Twenty-Six Factitions by Erik Kennedy.
Lyttelton, Aotearoa New Zealand: Cold Hub Press (2017).
RRP: $19.95. Softcover chapbook, 35pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Erik Kennedy (Poetry Editor of Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Christchurch) has been well published in many literary magazines and online. Twenty-Six Factitions is his most recently published chapbook. As the title indicates, there are twenty-six prose poems in this small edition, each is mind-bogglingly huge, jam-packed with information and peculiarities, irony and wit. The parameters of form are clearly delineated:
‘Each of these poems is bound by the same constraints: it must mention a statistic or figure; it must mention a proper-noun place; and it must allude, at least obliquely, to mortality’ (A Note, p 7).
As well as this rigid self-proscription, each poem is limited to between 125 and 175 words with its length between 14 and 19 lines. The poems have justified margins and sit firmly and compactly, one on each page, with a clear bold title. They look composed and important yet manageable. They are, and a little bit crazy. There’s nothing poetically vague here. Poems are pithy, combining disparate facts, opinions, humour, pathos and quirky intelligence. Thought-provoking – as they are intended, according to Kennedy’s Preface:
‘Imagine a school of poetry about almost nothing and you have most poetry. But reading ‘almost nothing’ is alienating, isolating, estranging, like fondling through a fire blanket. So maybe if we add a useful fact or two the reader will thank us and ride full and contented, with the forty-foot draught of an aircraft carrier … If you want to, it is possible to read the whole sequence as a philippic against poetic vagueness, which no amount of earnest exactitude ever seems to make any headway against’
and, he adds:
‘The nonce word ‘factition’ simultaneously evokes (I hope) fact, fiction, and factitiousness (artificiality)’ (p 9).
In “Holy Trinity, Lyttelton” readers will appreciate the three-little-pigs style of change over time:
‘The first church was built of green wood which unfortunately shrank … It was demolished in 1857. The second church was built of redstone and sandstone, unfortunately making the church unsafe in tremendous earthquakes. The building disassembled itself in terror. It was demolished in 2011. The third church was built of fragments of the second church inserted into another church … The fourth church, if there is one, will be built of carbon nanotubes and civic atheism. Will it blush to see a picture of its younger self, as we all do, and think, ‘Can you believe I had that on, on that day when all those people were drinking Pimm’s on the vicarage lawn?’ ’ (p 30).
The chapbook comes with many a warning – or perhaps they are aphorisms?
‘People who know the price of gold but the value of nothing are not bad people, but they are not-good to an exactly measurable degree’ (“The Price of Gold”, p 26).
‘Prioritising heritage over lives is precisely the marker of civilisation, and the strongest reason to leave it’ (“New Frontiers in Reconstruction”, p 31).
‘Creation happens gradually. The bin that holds the apple core is more important than the tree’ (“Walking into Sculptures”, p 15).
‘The occupational hazard of the writer isn’t being sedentary (which can be fixed with a standing desk) or being lonely (which can be fixed with a birdfeeder). It is advancing to work in chasms and swirlholes where no meanings are’ (“Risk Perspective Scales”, p 11).
And an oxymoron or two:
‘Send out the crypto-zoologists to find this legendary creature: a poet who’ll say she likes your work if you say you don’t like hers’ (“The Symbiosis Variations”, p 23).
It’s hard to name a favourite poem but “Vita Sackville-West’s Lost Roses” is a contender. It begins:
‘“Only around 100 of the 300 or so different cultivars and species Vita grew remain in the gardens at Sissinghurst.” This is how people look after your legacy. The only argument for immortality is this one: the future can’t fuck up what you’ve done if you’re keeping a vigil over it. Dead, the times grow out of sympathy with you … ’ (p 22).
The cover of Twenty-Six Factitions is neat and plain, but packs a punch. Portable and re-readable, it gives away nothing on the discreet cover. A good surprise then, each poem taking the reader on an intriguing journey without a spare word, no chasms or swirlholes and excellent production values.
This poet, originally from New Jersey and now living in Christchurch, is a bonus for New Zealand. If I were a celebrity, asked to choose three people to come to dinner tonight, Erik Kennedy would be number one. I very much look forward to his forthcoming poetry book.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.