X. J. Kennedy’s Cross Ties: Selected Poems, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry, shows him to be a master of rhyme and meter, the highly structured forms of which accommodate his view that men and women are buffoons, that children are often savage as well as fragile, that poets are bumblers who overvalue their art, and that civilization (including religion) is a lost cause.
Kennedy considers several types of women. One type is the woman who has lost something. The woman in “Solitary Confinement” has lost her freedom; she is trapped by her desire for her man and by her man himself, and in fact, they both imprison themselves by leeching off each other. The loss the woman has gone through in “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day” is her youth. All that she has left is her lustiness, and she boasts of a beauty and wealth she does not seem to have had to begin with. Boys stumble on the corpse of a woman in “Loose Woman.” She had seemed cold to everyone when she was alive, but the truth turns out to be that she was not, and because of this she was murdered by a man. The wife in “The Shorter View” has lost her confidence in childbearing since the world, in her view, is too threatening a place into which to bring a child.
The woman who exudes power is another type that Kennedy highlights. If she is mindless, as in “Nude Descending a Staircase,” her fluid movement is still able to immobilize the viewer. She may be Lilith, as in “Inscriptions After Fact,” not only mindless but soulless, whose beauty is so strong that men mistake it for the real thing (that is, human) rather than see it as the illusion that it indeed is. In the same poem, the Sirens symbolize the powerful and deadly lure of women, just as the overwhelming force of self-love is imbedded in a female image. The child in “Ladies Looking for Lice” is helpless before the women drooling as they kill the lice in his hair with their fingernails. Poets are also helpless when women want them at night; they put their work aside then to obey the demands of the female. Spring is pictured as a burlesque queen who carries all before her in “Rondel,” and in “Pottery Class,” the suburban housewives show themselves to be impassioned shapers of the commonplace—their men as well as clay. In all of these cases, it is the sexual aspect of women that seems to radiate strength and that focuses the comic eye of the poet.
Among the women that Kennedy presents in his poems, the virgin is an occasional but vivid type. Unlike the aging hussy in “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day,” the spinster in “For a Maiden Lady” closes—rather furiously—more as she grows older against not only the sexual love she has been denied but also against the life around her. The same irascibility shows up in the old woman in “Aunt Rectita’s Good Friday”; spinsterish and eccentric, she is angry at Christ for dying, while at the same time, she prepares for Easter. She also is annoyed with the life going on around her while God lies dead, though she herself expresses life in her annoyance and in her work to make Easter festive and nourishing. The Christian virgin at her worst is the subject of “What She Told the Sheriff” (one of ten poems in the sequence entitled “Traveler’s Warnings”): This time she is young, and the evidence of sex in the cornfield drives her mad. Her envy disguised as righteousness, she murders her parents with a cleaver and sets fire to the house and property.
Kennedy mostly presents his women with a grisly sense of humor. To that extent, they appear foolish and exaggerated; with the exception of the poet’s wife in “October” (whose love for him softens the onslaught of decay), the women resemble the men in his poems, though his men are often much less powerful than his women.
The old man is a major type in Kennedy’s poems. He is often an alcoholic bum. This is the sort in “B Negative,” who has lost his allure to women but not his lust for them. The narrator in “The Aged Wino’s Counsel” is married to drink and points out that women delight in the aging of men, but not in their own aging. The old drunk in “Ool About to Proclaim a Parable” is a philosopher to whom no one else in the bar wants to listen. Other categories of old men include the subject of “Flagellant’s Song,” who needs violence and pain to be sexually aroused, and the players in “Old Men Pitching Horseshoes,” who hold on to the illusion of the skill and power they no longer have. In “The Death of Professor Backwards,” an old performer dies as comically as he lived, for his act was to do everything backwards, and the muggers who kill him do it not because he has something to steal, but because he does not have enough to make it worthwhile.
Another type of male loser who appears in Kennedy’s poems is the narcissist. Though he is a kind of hero in “Barking Dog Blues,” a maverick who craves freedom from marriage and law, he cannot make love to any but an imagined woman in “Transparency” and in “Onan’s Soliloquy,” and in “At the Last Rites for Two Hotrodders,” he is a boy whose egomania supports the foolhardy courage that causes his death. Even the boys in the poem who do not dare death are losers in the sense that their common sense and fear seem to emasculate them.
Kennedy has as bleak—if not always so comic—a view of children as he has of adults. They die, but in “On a Child Who Lived One Minute,” the poet wonders at the power of life expressed in so fragile a form as a baby; in “Little Elegy,” he wishes that the ground in which Elizabeth is buried would...