It’s difficult to find an arrangement of prose poems that seems to work well as a collection, or that extends beyond attempts to define this new and unique genre. Christopher Kennedy’s third collection of prose poetry,Ennui Prophet, is a rare exception to this dilemma.
In Christopher Kennedy’s hands, the prose poem is not a linear list of things but a skittish thread running through the narrative line. The second paragraph of “Museum of Wrong Turns” introduces a “roommate who thought Mr. Rushmore was a natural phenomenon.” The third and final paragraph begins with an “expensive vehicle” and ends with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. These prose poems have more in common with the contemporary American poems being written today than they do with the prose poems written a generation ago by poets as diverse as Charles Simic, John Ashbery, Russell Edson and Anne Carson. Kennedy’s poetry is too jumpy to belong in a category that is more than a decade old.
Mark Doty discusses newer and younger poets in his introduction to Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century: “Their overwhelming preference is, instead, for performative speech: they are concerned with the creation of a voice, a presence on the page meant to be an experience in itself, not necessarily to refer to one that’s already taken place.” Christopher Kennedy’s work is an example of this emphasis on the experience of the written word, rather than a more traditional focus on the events that inspired the writing. But it’s unclear if the shift is good or bad for prose poems. Kennedy’s prose poems seem more fluid and graceful when they are brief. His longer pieces, on the other hand, tend to be marked by nervousness.
Here is the dexterous “The Day Before My Violin Broke” in its entirety: “The wings of crows were quills dipped in India ink. I looked up from my lesson and watched them rise and bank in the wind, as they painted the pale sky black.” The connection between the crow’s wing and the “painted” sky in this shorter work is obvious. In the longer prose poems it is not clear, however, that more insight is being achieved despite their greater latitude.
Another prose poem, “Where Does the Carpathian Highway Roam?” begins: “Heidegger wore a bathing suit, or so I assume. All the great thinkers sunbathed when no one was looking.” This prose poem lands far from Heidegger in the end. Left-handed guitarists, a swarm of bees, a Buddhist monk, Rasputin, Cantonese, and the F.B.I. all make cameo appearances in this collection, both in and out of context. This approach is not unlike a television actor who slips in and out of character during an interview on NPR to keep audience members guessing as they try to thresh out reality from performance. Ennui Prophet will have the reader glued to the program as well.
By Christopher Kennedy
BOA Editions, June 2011
92 pages, $16.00