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.