take it or leave it, I don’t care
By Lee Rourke.
Ellen Kennedy, sometimes my heart pushes my ribs, Muumuu House, 2009
There is a certain omniscience that permeates throughout Ellen Kennedy’s debut collection sometimes my heart pushes my ribs (lower case author’s own). In the simple, deadpan poem ‘Jean Rhys’, Kennedy writes:
I’m preparing myself for an extended period of loneliness
That will begin very soon I think
I’ve illegally downloaded two new depressing songs
I’ve placed a copy of Good Morning, Midnight under my
pillow for easy reference
Within this overt, all-knowing emptiness can be found the kernel of truth that comprises Kennedy’s raison d’être as a writer of poetry and short fiction. Within this knowing there is everything that’s needed: Kennedy’s innate sense of irony, unashamed vanity and pared down, almost breathtaking in its bleakness, prose. But, above all, it is Kennedy’s honesty that shines through this collection. Embedded within, like a stick of Blackpool rock, are the words: take it or leave it, I don’t care.
Each line and sentence is laid bare as it wheels within a vortex of emotionless/emotional juxtapositions; there is nothing that distracts the reader, nothing that pulls the reader away from the page. The entire collection is a portrait that is entirely the reader’s for the hour or so it takes to read: no flowery poetics, no metaphor, or crumby socio-political edge, just a brute materiality of things as they are seen or felt. It is this emptiness, this absence of symbolism that contradicts itself so effortlessly. This flimsy collection is so crammed-packed with Kennedy’s insecurities and vanities that it, at times, veers on the edge of juvenile whimsy, yet it is just this delicate sense that things might all go askew that lends this debut its unique charm, smattering each page with a quirky, elegiac brilliance.
The twenty-three poems and short stories contained here possess a life of their own and yet still manage to morph back into one homogenous mass of bitter-sweet alienation once the book is put down. And it is in the very action of putting down this book when special things begin to happen: there is a distance that allows room for thought and deliberation and any of Kennedy’s idiosyncrasies, which might force a cynical reader to give up, are soon forgotten, as a unique way of looking at the world begins to seep forth.
Of particular interest is the story ‘Probably going to die alone.’ In which absolutely nothing happens, or if it does, it’s just a group of friends talking to each other about absolute nothing – trying, and failing, to find the language that could possibly help them find some sort of everyday meaning. This, if we look closer, is the point of the story – this absolute. It is the same absolute that can be found in Act V Scene I from Hamlet, or the poetry of Wallace Stevens. An absolute that is as maddening as it is magical and usually ignored or, at best, misconstrued as angst or some sort of depression with/in everyday life:
The apartment is messy. They sit at the table. The door to their bedroom is open and Judy sees the outline of Scott’s body in the blankets. Cory makes coffee and asks if anyone wants some. Judy says, “Okay”. Her friend drinks wine. Judy says, “I don’t want to go home.” Judy’s friend says, “I’m hungry do you have any food?” Cory gets her some cheese and crackers. Judy’s friend takes it and slices the cheese and eats it. Cory says, “You’re cutting it too big.” Judy is staring at things. Judy feels bored.
That wonderful expression: ‘ . . . feels bored.’ Those two little words, especially the word ‘feels’, are entwined within Kennedy’s vision. In an attempt at concrete reality – something beautifully unachievable – all we are left with is the suggestion of a feeling, a feeling of what it is like to sit in a room with a group of friends and talk to each other, knowing that, just like you, everything that is being uttered is meaningless, which is when things, as they truly are, become real. The humour of Kennedy’s debut lies in this knowing, this wry suggestion of the real, a playful suggestion that is at once wayward and poetic in its repetition.
Kennedy’s rascally awareness plays itself out in each curious title, where poems, for instance, are named ‘No One Cares About Poetry’ and we are given snippets of everyday life in which people don’t manage to have sex as they would rather spend time talking about having sex in public, because: ‘if anyone sees us it will just make their lives more interesting and maybe help them revaluate what really hurts people’ (a charming depiction of auto-pornography called ‘I Like Every Time We Have Sex’). Such vainglorious conceits are, at once, excruciatingly humorous and joyously telling. Yet, behind such braggadocio lies an inert humility. In ‘I went to the Grocery Store Today’ Kennedy displays a yearning to be both miniscule and transcendental, like ‘an ant’, nervous, ‘returning to the colony’ where an orange bought from the grocery store floats ‘through the air to become/ a warm new sun above my kitchen sink’ and finally, Kennedy adroitly relates all this to experience, both physical and metaphysical, describing something that is truly beatific:
‘My body slowly floated around the sun and I thought “Yes!”
Ellen Kennedy thinks, urges, bemoans, hides from, yearns for, despises and loves this definitive ‘Yes!’ many times throughout this slight, meditative collection. Her teasing notion of this most common affirmation is but a feeling, something to play with, to push around, to throw our way, and nothing more. Or is it? Such is the dichotomy at play here, unashamedly strengthening this assured debut.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 20th, 2009.