Knotting-Off the Aughts #7, Kevin Connolly’s drift
Year of Release: 2005
Place of Creation: Toronto
Press: Anansi (Toronto)
Mode of Acquisition: Purchased, from the late Pages Books on Queen, sometime during the month of October (I think), 2007. I came to Kevin Connolly’s work late. In my frantic education on all things Toronto Lit, his was just a name that didn’t stick until a sit-down with Ken Babstock, who was acting as both Kevin’s editor and my teacher at the Guelph MFA that fall. You should read this book, said Ken. Is this homework? I asked. Yes, he replied, I think it kind of is.
Status of Present Copy: That summer, I returned to my 4-months-a-year job helping to run a summer camp in Pennsylvania. Always on the lookout for shy young men and women who seemed, somehow, to be waiting for poetry to come and save them, I lent it to a teenager in the hopes that he would latch on to certain poems. As it turns out, he just latched on to the book, and took it home to rot in the shallow grave of Central New Jersey. For the record, here are the poems I highlighted in the Table of Contents, in pale yellow marker, next to some pithy, ridiculous nod of encouragement like “Have this for dinner” or maybe “See how these look on you”: Chain, Deep Thoughts and Important Feelings, Familial, and Spell G.O.D.
Brunette with cut flowers careening into traffic,
settling it: what starts the heart stops the world
-from “Women…Careening (last lines in drift)
Poets, generally speaking, have two ways of expressing their aesthetic diversity. In one, we see writers attempting to disappear under the masks they create from the casts of their big ideas. This can be a sublime display of virtuosity in flight, but it can also, despite this, come off a bit impersonal, a bit flat. You can sense that the poet might be jumping through hoops, playing scale. S/he may be working a routine chosen more for its degree of difficulty than its creator’s love of the poems. This is something you see a lot of in first collections, something that I was keenly aware of when finishing my own first collection, something that seemed so integral to the process of introducing yourself, that I didn’t know how to stop it, or if I wanted to. Poets who can stretch across forms, tones, and voices do so at a certain peril, because the personality of the author may become lost in that wilderness of speakers. At a certain point, the hijacker struggles to avoid becoming the hijacked.
Kevin Connolly is the other kind of poetic Renaissance Man, the better kind. His voice is so full and so flexible in drift that it moves easily between the confession, the conceptual piece, the philosophical meditation, and more than a few beaming entertainments. The through-line that keeps these tangents bent to a coherent shape is, for lack of a better word, Kevin Connolly. His voice is his gestalt mechanism, his voice (and here’s the trick, the rare thing that nobody else is doing) is his means of maintaining structure in a book as wild and disparate as drift. Whereas voice is seen as among the most insular or personal of poetic traits, and form and structure the most expansive or shared, this is quite a coup, more than enough for a poet to fashion their career from.
It was odd then to hear Connolly and Anansi talk up his follow-up to drift, Revolver (2008) by referencing the book’s central assignment (to write 64 poems about different things and in different voices) like it wasn’t exactly what the author had accomplished in his last endeavour. Revolver and drift are essentially companion pieces (joined, to lesser degrees, 1995’s Asphalt Cigar and 2002’s Happyland) they exist as a potential conversation between a single artist at two neighbouring points in his career. They’re not the same book, obviously, and it’d be dishonest to not point to the prevalence, in drift, of the sonnet form. I’d argue that Connolly’s sonnets are so minimal in their interpretation of the form (fourteen-line poems, discursive in nature) that the sonnet is more of a sprinkled motif than a repeated formal engagement. On the whole, I’d argue that Revolver is a little more uncertain, a little less pointed-to-the-epiphany, and a little broader in its range of creations. Drift isn’t quite as diverse, but I think that its left-field entries are better off because of it. Case in point, look at the high-concept stuff in both books. While they’re both expressing fun ideas, surely “Deep Thoughts and Important Feelings” is a better actual read than Revolver’s “Antonia is Not the Plasterer”.
While I’m more than willing to call the reading of one’s poetry a subservient art to the creation of said poetry, I respect when it’s done well. Specifically, I respect when a poet can be a master entertainer while appearing to do very little. On that note, let me say that Kevin Connolly is King Shit of the Mumbled Delivery. His reading persona is among the very best out there, equal parts “sensitive high school boyfriend” and “elegiac curmudgeon”. There’s an audio file out there on the interwebs of Connolly reading at the 2009 edition of Fredericton, New Brunswick’s Poetry Weekend. Having followed Griffin-winner Al Moritz on the bill, he begins by deadpanning, “I can’t believe I lost out to Al.” The crowd hushes for a split-second, then someone flashes an Applause sign or something and the crowd laughs and generally pretends to have gotten the joke all along. He does a poem from drift and then begins to introduce his next piece, a great one from Revolver about highway sprawl called “Terrre Haute”, when he stops short and says “I thought maybe with this audience I should begin by reading the epigraph” The epigraph is from Bill Knott and reads “I wish to be misunderstood:/that is/ to be understood from your perspective.” Connolly extra-sells the “your” and the crowd reacts in a similar way to the Moritz one-liner. A moment of silence, then someone guffaws, someone else seems to gasp, and the audio recording suggests a room full of people good-naturedly shouting “You got us, you son of a bitch, you got us where we hurts!”
What’s frustrating for someone who loves Connolly’s work, but loves it for reasons he can’t always illustrate and that seem to be contrary to the popular opinion, is that this epigraph is so obviously a friendly compliment. He’s being nice enough to help us get to know him better, he likes us. Connolly strikes me as a poet who takes misunderstandings to me the great value-chest of difficult art. If people misunderstand that, I can’t help them. But he, apparently, would like to.
Bonus Points: I’m trying to track down the audio recording of the Fredericton show described above. No dice, looks like the original’s been taken down and nobody’s re-seeded. In the interim, please accept the following link to Julie Wilson’s integral archive project, 30 in 30, wherein you can hear Kevin Connolly read Chain: from drift, among many other options.