Book Review: My Sense of Blind (Des Kenny)
Reviewed by Daniel Simpson
Let me start with a confession of sorts. I have never reviewed a book of poetry before. I don't think I have consciously avoided it, but now that I have signed on to do one, I can feel the weight of it. As a poet myself, I know the power of reviews. As a participant in writing workshops and as a facilitator of them, I know the importance of presenting criticism in such a way that the poet knows that I am ultimately in his corner. That's the case here with Des Kenny and his first collection of poems, My Sense of Blind (Estuary Books, 2013).
From the publisher's website, I learned that "Desmond (Des) Kenny, winner of Ireland's Christy Brown Award for Poetry, has been writing poetry off and on for forty years, fitting those creative moments in between the busy schedule of running Ireland's leading advocacy agency for blind people, NCBI (The National Council for the Blind of Ireland) of which he has been Chief Executive Officer since 1986." Blinded at seven in an accident while playing, he had to give up his family and his home in Newbridge, County Kildare, in order to attend a residential school for the blind in Dublin.
As someone who also had to give up regular home life in order to attend a similar school in Philadelphia, I found his poems about school, chief among them "Palace of Dreams," "The Egg Basket," "I Might Have Been," "Teaching the Boys to Dance," and "A Not to Be Forgotten Journey," to be some of the most compelling in this volume. At first glance, it seemed odd, then, that rather than beginning with one of these, he chose to open the book with "The White Horse," a poem which employs the "objective correlative" of horses to keep us at a distance from the too autobiographical. This tactic calls to mind James Joyce's comment, made through Stephen Dedalus, that "the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." On reflection, then, I started to see the value and purpose of this choice. It prepares us for a stance that Kenny seems to take in general–that while blindness sets him apart from most people, simply being blind doesn't make him an extraordinary human being. It also sets us up for a recurring theme in the poems that will follow, that of the "otherness" of being blind. Here is this opening poem in its entirety:
The White Horse
Like the white horse, "fenced off in a separate space," blind children of Kenny's and my generation generally spent their school years segregated from the rest of society. In the ironically titled "Palace of Dreams," the poet contemplates the long-term effects of such separation on blind children, both from the "otherness" that comes with loss of sight and from the "herding" of them into such "palaces." As in "The White Horse," Kenny speaks volumes with a single image—this time "radiators (that) click to cool" in a quiet dormitory where boys "stir restlessly in dreams still alive." I love the weight and importance of that one word, "still." "These boys dream of scenes nearly gone," Kenny tells us. "The cinematography of life / Reels out the brain's cellulose of seeing: / Faces, places, exotic, banal, / Fade in and out of colour / To scenes of black and white with sepia tones / Until the end." Their dreams will eventually cool, the poem suggests, like the dormitory's radiators.
Although one could rightly categorize Des Kenny as primarily a lyric and imagistic poet, My Sense of Blind, like many first collections, shows a poet trying out different styles of poetry. Unlike the poems I've quoted thus far, "I Might Have Been," which I find equally effective, employs a plain-spoken tone which doesn't rely upon images. In it, the speaker contemplates all the things he could have been had he not lost his sight–army recruit, astronaut, sailor, diver, "king of kingdoms," "prince of fame," train engineer, priest, doctor–then comes to this chilling conclusion:
I might have been at the age of seven
I read this and hear Langston Hughes asking, "What happens to a dream deferred?" The same question arises with "Children of Icarus," even though, to my mind, this poem does not succeed as fully as the other poems mentioned thus far, due to the self-consciously Poetic (with a capital P) language it adopts:
Don't dare to fly with wings of dreams
Even so, this poem, harkening back, as it does, to the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, enriches what we've read before, particularly in "Palace of Dreams" and "I Might Have Been." While "radiators click to cool" in a dormitory where boys "stir restlessly in dreams still alive," "the wise ones" of Icarus' time point to the sun and warn against going where it gets too hot.
Back when people of Des Kenny's and my generation went to schools for the blind, everyone had to learn to cane chairs and weave baskets. When my brother and I and some of our friends in chair-caning class decided one day to go on strike because we wanted to replace such classes with more academic subjects, we were sent to the vice-principal's office. "I understand," the vice-principal said in a conciliatory tone. "Just go along with it; you never know when you'll need it." Looking back, I can see the good intentions of a school that understood better than I the history of prejudice and its effects on the blind. Back then, it just felt like a bunch of adults warning us to keep our feet on the ground. Reading Kenny's "The Egg Basket" brings all of this back to me, but what I love most about it is the speaker's sympathetic look at his teacher. It becomes the other side of "I Might Have Been":
My teacher stooped, short-sighted peering, guided
As one gets farther into My Sense of Blind, one finds poems that move away from the subject of blindness, treating instead some of the more universal topics of poetry: the cycle of life ("Song of the Cicada," "A 1980's Dublin Poem," "Sad News Reflections," and "Malone's Gate"), insomnia (Broken Sleep"), poverty and injustice ("Town Houses"), and poets and poetry (Christie Brown (1932-1981)," "Last Lines from Lost Lines," and "Winter Poem.") Two that address the work-a-day world and how it saps the life from workers strike me as particularly strong. "A 1970's Monday Morning" gives us a panoramic and collective view, whereas "Life of Passage" zooms in for a personal look at the bleakness of an individual trapped by his work life. The first of these concludes:
From dormitory towns of far-flung growth,
Actually, it would be more correct to say that "A 1970's Monday Morning" does a slow zoom from the panoramic to the personal. After describing office buildings and factories, the poem makes a brilliant transition to the "tamed commuters" who come from "dormitory towns of far-flung growth" to work in them, saving its last line to zing us by implicating all of us in this bleakness. Then, in the temperament of a good memoirist, Kenny specifically implicates himself in such bleakness:
I've died another day today,
We've moved away from the school for the blind and yet, through a haunting echo of "I Might Have Been," we've come full circle. The child who gave up dreams and freedom, imprisoned by a residential school, has become the poet, now trapped by another set of rules, "always busy at business."
