The Freewheelin' Kevin Connolly
Without naming names, one of my big issues with Canadian poetry—or modern poetry, perhaps, altogether—is that it’s too experimental, too gimmicky or just too darn concerned with form over fun. There are also only so many new poems I want to hear about, say, the beauty of a forest, since Walt Whitman, et al did that sort of thing better when there were actually nice forests to write about.
That’s where a guy like Kevin Connolly walks in and blows the socks off every would-be poet in the room. This Torontonian can write a sonnet and follow all of the basic forms of metering—if and when he wants to. (Sometimes, Connolly goes off into free-verse rambling, too, which sometimes works and sometimes not.) What separates him from the pack, however, is that the guy can also be very, very funny. There are very few poems that conjure up an image of the Easter Bunny drinking Old Speckled Hen, or—in one from an earlier 1995 collection called Asphalt Cigar—Madonna being awful in bed.
His fortitude at mixing surrealism with humor has earned Connolly at least one follower of note in the indie rock scene: Silver Jews’ frontman David Berman, who also has published poetry in book form. On the back cover of this collection, Connolly’s third in 10 years, Berman not only blurbs that this will be the only blurb he’ll ever write—we’ll hold him to that promise—but that the book is “fucking hilarious,” which, incidentally, marks the second time in recent memory that I’ve seen the f-bomb used as an adjective in a blurb to promote a Canadian book. (The first being on the back-cover of Colin McAdam’s Some Great Thing, though I suppose I’m digressing here.)
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book knee-slappingly funny, but there are quite a few cute bits that skewer pop culture. The poem “Deep Thoughts and Important Feelings” seemingly references the mock feel-good greeting card platitudes of faux Saturday Night Live personality Jack Handey:
If women gave birth through their noses there’d be
a lot more of those knife-happy pediatric surgeons a-
round, not to mention a healthy run on rhinoplastics
Somewhat disappointingly, though, this book seems a little like a collection of quickly thrown-together odds and sods: it lacks any of the distinctive flow. The reason is quite simple, actually. The poems here are collected and printed in an A to Z alphabetical running order. Thus, a (rather good) poem about Donald Rumsfeld trying to write a poem oddly precedes the now-obligatory 9/11 piece found much later in the book. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for this, either. In fact, I’d say that Drift is an adequate title for the book since it’s all over the map.
I also was a bit let down by Connolly’s penchant to drift into stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Granted, this has always been something of a Connolly trademark, but he seems to be more cryptic than he was in his Asphalt Cigar days.
Buffering this theory, Drift ends with a piece entitled “Write What You Know,” which is then followed by a blank page. While this can be taken as an invitation for the reader to participate in the process of creating Connolly’s art, it also suggests—if one can go by the lengthy acknowledgments noting where bits of other poets’ work were “sampled”—that he’s not writing what he knows or has experienced. That he’s now casting about into uncharted territory.
This comes as a bit of a double-edged sword. I’m not one to go against an artist out to try new things, but I liked Connolly a lot better when he wasn’t letting his influences show as much. For instance, I think he relies on epigraphs perhaps once or two too often in Drift. To me, the epigraph is just a fancy way for a poet to say, “Here are my influences. Cool, eh?”
Still, that all said, I’d rather watch Connolly cast around a bit than read some of his more pretentious peers find their way into print. His work is usually hilarious, engaging and intelligent, despite some misfires, and should be read by anyone who thinks poetry is merely old and stodgy. Look past some of the shortcomings, and you’ll find a poet who at least tries to captivate his audience without having to resort to strange guttural sounds and wounded coffeehouse poetry. That’s a good thing, if you catch my drift.