More of a River
October 11, 2019
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from SAL’s Poetry Series. At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 17, Richard Kenney will read at Seattle Central Community College—Broadway Performance Hall. Tickets are still available!
By Jason Whitmarsh
In 1997, I moved from western Massachusetts to Seattle so I could study poetry with Richard Kenney. I had no idea what he was like as a teacher; I just assumed that a brilliant writer (which he was, and is) must be a brilliant professor. I imagined, based on his books, he’d have some way of showing me how meter worked, how rhyme could still be an interesting and useful effect, and, most of all, how I could become a poet. That’s a ridiculous set of expectations, of course. That’s asking not just for the moon, but for Kenney’s moon, the one that appears in the poem “Good as a Mile,” from his new collection, Terminator:
Not “the moon,” I’m telling you! Not a pale communion-wafer, but an astral
entity, curving, stippled, dented, an entire rock sky yawing steeply away on
the shadowed side, adrift. It was bigger than gibbous. It looked sensational as
one of those artist’s impressions of “Callisto rising, as seen from the surface
of Ganymede.” It felt like science fiction. I almost swerved the car.
I bring all this up not to say how right I was back then (though I was: Kenney was by far the best teacher I’ve ever had), but because I think that everything I learned from his teaching, all the insights into sound, image, and tone; all the playfulness; all the intensity and precision; all those things are part of his poems, too. Kenney’s work is as alive and thrilling and fully human as anything I’ve read. It’s the result of an extraordinarily curious mind and a world that is deeply felt—and it somehow includes us in that mind and in that experience. I read these poems and I see and think and (most astonishing of all) feel more acutely.
The first love poem in Terminator is one of Kenney’s best, imbuing the ordinary and the exotic with a direct tenderness:
As hours back up in the clogged drain
of the glassy water clock,
as the assignation of the wind and spun vane—
I’ll love you as the foghorn vague in rain—
Magnetic swipe to the blinking lock
is me to you.
As cat’s-paw cowlicks eddies in the spring grain—
that’s my eye on you.
How camels catch the scent of far water clear
through obfuscating myrrh,
that’s me for you. True:
I love you as the summer hammer
stuns the wold
I tell you what:
I love you as our mer-
child loves the strong signal of the world,
as the whorled fingerpad loves Morse,
but more so. Worse.
It’s hard to hear a foghorn the same way after “vague in the rain.” Hard, too, not to imbue your hotel cardkeys with all sorts of feelings. And those eddies in the spring grain: there’s a moment to notice, next time. But it’s the ending that carries the poem, that devastating and funny and oddly intimate “worse,” which is somehow more loving than its opposite . . .