KR OnlineReview

Review of Richard Kenney’s The One Strand River

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 (hardcover)

It is difficult to draw a bead on this thick, varied collection, especially since Kenney’s last two books, Orrery and Invention of the Zero, were clearly concept albums. Fortunately, this beast knows itself and leaves a clue to its genus buried in the notes section: the book is a chimera, “wooly here, scaly there.”

The features of Kenney’s talent rise from The One Strand River’s lyric multitude. Though a strand of Merrill is detectable, or a hoof beat of Hopkins, Kenney’s sensibility outpaces any vestige of a particular influence. No one writing now writes like he does.

This book is a strange trip. No topic, tone, register, or mode of address is off-limits. There are incantations and meditations—the dawns, moons, births, and funerals—but there are also comic scenes, nursery rhymes, takes on myth, glosses on current events, and verdant hallucinations. “Riven heaven” is there, but so too are hellish family vacations, the hellish lead-up to the Iraq war, the Tarot, and the odd monitor lizard. Along the way, the reader is accompanied by a poet who keeps faith with both rational and irrational ways of knowing. He can play with science, taking either the cosmic view or the long, evolutionary one, but he is also attuned to the joy, pathos, and humor elicited by life as we inevitably live it—on a personal scale.

One of the ways Kenney engages the irrational is through a rare music. At a time when poetry need only approximate a metrical line or contain a few pallid off-rhymes to be called musical, the richness and freshness of measure and alliteration in The One Strand River is striking.

In this vigorous couplet, a delightful, dizzying consonance within and across the lines electrifies the language: “Hell of the endocrine, unkind, leg-long, finger to lip and almond/ Eye! O hell of the too too long soon simoom mind!” True, simoom is not a familiar word, and Kenney has been criticized for sending readers to the dictionary. Sound, though, can carry as much freight as denotative meaning; besides, when the point is making language new by removing it from a humdrum context, a word that will be new to most of us is not necessarily a bad thing.

Kenney can sing more subtly, too, in the service of a precise metaphorical intelligence, as in the distilled, razor-sharp “Shame,” a section of a longer poem about the life-shattering kind of break-up:

Blue flash passion

Shaman with his calabash

Man in the basement
Face intent

Shakes heaven gently—
Tchssh, tchssh—

To check the filament.

The power of Kenney’s poetic gift makes muscular a tempting adjective; no wonder it has turned up in reviews. But it is not the right one, quite, with its connotations of athleticism, overtraining, and masculine control. This poetry’s strength is the strength of animal integrity, which allows mimicry and play, but never fakery. Like Hopkins’ kingfisher, it speaks and spells. This book is fierce.