CLUES FROM THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, Christopher Kennedy’s fifth poetry collection, reviewed by Jonah Davis

When the life we are born into isolates us, leaves us in an inescapable malaise, when ‘pain is the only feeling’ and we’re forced to watch time pass by through the eyes of an animal—where do we go? To religion? Family? Relationships? No. Here there are no gods, here family is but an empty word used for those who are now strangers to us. The reality that was once passively accepted as there is now hollow, uncertain of itself. What to make of such uncertainty? Perhaps there is nothing we can do. Except wait. Wait in a world that’s between this one and another. It’s no surprise why Christopher Kennedy opens his collection of prose poems with an epigraph by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton:

I thought it was the Inferno but it was Purgatory

Kennedy finds himself as a speaker stuck in the electric middle ground between this world and another, between paradise and damnation.

The landscape of this netherworld is bleak. It’s a landscape that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins described, ‘…is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.’ But unlike Hopkins, who finds redemption in Christianity’s Holy Ghost, Kennedy claims ‘the religions of the world offer no solace.’ In moments like this, Kennedy seems to portray a special intuition that we don’t have access to outside of his book. He knows something we don’t; namely that there’s a whole world, a transcendent experience to be had that’s not here. In such a place, Kennedy looks to the clues that nature provides. Clues that, in the end, are consolations for our existential disillusionment.

Echoes of Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” reverberate within this disillusionment. In that poem, Stevens is searching for humanity’s place apart from concepts which have been undermined, just like Kennedy. J. Hillis Miller said that in “Sunday Morning” we find: “Religions, myths, philosophies, and cultures are all fictions and pass away.” I believe this speaks in harmony with Clues from the Animal Kingdom. Not only have both Stevens and Kennedy discovered former concepts to be fictions, they also—in their own way—look to nature in the aftermath. Where, for Stevens, ‘April’s green endures,’ for Kennedy, the natural world provides a similar inspiration which endures. Nature is what’s truthful for both poets. And throughout Clues from the Animal Kingdom, Kennedy is searching for some kind of truth. In the midst of his search, we’re transported to a type of purgatory where the poet unravels the human heart.

Each poem is like an instrument that the speaker uses to eviscerate his heart and explore its contents. This is most apparent in “Against Surrealism.” Stated matter-of-factly, ‘The human heart weighs ten ounces, but I don’t know if it can float.’ What oozes from the heart is the truth, hanging in the air like Halley’s Comet. But what do we want from the truth? No answer. For even ‘the daylilies are silent’. Then the repeated phrase: ‘I don’t know if a human heart can float’. How could it? It’s a heart weighed down by self-doubt and the thought of memories being trampled on by wild horses. Even if the speaker’s heart ‘beat like a hummingbird’s wings’ at one time, it doesn’t quench the fear that ‘I believe my heart would sink.’ What a despairing line! But a truthful line, nonetheless. And what we want from the truth is embedded throughout these poems: honesty. Honesty. It’s what prevents those former concepts from clouding the mind, clouding memory and experience. More importantly, honesty is what gives access to Kennedy’s intuition that was previously unknowable. In order to find our place in such a desolate world as Kennedy’s, we need to be honest. Up until this point, he hasn’t been one to mince words. He doesn’t avoid saying the hard things, the honest things. His book acts as a proverb, whose aphorism is: a heart that believes it will sink is better than a heart that assumes it’ll float.

Clues from the Animal Kingdom is to be understood as its own microcosm. It manifests itself as a purgatory that’s only inhabitable inside Kennedy’s prose. This isn’t where ‘Our cells are being replaced by false cells…until we are / machines that resemble us’; rather, it’s a place ‘… between earth and outer space.’ When reading these poems we are elevated somewhere that isn’t entirely here nor there—it’s somewhere else. Kennedy brings humanity to this purgatory because this might be where its place is found. He and his poetry position us in the in-between so that we may say the right things. And in saying the right things we longer participate in a world muddied by dishonesty and untruth.

It might feel natural to experience anxiety or dreariness after an initial reading, or to feel caught in a limbo like the speaker is at times. After all, ‘(Who guards the gates of limbo?)’. Yet this isn’t what I felt. Kennedy’s words elicit emotional pangs that leave us more truthful than we were before. It is the lucidity of his language, the emotional force of his poems, that leave such a remarkable impression. His search for rightness is what brings him to nature, looking for an inspiration that uncovers truth within the human heart. The truth that Clues from the Animal Kingdom finds is what makes the search for humanity’s place so compelling. Kennedy has done poetry’s work: to find the right words for what was once inexpressible.

Clues from the Animal Kingdom, by Christopher Kennedy. Rochester, New York: BOA Editions Ltd, September 2018. 104 pages. $17.00, paper.

Jonah Davis is an English major at Amherst College, whose favorite poet is Frank O’Hara.

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