back toJacket2


Ken Bolton reviews

The Roads
by David Kennedy

Salt Press, Cambridge 2004

This review is 3,700 words
or about 10 printed pages long

Raising ghosts

This reader was impressed by David Kennedy’s earlier New & Selected, The President of Earth (also from Salt), but The Roads is a much more striking volume. It may be that The Roads benefits from being more cohesive, more of a piece than a selection drawing on a decade or so’s work could be and choosing poems as it must have done on the basis of variety, representativeness, some star quality. But equally it may be that Kennedy has gained in power. This is the impression given — despite that earlier volume’s containing many winners. The Roads seems more centered, focused — and determined about a job in hand — and also less anxious to demonstrate multifarious kinds of expertise.

Even so, the book is pleasingly hard to get a handle on: I kept remembering its organisation and proportions incorrectly. Long before there was any question of reviewing the book I’d had the impression of a long and strong beginning — a phalanx of equally weighted poems that reliably produced admiration, marvelling, and the chastened curiosity of a mark fooled by the pea-and-the-three-cups trick. Do that again you say and this time I’ll be ready — and yet the next poem defeats you in a way that feels ‘almost but not quite’ similar to the movement of the poems before it. This is a group of poems that employ fantasy, non sequitur, a dream logic sleight of hand and which ‘mostly’ have a mise en scène that spells ‘medieval’, ‘fairy tale’ and ‘northern’ Europe. Which suggests a loaded deck as well as tired poetic effects and ends. In fact, it might — resistably — suggest these effects as the ends.

As it happens, this group of poems makes up only a few, half a dozen. But their manner, their armory of devices and reserve of moves, continues in the poems that follow and fill out this first section, though deployed less and less so that the poems perform a gradual change of character. Perhaps it is that the reader is so flummoxed by the early barrage that the way is cleared for these subsequent poems?

I determined to find the key and after a few readings attending purely to construction and rhetoric I could find “the point at which the deception was worked”. It didn’t make the poems any less admirable or, for me, even more imitable. They have something of the magic of Ron Padgett’s exquisite corpse-styled enjambments — or collaging — of disparate moments. But Kennedy’s are more naturalised, more seamless. They have something of Tate’s and Russell Edson’s virtuosity — but seem less to court our applause, less tricksy in fact and far more interesting and memorable. It’s not normally an area I care to visit as a reader — but figuring I knew Kennedy’s mind-set well enough to trust him, I did. I should quote some.

One of the most straightforward is ‘Red Horse’

In the town by the wide river
all the lovers are asleep.
Their dreams rise up chimneys
and emerge, distending slowly
like inverted drops of water,
then expanding to their full size
and falling upwards

‘The Enchanted Lake’ begins —

Beautiful young violinists of the student orchestra,
how you make me lick my lips
as I am carried over the audience
on the crest of your unsalted concentration!
You take me to the end of the concert
and let me watch you singing your violins to sleep
in their little coffins.
You let me see that sometimes the velvet is red
and sometimes the velvet is blue.
You take me high above the city
to the end of the night
and show me bachelors, young and old,
in their crummy flats, nodding
over their catalogues . . .

Note the old city rooftops (invoked in both poems), violins, the coffins with their hint of Nosferatu, the archaic “bachelors” (are we not, now, all ‘singles’ — not bachelors and spinsters?).

Here is the ending of ‘666FM’, which begins with unsettling, jittery, not-quite-nightmarish imagery

And I just can’t get you out of my head,
dream in which I wake up in my old philosophy class.
The subject is the acquisition of knowledge
and we have an hour to write an essay.
We each have an answer booklet
and our starting point, in cold print,
is exactly what each of us said when we came in
followed by ‘analyse’, ‘justify’ or ‘relate’.
My words were a greeting to an old friend,
Who must be having the same dream.
“All right Havelda, all right?”
I panic to the teacher on the dais,
one of those fierce mid-twentieth century bachelors
with the look of Wittgenstein
who swivels in his captain’s chair
south-east south-west south-south-east.
He puts down his volume of Loeb’s Classical Library,
leans out from the flying buttresses
of his world heritage site four-piece suit
and says “Don’t worry, there are rooms and rooms,
corridors and corridors, and in some town or another
at least one dog who knows why he barks”

The opening poems gradually become less dream-like, less concerned with and dependent upon the crucial shape-shifting moment. With the stepped, scattered, very variable feet of ‘Walking Book’ we’re in different territory.

The next group remains opaque to me: they seem to be intricately patterned — and here inheres their wit, I expect — word games, analyses of etymological and other connections and equivalences. ‘Minster’ is an example and it may be written ‘for’ its dedicatees — Richard Burdett, Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk — which might, in the UK, key an audience to its concerns. On the surface it deals with English place-names and architecture, masonry and animal life.


