Apr 12 2023
Poetry review – METAMORPHOSES: Charles Rammelkamp considers the many influences present in Evan Kennedy’s poetry
After the opening poem, “A Knife” (which in its brevity hints at so many of the transformative and apocalyptic themes in Metamorphoses), “San Francisco Chase Scene” introduces us to Evan Kennedy’s witty, often comic, surrealistic verse, which is nevertheless profoundly serious, intelligent and insightful, even as it can often leave a reader in the dust, asking, “But what does that mean?” The poem begins, “Help! I’m being chased through this infinite city this dubious / utopia.” The city is San Francisco but “infinite city” suggests Rome, the eternal city of Ovid and other classical poets. Kennedy conflates the two in this collection. But that opening line is a sort of Dantean plea for guidance, and then he names his Virgils – Ovid, of course, but also Kafka, Shiva, and, “Is it Bob Dylan in / Malibu plagiarizing Juvenal?”
There’s so much going on in this collection, but why not start with Dylan? (Hey, it’s my review.) The plagiarism Kennedy refers to is in Dylan’s 2012 epic folksong, “Tempest,” in which Dylan paraphrases a line from Juvenal’s Satires – Saturae. (“Later, when the pimp was already dismissing his girls…” becomes “Davey, the brothel keeper, / came out, dismissed his girls.”) Dylan also steals from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and others. It’s often called “sampling,” but Kennedy has another way of putting it in the hilarious poem, “Another True Account (This Time About Not Talking to the Sun in San Francisco).” When Ovid himself confronts him at the library and says, “You’re stealing / from me, Kennedy, and from other poets too, passing off / second-rate imitations as dictation from the Muse,” he replies, unnerved, “We’re calling it intertextuality.”
Elsewhere on the same album, by the way, in a song called “Early Roman Kings” (so appropriate to Kennedy’s collection), Dylan also borrows from Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey.
Kennedy likewise borrows from Dylan. The poems, “My Own Version of You” and “I’ve Been Animals” share the same repetition and cadence as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the latter poem even borrowing the line, “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.” Forgive my digression, but the larger point is that Kennedy contains multitudes, as Whitman put it. Ovid is his main point of reference throughout, but the guides and signposts are everywhere.
A contemporary of Virgil and Horace, Ovid is best known for his Metamorphoses, which catalogues the “transformations” of various mythological characters into plants, animals, constellations, beginning with the formation of the world. It’s around 12 ,000 lines in length and is one of the most influential works in Western culture, inspiring Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare – and Kennedy. Ovid also wrote “The Art of Love” (Ars Amatoria) and “The Cure for Love (Remedia Amoris), among other works. When Ovid was about 50, Augustus banished him to Tomis, on the Black Sea, where he spent his final ten years. While it would be misleading to say that Kennedy particularly cares to expose the historical person, an understanding of all of this is implicit throughout. He writes in “To Ovid”: “Excluded, indifferent to the constant world,
you made epic the bodies split from within, faces erupting from different species’ features, new lifeforms emerging in your darling bucolic anatomical theater, perverse as free verse.
“THIS IS MY OVIDIAN COURSE” is Kennedy’s overview of Ovid, a prose sketch of Publius Ovidius Naso – Mr. Big Nose. He writes, “Roma is amor in reverse, sure, but San Francisco is looser and impulsive.” “My Minotaur,” “Phaeton and the Constellations,” “Bucolic,” “Ascents of Orpheus” and “Origins of the World” are poems directly inspired by Ovid as well.
Kennedy addresses odes to a number of other mythological characters. Two poems are “To Apollo,” and there are “To Attis,” “To Dionysus,” “To Shiva.” He writes to the God of Destruction:
America destroys without having heard of you. We’re the envy and fear of the world. “This year destroyers will be destroyed…” Did you say that or was it us Americans?
Three poems titled “Tree of Life” play on that fundamental mythological archetype that’s central to Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well. They begin thus, from first poem to last: “In the tree of life I lose my way”; “In the tree of life I adorn each branch with speech and action”; “In the tree of life I revise my animal body I edit my poem.”
The extinction of species in a world going to hell is another alarming concern. “Leopards in Bombay,” a catalogue of loss, drives the point home (“…microbe mega death, mass dolphin beaching, Asian termite, gypsy moth, stratospheric injection, artificial upswelling, wolves in Chernobyl…”). “Can We Be the New Species?” and “Judy Garland Facing Extinction” play on similar themes, and certainly the relevance of Ovid is obvious.
Franz Kafka is another inspiration, of course. Following “Another True Account…” Kennedy gives us “Gregor Samsa, Jr.” Other inspirations include John Donne, John Keats, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Judy Garland. Two poems, “Hellagabulus Rides Again” and “The Marriage of Hellagabulus,” involve or invoke the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, aka Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, who ruled from the age of 14 until his death at 18, a reign notable for its sexual scandals. (But hey, he was a teenager without inhibition or restraint, right?) “Why Madonna Is Not in My Pantheon” is an amusing recollection of being kicked out of her concert, but only after sneaking down from the balcony to the floor and lightly touching her as she danced up the aisle. “I feel like young Ovid on his worst day,” he writes, and “She’s only the richest person I’ve touched.”
Like Ovid’s comprehensive work, Evan Kennedy’s lyrical collection basically covers the gamut of life. Or, as Dylan wrote in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”