The Review: Merz Structure No. 2: Burnt by Children at Play by Jake Kennedy


Brick 101

Before he sold it, Jake Kennedy lived in a little wooden house, built in 1948 or 1949. It was typical of the older homes in Kelowna, British Columbia, a small but booming city amid the lakes and mountains of the Okanagan Valley. While a contemporary suburban neighbourhood had grown up around it, the house was just a few blocks from the beach, and it felt a lot like a cottage. Behind wild shrubs, the yard sheltered inflatable pool toys, a kid’s bike with flat tires, spiderwebs. A possum used to come in through the cat door until it was jammed shut with a piece of cardboard. Sure, the house was a bit rundown, but it had everything you needed. And I understood why Jake wouldn’t spend money updating faucets, sanding floorboards, or laying sod. That stuff is just aesthetic—and whose aesthetic is it? It wasn’t his. Instead of a Christmas tree, Jake and his daughter piled his vast collection of books into a pyramid.

Jake’s house was famous among the writers he hosted there. He seemed to always have guests, sometimes for months at a time. One of Jake’s former students, who was broke, slept in the living room for a summer before moving to Montreal for grad school. For several years, a colleague who had her permanent residence in Vancouver—a four-hour drive in good weather—stayed at Jake’s two or three nights a week whenever classes were in session. I slept there a couple of times myself. Then, when I transferred to Kelowna for a job at the college where Jake works, I dropped by every Tuesday after my night class. I vented about teaching and sank into a legless loveseat pulled, I think, from the alley behind the house. What is the special sadness of work? Alienation? When you feel you’re just fodder for the market? A Tiffany-style chandelier (a gift, Jake said) hung too low in the room, and I bumped my head on it nearly every week. It felt good to be in Jake’s generous company in a place that seemed indifferent to market value. This house was about use value, especially the uses other people had for it.

Jake Kennedy’s 2011 collection of object studies, Apollinaire’s Speech to the War Medic, won him many admirers. Those poems still make me envious. How did he dematerialize stuff like that? That hammer, that frying pan? In poem after poem, he jiggles loose the brittle logic of objects, untying knots of material with imagination and feeling; meanwhile, the humble poet himself does a disappearing act. Merz Structure No. 2: Burnt by Children at Play extends these careful undoings to spaces and places. The poet’s techniques are image, bracketing, questioning, and self-effacement. He is funny, but the book overall is elegiac. What exactly has been lost? The collection’s epigraph from novelist and poet John Lent, a literary icon in the Okanagan and one of Jake’s most beloved mentors, might tell us something: “So that lostness, eh? / That’s where you have / to go in order to survive.

The title of Merz Structure No. 2: Burnt by Children at Play references the work of German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, who called his style “Merz,” a truncation of Kommerz (“commerce” in German). Merz structures were sculptures made inside, and of, the home. The first Merzbau (Merz house) in Hanover was a grotto-like room sporting haphazard columns, oddly angled surfaces, and niches in honour of artist friends. The Merzbau is improvisation made architectural, and indeed, it evolved to reflect Schwitters’s changing life. After fleeing the Nazis, and before dying in exile in 1948, Schwitters built Merz structures in England and Norway. In 1951, in Lysaker, near Oslo, his Merz Structure No. 2 was accidentally burned down by children playing with matches. No photos of it remain. So Merz Structure No. 2: Burnt by Children at Play is named after the distant ashes of the second version of an art practice about the destabilization of home. Is the Merz structure most successful when it is finally destroyed? Maybe I’m starting to understand “that lostness.”

Merz Structure No. 2 searches out that lostness in the home. Like in Schwitters’s sculptures, home must be defamiliarized so we can really live there. The poems of Merz Structure No. 2, many of them about art, offer aesthetic experience as habitable space where life within our fraught dailiness can be felt as possibility again. Here in its entirety is a poem called “In and Out of the Shadows”:

 

The spring worms are here.
There are no laws for books,
no laws for worms, either.

 

The lamp that puts light right there
and not over there or there
is hallowed because indifferent.

 

As when the viewer is before a painting
and the painting exists
for that shared singularity.

 

As when the fridge
same-olds a door of light
onto your bluish wall and one might just get through—

 

The poem begins with worms, a memento mori, one of the poet’s favourite motifs. (The first piece in Merz Structure No. 2 depicts Yorick skinny-dipping, and Jake himself has skulls tattooed on both of his kneecaps.) Here, neither worms nor books have “laws”: no matter how innovative the poetry, death will follow, through destruction, neglect, obsolescence, or, if we’re lucky, canonization. Recognizing our limited horizon, however, allies us with the material world around us. The poem then recounts a series of encounters with objects: a lamp, a painting, a fridge. All three facilitate our gaze, but they are “indifferent.” They don’t need us, not us specifically. They show their light regardless of who is looking. When we mingle with these objects in “that shared singularity,” the experience is both a reprieve from loneliness and a reminder that we are not necessary, that another could take our place. Maybe this is why guests are so welcome. These objects allow us to imagine our own absence, which is a kind of freedom. In the last stanza of the poem, when the poet finally arrives on the scene, he initially uses the second-person “your” then moves to the third-person “one,” becoming something of an object himself. Standing in front of the fridge, when seemingly most trapped in a routinized, perhaps involuntary, behaviour, “a door of light” on the “bluish wall” offers him hope. This is not surreal or escapist. The door doesn’t lead anywhere but to a better perception of where he lives.

If aesthetic experience of the everyday means the poet “might just get through,” what he writes might provide a way to others too. It does to me. This is the generosity of Jake Kennedy and his poetry.

Brick 101

Aaron Giovannone’s non-fiction has appeared in the Walrus, Vice, and Salon, among other venues, and he is the author of two books of poetry, The Loneliness Machine and The Nonnets. Originally from St. Catharines, Ontario, Aaron divides his time between Calgary and the Okanagan Valley.