Beverly. Byland.
Fountains. Hexham.
Howden. Kilton.


Two birds, poss. cockerels.

. . .

In the thick
of mark: murk
of trace.

On Roche’s
Soffit, Hexham’s

Signal opacity
count readings.


Men stir
terms in
inert ms.


The Master.
The use of the men.
The intention of a stone to one corner.
The floor below.
Written sight.
The shadowy figure.
The chisel

. . .


The stone
folded together
leads into
the chisel.




Sawn stone soars
on written sight



The above gives some sense of the poem, if not the poem’s actual sense. Clearly connections are being made, discernible, if not legible to me — and a line in the poem has it of the masons’ marks cut in stone: “The book of sight / skill marks bellowing above our ears”. The poem’s words and phrasing are alive with sense and senses — senses that it enlivens, catalyses rather than proposes.

‘Words’ is a more playful statement of a negative poetics. Not for me, buddy, it says. —


fall onto

the floor where,

they get hairy.
Back in our mouths

they would choke us
like furballs.

I do not want
to cook with them.

A particular aesthetic is operating in much of Kennedy’s The Roads — to do with a hard, obdurate facticity, a kind of poverty of gesture or belief (which remain, though, ‘gesture’, ‘belief’, shorn of excess, of ornament) — protestant, functional.

The Preservation of Light

My father said, You do not have to answer a question.
Light is a question, my father said.

The bridge sings its own song back to itself
over tough little plants spurting

into the rocks on the dry stream bed;
and his words come back to me,

said by another bridge in a colder place.
My father was a painter; it was his habit

to point such things out, to attend to them.
Walnut and carob drop their smooth mouldings

of protein and sugar on the stony soil
round the abandoned chapel

where, once a year, a priest comes
and says mas to keep it holy.

The tentative notes
of a goat bell are a weak memory

or prediction of his coming; and their tone,
which says there is no empty space,

no finally determined gesture,
is the only way of measuring

the long, open textures of the afternoon.
Then the view drops away

into the rough, stubbly valley
and different questions of light

which lead the eye up to a blurred gap
with shadows coming and going

like movements behind gauze.
This is the sea and the islands in it

boiling in the late sun.
I imagine the priest visiting each one,

standing by similar chapels,
watching each stone give its answers

to the light while loops of goat music
cycle through extended intervals;

then checking it off on the list
of things God wants keeping.

Admittedly, of those terms — “hard” “obdurate”, “facticity”, “shorn of ornament” and “functional” — I was about to joke, Thank you, Reyner Banham. And maybe I could have, because the next poem inhabits this same world of aesthetic theory and its concerns.

      To wake up
sharpened, like Smithson was,
      to a sense of rust
as a fundamental
of steel means registering
      our presence
here as care and neglect
      twisted and
folded into one edge

is how ‘On Reading John Kinsella’s Peripheral Light’ begins. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was a gesture, and Smithson dealt of course in ideas of entropy, decay, industrial decay-in-nature. The poem ends with this witty reprise of Kinsella’s pastoral burden. —

      it’s like this:
out on the wheatlands wide stage
      in the shade
of a corrugated
Florizel is praising
who’s matching invoices,
      earpiece in
for market news, weather.

Ric Caddell is not yet well enough known outside the UK, is not well enough known even there, of course — though the push since his death will be extending that readership. I’ve read him and liked his work intermittently over the years but not enough to respond properly to ‘Rehearsing Two of Ric Caddell’s “Five Career Moves…” for a Reading’. The poem would seem to lightly evoke some of Caddell’s themes and Caddell’s delivery, aesthetic and ethic. To an audience better read in his work — as the UK scene might provide — the poem doubtless has its effect.

It seems unreasonable to object to such poems registering an Australian reader as an outsider. In fact coming up against these substantive boundaries is pleasant enough: they seem indications of real life (and literary community) elsewhere, something other than the cosmopolitan/ metropolitan lingua franca of the New Generation poets, for example — the British poem that knows its place (and yours, and poetry’s in the scheme of things). A later and more easily accessible poem, ‘Poem Begun in a Small Notebook’, reenacts Caddell’s tones and timing.

For me the book’s big poems are some poems for Kennedy’s deceased father, secondly ‘Alum Raptures’, and the last in the book’s first section — which section is called The Roads (and which includes also ‘from the Book of Roads’). The poem is ‘Dhromi: The Roads’. It would seem to be the title poem then. The ambiguity of this admittedly not very important issue is a pleasure itself: the poem does not share much of the character of the collection overall — except a degree of control and a manifest intelligence. the poem’s phrasing is somewhat ‘easier’, words are put under less etymological pressure. As it is placed in the collection the poem signals a kind of lightening of the tone. In fact it prefigures it, like a false note, or a grace-note: because it is followed by the group of very tough-minded but probing and clear-eyed poems that are those on the poet’s father. After these the tone does lighten generally, and the poems become more playful and lightly exploratory while promising no heavy-lifting (as a removalist might say). (They carry weight, do the work, but don’t announce themselves with their formal sleeves rolled up, so to speak.)

