In his previous collections, Kevin Connolly didn’t deny his reliance on found text—he lifted, glossed, and annotated both direct borrowings and inspirations. The more comprehensive recycling that structures Xiphoid Process may indicate the growing influence of conceptual writing and increased use of found text across swaths of contemporary poetry. Connolly’s approach to copying, however, is less radical than recent works like Ken Babstock’s On Malice and Moez Surani’s Operations. Rather, it is a snarkier – yet more formally conservative – poet taking aim at past versions of himself by using his own work as found text.
In the first section of the book, four poems are named after Connolly’s previous collections: Asphalt Cigar, Happy Land, Drift, and Revolver. Three of these poems work forwards through the poems of their eponymous collections, lifting lines and making small adjustments; “Drift” does the same but in reverse. This strategy teases supplementary meanings out of the original material: “Asphalt Cigar” deadpans, “First time you’re late you’re fired. / Day after day, everything the same. Villages burning,” condensing lines from that collection’s “Biograffiti” – a multi-page litany of platitudes – into a still more disorienting picture of everyday misery.
The following section, an erasure poem made from “Song of Myself,” ironizes the author’s self-mythologizing by reducing Whitman’s stately lines to earthier images of hair, bugs, and dirt. Connolly’s humour benefits from a vocabulary unmarked by current pop-culture references, while Whitman’s most recognizable line – “I am large, I contain multitudes” – mutates into “And who walks over me? Multitudes.” The poems of “Arena Rock,” meanwhile, riff on the substitution of song titles for those of Connolly’s poems in Revolver’s table of contents. (This time, the poems themselves get titles like “Fooled Again” and “Stop Believing.”) Lines like “You say Bon Joe-vi, I say Bon Jaw-vie” – from “Halfway There” – resonate with the songs’ tampered-with titles and hooks.
Throughout, Connolly’s tone is as snarky as ever. In the poem “Hipster on a Fixie,” he delves into a hipster’s privilege:
It’s not that you’re unemployed, it’s that you’re unemployable,
too vague to remember your shifts, too weak to lift a thing.
It’s not the glasses when you don’t have a prescription.
It’s not even the wallet chain. Not really. It’s that the wallet is
somehow always full, and leather when you’re all “meat is murder.”
These moments critique the class inequalities that structure all our lives but are sometimes less visible than other systems of oppression; in the process, they match the self-reflexivity of Connolly’s reuse of his own words earlier on.
And yet, this critique comes off as a bit smug. In its harvesting of Connolly’s previous books, Xiphoid Process takes a jab at the seeming ubiquity of found text in contemporary poetry, in the process sharpening the criticisms made by his past poetic selves. Paradoxically, however, Connolly’s use of himself as source exalts this persona, shielding it from criticism. The result reads like a slickly abridged selected as much as a welcome new instalment in Connolly’s oeuvre.
Carl Watts holds a PhD in English Literature from Queen’s University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as The Cincinnati Review, The Cortland Review, CV2, Grain, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014; his debut chapbook, REISSUE, was published in 2016 by Frog Hollow Press.
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