Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Sometimes I come to even a small book late, as with Marc Kuykendall’s My Picayune Anxiety Room, a charming chapbook published three years ago by Barretta Books of New York in an edition of just 162 (12 signed & numbered, the remainder hors commerce). With just fifteen poems, only stretching out to a second page, you would think I might have finished this treat the instant it arrived. Yet I know the “unread books” bookcases – I have three, one large one for poetry, two smaller ones for critical writing and for fiction, biography, history & memoirs (all lumped together) – include other volumes no larger than this that reach back into the early ‘90s if not earlier.

Of course when time has passed since a book like this has been published, especially by somebody whose work I can’t really say I know¹, I’m curious as to why I haven’t heard more, or more recently, from or of them. Is Kuykendall one of those poets who will publish only one or two small books & move to something else as a defining life activity? It’s not possible to know from this reader’s distance, nor is it any characterization of quality – Ebbe Borregaard has some of the very best poems in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, but over the four-plus decades since that first came out, he’s been one of the least public of its contributors. David Melnick just has three books over the past 33 years and Eclogs, his first volume, has fewer poems than does Kuykendall’s book. Yet Melnick has more, and more ardent, followers than ever. Twice this week I’ve received inquiries concerning his current whereabouts (in retirement in San Francisco) & his recent writing (nonexistent).

Kuykendall’s book is quite good – that is both its secret & perhaps its curse. All of the poems are well-crafted, witty, intelligent, impossible not to enjoy. Yet there is little here that I have not seen the likes of elsewhere. In this sense – tho in this sense only – it reminds me of some School of Quietude volumes, well-wrought but thoroughly circumscribed by its historical moment.

Kuykendall writes what can only be called a late-generation NY School text – where images angle just slightly away from the expected & the open, discursive tone harkens back to Frank O’Hara’s adaptation of William Carlos Williams. My favorite piece here is a short one entitled “Two Poems”:

Speaking of ideal conditions,
I was halfway across the pool
getting stung on the lip by a bee
that had flown into my root beer,
when the little boy almost drowned.

I saw you later at the reading,
your gaze was like frozen pebbles.
I read the poem about how
you crushed a rose over my pants,
thought I made it seem like it
was about something else entirely.

That first stanza could be a case study in the influence of John Ashbery – starting in the middle, building through slow narrative twists to a final line that could not be anticipated from anything that has preceded it. The second stanza isn’t quite as successful – those last two lines could have been more efficient – but within the subgenre of love askew it’s a perfectly presentable text. Kuykendall’s obviously aware that the two stanzas don’t quite “fit” – hence the title – yet placing beside one another positions each to operate more sharply than either could solo.

This is a book deeply committed to Auden’s idea that poetry “makes nothing happen.” Yet the craft of each text, combined with a first-rate graphic design (Kuykendall printed the cover himself) betrays its seeming casualness. One wonders just what result Kuykendall was seeking. I, on the other hand, will be seeking out Kuykendall’s future work henceforth, hoping that this strong sense of craft pushes itself out more into a territory yet unknown.


¹ A search on Google doesn’t turn up much, tho a Mark Kuykendall is a graphic designer in Kansas City who claims that his favorite poet is Jack Kerouac & another has been a bass player for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. In November, 1845, one Matthew Kuykendall of Kentucky willed to his son Mark “one negro girl named Caroline.” The book's verso is somewhat more helpful - tho it does lack a copyright notice - crediting Sal Mimeo and The Hat for prior publication, plus thanking several people, Larry Fagin & Lisa Jarnot among them.