‘Love-in-Idleness’ by Christopher Hennessy
Christopher Hennessy, who edited the wonderful Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, is no stranger to modern—or postmodern—poetry. In that book, his interviews with Carl Phillips, Thom Gunn, and Timothy Liu, among others, evince intimate, illuminating responses from some of our best writers.
Given that, it might surprise some readers that Hennessy’s debut collection has a decidedly romantic edge, and an almost otherworldly evocation of earlier poets. With its puckish use of Classical allusions (Icarus, Lethe), religious tropes like St. Sebastian and Gethsemane, and even Latin and French, Love-in-Idleness (a finalist for Triangle Publishing’s Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry) harkens back to an earlier time when writers didn’t play their intellectual cards so close to the vest. The title, in fact, is a synonym for the pansy, which figures prominently as a comic aphrodisiac in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and of course has been used as symbol of homosexuality for over a century.
Reading Love-in-Idleness, it’s clear that Hennessy’s arsenal includes everyone from Homer to Thomas Mann to Thom Gunn, and he invokes them all with a light touch. “Man Standing,” inspired by the speaker’s mishearing of a news story about a “mass stranding” of thousands of squid, might be a riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man Moth” (based on her seeing a typo of “mammoth”); but where a poem comes from is less important than where it goes, and Hennessy consistently takes us to new places. “Man Standing” becomes a meditation on love and death:
It’s the word nestle
that calls up an image of us
lovingly tucked into our graves.
We line up, fold our hands
in resignation, and lie down
wasn’t enough to reach back for.
His more plainspoken poems about a rural childhood are full of relatable, specific details, as in “At My Gradmother’s Funeral”: “You remember every ram’s name (the ewes’ have faded): /twins Frank and Hank, black-booted Sam, your first, Buck Owens / […] blue ribbons through their ears.
Perhaps the best of the lot is the title poem, in which the speaker’s father nudges his son to do “man’s work,” cleaning out the rain gutters at the end of autumn:
I can hear the trough’s ooze move,
a writhing, like the mole I found
drowning in the backyard pool,
a wadded hairshirt, convulsing—
By the last stanza, the father is assuaged by his son’s semiheroic efforts. “The grit of his teeth loosens, / and he points to a storm cloud / rolling patiently toward us.”
Like that final image, Hennessy’s collection is at once gritty and calming, romantic but savvy. It’s not a combo you see much in these decidedly unromantic times, but he pulls it off brilliantly. In the end, Love-in-Idleness might best be described with one of those words you never hear anymore: “lovely.”
By Christopher Hennessy
Brooklyn Arts Press
Paperback, 9781936767021, 84 pp.