Richard Kenney

“What industry our species show!” writes poet, Richard Kenney in The Invention of the Zero (Knopf, 1993):

“What strange and mad anathemas
we’ve uttered on ourselves here in this smoky maze
we’ve made our home, unraveling the single plume
of orange flame whose wick braids up from some dry wadi
somewhere in East Africa, to thread the gloom
of Quattrocento caves, through Attic
lime kiln, lit cathedrals–each illuminated
mass we’ve cupped in hand since Quaternary
time began — “

One of the paradoxes of humankind–revealed in our earliest mythologies, the sacred scriptures of our religions, philosophical systems, psychology, and a matter of now scientific inquiry — is that the very impulse which leads us to invent and create, also tempts us to misuse our power to control and destroy our fellow inhabitants on planet earth. Call it hubris, Original Sin, self-interest, the dark side, natural aggression, or whatever, this is the conundrum Kenney addresses in his third book.

Much contemporary verse employs experiments in form, and exhibits a 20th Century emotional sensibility. However, its imagery and themes often retreat back into perspectives from the past. Not so Kenney’s work. He has shown in his previous collections that modern scientific theory and terminology are a kind of poetry in themselves. The audience which takes pleasure in essay of such writer as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, oceanographer Gerald Weisman, neurologist Oliver Sacks, or doctor Lewis Thomas, or discovers illuminating insights in a book like Robert K. Merton’s On The Shoulders of Giants will derive particular delight from Kenney’s humane and intricate stanzas.

The theme that propels The Invention of the Zero is illustrated in different aspects through four, long narrative poems, each in the voice of a different speaker, all somehow connected with the final years of World War II, and the development of the atom bomb. The title work comes from an eyewitness account of the earliest nuclear detonation at Frenchman Flat in Nevada: “the day they lanced / the surfaces of things, and bled from a fist / of warm earth the quick inhuman light of stars.” “The Encantada” tells of troop stationed in the Galapagos Islands. The bored soldiers callously destroyed much of the fragile ecosystem–the same one that had led Darwin to his understanding of Natural Selection and Evolution of Species. These sagas, and two others are woven together by seven dialogues between God and the poet–here called “Orbiter.” Seeking insight into “first starlight’s / slow vermiculation / through the asphalt / fall of empty space, / syntax of the free quarks”, the human questioner wrestles with the Creator for answers: “candle heaven if / you can: tell / then of the first egg, / the omega…and what befell.”

The $64,000 Question here , of course, is the one we have been urgently asking ourselves ever since August, 1945, when the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki let us know, in no uncertain terms, just what sort of genie we had let loose from its bottle. Orbiter’s search for the answer to why we destroy even in our creating leads us all the way back to the warlords of ancient Mycenae camped before Troy, and even father, to Cro Magnon hunters painting their visions of hoped-for prey on the walls of their caves. Yet even as he speaks of this malign power, Kenney also reminds us of those bonds which link creation together. Perhaps, realization of that, alone, offers the best hope of insuring a future for us all.