Michael Kenyon’s latest book of poems undermines our obsession with linear time so that we are drawn out into a field of simultaneity―a field where predictable, temporal stories cannot hold―and are spun instead into a spatial face-to-face with light and dark, with personal and cultural history that appears as time-lapse photography, and with heart-breaking microcosms of personal memory set against threatening, ominous macrocosms of sweeping political change. Lamb is an exquisite book of poems.
That’s not surprising. Kenyon is one of our most gifted writers, in prose and poetry. In the tradition of T.S. Eliot and Joyce, he creates two psychological or spiritual fields of vision in Lamb that serve as a double optic: a personal field that reveals love and loss, especially of parents and death, and a public field that reveals our culture, our failures as a community, our fears for the future. The result is phantasmagorical, swelling with impossible juxtapositions of time and space, and with impossible visions that ultimately become completely possible.
The two fields mirror each other and their mysteries draw us in so that we want to follow them to the horizon. The first concerns a middle-aged man and his lover, and how each of them attempts to situate themselves in the world, the man especially grappling with aging parents and a puzzle of origin that is thrown at him late in their lives. Here are a few lines from “The Barley Mow, III”:
We circle our parents.
We approach them down the road at sunrise.
/ … /
approach in them comes back as a kind of
trust that will not unfurl in ten lifetimes,
no matter how long we circle or wait.
The second concerns the contradictory textures in the world we have made for ourselves and the risks we are willing to take to protect that world by either changing it or giving it over to the animals. Here is Kenyon in “Quartet: The World Speaks to the Stars”:
… it’s time to look past the fault
lines of books and marketplaces, nightmare
carbon forests, the thousand-bone berm, to
Africa and beneath Africa to
the seismic foundation of sea-sorrow.
Kenyon’s voice will remind readers of Eliot, Auden, Joyce and Woolf. The cadences are mesmeric:
… Put on the old duffel,
hood up, and leave the old life behind. Winter flood.
A drip from the roof onto the foot of the bed
on an evening at the trailer away from home.
On the edge of brilliance but not brilliant,
out of joy. Writing until the ink runs out.
And the stories open up out of the cadence of Kenyon’s voice and break into his two fields of vision:
A pale horse pulling a cart of corpses.
Open the book. The dead awaken and
The world ends (the map folded up).
Consciousness ends; the star falls.
Horse-locusts with human masks.
Landscape plays a central role in this sequence, too, as it offers up close imagery that completes both fields: Ottawa, an island off the coast of British Columbia, the Cypress Hills of southern Saskatchewan. Finally, Kenyon amplifies the acoustics in his work by layering them with literary echoes, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest in “I Waited at Mallaig,” that enhance his visions. Poetry lovers will love this dazzling book.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.