LUKE KENNARD's second collection, The Harbour Beyond the Movie, was shortlisted for the 2007 Forward Prize for best collection.
Reviews and Features
Luke Kennard Appropriating Form
Luke Kennard on invention, honesty and the lure of possessions
A MUD is a ‘multi-user dimension’ – a text-based on- line game, not unlike the Infocom text adventures I squandered my childhood on. As in those games you enter a compass direction (N/S/E/W) to move around and you interact with the environment and characters; only with a MUD, there is a potentially infinite number of other people playing at the same time through the Internet. So it’s like a text adventure crossed with a chat room. A thoroughly uneven playing experience makes for a thoroughly brilliant poem:
Godsend asks: How do you kill things?
Your ten-year-old self sticks out his tongue.
You shrug helplessly at Godsend
Before we get to this, MUDe contains twelve shorter poems in more traditional forms, which are refreshingly contemporary in their metaphor and turn of phrase:
The lake hovers out of winter
with its last ice-fishing house,
empty as an afterlife with one refrigerator.
Based partly around the poet’s stint of teaching in St Paul, Minnesota, Part 1 is full of hauntingly strange images like this in its portrait of an America where ‘Everything worked. / So everyone did’. The poems are political, personal and well crafted without ever approaching didacticism or self- importance. In the longer Part 2 – ‘MUDe’ itself – Redmond opts for a Dungeons & Dragons style MUD, full of orcs and hobbits and barbarians – perhaps the geekiest scenario of them all. But this isn’t a simple novelty; it is a complete and convincing appropriation of a non-literary form towards poetic ends, much like Auden’s appropriation of prayer books, field guides and public speeches in The Orators. This is the most exciting and inventive collection of poetry I’ve read in the past few years. Sure, it’s innovative; poetry should be.
The second person perspective lends ‘MUDe’ a kind of immediacy in itself, placing the reader directly in the action: ‘You splatter against a stone wall and stick. / Then you start rolling down’. Redmond’s genius is to introduce an element of autobiography to the form, but one that is sufficiently oblique to render the experience universal. There is a father, a mother, an aunt and ‘your ten-year-old-self’ to interact with – although most of them are sort of detached and strangely menacing. You meet your father in a tavern. He only ‘looks at you embarrassed’ before pouring his drink (hobbit blood) onto the table and stabbing a shape into it. ‘It looks like a child has drawn a house in blood’.
MUDe is also extremely funny. Within a MUD it is possible to ‘shout’, which is to write something that is seen by every user – a device Redmond occasionally employs to critique the form (‘#Godsend: YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF LOSERS!’). The form also allows for bursts of lyrical surrealism – at times from the users (as a kind of ‘emo’ self- parody) and at others as part of the main narrative of the game. ‘Your’ death scene is particularly effective:
It starts very far up, it goes very far down and splits you precisely in
The tear gets wider as Death’s craggy knuckles struggle in.
He is opening you methodically like an egg.
This rules because, instead of making the same old ‘linguistically innovative’ point about the fragmentation of language and experience, Redmond takes a form which is itself fragmented and interrupted to the point of psychosis and uses it to make one of the most bleakly wonderful, coherent poems I’ve read.
It seems fair to call Stephen Romer’s Yellow Studio a more traditional affair – which is to say it assumes the reader is interested, by default, in the poet’s life. This isn’t a problem provided the poet has some sense of what makes their life interesting. Like many British poets of his generation, Romer has his cake and eats it with regard to Christianity. From the textbook scorn of the 9/11 poem ‘Today I must teach Voltaire’ – with its
priests and analysts
who frightened themselves in the nursery
with ghouls and goblins
till Spiderman in leotards swung down
to tuck them in…
– to the moment of genuine credulity in the wedding poem ‘Sidney Sussex Chapel’:
We are exalted,
and cast down,
by that burning shower of coal the Prayer Book
No mistaking, we stand rebuked.
Rebuked by Spiderman, presumably. There’s a dissertation waiting to be written on the phenomenon of poets who liken religion to a fairytale yet still bewail the younger generation’s lack of scriptural orientation. However, in The Yellow Studio this ambivalence reaches its conclusion (and finds its explanation) in the final section, ‘An Enthusiast’ – twenty- four poems in memory of Romer’s father. These poems are simple and heart breaking, recalling a man of quiet faith and his ‘group of prayerful friends’:
many of whom moved on, to therapy
or progressive thinking, but never you
with your unsounded
that proved almost a mystery.
