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Barely Sighted Lives

I can’t say I wasn’t forewarned. If quite a handsome book, it’s also a very weird-looking one. In the royal court of American poetry, Kenney may well inherit the title, vacant since the death of E.E. Cummings, of Typesetter’s Chief Torturer. His fiendish “implements” include a plethora of typefaces, bizarre punctuation, and an abundance of italics and capital letters, to say nothing of various arcane marginalia: rune-like ideograms (crescent moons, scientific symbols, Greek letters) and cryptic fragments of a sailor’s journal.

But to the daunted or skeptical reader (in whose ranks I initially stood) I would say, Wait. Something more than mere coherence will emerge. This one is brilliantly structured.

Four lengthy narrative poems make up the heart of the book. Although they range across eons and firmaments (Kenney is fond of geological and astronomical imagery), each is anchored in the Pacific Ocean and the Second World War. In the title poem, the unnamed narrator returns to Nevada, where he once helped develop atomic weapons, but the story naturally glances westward across the Pacific, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second poem, “The Encantadas,” is set in the Galapagos Islands, where an American anti-aircraft battery, stationed far from combat, initiates its own deadly war of nerves, this one across a chessboard. The third, “Typhoon,” travels to the plunging center of one of the great naval miscalculations of the century, Admiral Halsey’s decision to pilot the United States Third Fleet into a “circular storm” near the Marianas on December 18, 1944. The final poem might be said to open when something doesn’t: it’s about a Navy Seal on his first parachute jump. In addition, the book offers, by way of preamble, a “Colloquy of Ancient Men,” in which we listen to the scrambled voices of Newton, Oppenheimer, Melville, Conrad; an epilogue; an afterword; and various verse-snippets of “machine conversation.” These last serve as a kind of chorus in the wings—or on the wing, for they take as vantage point the eye of a satellite.

Kenney’s work presents substantial challenges not only to the reader but to the reviewer. How to convey the texture of his verse in a few short passages? The rangy lines, complex subject matter, intricate skeins of metaphor, and convoluted diction all make excerption difficult. It’s a little like re-creating one’s recent trip to the Alps by means of a series of walletsized snapshots.

Even so, I’d offer a few of my favorite “peaks.” Here are the Galapagos, awaiting Darwin’s arrival:

The year mankind began
again: 1835: the Beagle
found the archipelago in place, and fixed
it there forever, spindled on a small bird’s beak.
What change! Of course, the world’s been brought to focus
since. Each small astigmatism on the surface
of the sea is marked, each shoal, each benthic peak
has been imagined to the second of an arc
by now; no man an island but he’s known,
discovered here in the satellite’s official survey—

And a parachute drop likened to a delivery room:

Is this the oldest dream? oh, the heart
floods in the babe’s chest in the dam’s womb, and always
will, to this, till moon and stars have ricocheted
across the last human eye the last time—
Time extrudes
two ways in mind, and this comes back: the waltz
of divers down that darkened cor- ridor, all packed
in chest-to-back in full regalia, wet suits, tanks
and all, the engine noise, the bay doors shuddering
into the wind—

And a physicist viewing an atom bomb test:

I understood the theory
of the thing, the queer unearthly thought, the sleight
of physics balancing its spindly tower there
not seven miles away…

In his afterword, Kenny identifies his meter as hexameter (“common, sprung, or truncate”). That isn’t quite how it strikes my ear. The hexameter has traditionally been a perilous measure in English—potentially stiff, cumbersome, segmental—and most readers probably haven’t the familiarity with it that would allow them to keep its basic pulse intact while multiple variations are being played upon it. For this reader, anyway, the hexameter’s six beats are muffled in much of what Kenney writes; what we have, simply, is a capacious line.

A similar sort of category-slippage occurs with Kenney’s rhymes. There are times when I would swear his bold operating principle, like Louis MacNeice’s in “Bagpipe Music,” was Any rhyme but an orthodox rhyme. He speaks in his afterword of a penchant for Celtic consonance, which may help us to identify rhymes like flat/fleet or even hollow/holy, but what in the world does one do with stoneaxe/onyx of forty/4D? On his title poem’s first page, he rhymes aria/aurora, ortho-/throw, beckons/beacons, liters/leaders, parochial/keyhole, and misfire/semaphore/M is for; but there’s nothing resembling an ordinary exact rhyme.

I can’t help feeling that Kenney derives fewer benefits than he might from the detonations of these little auditory pyrotechnics, brilliant as they are. The length of his lines, the distance between rhymes, and the complexity of his narrative all conspire to ensure that many of his best rhymes go unnoticed. Or they become what might be called “visual rhyme,” not in the usual sense of a word-pair whose appearance misleadingly suggests a rhyme (bough/cough), but in the sense of linkages that the eye discovers subsequently, the ear having missed them. One might say, placing Coleridge’s famous lament in a new context, “I see not feel how beautiful they are.”

