The Lords of Misrule

Jason Gray

The Lords of Misrule
by X.J. Kennedy
Johns Hopkins University Press

X.J. Kennedy’s newest book, The Lords of Misrule, begins with a reckoning of the dead — a cousin, his “third-best friend” from grade school, and a “harmless lunatic” who used to wander his streets. It is All Saints Day, and Kennedy is going through the rituals of remembrance before the revels of his “half-crocked lines” are let loose by the Lords of Misrule, as he guides them to do in his “Invocation.” For his cousin Mary, Kennedy is perhaps most eloquent, referring to a picture of her when she was young:

        But here you are with your invented toy,
        This empty cup suspended in midair,
        Arms lifted, sunlight drifting through your hair,
        Your upturned face still wreathed in utter joy.

The revels surely begin (or, have begun and ended) in “Soldiers with the Clap.” One of the book’s most delightful pieces, the poem retains what is best in Kennedy’s work: his wonderful sense of humor blended with a sobering moral epiphany. Here we find infected soldiers waiting for their daily dose of remedy outside of the ship’s sick bay:

        Counting [their] shots, those daily penances, 
        Like beads told on a cast-iron rosary. 

        Faithful as monks to rule, they to routine. 
        Dreading the engines’ constant homeward drives, 
        Daily they pray, Dear Lord, Let not our wives 
        Meet us until we once again come clean. 
        At sea, even Benedict or Alcuin 
        Might envy them their chastely ordered lives.

Kennedy finds an apt metaphor for many things, be it horny soldiers or boys. In “Street Moths,” a gang of teenagers assails the “short / skirts and tight jeans pretending not to see” as they walk by:

        Still, they keep launching blundering campaigns, 
        Trying their wings once more in hopeless flight: 
        Blind moths against the wires of window screens. 
        Anything. Anything for a fix of light.

Kennedy is often cited as one of American poetry’s premier practitioner of light and satirical verse, and here he doesn’t disappoint. His “Scandal in the Suburbs” replays the crucifixion of Christ on the scale of the Homeowner’s Association:

        . . . Why, bums were coming to the door- 
        His pockets had no bottom—
        And then – the foot wash from that whore!
        We signed. They came and got him.

And “Commuter” tells the story of a Catholic who has the motions of his faith down, if not the energy behind it: “Him that prays,” he says, “He makes out like a bandit lots of ways.” While “nos[ing] out that biddy”s Nissan,” the commuter contemplates how his faith has “paid off,” and concludes:

        Mother Mary, dear,
        Put a good word for me in your Son’s ear.
        Our shrine works fine except for one bum part,
        We’ve burnt a bulb out in our Sacred Heart.

Indeed, Kennedy’s best work is formed when a poem comes out of this intersection of humor and religion. Not that he is making fun of religion (at least in a mean-spirited way), but that he tempers his moral observations with his wit, and can play with religious ideas in an amazing way, as in “To His Lover, That She Be Not Overdressed,” which takes its cue from Matthew 6:28:

        The lilies of the field 
        That neither toil nor spin 
        Stand dazzlingly revealed 
        In not a thing but skin 

        And in that radiant state 
        Sheer essences they wear. 
        Take heed, my fashion plate. 
        Be so arrayed. Go bare.

Out of Jesus’s words of wisdom to his disciples, Kennedy has created an aubade to woo his lover into undressing. And how do you argue with Christ?

Despite the frivolity supposed by the book’s title, and Kennedy’s often employed humor, many of the poems are more interested in death and the loss or stoppage of time. Ticking clocks are abundant; they are “automatic amputations’ that nothing can be done about. But sometimes we are caught in a pause – generous, yes, but its benefit comes with the curse of time to meditate on its sudden end. In his poem, “In the Holding Lounge at Frankfurt Airport,” we find Kennedy trapped in time with his fellow travelers:

        Here is a static island for the few
        In transit who need help – the thickly veiled
        Frail Pakistani woman of great age,
        A human letter relatives have mailed.

The last line is a pitch-perfect metaphor. In the hold of time, here is someone of “great age” being transferred like news, before it is too late. Even though time is in a standstill here, it won’t last forever. The irony of the position is furthered in “In the Airport Bar.” Delayed again, Kennedy and his fellow travelers “Consume the day without half trying, / [Their] thirst for taking to the air / Quenched by fear of dying.” While they are grounded, they are safe, but to stay safe means to stay in an eternal hold, always apart from real life.

For all the book’s obsession with time frozen and the verge of death, Kennedy brings us around to spring in the end, and to a place where the ice doesn’t last, as in “Obdurate Snow,” where the “crags of the last snowfall of March refuse / to go away though crocuses break sod.” “They hunker down,” he writes:

        determined to endure
        Every humiliation
        As though convinced that winter is for sure
        And any thaw a moment’s aberration.

Even though the ice is convinced of victory, we know better. As winter does to spring, old age gives way to youth. His baby occupies his next-to-last thoughts, in “Pacifier,” and we are left with this:

        Fire lingers near a kindled urn 

        And lives to burn again and spreads 
        On real as on imagined beds 
        Held fast by things that stand in steads.

And in what is one of the best poems written about September 11th, Kennedy brings both his meditation on death and his breath of new life together. On the day after, we see Kennedy waking up beside his wife with “the incredible joy of coffee / and the morning light.” Thankful he wasn’t one of the poor souls jumping from the towers, he still knows that:

        Alive, we open eyelids
        on our pitiful share of time,
        we bubbles rising and bursting
        in a boiling pot.

Let the Lords of Misrule have their way; we have seen our dead buried and mourned; begin the feast. Soon the second hand will tick again, and we will be joining them.

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