The legacy of South Bay poet and bookseller JB Kennedy

JB Kennedy. Photo

To Poet JB Kennedy, a Homage

(James Bullard Kennedy passed away on July 13, 2020)

by Bill Yankes

When the call comes in the dead of night, the doctor leaps to his feet to rush to attend a person in crisis; so does the fireman, and the war correspondent… the warrior poet cannot bear the ringing call of maladies in the ether and not rush to his typewriter.

JB Kennedy. Photo by Gloria Plascencia

A warrior poet, drawn to sounds, voices—to the melding of nature, the urban din, and the human yearning voice; drawn even to the unbearable tonalities of inner silence in its cadences and luminosities, cannot stand still stirred by inner galaxies of whispered encryptions. That is how I now remember JB Kennedy, my mentor, my friend.

I would make sure I’d stop at his overstocked second-hand bookstore in Redondo Beach in the early 1990s—straight from my work in halls of crime and punishment in downtown Los Angeles on my way to my puny sailboat cabin at the King Harbor Marina.

He’d hand me books to read when I was pursuing my master’s in creative writing. Beethoven and Mozart and Liszt would be filling the small store’s atmosphere with beckoning arpeggios that would flood the reading of works that were themselves irresistible. Much of my literary education was forged in this tuition-nearly-free academy of free thinking, JB’s bookstore.

Years have gone by and he kept hammering at that typewriter, each blasting key a letter pounded with purpose, a word, a phrase, a verse chiseled into the white paper. JB’s philosophical intonations carried political criticism, literary undertows, simple, deliberate notions of pristine wisdom and a fluid aesthetic. Yet he toiled over every word, over every line attaining the status of a line-smith, as a visiting Irish poet once regaled him with the description. To JB, education comes from varied sources and takes many forms.

“Letter to a Young Poet”

Dear Jenni,
Consult the vocabulary of wildfires, the diction
of rivers and waterfalls, the lyrics of sunrise mead-
owlark choirs, and a thunderstorm’s sky-bursting calls –
the solemn, conclusive affirmations of stone, the
laughter-born conversations of leaves, belated con-
fessions and obits, foreknown – the vehement rhetoric
of wind and turbulence, the Sun’s impassioned decree
of governance.
Heed the cryptic asides of secret-keeping stars,
The nourishing sermons of wilderness. Examine the
scarred signatures of years.
Do not be humbled and shamed into silence by the
ocean’s sonorous extravagance. Inhale the tidal ca-
dence, the vital consonance, the primal resonance.
In days disfigured by idiot noise, raise your
distinctive, radiant voice.

J.B. Kennedy

P.S. Make poems that never stop breathing – even when leaving us breathless.

JB Kennedy. Photo by Gloria Plascencia

To me, JB the Poet was a lyrical soul with political viscera. He was a humanist. He wrote of dictators with the lashing impatience of the moral executioner. How dare anyone wound free souls!

His cantankerousness was utterly justified. He had little patience for demagogues and politicos. To him politics was the art of social service. When social justice was marred by a politician’s capricious avarice, his verses would render their sentence.

“Making America Irate Again”

There is no time to mourn or ponder.
Decency has been buried under
Wild mendacity.
Conscience commands that we
Summon thunder.

Morality has been torn asunder.
Welcomed a reign of rapacity.
Electoral college ordained the blunder.
Conscience commands that we
Summon thunder.

Our fierce resolve can’t veer or wander.
Focused tenacity exposing depravity
Must generate uncommon
Must generate uncommon wonder.
Conscience commands that we
Summon thunder—

The thunder of intemperate rage—
Rage that eclipses and eliminates
The toxic trumpery
Shaming and defaming unUnited States.

—JB Kennedy

JB and Tina Kennedy. Photo

Not a week ago, I felt I better not delay in paying him a visit. Something connected me to the man on a level deeper than rhyme, more profoundly than alliteration. It was that Joycean sound, that brook whose limpid waters rushed down over the stones of time telling me there was not much of it left.

Bed-prone, his wife texts me his latest poem. At age 87, he writes,

“Condition at 87”:

As the ability to breathe
steadily disappears
advancing deafness
finds my ears
and both eyes
find reminders
that each day
I become blinder
and I can’t see
my need to read
as memory losses
pick up speed

I listened to my inner call, a whistle of sorts. I went to see him at his home. The Coronavirus pandemic transformed my social visit into a safe and appropriately creative circumstance. Through his bedroom screen window I saw him. He saw me. We waved our hands and tossed a few words of well-wishing at each other. He asked about my life. I gave him a brief update. His fist raised, his strained voice sent me an “I’m proud of you!” I said, “Get well!”

Little could I know at that marvelous moment of reconnection in flawless reciprocal rhythm, these few words volleyed between kindred spirits hurled joyously at each other would be our farewell.

Good-bye, JB. Good-bye, Poet!

