Online Edition: Spring 2003

Flow Blue by Sarah Kennedy

Flow Blue

Sarah Kennedy

Elixir Press ($13)

by Mark Pietrzykowski

I'm sure there was a moment in the history of letters when the word "confessional" seemed a helpful sort of marker to pair with "poetry," when an author could claim to have written poems that mimicked the private hollows of their individual existence. It means little now, however, never mind if the poet claims autobiography, or has it thrust upon her, or avoids it with the gravity of one pursued; none of these will make "confessional" an adequate term, because what occurs in a poem is always both more and less than the poet intended, and what is most interesting to the reader is not the poem's fealty to the author's lived experience, but the experience of the poem as part of its own existence. A book such as Flow Blue, for instance, seems to confess a great many things, but identifying Sarah Kennedy as the 'I' of the poems is not particularly helpful; the characters in the sequence accumulate definition until whatever events might have inspired their actions fall away like plaster, revealing several distinct veins of characterization braided together into a book.

So sharply portrayed are the characters in Flow Blue that the poems lose individuality over the course of a chronological reading, and perhaps that is the point. The narrative bears us along through a violent and tepid rural existence with such ease that strangeness quickly vanishes and we are at home with the idiosyncrasies of the narrator's life, so that when a poem begins as "Talking Cure" does--"Old enough to bleed, my husband chuckles, / whenever my age is mentioned"--we feel no shock, but rather a tawdry familiarity. Indeed, this is the success of the book; the misogyny, brutality, and despair portrayed therein quickly become commonplace, and so the reader, too, becomes worn down by the experience. Events that might otherwise seem momentous are simply parts of the grind that manage to provide a brief sense of relief:

You wake me with a proposal the morning after
we decide to divorce: wouldn't it be sweet
to take a short vacation, a road trip south
to watch the maples tapped? Just a day's
ride, you say, a way to end our marriage

on a friendly note. It's February, after all,
the sap is down, we can come back feeling
like late winter turning to early spring. (from "Sugar")

That the cohesion of the narrative depends, to some degree, on the lack of especially distinctive poems in Flow Blue could be seen as a terminal flaw, but in fact it may simply be a case of determinism overwhelming imagination: Kennedy has determined that she should tell this particular story this particular way, therefore chance must be excluded--even if that means she repeats herself rather frequently. And yet, as Heidegger said in Language: "Merely to say the same thing twice ... is that supposed to get us anywhere? But we do not want to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get just where we are already." These poems are not interchangeable, certainly, but neither are they individual. The fact that they are presented as a set of individual poems, each to its own page, is irrelevant; Flow Blue needs to exist as a single poem, and this is the confession it makes to the reader.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents