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Book Review Sean Thomas Dougherty

Trouble with the Machine
Christopher Kennedy
Low Fidelity Press, $11

Christopher Kennedy’s second book takes off from where his first Nietzsche’s Horse left off, engaging in a kind of indeterminate brief prose space not quite prose poem, not quite short-short, not quite…prose? Kennedy offers us the experience of a new form of prose that sometimes riffs the historically situated parablistic prose poem, but often verges into a surreal essay, or even the French feuilletons (a sort of “ephemeral reportage”). One thinks of the many modes of Borges and Pessoa, or the ironic distance of Holub when reading these slight paragraphs, but even then the comparison or mark of influence falters; Kennedy’s impulse is situated in parodying the psychological pop and empty consumerism of American culture, such as in “The Fourteen Resurrections of a Normal Life,” where a man “thought the television was a window.” Yet it is rare in these texts that the subjects are made fun of—a further ironic step embedded within his parody. Instead, those who seem caught in their own “wounds,” their own inability to engage in discourse are—in the end—received with great compassion. Because of this many of the texts in Trouble with the Machine are deceptively tragic. The machine becomes more than System or Post-Modern metaphor but the organic machine of the human heart.

This deceptive emotional engagement is a product of prose. As true prose sentences, sound and musicality do not mark these texts. They are—for the most part—consciously resistant to the surface devices of poetry—alliteration, assonance, and rhyme are nearly absent. They are also oddly more functional in tone than much of the prose poetry currently being written in the states. A near comparison might be some of the essayistic prose poems of West Coast writer Morton Marcus. But Marcus is more the direct communicator whose prose resides close to conversational speech, while Kennedy is more the surrealist, constructing contrasts between action in the text and flat noun-verb, noun-verb syntax. Take for example the haunting “The Hundred-Odd Terrors of a Mature Life” quoted here in its entirety:

I have difficulty telling time. Yesterday, the little hand was
on the two, and the big hand was on the floor. The noise
outside could be the wind or a knife slicing across an
Adam’s apple. I’m going to have the furnace fixed next
week and ask the repairman to investigate the carrion
smell in the wall. Sometimes a bird dies and rots, leaving a
cage of hollow bones. In the meantime, when I look in the
bathroom mirror, a face reflects back to me so much like
my own, I almost say goodbye.

It is this almost goodbye, this almost final speech act, where one begins to understand the absurd world of these texts, perhaps closer to Samuel Becket by ideological impulse (though not linguistic exploration). It is Being and the difficulties of ontological presence and the irony of human social relations which are at the core of Kennedy’s small prose containers. These are speakers for whom social engagements and the Other—that body not his own—is distant and untouchable, for even the ability to live in one’s own body—to simply live is a deep struggle. Words like “person,” “human,” birth words like “born,” “fetal,” and the presence of a dominant “I” populate these texts. God or some version of God can be found in seven near sequential pieces with such titles as “The Gods of Indeterminacy” and” God is a Frail Chain-Smoking Woman.” For Kennedy’s argument is an argument with a seemingly random and absurd universe. His God is not New Testament but Old Testament with a black and sardonic humor. But it is the speaker—not God—who often has the last laugh, who finds under the covers his “Christ penis, Buddha penis, penis of what one desires”(The Early Worm).

Whereas many of the traditional surface techniques of poetry are absent from these texts, one technique that has become minor in much of contemporary poetry can be found here: the pun. These texts are littered with wordplay. Along with this is the deep use of metaphor and image, often with the metaphor constructed in the object position: “I spent all afternoon shoveling yesterdays into the fire” (Across the Calm Blue Lake). In “Doubting Thomas Syndrome” Kennedy utilizes these techniques to great effect. The text begins, “I brought my wounds to the party and introduced them to the other guests.” The poem proceeds to become a hilarious and painful send-up of over-sharing—how many of us have been the one or been cornered by someone at a party who reveals just a bit too much, whose insecurity leads them to “pick a fight”—all those uncontrollable wounds. The text ends with the great word play:

During the drive home, I said, for the last time, I wouldn’t be bringing any wounds with me to anymore parties. There was some giggling in the backseat. I mean it, I said to no wound in particular.

But Kennedy is not simply an ironicist obsessed with social critique. Irony, as too many young poets these days do not realize, it not enough. What enriches his ontological argument and offers the reader so much more than irony is his obsession with the beautiful. These texts are traversed with exquisite metaphorical, minimal moments, such as in the deceptively heartbreaking “Gongoozler”:

I was the idle spectator, the purveyor of trees and latitudes. There was no consequence. I was simply there, like a telephone pole. There were wires and invisible voices; there were people walking as if they knew where they were headed, wearing t-shirts that said something. I just folded into myself like origami. No one could guess what animal I was supposed to be.

What a beautiful and near cruel retreat from the social world. But it is not just human interaction that these speakers have trouble with, it is language itself. Those “t-shirts that said something.” And it is for this reason that the reader can begin to understand the elusive nature of these texts and their unwillingness to reduce to paraphrasable structures, instead relying—for the most part and to varying degrees—on the tools of the prose poem to defy the prose container, but at times even eschewing those—parable, parody, aphorism, and the surreal leap—for something near essayistic, something wholly new, a kind of absurdism where “The ceiling felt like the sidewalk. I appeared to be hovering about it in the perverse sky of my last coherent thought” (Waiting for the Lawnmower). It is this “Cartoon Logic” that eschews the fear of the crushing world by reinventing it, as in—perhaps—the book’s ars poetica:

To wake up content with dreaming as the room floats
like a square balloon or a really light and festive anvil.