The first thing that should be said about A WANDERING CITY is that it was published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, which is perhaps the nation's best purveyor of poetry in books. Since many of these books, including Kendall's, are first collections, CSU can be said to have made substantial discoveries, having issued books by such up-and-coming or by now reputable poets as Beckian Fritz Goldberg, P. H. Liotta, and Thylias Moss. The books are well produced and error-free, are reasonably priced, and contain some excellent work by potentially major poets.
A WANDERING CITY won the CSU Poetry Center Prize for 1991. Its author, born and raised in Canada, now lives in New Jersey and is very active in computerized poetry; his installations of visual poetry have appeared at various museums and small-press exhibitions. Computer whiz that he may be, he is, I hasten to add, a venerator of the word rather than the screen as prime means of communication, and his verbal voice is distinct and gripping. At first his ironic ruminations and cryptic directives reminded me of David Clewell's work. William Matthews, on the back cover, calls Kendall's poems "lovingly alarming," which gives some idea of their ability to subtly startle and disorient. What Kendall does, in the novel but consistent way that pervades his work, is to instill in objects the aspects of personality (he also personalizes pure abstractions and abstracts personalizations) that usually cause us possessors of them to exist on a higher, safer plane, and so his poetry can be almost literally disarming: "Soon we'd be looking out / the windows of an uninhabited understanding" ("Where Should I Begin," the book's beginning poem); "I feign interest in the laughter / that plays in the dirt at our feet, / making its contentment up as it goes along" ("A Little Closer to Heaven").
Having established his world, which is bizarre yet somehow immediately recognizable, Kendall can write with an economy that would take a lesser poet countless books to arrive at: "I lower the blinds and a name's left / unfinished on frightened lips" ("From the Shadows," which deftly intimates love against a backdrop of hate); ". . . I glance out the window / and am surprised to see the man who phoned in sick heading north with his suitcase" ("Perhaps," whose first line is "There are bookmarks lurking among the pages of these premises").
I enjoy the way Kendall constantly thwarts expectations and changes meaning with the simple break of a line (". . . The whole thing / smelled of chances taken / for a ride"), misappropriates clichés ("Yet what do we really want from him, / quietly following him up the stairs as / he takes every turn for the better?"), or creates convincing Möbius strips of illogic: ". . . Could he give our fists / the grace of serendipity as they try to win him over / to our way of having things done to us?" (all from "The Equalizers"). This is poetry that makes you think and, with surprises lurking on nearly every line, keeps you on your toes.
Kendall's brand of surrealismif we must call it thatis quite different from that favored by many of the poets who sprang up on New York's Lower East Side just after 1960 (though Don Katzman comes to mind as a poet whose imagery then was almost as matter-of-factly audacious as Kendall'sand sometimes Stephen Stepanchev'sis today). Over the course of this book, he establishes a language that cumulatively is every bit as systematic as the oeuvre of René Magritte; as with Magritte, his work is full of images of the sky"Behind you the black sky swings in the / wind as it hangs from the window," "The kids come to breakfast and in their faces / a tiny sky is framed by hundreds of wings," "The sky discontinued service long ago"or of the scenery: "Whenever I turn around there's no one there, / but the scenery always seems a little forced"; "In the corners of their eyes the scenery undresses / suggestively, always just about to shed the last distance." But these fragments, however titillating, don't deserve to be taken out of context. In A WANDERING CITY, Kendall very carefully sets up a poetic landscape that joyfully distorts the reader's view and thus helps us see more clearly.
By Martin Mitchell
Originally published in Home Planet News, Issue 37, Summer 1994