by Ellen Kennedy
Muumuu House 2009
Reviewed by Matt Soucy
“Poetry is Terrible”
I usually use quotes in my reviews but I won’t be doing so here because it would require opening the book again. To be gentle, Ellen Kennedy sounds too young for her own writing. To be direct, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs is awful, painful (not poetically, actually) and pointless.
For one, she attempts a taut narrative style, packed with name dropping repetition (Woody Allen, Ned Vizzini, Norm MacDonald). The tautness is meaningless, the repetition is frustratingly slow, and she doesn’t even achieve a rhythm by accident.
Another affectation is her vulgarity which, I suppose, is meant to shock the reader into being interested. It doesn’t. She discusses blowjobs, shits she’s taken recently and pissing standing up. She even gets her celebrities involved in the sexual action. It sounds exciting I know, but there is nothing behind the vulgarity (like the exuberant expanse one finds behind much of Ginsberg’s vulgarity) and by the end of the book you will be mentally chastising her like the parent you never wanted to become: “Are you really talking about this again? Haven’t you grown up yet?”
This book reads like the worst of blogs. I appreciate that there is an internet generation, but let’s not confuse poetry with, ‘this is what I’m thinking right now, if I put it on a page it will become profound.’ And it just isn’t enough to state that the poet might be ‘aware’ of the childishness she puts forward, and that all of this is done in the name of irony. If that’s the hope for this book, then it’s twice dead: bland, self-absorbed confession and “the idea” of bland, self-absorbed confession are equally mundane. People who ready Kennedy and like it might complain that “never getting anywhere, never doing anything” is the point. They also might like reading their friends’ diaries and talking about how life sucks, knowing in the process that doing so is lame, and assuming that this brand of self-awareness saves the day.
Which calls to mind a Roland Barthes essay, “Operation Margarine.” Barthes uses the example of a margarine commercial where someone states that a mousse made with margarine is “unthinkable.” But once the commercial has met the viewers’ stereotypes about margarine head on, “one’s eyes are opened, one’s conscience becomes more pliable, and margarine is a delicious food, tasty, digestible, economical, useful in all circumstances.” The mousse isn’t so bad after all: “The moral at the end is well known: ‘Here you are, rid of a prejudice which cost you dearly!’”
As Barthes states, sometimes “a little ‘confessed’ evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil”: “What does it matter, after all, if margarine is just fat, when it goes further than butter, and costs less?” But margarine that acknowledges its own weaknesses is still margarine. To be so plain about one’s weaknesses and label it irony is rarely more than an attempt to hide them. This is absolutely the case with Kennedy. There are a million pink diaries out there that would make a better read.
But I don’t want to be overly cruel. What is really interesting is that this book has been published. No one at any point in the reading to final publishing process thought to question these poems? The best I can come up with is that Muumuu House convinced itself this is something that it isn’t. The press delights in poets who stamp “look at me i’m self-conscious” on their foreheads. But the notion that responding to anxiety and self-consciousness by “telling it all” makes for depth needs to be destroyed. Especially when the subject refuses to invent, has nothing to say anyway.