“For Kenny” by Kelsey Smoot

“For Kenny” | Kelsey Smoot

Kenny is an aberration.
One of two white men I’ve ever met
who makes me feel safe.
He grips me tight upon arrival. 
Tears off a small bud of rosemary
from his garden.
Holds it to my nose and asks
“ain’t that nice?”
in a pitch and tenor
that sounds like a bear cub yawn. 
Kenny dances like a fairy.
Clunks around his kitchen 
in heavy hiking boots.
Prepares pan fried steak 
and spicy cabbage.
Sucks at the grizzle of meat 
and tells us,
if he ever choked on it, 
he’d be happy
because that’s “the rich man’s way to die.”
Kenny is dirt poor. 
Wears it on him like high-end cologne.
Tells me stories of his Petersburg blood.
He laughs at his own southern-boy-blues—
how, comin’ up,
he thought the clock 
in the Richmond train station
was Big Ben. 
I wonder if it’s foul
that the best black-eyed peas I ever ate
were cooked by this white boy’s hands.
I wonder how he put so much soul 
in those peas.
How he got so much soul in his soul.
Kenny comes home from work
covered in a thick coat of dirt 
from shoulders to ankle.
He tells me his mentee 
makes five dollars more
because he ain’t a fairy. 
He rolls tobacco, and squints into the sun.
Says, “but ya know…
ya know how the world is, Kels.”
I’m not sure that I do.


“For Kenny” by Kelsey Smoot was the Winner of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize for Poetry selected by Rodrigo Toscano. Here’s what Mr. Toscano had to say about “For Kenny”:

Too often these days, poems either lack sufficient words or phrases that culturally locate a text, or worse, they are overstuffed with such cultural markers. “For Kenny”, strikes a compelling balance between the two extremes. While the poem is plainly sympathetic to the subject of its portraiture (“Kenny”), it doesn’t lapse into simplistic sentimentality. A stoic attitude pervades the whole piece. And it is by way of this moral-ethical distancing that the reader is given space to imagine scenarios in their own life that call out for poetic treatment. But not so fast! Despite the poem’s narrative drive, expressed by an ardent commitment to finely wrought detail, akin to the beginning of a great epic novel, the last line, “I’m not sure that I do”, separates this poem from the legions of wannabe novelettes that litter most poetry journals. The cathectic rupture caused by the line is instant and irreversible, and resets all that came before it as an unrecoverable alternate reality. That is, our grimy readerly hands are kept at bay, as the poetic subject, narrator, and reader are all tossed up into midair. And where we land is on a newfound desire to live a more observant, more judicious, and ultimately, more compassionate life. And of course, “For Kenny”, leaves us plenty hungry for more poetic works by Kelsey Smoot.

More about the author, Kelsey Smoot:

Kelsey L. Smoot (They/Them/He/Him) is a full-time PhD student in the interdisciplinary social sciences and humanities. They are also a poet, advocate, and frequent writer of critical analysis.