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May Books

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May 24, 2009

May Books

New work by Connolly, new release by Green

by Robert Kotyk, Shane Patrick Murphy

Kevin Connolly
House of Anansi Press, 2008

It’s painful to admit, but poetry can be pretty predictable. This is especially true for Canadian poetry that gets nominated for major literary prizes. A reader can usually expect some variation of contemplative, lovelorn verses building up toward a climactic, self-realizing epiphany. Kevin Connolly, in his new Griffin Prize-nominated collection, Revolver, is refreshingly aware of these conventions without falling victim to them. Instead of adopting a lone voice to examine a set of well-trodden themes, Connolly pursues a gamut of unexplored poetic possibilities. Nearly every poem touches upon a different subject matter and engages a different structure. Connolly rejects the role of the poet as sullen narrator. Disarming as it is upon an initial reading, there is no unifying voice, tone, or narrative in this collection. This is a poet clearly enamoured with poetry itself, making verse out of whatever sparks his gushing imagination.

The risk, and maybe the downfall here, is that Connolly’s collection can feel more like an anthology than the work of a single author. From the goofy to the downright depressing, Connolly bounces between the extremities of inspiration without any segue or transition. You can almost hear Connolly's muse asking: How about a nature poem? A love poem? Got any about sports?

What first strikes you as plain novelty and quirkiness gradually becomes endearing as Connolly's many personalities all carve out original and gripping poems. From the start, the book opens with a table of contents that lists the names of vaguely familiar rock songs. A turn of the page reveals that these are not the actual titles of the poems at all. We're left guessing whether this was Connolly's soundtrack while writing the collection, or if it's a poetic collage on its own. Once the poems get started, we are given one poem that sounds like a graduate-school admission exam from hell, one that parodies the catechism, and another that is composed of a few columns of disconnected words under the heading “Three Sonnets (Assembly Required).”

Connolly's inspirations are spelled out explicitly in his notes, ranging from Mark Twain, contemporary American poets like Charles Simic, and the Welsh noise rock band Mclusky. After taking account of his sources and then reading the collection a few times, Connolly becomes strangely cohesive and coherent. Even as the poems clash stylistically, his reoccurring preoccupations provide a tiny modicum of unity that gives this eccentric and disparate collection its own vitality.

—Shane Patrick Murphy

Henry Green
Dalkey Archive Press, 2009

Back, Henry Green’s 1946 novel of wartime homecoming, is loaded with enough individual suffering that it could almost take place on the battlefield from which its amputee-protagonist, Charley, has been salvaged.

Charley returns home to England to find that his pre-war sweetheart, Rose, has died in his absence, while her look-alike half-sister, Nancy, remains tortuously close at hand. The novel’s chief complication arises here, out of the sad fact that Charley’s wartime trauma and accompanying waves of self-preserving amnesia bar him from fully absorbing the news of Rose’s death. In meeting Nancy, Charley incorrectly assumes that he’s being reunited with his departed lover. Moreover, when Nancy rejects his affections, Charley descends into a confused turmoil, at one point enlisting the services of a handwriting expert to prove that the two sisters are one and the same.

Just as Green’s more touted masterpiece, Loving, documents the hermetic world of a tightly knit group of servants in a secluded Irish castle, Back bends around the wounded psyche of its protagonist with engrossing singularity. In one passage, the setting perfectly captures the muddled roiling of Charley’s simultaneous grief over Rose’s death and his hurt over Nancy’s persistent brush-offs.

He fled Rose, yet every place he went she rose up before him; in florists’ windows; in a second-hand bookseller’s with a set of Miss Rhoda Broughton, where, as he was staring for her reflection in the window, his eyes read a title, “Cometh up as a flower” which twisted his guts; also in a seed merchant’s front that displayed a watering can, to the spout of which was fixed an attachment, labelled ‘Carter’s patent Rose.’

Green emphasizes the inescapability of Rose’s memory by using the past tense of the verb “to rise” (“she rose up”) in the very sentence that introduces the ubiquity of her namesake. And amid Charley’s solipsistic bewilderment, Green the master stylist is out in full force. Beautiful, simile-laden descriptions like “[s]he was crying so much it made her face look like a pane of glass in the rain” crop up generously, appearing in scenes filled with Green’s meticulous simulation of English working-class speech.

Back is newly available from Dalkey Archive Press with a brilliant afterward by screenwriter and academic George Toles.

—Robert Kotyk

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