Poetry Shelf review: Erik Kennedy’s Another Beautiful Day

Another Beautiful Day, Erik Kennedy, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022
(Cover photograph: Max Oettli, ‘BLS train, Switzerland: man with jacket over head (dark)’, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (O.048413).

If I was capable of learning lessons
or believed in human nature
I could learn some lessons
about human nature

from the bits of themselves
people have lost
on the pavement
or in a hallway

from ‘Picking up Pieces of Paper Other People Have Dropped’

Erik Kennedy’s exuberant new poetry collection is in debt to life! I am talking reading, imagining, reacting, engaging. In a recent piece in The New York Times, Elisa Gabber asks what poetry is: ‘I think poetry leaves something out’. That is of course a starting point for discussion. Poem omissions amplify what is present. No question. The bits and pieces on the page strive for cohesion, fragmentation or some miraculous alchemy in between. Bill Manhire suggested in my recent paragraph room on poetry: ‘What do I want from poetry in 2022? I still want the poem itself. I want the thing that can’t be paraphrased.’ And Amy Marguerite says: ‘Poetry should be there for you, even if it isn’t touched, even if it is resisted, it should be there like a shoulder, or a spine.’

Is writing about a poetry collection a distillation or an opening out? An impossible reach to paraphrase? A joy?

Another Beautiful Day‘s opening poem, ‘Out on the Pleasure Pier’, serves the reader well. It is a terrific and surprising threshold into a collection that plants vignettes, conversation, essential ideas while giving the poems space. Think the white page, room to breathe and pause, masked appearances, the unspoken. Already I am asking myself if reading Eric’s book is akin to a jaunt on the pleasure pier. I can run with that. The details are pungent, jagged, funny, deadly serious, surprising. Anything can happen. Just like the pleasure pier. Here is the first stanza:

Out on the pleasure pier on that benign afternoon,
the air heavy with the blossom of vinegar and old tyres,
you asked what was the closest I had come to death.

Erik Kennedy is perhaps the wittiest poet on the block. The collection is infused with all the big worries – climate change, capitalism, wastage, consumerism, violence – because silence is a form of consent. Even in a poem. The poet cannot stay mute when the world is so awry and I love that. I find myself recalling: for decades Italian writers wanted political messages to be clear in their work (in the face of fascism, women’s subjugation, climate change, corrupt power and so on). We have scant history of political writing in Aotearoa New Zealand, and perhaps jaundiced responses by critics. Even when you rightly claim the personal as political. But new generations are changing this – out of personal experience, and out of concern for the world and crippling hierarchies that perpetuate cultural / gender / class ignorance. This new wave of poetry is political, and it is so much more than that.

The Vegan Poem, or It’s Not
a Conversion Narrative Because
I Was Already Converted

Whatever you do, don’t watch
the shocking undercover video
of how we treat the things we eat.
It’s all shit and squeals and pus and teats.
The only thing spared is the status quo.
When I watched the video
(so you don’t have to)
I turned grey and shadow-beaten
like a hill beset by gusty westerlies.
I shrivelled like fridge celery,
leaking a long slick of sympathy.
I willed myself through my anger,
a crab plodding through treacle
towards the crab-fighting ring.
If I never do anything else,
let me do no harm, I say,
in my best breathless ethicist voice,
and I mean it, come hell
or high water or a wasting disease.
Today, once again, caring seems
to be the less debilitating option,
but it’s hard to believe there’s hope
for any animal-affirming utopia
when people hate even each other
with the violence of a sneeze.

Erik writes with infectious humour, yet he is also deadly serious. What good is poetry that lands beauty but neglects its vulnerability? Ha! What a hornet’s nest this line of questioning is. Some days I crave a beauty poem as self tonic and I am full of gratitude for the person who wrote it. Other days I want poetry’s harsh spotlight on the ruinous state of play. And then again, agile movement where a poem is a thousand things. Erik makes me laugh out loud, do a wry inside grin, muse on microplastics, being a vegan, satellite insurance, pandemics, killing the planet, roads rolling out clogged traffic and pollution.

The middle section of poems in the book resembles a compendium of curious vignettes. I am thinking: no ideas but in vignettes. I am searching for a word where the real becomes ultra real (not magic realism), as though you have amped the focus and the volume, and everything is strange and larger than life (not tripping). And then you are transported back to the gritty real, the need to work and eat and love.

Reading a poetry book at the moment affects me like a necessary excursion. I have travelled and picnicked and dream-drifted within the dazzling pages of Another Beautiful Day Indoors (the title fits my current self isolation), and in my travels poetry is restoring empty larders. This is a book that offers foyers, resting bays, overhead bridges for you to furnish, linger in, traverse. Read it. Think it. Feel it.

I get so distracted by the excitement of
‘not going back to the way things were’
that I accidentally went back to the way
things were. I meant to continue working remotely 
but instead I book a commercial flight
whenever I go to the office or the supermarket.
I thought I was letting nature heal
but I find myself chasing bees away from flowers
wearing a hornet onesie. I’m only human—
extravagantly, embarrassingly human—
using my breadfruit-weight brain and opposable thumbs
to keep things the same or change them,
whichever one benefits me personally.

from ‘Post-Pandemic Adaption’

Erik Kennedy lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch. He recently co-edited No Other Place to Stand, an anthology of climate change poetry from Aotearoa and the Pacific (Auckland University Press, 2022). His poetry chapbook Twenty-Six Factitions was published with Cold Hub Press in 2017, and his first full collection, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime, was shortlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in 2019.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page
Poetry Shelf: poem ‘Lives of the Poets’
Poetry Shelf: poem ‘We’re Nice to Each Other After the Trauma’
Poetry Shelf: Erik reads ‘Another Beautiful Day Indoors’
Poetry Shelf: Erik reads ‘To a Couple Who Had Their Rings Brought to the Altar by Drone at Their Garden Wedding’

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