Kevin Connolly is known for being something of a pop culture poet. His earlier poems would skewer the likes of Madonna and drew praise from the likes of Silver Jews’ frontman David Berman.
The table of contents section of Connolly’s fourth and latest poetry collection, Revolver, would lead you to believe that he still has that old pop touch. The poems’ tiles at least, are named more or less after popular songs, such as “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, “North American Scum”, “Train in Vain” and “Our Lips Are Sealed”.
Unfortunately for Connolly, that’s pretty much where the pop comparisons end in Revolver, which is a disappointing collection of 45 poems that barely scrape the highs of his earlier work, most notably Asphalt Cigar (1995). The poems’ titles bear little resemblance to their content. What we get is a poet who is reaching towards his contemporaries in the CanLit poetry scene in writing poems about esoteric subject matter. Or the beauty of nature. Take the first poem in the collection, “Terre Haute”, for example:
We’re used to a season progressing logically,
then, heading south by car, it suddenly
makes no sense in reverse: a race from
ice to snow, gray earth and nippled trees,
pooled water and mud, then the first white blades,
seeming to expire when they’re really
cutting way for flowers.
Any idea what he’s talking about? Me, neither. What’s happened to the Connolly of old? The one who wrote poetry about the Happyland fire in New York City? Connolly’s past work was more interesting as it probed the dark corners of pop culture, and seemed to evoke imagry that is easily digestible. Take this poem from 1995’s Asphalt Cigar (Coach House Press) called “Raw Dought (for Arthur Penn)” about Bonnie and Clyde:
Clyde used to think that if he
looked the bullets in the eye
they’d freeze somehow—like
rodents on a wild highway—
find their own weight and tumble
to the pavement.
There are a few interesting poems in this collection, granted. “Litany” is a question and response poem about an interrogation that is both surreal and bizarre. “Antonia Is Not The Plasterer” is a lesson in deductive reasoning turned inside out. “I Really Need Ted Lilly To Throw The Hook” is a poem about baseball, a subject that the common man can really relate to.
However, Revolver is just padded with too much esoterica. This exists in the poem “Foreward” which starts off each stanza with a word that is meant to expand on what follows, but seems to just wallow in its own cleverness.
egg—you have a beautiful skin,
it opens like a shopping mall, releases
happy bubbles or thoughtul modesties,
scouring the hills for ancient carvings
With this collection, Connolly has really lost the plot. I can’t help but wonder what happened, if the Trillium Poetry Award he won for his last collection, drift (2005), went to his head and suddenly inspired Connolly to write poems in the style of pretty much every other bigwig Canadian poet out there. That style is sort of the rob mclennan school of poetry, where style counts over substance and tips of the cap to one’s peers count over original thought.
While Connelly did this earlier in his career, too, the acknowledgement section of his newest book notes a few poems that are “glosses” on Mark Twain aphorisms, cut up and rearranged—or that the poem “Thirty-One” is a take on William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 31. (mclennan once trotted out a series of poems over time at an Ottawa Literary Reading that deliberately borrowed elements from other Canadian writers.) Here’s “Thirty-One”‘s opening lines:
Your skin is pierced with hunted hearts
I trifled with and left for lost,
Their full wings, airy arts?
Frail instruments I took for ghosts.
I happened to meet Connolly once at a writer’s festival in Ottawa, and while he was a personable figure in the flesh, he did flip through a copy of one of his earlier works in my presence and gave the following self-critique, roughly paraphrased: “There’s some interesting stuff in here, but a lot of these poems were just me messing around.” Revolver, alas, is choc-a-bloc with “just messing around”.