Disjunction and interrogation form the backbone of Jake Kennedy’s Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play. The poems in the collection circle each other, continuously question themselves and embrace a position of uncertainty.
This position is achieved through the poetic structure where a subject is presented only to be doubted by the qualifier that follows. In “Futuromania” qualifiers in square brackets open and confuse the interpretation of the line: “for instance [matter of fact]”; “gallows in the public square—[informational].” Meanwhile notes in round brackets—“(anything better?)”—offer an outside opinion. In “On Fear”
The body (it might be Lorca’s?) gives up to (as if entirely for) the photograph: throwing the arms out like this; I suppose (in order to release) fear confesses, too;
Here, Lorca is the qualifier of the body, or is he? Again the brackets suggest an offhand thought and the question mark troubles the reference, and the following bracketed sections continue this troubling. Brackets function as the author’s footnotes, uncertainties, suggesting the reader could substitute any image, any action. Lorca is just one possibility.
Language interrogates meaning by presenting a qualifier and then retracting it. This happens in “A Brief History of the Cemeteries of Huron County Ontario” where “it is not like this, it is like this / for those who do or do not” and again in “On Idleness”
Whatever. It is grotesque? This here lugubrious spirit-bile: coffee in a glass mug. Milton’s or Montaigne’s or Baudelaire’s or Dickinson’s or YOUR PLUMBER’s gloomy lassitude.
In the first example, the subject is troubled by its own being, doing or not doing, and in the second the repetition of “or” layers image upon image, diminishing its importance. Action and definition are hollow, without meaning. So what if you did? The body is anyone’s. The bile is everyone’s. Yet questioning and naming play a significant role in the collection.
The book is full of references to art (filmmakers, writers, artists) but more important is critical theory. The root question: how does the artist read and place himself (against) (alongside) (over-top-of) those who came before him? The “I” often takes the backseat in these poems and the second person “you” takes its place, suggesting the writer is at a remove from historical context. And yet the act of naming and the referencing of art implies the contemporary artist cannot be fully independent. The artist, “I,” is dependent upon all the others, but which ones? In what way? Should we consider the plumber as context?
The answers seem to be in the references to landscapes and the post-impressionism of Cézanne and van Gogh: “& who couldn’t use / big landscapes to confess to / such as a field / with cauliflowers in it.” The contemporary artist is part of the field, a brush stroke, speck in the landscape; the poet is a reader, impressed upon by the work of others.
Sitting here, boiling it down, I bite my tongue, because while theoretical ideas unify the collection, there is a riotous rejection of theory and a troubling of academia in the pop-culture references and language (Zorro, Kool-Aid, yippee-ki-yay, imam-blow-yer-fkin-shack-down). The tone of the collection took me back to university, where I simultaneously embraced and mocked the role of theory. It is this rebellion against the institution and the embrace of uncertainty which make the book so compelling; each poem gets inside you, giving voice to both reason and angst.
Nina Jane Drystek is a poet, short story and non-fiction writer from Ottawa, Canada. She works in social media for the Ottawa Writers Festival and other literary organisations in Ottawa and serves coffee. Her poetry has been published by In/Words Magazine and Window Cat Press, and she has self-published two chapbooks.
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