The One-Strand River: Poems 1994-2007

by Richard Kenney
Knopf 2008
Reviewed by Jackie Clark


The Sweater-Vest of Academe

kenneycoverMost girls that I know who graduated from a liberal arts college with a BA in English/Literature more often than not have a story about what a big crush they had on one (or more) of their English professors. As an undergrad, my crush’s name was Professor Jarrells. In truth, he was really one of the first “guys” I had ever met who enjoyed reading writers like Kerouac and Calvino for fun (having not had too many “ambitious” friends in high school) so you can see how easy it was for my imagination to get swept away with romantic possibilities, especially after learning that he was also a huge Wilco fan.

That being said, there is also another type of professor that can also be found hiking through the campus nature reserves on any given afternoon, one that invariably will be wearing a pair of old New Balances and a sweater vest and will teach “humanities” classes, as the scope of their knowledge also encompasses philosophy and ancient history. This is the professor who always seems to be at home in his skin and often conjures a prophetic disposition akin to Dumbledore’s, the kind of guy who kept a jar of organic peanut butter in his desk drawer way before trans-fats were outlawed in New York. This type of professor tugs the heartstrings of young girls as someone whom they can admire and in be awe of, but can never quite get to know, which I guess is part of their allure.

The poems of Richard Kenney as collected in The One-Strand River: Poems 1994-2007 read somewhere in the middle of these two academic types, possibly landing closer to the latter. Either way, Kenney’s poems are a good mix of enlightened, global judgments and self-(de)aggrandizing with language obviously drawn from an extensive vocabulary. The word “sang-froid” makes a casual appearance, as does the term “volkerwanderung,” which means the migration of a peoples, more or less between AD 300-700. This guy knows not only his history but his Latin as well. I visited the dictionary constantly while reading The One-Strand River, looking up words like pate, azimuth, coign, and orrery—and this is only in the span of 10 pages. The book itself clocks in around 170. Reading these poems made me feel like I was gearing up to take the G.R.E.s again.

Some common devices these poems employ include the use of italics to make a point, especially useful in instances when the speaker is pointing out how others don’t get the point (of the poem possibly, but more often than not the ways in which they [everyone except the speaker] don’t get how to not live like a 21st century consumption-monster without regard for the bigger picture). For example, in the poem “Air Sublime,” a poem more or less about how amazing it is that humans have the ability to fly, you know, on that philosophical level, the last line reminds us “it’s not about headphones and Coke.” And he’s right. There are bigger things at work around us then our own leisure but I wonder how much it needs to be pointed out, especially if we assume that the majority of the people reading these poems probably have the same kind of enlightened consciousness as the poet himself. Perhaps that is a bold assumption. Perhaps not.

Every line of poetry in this book, regardless of whether or not the previous one is enjambed, begins with a capital letter, an aesthetic choice that is way outside today’s mainstream. It is interesting to notice the way generational styles can serve as either a coveted invitation or a complete turn off. For me, it was a turn off.

For the most part, the poems in The One-Strand River don’t exceed one page and are neatly tucked into stanzas of mostly equal size. There are poems such as “Epicycles” that charmingly use repetition in a quasi-Ground Hog’s day fashion and “Poetry” which laments how future anthropologists will say of our time that we lacked culture because reading poetry seems something that collectively folks are valuing less and less. Overall these poems are inoffensive and reassuring. References to Greek concepts like thanatos and Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra pleasantly return one to a place of academic wonder and impression and the feeling that there are still honest people living, writing, and learning around us. The insularity of academia notwithstanding.