Book Review: Past Tense (Des Kenny)

Reviewed by Kristen Witucki

My first connection to Desmond Kenny occurred when I applied for a Fulbright to write a novel in Ireland. As a hospitable English-speaking country with only a few grant slots, Ireland is highly sought out as a land of discovery for us American foreigners, so competition for the Fulbright grants there is particularly fierce. I was not surprised or overly upset when Fulbright rejected my application. But I'll still never forget that shortly before his retirement from the highest office in the National Council of the Blind of Ireland, Desmond Kenny took some time to write a letter to the Fulbright Commission on my behalf to endorse the plan for my grant. I may never earn a Fulbright, but reaching toward one gave me the opportunity to connect to a president who was also a writer, a blind person across the pond who sought truths from the worlds beyond. Then, nine months later, he read and kindly introduced my attempt to respond to Milton's blindness. Now I'm delighted and humbled to write a few words about Past Tense (Estuary Books, 2014), which makes me think about the tension of the past as well as the past which is behind the poet.

The opening poem, "A Muse Musing," immediately calls to my mind Homer and Milton, Virgil and Dante, who each invoke their own versions of the classical or Christian muses, hoping they will guide and inspire their poetry. But Kenny gives the muse a fresh persona; rather than tossing inspiration and guidance from a rain cloud, he broods. And as I read this poem, I also felt the muse and the poet to be parts of one self, opposite sides of the same coin. At the same time, the muse could be the lovers or, as Kenny writes in his dedication, the people who are not without names.

A Muse Musing

It was a day of slow thought
When you stepped into my dark
Out of birthday candles blown out --
A present to me arrived.

There you were, precarious,
Close: Building in my mind
With your attraction directing me
Out of my empty mood of haze.

Distractions teased my mind
Like lust inside a flower
Furring the feeding of the bee
To no end but its now of Zen.
It was time to dance nude
And quench that thirst of longing
By drinking from those deepening pools
Reflecting lightning in the storm.

As a blind author, I first merely appreciated that this poem, and maybe poetry itself, came from darkness–the candles blown out–rather than the light from which it traditionally comes when the muse gets involved. But reading further, I felt that the muse was love, that the poetry from this book, maybe the poetry of life, came from love rising out of nothingness.

Death and love dominated the book, as they do almost any life, but Desmond Kenny invites us into the experiences as participating observers with his layered images and specific memories. The words of the book's title, "past tense," materialize in "Missa Pro Defundis," a poignant memorial to his former assistant, Ann Callaly, who died young from cancer. The other mourners for this assistant remember Ann to one another in the past tense of photographs, which feel to them as if she might still live; the poet, however, remembers her in deeds of discretion and acts of competence as an assistant. As I researched her brief, fleeting life, I read about the ways in which her family viewed her, so far from her work for blind people. (A single clause captures her assistance within the larger, heart-wrenching story). Yet this poem reminds me about the ways in which the dead should always be remembered individually, not so much in the Sunday obligation of a departure ritual.

In "Reflections on Nearly Dying," Kenny shifts focus to his own mortality, as his body lies on an operating table, waiting without expectation for life or death. Here the tension builds, not over the struggle for life–after all, we know the poet is alive and reflecting on the other side of danger–but about whether the soul, set free for a few hours, really wants to return to a life which was not all unfettered joy. All of this is a "perhaps." The poet doesn't reduce his imagining to "Heaven is for real." But he feels pity for the soul which had an opportunity to check out the world, maybe other souls and other lives or maybe just floating freely away from life. Yet the soul has to return to "its captive sense of darkness," which feels to me more like living itself, just as the heart (grudgingly perhaps) returns to working order after hours of surgical repairs.

Kenny's poems about erotic love, most of which appeared in the middle of the book, also compel me. In his foreword, he reminds us that many poems are about composite characters, but I found myself needing to remind myself of this as I would muse upon one and then another and try to form a long story. As a blind prose writer, I was particularly drawn to read and reread poems such as "The Vocabulary of Yes," "A Question of Looks," and "My Inhibitions Had Formed Rejection," as I contemplated the silent, visual dimensions of love and lost love. "The Vocabulary of Yes" felt like the dark underbelly of Molly Bloom's exultant "yes," what happens when "yes'" is not actually uttered but might be expressed in "In smile, nod of head, flick of hair," just as the speaker might ride home later with a drunk driver on an icy road. In "A Question of Looks," the speaker struggles to fit his need to know someone in his own way without help from interlopers against her feeling that he doesn't really care to know her any other way besides his own. "My Inhibitions Had Formed Rejections," which exemplifies Kenny's easy, accessible style, begins:

When finally she kept our appointment,
Without real apology —

I pressed no questions
Of where she'd been and come from with vodka
In the cadence of her slurred greeting.

The poem depicts a speaker who "presses with no questions" and through not communicating displeasure, allows his love to drift further and further away, until his silence becomes "loose-tongued," as disapproval turns to grief.

Two other poems of Past Tense, related by holidays, "Mia's First Christmas" and "Home for Holidays" were among my favorites of the collection. "Mia's First Christmas" riffs upon, among other things, the ideas of giftedness and presents are really gifts and presence. Mia, the first grandchild, gifted the author with milestones, those beautiful first moments we never remember as adults in our own lives and which gives many people a feeling of being reborn. The final poem in the book, "Home for Holidays," takes us further back in the author's life than we have been in this collection, to his returns home from school after weeks or months of being apart from his family. Here his mother turns to his learning for wisdom and sympathy, while the poet feels that their talk of right and wrong, these value judgments, reduces the complexity of their lives rather than drawing them together.

Kenny's new collection has something for everyone; poems which follow form and free verse poems; poems that apply across ages, and others poems, such as "Weekenders" and "Vocabulary of Yes," that invoke history as well as a personal past. Having encountered Kenny's second book first, I am eager to go back and read his first collection My Sense of Blind, and I am thrilled about the possibility of future books to come.


Kristen Witucki has been blind since birth. She is the author of The Transcriber, a fiction book for adolescent emerging readers, and of several creative nonfiction essays. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.