‘Dhromi: The Roads’ is an ostensibly diaristic recollection of some stereotypically British — maybe laddish — tourism in Greece. But it is offered through an ironizing equability of tone and a neatly decorous, unflappable ordering of the story, really a list of the elements that typify such an experience. These are vignettes (of men at tables outside a taverna, scenes of ordinary life of the village glimpsed — but glimpsed sharply and hungrily — mild boredom, the tourists’ deliberately suppressed selfconsciousness) arranged so as to give a heavy presentiment, a nostalgia for a life that might be imagined as available there but only in that impossible ideal world — of income, leisure, a reason-for-being, time, one’s presence and otherness unremarked but delivered up to one. One passed one’s time in the village, moderately uncomfortable, fitfully selfconscious, alert but bored, trapped to a degree within one’s stereotype — resembling it, at least — thinking of the happiness that could be imagined/ envisaged living there, ‘if only one could’. It’s a terrific poem.

Under the Tree of Idleness
In the square outside the main taverna,
A small pride of dazed men stirred and stretched
As though moving cost them a small fortune,
And a fat moth whirred out of the leaves.

There was a festival in Spili
And the bishop was in residence.
As we came into town,
dust sprinkling the air with the ashes of the day,
his windows burned high on the scrubby hillside.
In the tombs and shrines candles flickered
as if the dead were about to get up
and go about their business
with the rest of the town rattled awake
by the screech and yowl of the carpenter’s shop
ripping wood for wardrobe doors.
We looked into its bright mouth
and saw a row of gaping cabinets
leant against the wall like coffins for giants.

We spent the hour round nightfall
by the Turkish fountain,
counting its nineteen lions’ heads,
wondering what its feeble cascades
were still whispering
about Europe’s formative years.

Then it was time to go in to the long tables

The local young men are contemplated — a demonstration of the alienation of the outsider, the curiosity and wariness:

each new drink spilt on the linen
made the script of the evening clearer!
I didn’t want to be yelled at to drink more:
I wanted to know if the young Cretan men
the leaflet called ‘proud and graceful’
were making up rude rhyming couplets
or singing ‘Love is destined to break in two’
or ‘When a man is born a grief is born’.

But the pat expectedness of its content it stands in for the drunken relaxation that accompanies this wariness: an anxiety buffered by wine and the slowing brain that has estimated basically that it is not threatened.

And there were so many songs
The young men could have been singing
. . .
Songs praising various cities,
their women and their wine
or damning various cities, their women and their wine.
Songs which sing of small sorrows,
songs about Charon and Hades
and songs about mothers.
Songs which say ‘You are like the sea
And you drown me’.

There are various ‘scenes’ —

The lights strung across the courtyard
shuddered in a chilly draught gusting down the hillside.
A bulb fell and smashed between the tables,
A woman screamed then laughed,
and once cold raindrop pricked my skin.

And then one of our party
was laid out by too much retsina
Honour was satisfied and we were free to go.

I very much like this poem and one of the chief things I like about it is how it impassively declines to become any one of the things it might so easily have been, an arch joke about Brits on tours, for example, or a mournful meditation on time and the unattainable. It allows itself to raise the ghosts of those agendas — “invoke” would be too strong a term — without endorsing them or agreeing to be so confined. Not that it delivers more data, so to speak, or data that is unassimilable to such paradygms — maybe yes, maybe no. Principally it is that the tone of the poem retains greater gravity through refusing the self-caricature of ‘genre’. It sways towards it and moves away. Here is the ending —

The drunk, dumped snoring in the aisle,
was possessed by the spirit of Elvis.
Miraculously resurrected, he lurched forward,
grabbed the driver’s mike
and crooned ‘Love MeTender’
and ‘Always On My Mind’.

The flickering tombs were behind us
and the Bishop’s windows were dark;
and the headlamps and dim interior of the bus
were the only lights moving in that place.

There are three further sections to Kennedy’s book — The Graves, The Larks and a meditation on the artist Joseph Cornell.

The Graves opens with ‘Dr Kennedy’s Country Dream’, with archaic diction and mildly metaphysical verbal investigations:

I dream of the Mower
     Twisting like smoke,
Withering and kindling,
     Consumed and uttered
In the field’s haze.
     His doing is undoing:
He in unmaking makes.

. . .