The examination of another’s beliefs inevitably leads to the conclusion that we cannot really know anyone else. Other poems are based on his father’s own diaries from the late 1940s, such as ‘Les Ports de la Nuit’ where catching a film with a girl and kissing her briefly before heading home is described:
Probably a useful and
nothing vulgar or immoral,
but my mind disturbed.
Such a testament to how profoundly we affect each other through the smallest acts resonates in less sensitive times. These poems are at their most powerful in their moments of self-reflection. Romer recalls a scientist arguing with his father over Bach’s St Matthew Passion:
There is no such thing
as divine inspiration
and I pushing in
to agree, with an eagerness,
with a vanity,
I now detest and regret.
It is the breathtaking honesty as much as the well chosen details that make this work swing. When it’s done this well I have no problem hearing about the life of some-guy-I-never- met. This is less so in Yellow Studio’s ‘life of the jet-set academic’ poems in which, as is customary, we are to admire the don’s ennui as well as his sex appeal to young women. Thankfully Romer is self-conscious enough to critique this practice through the voice of a twenty-one-year old hottie in a restaurant:
How insufferable he is – he wants to kiss
the honeyed ramparts at my ear
– even that comes out of Yeats!
Couldn’t agree more. Actually, the academy stuff – when Romer avoids trying to get in our pants with his classical allusions – can be really good, as in the following, which captures the old adage about over-explaining something beautiful without, in this case, over-explaining it:
The conjuror in glasses
chopping and fitting
squeezes the fish through a grid
And then it vanishes.
Do you remember the last time you hesitated before throwing away an old envelope? If you’re like me it was probably this morning. Linda Black’s Inventory is an extraordinary collection of prose poems, alive to the way our haphazard possessions evoke ‘Dismal days, eventful days, days of commotion’. If Gertrude Stein used domestic objects as a starting point for abstract expressionism in Tender Buttons, Black does so to more meditative ends: ‘Each chair I own is more or less uncomfortable; each dictates to me my thoughts.’
Black’s mastery of the prose poem is thorough and encompasses the technique of appropriation discussed earlier. ‘Advice to lodgers’ starts as a note from a fastidious landlord: ‘A lodger has the right to use the knocker and the doorbell’, but becomes increasingly disrespectful: ‘People must live somewhere. It is especially annoying if the lodger finds that through his want of caution his goods are distrained’. In tandem with an ultimate seriousness, there is a dark wit at work in Inventory, as in ‘My mother is locked in a jar of ginger’, when the object world takes on a sinister aspect:
I hear her battling with the lid, trying to hump herself out of the sickly liquid. It suits me not to let her out. I hear her invective– ‘shite’ and ‘bugger’. I shall continue to disappoint. Her suspender is stuck; she is tugging at her roll-on. Let’s have some music, something with a thump to it.
This delights even as it intimates a troubled upbringing. It’s probably its element of pain – the sense of personal cost– that ensures Black’s surrealism goes beyond the fabulist strand of prose poetry inspired by such as Russell Edson.
Not that the work resembles traditional memoir. Black’s prose poems are as likely to focus on a chair leg as a significant autobiographical event. When the idea of order is stripped away like this, a mutual respect is forged between writer and reader. The descriptions and objects of Inventory invite you to recognize your own experience. This holds when that which described is the physical sensation of being in one’s own body: ‘I use my fingers without moving, acknowledge each in turn, mentally feeling. Sometimes I have the strange sensation they aren’t all there’ (‘Bed’). It holds too for the little lapses of logic which make subjective sense: ‘The temporary lamp highlights the low ceiling so I’m drawn to noticing the stain where the washing machine leaked. I have drawn a pencil line around it in the hope of keeping it contained’. This is counterpointed by the startling oddity of poems like ‘Locomotion’, a kind of meeting between the domestic instruction and the occult practice. For all Inventory’s objective-correlative intensity, there is a passionate refusal to embellish, as comically understated as it is poignant. ‘My father’ rounds off a description of hallucinatory clarity with ‘If he were here I think he would be standing, staring at nothing’. The collection is beautifully illustrated by the poet herself with drawings that capture their fantastic, ordinary, haunted world. Inventory is unique and deserves a big audience.