A great deal of poetry – and thus, a great deal of poetry criticism – is taken up, whether explicitly or otherwise, with the notion of tradition. Where a poet is situated within a tradition, how poems speak to – or actively against – a particular set of conventions or formal concerns among writers of a given nationality, ideological strain, or philosophical bent often forms the lynchpin for understanding the work in question. Harold Bloom referred to “the anxiety of influence,” and in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot made explicit the degree to which this concern resonates among poets and their readers: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
More than many of his contemporaries, Kevin Connolly seems cognizant of this facet of poetic practice, something he honours frequently in the breach. “Song,” which comprises the second section of Connolly’s challenging and playful fifth collection, is a particularly clear example of this. An erasure poem – or, in Connolly’s preferred term, a “redaction” – “Song” deconstructs Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” dispensing with the American poet’s rambling, cascading verbiage and replacing it with terse, declarative sentences: “It is generally thought we are sinking. / The serene stand in beams of a moon, but they surrender us.”
The choice of source material is telling: Whitman’s poem is a document of middle age (the speaker identifies as someone “thirty-five years old in perfect health”), and Xiphoid Process (the title refers to a structure in the human sternum that ossifies in adulthood) is a defiant reckoning with the discombobulations of that life stage. “To hell with equanimity,” Connolly writes in the opening line of the title poem, “I fucking hate turning fifty.” The poem represents an interrogation of meaning at the mid-point of a life, along with a recognition of limits and the gradually decreasing horizon of opportunity: “Not much I’ve done could be called / questionable and only acrobats or stuntmen switch horses mid-race.” The speaker is likened to vestigial organs in the body that have little meaning or function: “Appendix, hamate bone, xiphoid process; did they really lose their / sense of purpose, or could it be they just never found one?”
This poem also tilts in the direction of another Connolly trait: humour. “[S]lapstick trumps everything,” the poet writes in “Autumnal,” and many of the poems in Xiphoid Process exhibit a sharp, wisecracking nature. “Hipster on a Fixie” locates an aging speaker in cynical opposition to a younger, self-consciously cool poseur: “Hipster, I don’t hate you because you’re young, / I hate you because you’re you.”
“You want to be Sherman then language must be Old Atlanta: / taken by force,” Connolly writes in what could be considered a manifesto or statement of purpose for his book. The means by which he takes language by force involve a strain of “plunder” – rifling material from sources as varied as Whitman, Suzannah Showler, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Eagles. A series of black cows wander aimlessly through one poem adapted from a police blotter. Another poem reproduces a fractured transcript of former ESPN sports reporter (and current host of Dancing with the Stars) Erin Andrews’s 911 call in 2009; the cut-up version of the transcript operates as a way of commenting on cultural assumptions and our fascination with celebrity and voyeurism.
Connolly’s relationship with tradition involves revision and reconstruction, and even extends to his own work (four poems in the new book sport the titles of each of the poet’s previous collections). He reflects Margaret Atwood’s conception of Shakespeare as a “magpie” taking “a bit here, a bit there, the shiny bits.” The result is a heterodox collection that defies conventional expectations, but opens itself up to broadened interpretation and implication with each successive reading.