     He spares none among the graves
And renders every spire of grass
     Into its own epitaph.
The bindweeds winding from my rot
     Are my eternity.
The mower bends to read my stone
     And makes short work of me.

‘Books of the Dead’, immediately following, looks at what becomes of the dead. The lives become biographies, are inert: words capture something but are not ‘life’:

I remember writing
‘things die and become books’
in a poem about Crete
without understanding it.
I remember the words
remaining irreducible
beyond a dim sense
of mess made into destiny,
of bustle grasped so made inert;
beyond a dim sense
of the poem itself
as dim sense miscarrying
the sound of the sun
hammering the sea.
Now I am thinking
of the dead letter office
with Rimbaud, Spicer and the others
all stacked up.


Everyone we meet
writes something in us
and we in them

. . .

maybe just a cadence
or a stress,
even an aspect of a style
to return unexpectedly
quite likely unknown at first.
And we go on
walking and talking
into our lives,
already inflected.

Death — actually the afterlife — is compared to reading, finally.

A tribute, ‘At Anton Walbrook’s Grave’, remarks that the actor is buried in company with Kay Kendall and Hugh Gaitskell, warms to his music and character: “Rest well,” it says,

Articulate shade
    Of an emotional style
Whose charming manners,
     Zest and wit are fancy dress
Or a straightjacket,
     Too carefully through-composed
Or boringly consistent,
     And, whatever, such hard work
To our facetiously brutal age.

The dead film star arises — and discusses with the poet the aptness of some nearby trees as illustrations of Life, Walbrook proposing the trees’ cycles of stasis and growth as

            “. . . yearly reminders
     Of our uncompleted state,
Of life as hunger for form.
     Like partial music, or bewildered love.”

There follow poems variously on and for Kennedy’s father. ‘My Father’s Death’ is a series of descriptions of loss, absence, and of meaning fading. ‘Egyptian Elegy’ addresses the father, addresses the poet’s need to address:

so these are the wrong words again,
already stillborn as a letter

. . .

Let the wrong words dissolve
in shivery mists of grief;
then, let the mists condense in absolute love.
In a clarified morning, pick stones,

stack them in the field’s corners.
rake to a fine tilth and sow tears
to bring forth the flowers of right and truth
— even plain poppies or Love in a Mist,

any blooms that grow in ordinary soil.

. . .

I offer you these words
to set you free of myself,
the maze of my wounded self-love.
I offer you these words

‘Alum Raptures’ [see Jacket 26] — something of an elegy for Jack Beeching — is a series of short investigations and recommendations on how to write on death —

poetry as agonistic alembic;
the self hurt into utterance
and so making utterance hurt

The earnestness is undercut (in Part IV — A Post Mortem Manifesto: How To Write Poems) by the devil’s advocacy of

Assume the muse is
a street recruiter for fascists
— raise your stick!

The last of these ‘Alum Raptures’ has (in Part V — The Afterpoem) Jack Beeching drinking together with Ern Malley “in a roaring pub”

risking one more
and one more until
one downs you.
Some die before they think,
says Jack. Says Ern:
I was a haphazard amorist
Caught on the unlikely angles
Of an awkward arrangement. Weren’t you?

I didn’t know Ern did drink, but it’s nice to think of him getting out and about.

Others in this section are an amusing ‘Six Staves for Kenneth Koch’, a variant on Calvino’s Invisible Cities for Nick Zurbrugg — on the avant-garde’s own invisible cities: “its worlds / and projected citizenships”.

There is ‘Poem Begun in a Small Notebook’ for Ric Caddell.

The Larks poems are, I suppose, ‘jests’: ‘Advice to All Girls in Love’ is followed by a series of fantasies — a ‘Bohemian Fantasy’ after Rimbaud, some imagining artworks (proposals for unfeasible art actions), a poem after Laforgue, a prose poem ‘dream’ of Tom Raworth. None of these are dull.

The sequence on Cornell is good — interesting in its own right and insightful on Cornell, whom it discusses, dismantles, analyses and, by way of understanding, imitates and apes.

Personally I feel that Cornell is ‘minor’, that, when you begin to like him a lot he becomes disappointing, not quite supporting all that you want him to mean — though he is interesting for making you want him to mean this. One purely critical discursive section of this work, for example, has it that

Cornell’s boxes prefigure the way that history has got shorter.
They predict the way that nostalgia for a very recent past
became a key fact of late twentieth century thinking. Culture
became memory. And because the boxes are always flickering
somewhere between fascination and obsession, fandom and
stalking, looking and voyeurism, they force us to ask questions
about what nostalgia is, what history is.

Kennedy’s writing in The Roads does much of all this, too: heavy lifting — work done — though with a grace that makes it look light.

October 2005  |  Jacket 28  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400+ book reviews |