JB Kennedy, by Paul Blieden, reading at Live at the Lounge, Nov. 17, 2013

Elegy to a wizard

by David H. Rosales

As the virus stalks and strikes in every corner of the world, the news goes on with its vicious circle of anguish and hope: more people die surrounded by machines and exhausted nurses and doctors, contagion soars, legends of the arts, who we considered somehow immortal, pass away and leave us orphaned in a moment when the sublime is salvation from the gloomy statistics. There is also the possibility of a dozen vaccines, and of a natural immunity that would turn us again into the herd which seemed to ignore the joy of everyday pleasures until they had to be postponed.

Among the saddest news during these times is the departure of JB Kennedy, who I interviewed seven years ago. Blessed and afflicted with poetry, a condition that makes a man both delightfully and painfully prone to daydreaming and experimenting with words, I have always cherished any opportunity to speak with poets as an escape from solitude and as a learning process.

At first I thought that the man looked like a medieval wizard, and that his eagle-like gaze was intimidating. He had the majesty and the ferocity of a hawk. I had been handed a few of his poems. The style of the pieces I had read for the interview, along with his Tennysonian presence, led me to believe I was going to talk to a bard exclusively concerned with the smithing of English phonemes.

I had one of the most pleasant surprises of my life when JB Kennedy mentioned right away that Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca were some of his main influences. He knew by heart many of their poems. He repeated twice or thrice his favorite metaphors from “Weeping for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” and he particularly admired the use of recurrent verses in an elegy that Neruda dedicated to fellow poet Alberto Rojas Jiménez.

JB Kennedy. Photo by Tom Sanders

He even recited lines in Spanish with the reverence and joy of a man who can play a few notes on an instrument he loves, but is far from mastering. It didn’t matter to me that his first language was one that I will always speak with an accent, misusing phrasal verbs and conjunctions. Neither did I care that we were separated by several generations. Our admiration for those masters made us part of the same brotherhood.

The interview went on and I learned that JB Kennedy had devoted his life not only to the beauty of words, but to exercising their power. There is a Shakespearean strength in his political verses that transcends mere poetical artifice. He wasn’t afraid to voice his indignation towards military cruelty, shameless greed, and victorious foolishness. He couldn’t care less about ideological brands, he told me: I could call him an anarchist, a man who stood alone at the gates of revolution.

He penned a letter to thank me for the article I wrote on him. It still remains in my archives, for JB Kennedy left an everlasting impression on me. Even though I am an alien to his actual community, and I never visited his bookstore, I haven’t met a poet more loving and prideful of his craft. He was indeed a medieval wizard, and also a knight: poetry was his magic and his sword.

JB Kennedy’s total confidence in the human worth of his art was contagious. Any writer, poet or not, should get it. Sadly, the source is no longer with us and we are left alone with the bad kind of contagion. Fortunately, his poetry can fly around, as majestic and ferocious as the hawk which his maker resembled. More than ever, we need courage in the face of uncertainty and triumphant mendacity, a bravery that is copiously provided by his verses.

JB Kennedy, March 6, 2016. Photo

Ode to a Bookman

For two decades, Easy Reader published JB Kennedy’s commentaries, devilnitions, and poetry as often as possible. He had strong opinions, and wasn’t afraid to express them, especially during the Bush presidency when we were frogmarched into a war on false pretenses. As Random Length’s James Allen points out, “He was an original skeptic with a cunning and cutting sense of humor.”

JB Kennedy. Photo by Nancy Batchelder, c.1997. Courtesy of Random Lengths

Kennedy was also curmudgeonly, and he took pride in this. But if you came to know him, then you saw behind that visage and would realize how dedicated he was to fine literature. I often heard him speak at length about Robinson Jeffers, Ezra Pound, Octavio Paz, James Joyce, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, and many other of our finest mid-century poets.

I’m not sure how many secondhand bookstores he owned during his half-century as a bookseller, but when I met him in the latter 1970s he had a shop on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. I’d stopped in with my then-girlfriend and we both found books to buy. Strangely, I remember the titles I set down on the counter (“Beyond the Tragic Vision” and “The Mind of the European Romantics”), and my friend Suzanne bought at least one book on Celtic lore. JB Kennedy’s first words were, “Ah! People who read,” implying that we clearly hadn’t come seeking the latest Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins or whoever else was on the bestseller list at that time.

There were additional bookstores—in Redondo Beach, San Pedro, and Torrance. It was after chancing upon the San Pedro location that Irishman Noel O’Hara wrote an article claiming that he’d found the best bookstore in the world. No small praise, that! But no matter the location, each January 27, when Mozart racked up another birthday, one could walk into the store and hear the glorious sounds of this music master, and there would always be free cupcakes and punch to celebrate the occasion.

In 2013, Kennedy was the star of Easy Reader’s lone literary soirée, held at Live at the Lounge in downtown Hermosa Beach. He graces the cover (in glorious black and white) of the issue that inspired the event. We saluted him then and we salute him now. The South Bay has lost someone very special; and we will be poorer for it because, truly, JB Kennedy was one of a kind. ER


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