recovering nicely on the mohair sofa), he or she will marvel at this truly marvelous haven. Women visitors, however, were not encouraged to visit these subterranean environs. Kennedy explains,

And when fish-hating Uncle Norman’s reel
Cranked in a tuna fit for Gargantua’s meal,
Who had to be that fish’s glad receiver?
My old man. Whipped out his butcher’s cleaver
And in our basement took a vicious whack
At its backbone, causing the blade
To take off into space. It made
Straight for my mother, missed her by an inch.
She wasn’t one to flinch
But dryly said, Good Shot.

Occasionally in Kennedy’s poems one can hear the classic tones of other practitioners of narrative poetry, especially pieces ending in twists of irony. Think Edward Arlington Robinson. One such piece Kennedy calls Progress. In this poem Kennedy tells the story of his father, a very good bookkeeper, who was replaced by an early form of automation, the Burroughs adding machine. The powerful skills that once provided essential human dignity lose their value in this brave new world of mechanized progress. Here is Kennedy’s penultimate ironic twist,

…my father saw that his number
Would shortly be up. As he feared,
Anybody could tug on a handle
And an accurate total appeared.

They broke the news to him gently,
They professed their profound regret
And presented him, not with a pension,
With a pen and pencil set.

For a time he displayed it proudly
Till the pencil had to be tossed
When it wouldn’t quite twist as it used to
And the cap of the pen got lost.
The poet details an epic dance scene, set in a nursing home, in his poem Invitation to Dance. Through eighteen stanzas Kennedy rivets the attention of his readers (How is this possible!) with humanity, elderly humor, and an exhilarating sense of existential joy. The words in this piece seem to dance off the page. Even the dark humor rises a couple of notches to a musical grin. Consider these stanzas,

Now out on the floor move the hesitant dancers:
And two-fingered Fein bows to Mag O’Quin.
Tim Mudge finds his feet, takes a break from quaking,
Screws his courage to sticking point, soon cuts in.

Now women and men into dance steps stumble,
All hatched from the shells of their separate woes.
Their crutches and walkers and canes forgotten,
With slow steps they weave the design of a rose.

“Circle round!” hollers Mabel. “Once more now, me dearies!
You wheezing old engines, set wheels to the track!”
In the thud of their heavy steps nobody notices
Finver slump to the floor with a last heart attack.

My favorite poem in Kennedy’s collection is In the Motel Office. Somehow, around a horrifying vignette of loneliness, old age, and illness, Kennedy weaves another tale, a farcical one. Here the distasteful greed and low brow ethics of a motel staffer takes center stage, showing the poet’s insightful comprehension of human nature. The predator sizes up his prey while conversing in the heart of the poem,

Jesus, Jack.
What’s this, a hospital we’re running here?
       I bet there’s dough or something in his bags.
Used underwear, you mean.
       And something better, Christ,
       You see him sign in? Face all gray? He drags
       Like one whole side of him is paralyzed
      And coughs up black blood on the frigging pen
      And when he breaks his wallet out the green
      Is like he robbed a bank.
Dreaming again! Another get-rich-quick. I never seen
A guy like you.
       You mean a guy that claims
       The chips left lying around

Memorable. Timeless. Tragically funny. Yes, X.J. Kennedy knows what he’s doing.