The Magazine

Two Routes to Reality

Kennedy sings, Hass describes, poetic truth.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By WYATT PRUNTY
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In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus

New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007

by X.J. Kennedy

Johns Hopkins, 224 pp., $35

Time and Materials

Poems 1997-2005

by Robert Hass

Ecco, 96 pp., $22.95

X.J. Kennedy's In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus and Robert Hass's Time and Materials take different paths to reality.

Each poet is an ironist who proceeds by doubt, but Kennedy's poems display the songlike qualities of the central English lyric while Hass, who recently received the National Book Award, writes more descriptively. Kennedy's latest collection takes its title from a poem that is intended to be sung to the tune of "Sweet Betsy from Pike." The worn-out woman in the Secaucus bar is a comic version of a familiar blues type, the persona of Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," say. But Kennedy's character has encountered a hyperbolic bounce or two on the way down. Anyone who has heard Kennedy perform this poem during one of his readings will remember the event.

And there are other Kennedy poems meant to be sung. Two are "Song: Great Chain of Being" and "Song to the Tune of 'Somebody Stole My Gal.'" The first opens, "Drinking smooth wine in a castle or digging potatoes knee-deep in dung, / Everybody in creation knew just how high or how low he hung." Now, the poem's argument goes, nobody knows this. The poem asks, "Is seeing believing? / Is seeing believing?" The answer, one concludes, is a resounding no. Then there is "Song to the Tune of 'Somebody Stole My Gal,'" which opens:

Somebody stole my myths,

Stole all their gists and piths,

Somebody pinched my Juno and Pan,

Crooked Dionysus

And caused my spiritual crisis.

When he reads this poem Kennedy takes an instrumental break during which he puts his hand to his lips to imitate a muted trumpet. That brings the house down. But funny as these poems are, they also have their shadows: The order we associate with melody stands in stark contrast to the chaos of the lives Kennedy describes. He applies his tunefulness to a loss of meaning, even as he has the grace to make us laugh. And putting chaos to familiar tunes is just one way Kennedy tricks out the dissonances he hears. He tosses his readers an array of ironies, amid which there are more harrumphs than hurrahs.

Here is a different route to reality, Robert Hass's "A Supple Wreath of Myrtle":

Poor Nietzsche in Turin, eating sausage his mother

Mails to him from Basel. A rented room,

A small square window framing August clouds

Above the mountain. Brooding on the form

Of things: the dangling spur

Of an Alpine columbine, winter-tortured trunks

Of cedar in the summer sun, the warp in the aspen's trunk

Where it torqued up through the snowpack.

"Everywhere the wasteland grows; woe

To him whose wasteland is within."

Dying of syphilis. Trimming a luxuriant mustache.

In love with the opera of Bizet.

Turin, where Nietzsche fell ill in 1889, was the first capital of unified Italy. Italy was first in fascism. Basel, the source of Nietzsche's sausage, is a Swiss city north of Turin close to Bismarck's Germany. It is where, at the age of 25, Nietzsche held the chair in classical philology at the University of Basel, and it is the site of the first meeting of the World Zionist Organization.

Although he was sickened by the sight of blood, Nietzsche thought strength equaled good. In the next century the Nazis would co-opt that idea. Sausage is an efficient form of butchery. The Nazis were efficient butchers. Bizet's best known opera is Carmen, a story about a woman who abandons a soldier for a bullfighter. Torino (Turin) means "little bull." Nietzsche had a naive admiration for soldiery, and as his Zarathustra praised tragedies and crucifixions, he also praised bullfights. Nietzsche, "dying of syphilis," trims his "luxuriant mustache." Mustaches of the 19th century were associated with the military, and the military was associated with strength, so if strength equaled good in Nietzsche's mind, then a soldier or a bullfighter was to be admired.

Meanwhile, the hairs of Nietzsche's mustache curled like the spirochetes of the syphilis that infected him. The spirochete found in syphilis is shaped like a sausage and even has an outer sheath like that of a sausage, and the myrtle shares the same shape in its five petals and sepals, while the columbine has five spurs that, in their turn, are of similar shape. The Latin aquilegia of columbine is associated with aquila, "eagle," its spurs shaped like the talons of a raptor. And so the circle of associations goes.

Hass has a kaleidoscopic vision. The spirochete, from the Latin, spira, or coil, and chaeta, or bristle, is a shape found as commonly in nature as brutality is in human behavior. To wreathe is to curl, writhe, or spiral. The wreath for Nietzsche that Hass has in mind is pliant, changeable, and adaptable. It is a supple (that is, a pliant) memorial offered for Nietzsche who was twisted to madness by his disease. At the heart of all this suffering, Nietzsche's and that of modern Europe, lies a recurrent shape, whether seen in a sausage, a flower's "dangling spur," the geographical shape of Italy where fascism began, or the mobile part of syphilis.

