canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999




Happyland

by Kevin Connolly
ECW Press, 2002

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

In poetry, a surreal tone is a tricky thing. If a poem canít be bothered to slow down long enough to allow for a certain amount of coherence, then itís just a list of disconnected, floating items. The poems in the Kevin Connolly book Happyland are most often just that Ė a list of items swept together under a title. This is either a conscious choice or Connolly isnít aware that the connections are tenuous at best. An early poem begins "Iím a sentence," and then quickly moves through statements like "All the little black-clad dogs / are testing mangoes." 

From here itís faith, red ants, coffee-pickers, soggy seats, and finally clouds and rain. It struck me as unfair to dissect the poem and present the images like this, removed from any context, but the central flaw is that reading the entire poem from top to bottom doesnít actually help the matter. The ungraceful pile of images doesnít flow or build momentum, but misfires in every direction so that the poem lurches all over. Were it not for the title, "Hopeless," the reader would hardly know what to conclude about it.

If Connolly were pinning down the details successfully the items would at least stand a chance of being vivid images, but unfortunately this isnít the case. We read about dogs that are testing mangoes, and thatís all we get before we are pulled in a completely different direction. In "Cummerbund," he takes the time to flesh out an image:

Itís October, teeth shiver and the jaunty
shamrock on the motel marquis
quivers out a green mockery.

But far more often, as in "Grasslings," Connelly wants to just fire off images and move on quickly:

Folk singers have released the minks;
their razored claws churn the countryside
into a rich, yet hairy butter,
and a sea of vegans board Corvettes,
(or was it courgettes?) before order is restored.

Our need for bizarre dairy metaphors is satisfied again, as two pages later in "Live a Little," we learn how "Down in the city, legions of the sane / stab at the day like it was free cheese." Nobody has more licence to make new connections than a poet, but some of Connollyís metaphors and images can only be described as painfully awkward. Poetry isnít just a matter of slapping things together ("folk singers have released the minks"), without any logic. An image like that makes little sense on its own, never mind with the rest of the poem. At the same time, it isnít tangible and doesnít strike the ear in an interesting way, or with any musicality. His goals are unclear to me. Whatever logic is there doesnít appear to survive the translation from Connollyís thoughts to the page.

Connolly finds focus (and strength) in a final sequence of poems that detail a fire ignited in the only entrance to the busy "Happyland social club." Interestingly, the poems move backwards in time as you read them, from the horrible aftermath to the actual moment when the fire was set, so that the knowledge of exactly what could have been prevented hangs in the air as it is done. The reader begins at the end:

At Happyland the single door
remains boarded, the sign
that smiled over the bodies,
shoulder to shoulder, taken down
the day after, the irony
lost on no one, and with everything
else, too much to take.

This sequence of poems worked very well, and made me wish that there were more poems like this in Happyland. For the most part, the reader is only allowed into the poems in the stronger final sequence about the club. This is unfortunate, because Connolly is obviously capable of writing a good poem.

Alex Boyd is a Toronto writer of poetry, essays and fiction, with samples online at www.alexboyd.com.

 

 

 

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