Kevin Cantwell

Kevin Cantwell

After more than thirty years in the classroom I remember a few students vividly. One was a victim of the war in Sierra Leone. We would talk about what might have happened to some of his people who had fled persecution and, then, those who were not heard from again. Like many students from a less permissive culture, this young man was amazed by the behavior of his fellow classmates in the United States, who would have been beaten, he said, by their teachers had they lived in his country. In “Sierra Leone,” the darkness of the laughter is its energy, the kind of laughter that distorts the face and, as the Homeric poet knew, comes from some awful trigger of human psychology. Most of my poems seek surprise, whether in an image or the claim of memory. When the gods strike the suitors of Penelope with nightmarish hilarity, a glimpse of how they will soon suffer, we encounter one of the great moments of literature, one that has always haunted me and which I look for in one translation to another, attempting to summon, on my part, the original power of how that ancient poem can still terrify. In writing the poem I remembered that passage after several revisions as it takes me a long time to think through a poem. In the end I am most satisfied when poems help me find the strangeness of the ruminating mind. For this particular poem, over many revisions, something my mother would say to us as children, and which we joked about as adults, came into the poem also. Although the subjects of my poems have not grown lighter over time, fewer commas and more periods drive the prosody, less by the hammer blows of alliteration and more by the texture of prose that overhears its poetry. I read widely in political history, drama, economics, and poetry. Social justice is not always a theme of my work, nor a direction of my reading, but since the grape boycotts of the 1960s by the United Farm Workers of America, I have been aware of the politics of the have-nots against the have-nots. I would say that “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” by Adrienne Rich, opened up for me, many years ago, how a poem could work through ideas of powerlessness; today, the poems of Frank Bidart continue to have an immense hold over me, how the great poems are Yeatsian, in that they are arguments we have with ourselves.