As a reader and writer of poetry, I possess the modernist's belief in the value of work. I get a thrill from pushing past my initial resistance to difficult poems, doing research when necessary, to come to an understanding of them. But I also believe that poets make implicit contracts with their readers. Thus, for example, I don't try to make traditional sense out of Gertrude Stein's poems; that's not her contract with me. Hers seems to be about playing with sound for its own sake. The first time I read My Sense of Blind, I found myself feeling tired, unfocused and frustrated at points, even though I enjoyed some of its poems. I did what I usually do when this happens; I put the book aside for a few days. Upon returning to it, I realized that my reaction had something to do with places where I felt the poet had gotten so carried away with sounds and images that he had forgotten some of his contract to value sense as much as those other ingredients. Occasionally, Kenny creates images so unusual and arresting that they pull one out of the poem, instead of drawing him deeper into it. Notice how, in the descriptions of hands and thoughts, as well as in the unnecessarily elevated language of "A Boat-trip to Ireland's Eye," the author commits what a colleague of mine calls "acts of poetry":
Hands close like toothless mouths
Similarly, in "Places," a poem which I like a lot, the image of rolling hills climbing "to suckle the belly of a cloud grazing between the distant peaks and sky" only distracts me from the delicious edginess of this poem and undercuts the power of its otherwise natural diction. "Winter Poem" also tries too hard, and though I may work to make sense of its images, in the end, I'm still not sure I know what they add up to:
My journey's ruck-sack,
One of the best arguments made for form and rhyme in poetry is that they can lead a poet to say things he wouldn't otherwise have thought to say. I admire Kenny's attempts to avoid the predictable and applaud him for taking on difficult forms such as the villanelle, as he does in "Come Gently to My Tortured Youth." Yet, when he writes, "Be patient when my callow thought appears, / To stumble frail on clutch of language stream" and "Come gently to my tortured youth to hear / Old truths in the emerging gangly here; / Choking reasons in skein weave of my dream / Where fragile moments trapped my falling tear," I feel fenced out and wonder what he would have said if the villanelle hadn't led him to say it the way he did.
One of the contracts poets make implicitly with their readers has to do with whether they will employ sentences as an organizing force in a given poem. Long sentences with cascading images and prepositional phrases stacked up can create excitement and tension. It's a little like doing twists and somersaults on a high wire. But if we've come to expect the kind of grounding that sentences provide, then suddenly find there is no sentence, or that, if there was one, the cascading went on so long that we lost it, we end up feeling adrift and frustrated, thus taken out of the poem. This happened for me in "Fingersight" where, after starting out with a complete sentence (albeit 12 lines of poetry hanging from one thin verb to be), the poet writes:
Eternal voyagers, these fingers,
"My Sense of Blind," a sonnet, and "Inside Looking Out," rhymed quatrains, show Kenny at his best in form. I particularly admire the way the tight rhymes of "Inside Looking Out" heighten the snarky tone of that poem, making it a companion to "Places" with its aforementioned edginess. We writers with disabilities often find ourselves walking a tightrope, where falling off in either direction can confirm someone's stereotype. If we find the best in our situation, such as being able to see our disabilities as interesting lenses through which to view the universal, we risk confirming the stereotype of superhumanly optimistic "crip." Yet, if we should speak with too much anger in our voices, we risk confirming the stereotype of "poor devils" made misanthropic by disability. I like poems like "Places" and "Inside Looking Out," where the author doesn't flinch in saying how it is sometimes. (Thanks to the author, we have recordings of him reading "Places" and "Last Lines from Lost Lines," which you can hear on this website.)
Let me conclude by turning to the poem I find most poignant in this volume, a small gem which, for me, exemplifies Kenny at his best in combining the lyric with the narrative. I'll quote it in full:
Teaching the Boys to Dance
Des Kenny plans to retire from his paying job soon with the hope of spending more of his time being a poet. Hats off to him for dancing this much with his feet planted in the work-a-day world! I look forward to his next steps.