Kennedy begins: “On Guy Fawkes night, 1973, my brother Philip was partying on a hillside section in Wellington when he accidentally fell to his death. He was twenty-two. He had been a reader, a talker, an epileptic, a history-buff, an alcoholic, a political apologist with a short fuse, and a poet.”
Kennedy adeptly avoids those trappings: the work never sinks to gimmick, and in fact soars through a multitude of thoughts and forms, the figure of Philip at its core, with worldwide reverberations. Moth Hour is a study: of loss, of love, of poetry, of politics; it is a manifesto, it is an act of examination and compassion. The book contains a foreword and an afterword, entitled “Pattern/Chaos”, with “Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip” and “The Thé” making up the poems of the 74 pages of poetry in between.
Kennedy’s foreword to the book is factual, sparing. She gives context, and brief introduction—both rendered in tender, precise prose—then moves on to “Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip”. Philip’s poem, “The Theme”, is included in advance of these “Transformations”.
Some poems are formal and literal transformations of “The Theme”, either entirely devoted to this practice, or else imbued with small touches which jar the reader back to the content of this first poem, and the context of Kennedy’s work in writing Moth Hour. I use the word jar to describe this; it immediately recalls Philip’s poem—which opens “Come catch me little child/ and put me in a jar”—and I also feel it aptly describes recurrent bouts of grief. After the initial mourning period, following which one’s life, perhaps most devastatingly, must go on, there will be moments, images, memories, which prompt a surge: the acknowledgement of what has been lost, which becomes both oppressively absent and present in one’s missing of it. A reader, aware of Guy Fawkes Night, 1973—aware of Philip, of his poetry, of his epilepsy, even—cannot help but pause on fall, for example, or jar, or seize.
The next section, “The Thé”, comprises one singular poem over nine pages. It is a spiral of sorts, filled with phrases which spread themselves across the page and sometimes connect, but sometimes do not; there is something almost ontological about them, though no specific explanation is offered. As Kennedy says in the afterword, “[…] patterns change, and once gone they can only ever be imagined.” The title is a riff on “The Theme”, which is here presented, ever thematically, sans the “me” of the original poet, and which means “tea”; thus, “The Thé” becomes tied to The Book of Tea, a favourite of Philip’s, which Kennedy later makes note of in her afterword.
Kennedy paints an intricate portrait of loss throughout the book: the predicament of being left behind—“We’re still suspended here, as ever.” (“9.”); “I don’t want it to be the talked-about thing.” (“19.”)—and the ownership others may take over events, others who were privy to moments from which even those closest were removed:
[…] Every so often
I meet a boomer who was at the party on the hill
that night – a girl dancing barefoot in purple velvet
and flowers, off her face on the lawn –
and she will tell me her version of the fall. (“8.”)
Kennedy also passes comment on the cultural landscape, both literary and political; in “11.”, she says, “You don’t need to be an alcoholic to be a poet / or a man, for that matter, or a white know-it- / all.” She acknowledges the irony of a desire to be revolutionary whilst possessing the qualities which have, to date, been part and parcel of rather a traditional literary career; even pointing out the performativity of such revolutionary ideology, such activism. In “23.”, she evokes that hollow activism in both Philip’s generation and our present: “I will or you will / write about them and lament / and I will knit and you will wear / a pussy hat to show that we / lament and act”. Kennedy, winningly, makes serious statements that avoid adornment with a sombre, capital S. She doesn’t tee up buzzwords and churn out grandiose proclamations. Even a poem devoted to generational criticism—a poem which criticises that generational criticism—holds on preaching, and simply allows for empathy:
“[…] And this is where it gets particularly sad and unfair: for their whole lives
they have been peddled materials
while at the same time the means to buy the materials has been taken away,
and taken away exponentially,
taken away in an escalating manner which matches the escalation of wealth
for a few […]”
Another linking thread throughout the book is tenderness: “Full of tenderness for you and it and always” (“19.”), “[t]he tenderness of the body is actually the/ whole point.” (“30.”)—and this tenderness is a particularly apt descriptor. It’s an inherently multitudinous word; tenderness is gentleness, kindliness, warmth, and tenderness is sensitivity—it hurts. Tenderness captures that fine line between love and loss so beautifully, that tight-rope walk of life, between what brings us joy and what causes sorrow.
Moth Hour is a written work par excellence. It soars and stabs at a phrase level—“Hopefully we will always want and want for nothing” (“19.”), “[a] thought is a Trojan horse in the head” (“The Thé”)—and it contains passages of stunning thought and prose. The afterword stands out as a meditation on grief, patterns, emotions previously inarticulable, the tiny details which show care and attention and therefore love; I find something new in its folds each time I read it. Other poets might have chosen to include these ideas or musings within the folds of the poetry itself—indeed, afterword is lengthy, of far greater density than its introductory counterpart—yet I understand Kennedy’s decision to separate it. These fourteen pages draw together ideas which benefit from more explanation than her sparing approach to poetry would have granted. Indeed, the afterword can feel heavy after the delicate strokes of that poetry, but it is also extremely substantial, and its ties to Beethoven, a family rug, and a generation of faded politics supply reasoning for the structure of Moth Hour and enrich its contents.
I would love to see where other projects in this vein might turn if they were to borrow from Kennedy—either to meditate so intricately and intensely on an intimate feeling, or else to take a single work by another artist and transform it as Kennedy has with “The Theme”. Perhaps as she has borrowed from the Diabelli Variations other writers will borrow from “Thirty-Three Transformations”, and engage with their own investigations of emotion or motif. How these ideas might evolve in the hands of different poets, each with their own perspectives, tastes, and techniques would be fascinating to behold.
Moth Hour is a tremendous undertaking, and an undeniably affecting read. It varies in form but never in quality, and shows a touch at once light and fathoms deep, simultaneously focused and expansive. With a text which is nuanced, multitudinous, and moving in the extreme, this book is a gift.