Ten pages into Drift, Kevin Connolly's third book of poems, I suddenly thought of these lines from the beginning of Whitman's "Song of Myself":
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
Reading the book, I kept going back to these lines, thinking of them as a friendly key to Drift. Not that the book requires a key, it's really quite clear and direct--but it seemed like the kind of thing Connolly would encourage, that is, inviting one more guest to the party. No big deal, there's plenty of room and half a crate of booze to go around.
But Whitman doesn't want to drink. He's happy with his buzz, a buzz from realizing over and over again that he contains multitudes. Connolly, on the other hand, isn't sure. Maybe he will get pissed. Maybe he'll take it easy tonight. He thinks it through in the opening poem, "About a Poem":
Time for another gimlet, I'm thinking, though it's true they're going down way too easy, what with all that creme de menthe, or whatever it is puts the gee whiz into that particular gin fizz.
One more, Mr. Connolly? Not sure. He's also not so sure that the individual can contain multitudes, or that the individual should aspire to such a filled condition. He's not even sure what the individual is. In "Ten Cents a Dance," one of the most rollicking and compelling poems in the book, he explains his doubts (and, in the process, un-explains his self):
I was unlike a pack of dollar-store batteries; unlike the subway stuttering, incoherent. I was unlike a woman chasing a fleeing schnauzer, unlike a shadow on the butcher's window. I was unlike a bird, not that bird ... the pretty one ... unlike an old joke grown warm in the telling. I was unlike the milkman, stopped visiting years ago. I was unlike anything I remotely dreamt of being--
Every item listed in this poem strives to exist vibrantly, to assert its unique spirit; everything is modified to a freshly sharpened edge, everything has a Quality. Yes, the world is full of beautiful images! But the individual, while he sees all the items, is unlike them: the "I" is the only item without a Quality.
But if the individual can't be qualified, what about the collective? Throughout much of the book, Connolly attempts to tell us what "we" are like, as he does here at the end of "Inside George Steiner":
No weak physics in this, how we crowd our throats, fill ourselves in emptying out, human spigots. What else could we mean when we say this, this life or boat, surf or passage, this this, this is, is difficult? And isn't that just like us, to force such questions?
This is what we do, and Connolly's gulping rhythms suggest that we persistently change what we do with each swallow and subsequent breath.
So who are we? How to categorize the collective? Are we talking about the collective of all collectives (everyone, the whole human race) or some local collective (Toronto, Moscow, Virginia Beach)? Maybe we are just talking about poets (and who cares about them?). Among those in attendance are John Ashbery, John Berryman, Darrell Gray, Paul Muldoon, Wallace Stevens, James Tate, and David Berman (whose name is also affixed to a blurb you must see to believe). So maybe this book can be filed in that oft-mentioned, notorious, and nefarious section, Books That Prove Poets Only Write to and about Other Poets--the section that Poetry is currently on a campaign to exterminate, bless its heart.
But then what to do about Ashton Kutcher, who shows up in "Death by Scansion"? There's quite a cast of characters inside Drift, from various strata of the cultural wreckage. And not just poets or television hosts or bandleaders (Nelson Riddle stops by for "Calmnesses"): even the folks you pass by on a stupefied stroll through the internet video emporium, as in "VI Tall Ships," the last section of "Sestina":
We'll all get our curtain call, though few have what you'd really call an act: Guy at the Coke Dispenser, Babe Serving Thin-Crust Pizza, Dude Selling Charity Coupon Booklets; Girl Removing Dead Mexican Jumping Beans and Replacing Them with Live Jumping Beans.
Connolly comes to a rather grim conclusion in this catalogue of everyone's fifteen minutes: "In the end, we're all bores: / space-filler, errant name tags, plates cleared from the buffet. / Golfers strewn like sailboats over the pitiless greens." It's as if Eliot's Waste Land and Whitman's "Open Road" have become one and the same--a frightening, schizophrenic prospect, the result of a world in which if we are all famous, no one is.
Whitman established his individuality by incorporating multitudes. Connolly, on the other hand, lives in a world where it's nearly impossible to be an individual. Everyone represents everyone else--everything reflects everything, every day another building made of mirrors goes up--and everyone, rather than containing multitudes, has become contained by multitudes.
Accordingly, Connolly can only write about his participation in a multitude that he can neither comprehend nor transcend:
Push hard enough and just about anything will push right back--sun and shade, yard birds, wire fence, compost bucket, dirty ball, that sweet scent under the leaves and shit.
But by claiming that if you "push hard enough ... just about anything will push right back," Connolly offers a glint of hope. In Drift, questions beget more questions and nullifications beget more nullifications, but the possibility remains that some questions will eventually beget answers, some nullifications affirmations. Connolly holds hard to the hope that any day now we will find clarity in "that sweet scent under the leaves and shit." The distillation would intoxicate Connolly, but he shall not let it.