There probably wasn’t single page of this book where I didn’t want to wrangle over some small detail—a jarring enjambment, a roundabout locution, an elusive allusion. But isn’t this only another way of saying that the book engaged me fully, wholeheartedly? Invention of the Zero was compelling enough to inspire me to read it twice aloud. I don’t know when I last found a book of contemporary verse so enlivening in this hurtling, hellbent way. If Kenney, who was born in 1948, can still be called a younger poet, you could safely describe him as one of the most gifted and multifaceted and original of younger American poets; or if his youth were questioned, “younger” could simply be struck. The description would be equally accurate without it.

There’s a certain mad inevitability to Kenney’s enterprise—one can see how a poet with talent to burn would take up the atom bomb. The entire volume bespeaks personal obsession, filtered through idiosyncratic thought processes, quirky locutions, eccentric chains of metaphor. The result, despite a subject matter that could hardly be more expansive, is a somewhat hermetic feel. I do wish the book contained fewer passages that left me feeling not only puzzled but (not a necessary by-product of puzzlement) excluded. I hope other readers, arriving with different background knowledge and a different internal ear, will find this easier going than I did.

Three virtues, so far as I can tell, worked to hold me entranced. The first is Kenney’s intelligence, manifested not merely in the ability to funnel so much extraordinarily technical material into complexly musical verse, but in a supreme flair for startling metaphor, by which atomic blasts are seen as “matchlight, / hand-cupped, licking in the tinder of the Ark,” or a ship under tropical sun is turned into “a brown sphinx moth / perched on a roaring lantern’s rim,” or a parachutist becomes “just the last word in a long / skywritten manuscript beginning with the drifting pollens / of the first seedbearing plants, seed ferns, four / hundred million years ago.”

The second virtue, close kin to the first, is a matter of sensibility. Science tends, given its preeminent place in our lives, to receive surprisingly short shrift in our verse—a result, doubtless, of its boggling difficulty. And even when it does appear, in those poets who make occasional forays into modern scientific or mathematical terrain, it generally winds up feeling like mere embellishment. The material isn’t “owned”—it’s borrowed profundity. The same few figures (Darwin, Einstein, Wittgenstein) and the same few references (relativity, Gödel’s proof, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) keep popping up. But in Kenney’s case, you sense a mind temperamentally adapted to the rigor and grandeur of the technical imagination. Readers who are drawn to contemporary scientists who write for the layman (to Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eiseley, Jared Diamond, Timothy Ferris, Paul Colinvaux, Jack Horner, et al.) here will feel themselves in the presence of a man who, while a sibling-soul to such writers, also happens to be a magnificent poet.

Finally, there’s a question of passion. Although Kenney’s clearly a man of oblique and reticent temper, the rationalist and scientist within him are eventually revealed to be contending with a mystic and romantic. He has a sharp eye and a soft heart. As such, he’s likely to move me more when writing about an exploding nova than will many of his contemporaries when they’re composing elegies for their parents or dissections of their broken marriages. His portrayal of a feral pig attacking a tortoise haunted me:

one hopeless tortoise
looking old as earth herself was stumping towards
me, chugging forward fast, while a great wild sow was dragging
back with all her might and shak- ing, wrenching, side
to side like some immense rat- terrier,
jaws clamped fast to the rim of the carapace. A piece tore
loose, and the reptile lurched ahead a moment, dragon’s
neck extended, frantic, torn, try- ing to hide—
never a chance. The pig closed in again,
and the whole scene over again—again—

Just a pig and an overgrown turtle, I suppose you could say. But they represent as well the introduction of a new predator into a closed island ecosystem; the tortoise had, over millennia, evolved into a world free of all such feral creatures, and so—evolution being far slower even than the movements of a tortoise—its protracted doom is now assured. We have here a sort of Aesopian tableau or symbol for any gentle human culture or creed beset by a rapacious future it’s wholly unprepared for. The slaughter opens…

There are times when I found myself longing to see Kenney write a different sort of poem entirely. It might be lovely to see him devote himself to the pondlike virtues of the pellucid short poem—the cupped waterlilies and lilypads (so much like a graceful tea-setting) of the lyric. But perhaps his talent is destined ever to run like a river in spate, at flood-time, with the reader standing as on a slippery bank, watching while the current shoulders its bobbing burden of branches, fenceposts, fishing lines, rubber boots, tennis balls, portable phones… The show is mesmerizing. What in heaven will surface next? And who could resist the sheer force of the thing?

Ours is an era when trade publishers have largely abandoned verse and poets seem to exist, commercially speaking, on sufferance. Many of them have moved to the often subsidized university presses, or to small presses, or to various makeshift and ingenious outlets. Dufault’s publisher is Lindisfarne, a small press specializing in spiritual and mystical subjects and in what their catalog calls “psychology/ inner development.” He seems to be the only living American poet on their list. Kenney’s book, on the other hand, arrives from Knopf, which probably publishes more contemporary American poetry than any other trade publisher.

Both books, filled with so many quirky, rarely sighted creatures, are ultimately bound up with another one: the poetry forager, that elusive, wan, and wonderful beast, which is occasionally glimpsed pawing around dusty nooks in out-of-the-way book-stores. That two collections as good as these should spring from such disparate sources reminds us that nowadays this creature must be prepared to range some distance. Sustenance is still to be found far afield, but as replenishing as ever.

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