For Hass, butchery, talons, spurs, fascist states, and a lethal disease are of a piece, as is one of our greatest strengths and failures, abstract thought--Nietzsche's ability to be in love with an opera rather than a person, for example.

X.J. Kennedy is admired for such fine early poems as "Nude Descending a Staircase" and "Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought," but his New and Selected Poems provides an impressive array of more recent work. "Fireflies," "God's Obsequies," "At the Antiques Fair," and "Secret River" are some of the most striking new poems in this collection. Of the fireflies in the first of these Kennedy says, "Somehow their incandescent dance / Obscures our dark view of the dark's / Enormity as they advance." The argument here is similar to the conclusion drawn by a Hass poem entitled, "Art and Life," which begins with a description of a painting by Vermeer and concludes, "Something stays this way, something comes alive / We cannot have, can have because we cannot have it."

Whether found in experience or in art, Kennedy and Hass agree that reality exists as it resists, stays on by standing off. Kennedy captures this irony with humor: "Concupiscent, the fireflies cruise. .  .  . They stay out late / Blinking their signs to advertise / STUD WANTED and BRIGHT MALE SEEKS MATE," while Hass catalogs what he sees, citing everything from those living in Vermeer's time to the materials used for his painting, "the brush," "volatile," "oils / Of linseed, rapseed," "essence / Of pinewood in a can of turpentine." There is a tough-minded yet celebratory quality to each of these poets.

Often Kennedy is most serious when most funny. Other times what he writes is astringently direct, "Secret River" for example:

When love's done, drooped and drowned

And buried, sleep flows by.

Scaled, tailed, and finetooth-boned,

Descending, you and I

Have left our eyes upstairs,

For what's there to remark?

Why interrupt with ears

The dumbshow of the dark?

With finning hands we stir

A petrifying river

Whose overhead and floor

Extend to touch each other.

Opposing spears of stone,

Limewater-rinsed, time-wrought,

We lengthen till we join

Our inmost tips in thought.

"Secret River" displays a concrescence reminiscent of the 17th-century metaphysical poets and their descendants, even as it maintains a reserve characteristic of Kennedy alone, including a resistance to certain hierarchies of the tradition, the church for one. When he considers higher order, Kennedy's general response is a shrugging laugh. When he turns to individuals, however, he is as compassionate as any divine could hope to be.

Often Robert Hass introduces a seemingly small but concrete subject, expatiates, and returns with something surprisingly comprehensive. He operates by description, narration, and the indirect drama of relationship. A man and a woman, in a poem entitled "Then Time," for example, have known each other for years, first as lovers then as friends. Early on when he asks, "What is this? .  .  . I can't get enough of you. .  .  . Where does this come from?" her answer is, "Self-hatred .  .  . longing for God." Later, we are told, "He decides that she thinks more symbolically / Than he does and that it seemed to have saved her, / For all her fatalism, from certain kinds of pain." The fusion of tense here ("she thinks," "it seemed") is like the fusion of understood time, the time and material of the book's title poem.

For her part, the woman, now seated across the table during dinner, lets her mind run this way: "She finds herself thinking what a literal man he is, / Notices, as if she were recalling it, his pleasure / In the menu." Again the time involved conflates ("as if she were recalling it") so then and now stand inseparable in the most realistic theater we have, understanding. This aggregating process continues until the poem ends in a series of overlays:

She sees her own avidity

To live then, or not to not have lived might be more accurate,

From a distance, the way a driver might see from the road

A startled deer running across an open field in the rain.

Wild thing. Here and gone. Death made it poignant, or,

If not death exactly, which she'd come to think of

As creatures seething in a compost, then time.

One of the great modern themes has been time, plus a hallmark of modernist poetic method has been use of the image and allusion. Thus, Hass opens his book with the two-line poem "Iowa, January": "In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow. / Over and over, he enters the furrow." The poem's brevity imposes its visual power, and with January there is allusion to the Janus, double-facing god of gates and doorways (and furrows). But one sees in the passage from "Then Time" quoted above that a great deal more than imagery and allusion is at work with Hass. There is the aggregating power of description by which he builds linearly. Hass is like Elizabeth Bishop in that readers recognize the visual influence of modernist practice, but seeing such influence makes the originality of the poetry that much more impressive.

Before anything else, one returns to Hass for the same reason one returns to Bishop: Both see what others miss. Robert Hass is one of our very best poets. And X.J. Kennedy? He ought to be declared a national resource and excused from taxation.

Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee), is the author, most recently, of Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems.