Poetry Review: Evan Kennedy’s The Sissies

The Sissies
Evan Kennedy
Futurepoem, 2016

Illo for review of Evan Kennedy's 'The Sissies'.The first section of Evan Kennedy’s new collection, The Sissies, is called “A Cyclist.” Here Kennedy outlines his routine course throughout San Francisco, recalling, “I’ve been . . . threatened with my death, derided and called names, three times chased by drivers upon my retaliation, once thrown over my handlebars.” When cyclists force me to slow my car down, I’m not that enraged, but maybe I should lighten up anyway.

The cyclists may be ascetic pilgrims like Kennedy. The speaker of The Sissies proclaims, “Under my feet lived lyric.” He christens his excursions “my engagement with urban ecology.” He is a disciple of ironically concrete ecopoetics. Kennedy’s cycling gear reinvents the pious attire of his city’s namesake, St. Francis: he dons a “gray hoodie” and describes his meekness as “drawing the cord / around my waist.”

With their shared nomadism and setting, I’m tempted to liken this collection to Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco Blues. Stylistically, however, the poets’ approaches to San Francisco diverge completely: Kerouac confines snapshots of locations to compact choruses, whereas Kennedy unravels his imagery into sprawling lyrics and prose poems that often lack specific settings. In fact, the rhetoric of The Sissies more closely aligns with that of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Both are kaleidoscopic anti-epics, juxtaposing lofty and colloquial diction. Like Berryman, Kennedy occasionally peppers his pieces with emphatic rhymes, as in “(The) Abashed”:

I was never cruising for
this bruising but maybe
just cruising
toward a rapid intercession
of effervescent affection
that could gift a beneficent
fever among us.

Kennedy’s speaker often has goodwill toward others, wanting “everyone / to arrive at paradise now.” But his shadow self is a cornered, vengeful Lady Lazarus, who first alludes to “swaths of fabric I’d tear from me,” then taunts his oglers, “Call me freak.” Just as Plath’s persona claims to “eat men like air,” Kennedy’s speaker retorts to voyeurs who gawk and jab at his queerness: “Earth will be / a swallower of your corpses.”

Kennedy’s speaker is both an exhibit and a curator. He exerts control over voyeurs as they subjugate him. He remarks, “I think my zoo is beginning to blossom very nicely.” He admits to manipulating his collection: “I’ve been shaping a crown of flowers and, look, / I’m putting it on this baby animal for fun.” Kennedy’s speaker transcends pure exploitation, however, with his genuine adoration for the global ecosystem. The refrain, “Each thing points to its kind, and each kind in turn points to the entirety of kinds,” reverberates throughout the collection. Like St. Francis, he champions empathy with animals, defining ecology as “an incubator for our prospect to align with our greater sensitivities, heretofore dormant.”

Although Kennedy’s speaker seeks to understand and gather animals, he disdains appropriation. He recounts, “Boys in dog masks begin to piss like dogs, / and I on behalf of creation groan.” He invalidates a conceit in which he likens his spiritual awakening to animals’ preening by concluding it with the extrapolation, “Wouldn’t that be . . . sweet for me to know what it’s like to be unburdened by the crummy superiority one naturally assumes when human.”

In “A Cyclist,” he articulates the desire to “enter the food chain almost on top but aim to be subjugated to the respect and service of all creatures,” but his innate sense of authority over other animals causes him to disrupt their harmony with his romanticism. He concedes that he selfishly consumes nature to “graze toward escape.” In the prose poem “on the wolf of Gubbio,” he confesses:

I’ve asked birds to stop eating worms because it saddens me. This fragility is a human and foolish one, like the sentiment I speak aloud while out and about: O lovely surface of the earth!

The speaker does not wish to simply interfere in the hierarchy between predator and prey; he desires to completely overthrow the categorizations humans impose upon animals. He insists on “a dissolution of animal taxonomy” for “thanksgiving again on Earth,” also stating that “a unified biology” is “the perfect gift.” The speaker loathes how classifications essentially reduce individual bodies to “organic realty.” In “Fear the Beards,” he nullifies society’s agents and organizational units, asserting:

Law is a flaw,
family a fable,
cops all corpses,
and love a loss

The speaker’s disdain for compartmentalization is ironic, however, for he manically categorizes his own worldview. He charts the locations where his friends were assaulted on “a kind of Cartesian field with x-, y-, and z-axes.” He feels vivisected into “three bodies— my poet’s, my queer’s, my cyclist’s.” In order to regain his “cohesion,” the speaker asks to be split apart: “Make of me a second skeleton and let me / verify myself again.” He dices himself with synecdoche: “I . . . amount to a tower, rather, heap, of bones, aspiration, and genitals.”

The speaker cleaves the human population with an “us vs. them” dichotomy. The “us” are what Kennedy deems “the Sissies,” those who advocate the “abolition of a gendered body” and are thus persecuted by “them,” the “sickos” often represented by “a barrel-chested aggressor.” The prose poem “Putting Holes Through Me: Have You Ever Become an Ecstatic Stigmatic” sharply defines this binary: “Sissies are tied to fences . . . they syncopate in their bathing suits or denim jackets what amounts to a disinheriting of the population, or the outside.” Since the others are defined as the general populace, the speaker’s tribe is formed by constant negation—a renunciation of “them” by “us.” This renunciation is both external and internal: the speaker excludes his family from his life and, like St. Francis, claims to seek “the relinquishment of my body.” Kennedy’s speaker is a vacuum akin to Mark Strand’s in “Keeping Things Whole.” Strand portrays this void with mimetic line breaks and enjambment, whereas Kennedy jauntily personifies it in “Fear the Beards”:

It’s the nullities walking around—
              scorned toward dissolution,
rejecting their families as I am
rejecting mine—it’s these terrific nullities
who face our impedimenta
to festival.

The Sissies celebrate the abnegation of their bodies: their “slim” and sometimes “sickly” physiques, their refusal to defend themselves from bullies. The speaker reflects, “my incredible body used to be berserk / with lust but now lives in the jubilee of my meekness.” He and his kin subscribe to St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun,” which proclaims, “Happy those who endure in peace, for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.”

Although I by no means wish to invalidate the experiences of Kennedy (or his speaker), I do wish that the villains of The Sissies were more multi-dimensional. When the speaker depicts them, they are caricatures: either “barrel-chested men” or “the goons” who nearly killed a monk with their rowdy harassment in the 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis. In accordance with the Sissies’ disciplined negation, Kennedy’s speaker also removes the tormentors from his narratives entirely, referring to their assaults in the passive voice: “Heads get crashed against lockers—Boys are thrown into fountains—” The act of brutalizing anyone is undoubtedly disgusting, but Kennedy would have nuanced his portrayal of the persecutors if his speaker had perhaps recognized the insecurities and ignorance that drove them to their bigotry. Such sympathy also would have created a “saintlier” perspective.

The speaker’s motives in submitting to barbarism, however, transcend such simplicity. He prostrates himself not only to impress St. Francis, but also to engage in the discourse of widespread suffering. Just as St. Francis bore the stigmata, “concealing and bandaging his open wounds as conversation with God,” the speaker contends that bruises render a body “absorbent of registers of others’ scandal,” sensitive to the pain of “those degraded past solace.” Because “his pores dilate to accommodate / the damage that encroaches,” it is nearly impossible for the speaker to scar, to gain the sigils necessary to enter the dialogue of the wounded. He admires “lyric grafted onto a worm.” Perhaps the lyrics grafted onto this book are his portal into conference with the damaged.
Katie Hibner is a confetti canon from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, inter|rupture, Timber, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Vinyl, and Yalobusha Review. Katie’s criticism has been published by Entropy, Heavy Feather Review, New South, Tarpaulin Sky, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. She dedicates all of her writing to the memory of her mother and best friend, Laurie.

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