Notions (Dedalus Press) is a rather self-deprecating title for well-known broadcaster John Kelly’s debut collection; a self-deprecation that belies the real accomplishment and maturity of these poems. The short poem that serves as the book’s epigraph, The Small Things, hints at his approach: a careful attention to detail, a cherishing and relishing of the quotidian beauties that are the lyricist’s stock-in-trade and, above all, a valuing of human connection.
In his obituary of Louis MacNeice, Philip Larkin remarked that “he could have written the words of ‘These Foolish Things’”, and there is a similar poignant glamour to Kelly’s work, assisted by the actual glamour of many of the poems’ occasions.
P.J. Clarke’s, for instance, describes an unexpected encounter with Frank Sinatra in a New York bar, surrounded by – brilliant description – “a muscled testudo of goons”, and records Sinatra’s gnomic utterance about Billie Holliday: “you know, kid, Lady was the best./ She walked sideways, she talked sideways/ and she sang sideways.” Of this the narrator can make little, “but as I settle up that night/ I send a JD to the back room.”
Elsewhere there are poems of great tenderness and linguistic skill in descriptions of the natural world (especially birds) and of the poet’s children and other close family members. The work bristles with names: “I was playing Aura Lee/as sung by The Shelton Brothers,/ a song from the American Civil War// a.k.a. The Maid with Golden Hair – / the very same tune as Love Me Tender/ as sung by (saving your presence) the King // and by Freddy Fender too . . .”
This is well-connected, socially situated poetry, a poetry that exemplifies that old mantra of Forster’s, “only connect!” but it also owes something to the jokey, anecdotal, and proper noun-laden strategies of Paul Muldoon. This is far from the debut collection of a writer who has swallowed and failed to digest his influences, however. The poems here show evidence of long, slow marinating, and are all the better for it.
© 2011 John Kelly