Thursday, January 12, 2012

What Matters: A Review

What Matters. Adele Kenny.
New York, NY: Welcome Rain Publishers, Nov. 2011. 62 pages, ISBN: 978-1-56649-079-5

(click the image to be taken to where you can oder What Matters)

What Matters is Adele Kenny’s twelfth poetry collection. Its poems are a beautiful balance of music and thematic sensitivity. The collection is composed of 3 sections, the middle one being that in which she confronts the difficulty of surviving cancer. The 2 flanking sections, “Where Memory is Holy” and “We Don’t Forget,” suggest that the power of memory and not survival is the main subject of this collection. Of course, the truth is that it’s the relationship between memory and survival that is intimately explored throughout.

These poems are a real pleasure to read. For the first time in a long time, I was struck by the simple enjoyment of an alliterated line, such as “At dusk, deer feed in a corner of the field.” Or “The sound rattles and rings—far from the/sea, from the stone circle” or, one of my favorites, “flung from the sun’s infallible fist.” There is also the beauty of internal rhyme such as “your heart skipped and flipped, lungs/strung like pebbles on wire.” Kenny, of course, uses more subtle techniques. She is clearly a poet with an ear trained to the beauties and subtleties of the music in our language. But she is also adept at articulating themes with striking imagery and keen sensitivity.

One is seized by the clarity of such images as “bearded yogurt,” or “frost burns the marigolds.” But what heightens these images is their service to exploring the difficult connection between memory and mortality. The book’s first section is a past, a childhood where memories are created, where life feels like “the world without end.” In the poem “East Rahway,” Kenny says, “The past is my first language, a speakable grace.” This grace has the power of resurrection, since in the first section as family pets die, as parents die, still, “you are with me because I remember.” Kenny also seems deeply aware, as I imagine most poets are, of the intimate ties among memory, imagination, desire and dreams. These are all expressions of a single faculty projecting itself in different directions: forward, backward, toward a person or an object or a goal. So in this first section there is a poem about the innocent desire in those who are too young to articulate exactly what is so stirring about the snake woman at the circus as “the snake slid/between her breasts and made its/thick descent along her thighs.” Or in “The Sap Bush” this faculty emerges as imagination when

. . . I imagine us there, called
back in middle age

to a language of stars that was larger than
logic and never quite lost.

The middle section, “Somehow the Angel,” is a door to pass through, or more strikingly, it is a fixed moment, as if within it, time slows or even comes to a stop. In fact, in two of the poems of the middle section, the last word is “through.” This section is the moment of trial, suffering and survival. We get through it with the poet, learning not just to survive, but to confront the nameless, as the title of a poem from the middle section declares, “No Word for It.” It is where “the surgeon says I have bad/news.” In confronting the cancer, the fear and the treatments, Kenny reveals how all our faculties become enslaved to the present. The poem “In Which” concludes

. . . I imagine a
stone, it’s slow wearing down, the
light in which it casts no shadow.

Here the faculty of imagination expresses itself as the focus on a fixed point, a stone—a gravestone? Perhaps but even if it isn’t a gravestone the focus closes the speaker off from the future and the past: memory fails, desire fails. The image contrasts with an image in the title poem from the final section when the survivor reaffirms her place in life and we are told

What matters is the quiet beak of a lark in the seed,
the dead tree’s shadow that stretches upstream.

One could understand these two contrasting points as being what’s outside time versus what dwells in it. Even for the dead tree, what matters is the shadow it casts upstream, i.e., into the past, which is a version of time. Thus there is a double-entendre in the title, for What Matters isn’t only what is significant but what is incarnate, embodied, what is alive in the sense that we know it here on earth. In an early poem of the last section where the one who has survived is renewed and reaffirmed in life, the poem “And Is” says,

. . . This is the world,
flung from the sun’s infallible fist, an
arrangement of light that praises the
wonder of substance.

This substance is present also in the middle section in its most ethereal manifestation: an angel. Even its presence has a terrestrial feel in the poem “Somehow the Angel” where, in the midst of the battle with cancer, considering suicide, in “taking all the pills,”

Always, then, the old angel wheezes in.
Not quite luminous, never on his knees,
his wings creak, beat at oblique angles
(all that flapping—it’s hardly celestial)
but his own

weight escapes him.

As we survive this confrontation with mortality, that faculty which connects us with all of life revives, even in the middle section. In the poem “And Nothing Less,” Kenny says, “her dreams want her back.” Surviving the cancer is not a sudden epiphany, as survival never really is, but a gradual return to the light, a slow dawning. The final poem in this section returns memory in full where the speaker looking at a jay making noises at a squirrel, “reminds me of when I was five and//something died in our drain spout.” Surviving means returning to memory, finding life echoing, resonating with other moments. That’s how survival contrasts with living. In the middle of survival, the moment resonates with nothing, there is no echo.

We enter the final section where “Life goes on.” Here we come to a realization, an insight on the other side, which is how intimately memory and death are connected. The poem “In Memory Of” says,

. . . There is always
a background (that far, this close), and what memory
does—like the dusky lines of a double shadow,
it multiplies loss.

And the poem “Coming and Going” says, “You count/your losses, the wounds that//are yourself.” Every moment that passes is a death that now is only real in memory and yet, that very memory makes us who we are. This inextricable bond means that in the end it is not forgiveness but grace that is our salvation. The final poem of the collection, “We Don’t Forget,” concludes:

Grace is acceptance—

all of it, whatever it is—as
in we live for this: love
and gratitude enough.

We don’t forget
how it feels to rejoice.

What Matters is a collection that confronts darkness and the fear of death without being ponderous. It offers hope and light without being insipid or sentimental. More than my brief review can detail, it explores the complex point at which memory and mortality, identity and death are intimately connected. And this is all accomplished with a music and imagery that will please any reader.


  1. A spot-on review and some of the most perceptive interview questions I've ever read. Congrats to you, Michael, and to Adele Kenny! (I have the book, and it's beyond superb!)