Asylum, Sean Borodale, Cape Poetry, £10.00 (paperback)
Us, Zaffar Kunial, Faber and Faber, £10.99 (paperback)
Anomaly, Jamie McKendrick, Faber and Faber, £14.99 (hardback)
These three books are all attentive to external sounds, and to the way that sound inflects the intonations of poetry. They create sound worlds of their own out of an attentive listening, to water, to voices, rock, the tempest. Sean Borodale’s delvings beneath the land around the Mendip Hills, Somerset in Asylum plays a panoply of acoustics, echoes, resonances from caves, mines, and quarries. Zaffar Kunial’s Us includes the many voices from his family, and from the literary, past, revealing an exhilarating mixture of linguistic and poetic resource, both hampering and liberating. Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly centres his own tinnitus-ridden ‘Earscape’ within an extensive sounding of the ‘clamour’ and silences of the world lived. Taken together, these books create a questioning version of the manifold possibilities of their country, its histories, and of the sonic ranges that poetry can subsume and re-render at this difficult national moment.
Borodale’s new book follows the approach of his previous two, in that it represents a kind of ‘action’ poetry, travelling the Mendips, exploring old shafts, archaeological sites, and other underground workings, in order, as T.S. Eliot put it, to ‘bring something back’. The language of the book is improvisational, but the shared purpose, from poem to poem is, as ‘Grebe Swallet Lead Mine’ has it, to ‘go in, below,/in rough clothes of soil…/ To stop, to listen, from the gaunt cleft,/the buried fissure.’ Borodale seeks to bring alive the experience of encounter in these poems, encounter with inverse worlds beneath the surface; but also encounter with an alien hardness and harshness of landscape worn by a history which disturbs the
surface culture, and makes return to it yearned-for (‘I want the warmth of a light’), but difficult. Titles of poems, in this process, can become a negative issue here, striving as Borodale does through them to preserve a sense of distinct location along with a description of the ‘action’ behind the poem which, in some presumed sense, further locates it. So, as an example of the titling, and of the acoustic which follows from it, we might point to ‘Measuring the Effect of Darkness on the Voice for 30 Minutes, Goatchurch Cavern’ (and that is not the least of these titles, which selfconsciously parody themselves elsewhere). In this poem, the speaker is presented as a tentative and uncertain caver on a rope descending into ‘the hole’. Possibilities, paradoxical ones, immediately open out – ‘Some may see light fraying off’ – before the poetry settles back in a mode by now familiar to the book:
The voice in its cavity, intuit its depth by speech, strangeness; the echo frays. Many, many voices boom up randomly.
I strike a match – lightening the dark sound.
These lines illustrate both the strengths and the weaknesses of the collection simultaneously. There is obvious metaphysics, almost a religious intuition, founded in many of these descents into the ground, into the darks and rare lights, as the voice of the poems themselves takes on an assumed depth and possibility. And yet, from poem to poem, it feels as though much of this is projection on the speaker’s part; that ‘intuit’ in these lines enjoins the sympathetic speaker or the reader to make this experience an actuality, in default of the poem giving it. No matter how many times the poetry tells of the ‘strangeness’ of this project to go into all of the Mendip depths and workings, or the ‘dark’ or ‘black’, it cannot realise these things in the reader’s imagination. ‘I cannot adhere to the surface-country/but will go into blacker reaches of area,’ is the programmatic declaration of the book’s last poem. Vocabulary strains – ‘adhere’ is an odd choice, asking the reader to suppress part of the word’s implication. The shade of Seamus Heaney
clearly lurks here, as in the arterial shapes of several of these poems – but Heaney’s ‘Some day I will go to Aarhus’, from ‘The Tollund Man,’ fostered a genuine ‘strangeness’ when first encountered in 1975.
In some cases, Borodale simply becomes melodramatic where he should be revelatory. ‘The river’s vague speed/absorbs the interest of suicide/inside every body,’ as one poem set at ‘Fussell ironworks’ puts it. ‘Monologue in Deep Threshold, Cockle’s Fissure’ sees an emerging speaker asking the ‘you’ addressed to recall a ‘long road, agony of cars glinting in the sun’ with an ambulance siren wailing over all. Why this moment of ‘agony’, we might wonder, as the aftermath of the descent? The poem has opened by telling us ‘What is obvious in the dark: the tragedy’ – but this is surely to put the finger in the scale in a human, all-too-human, way. Out of such sentimentalism, the nation emerges in these poems as an odd quantity.
In the consciously Ted Hughes-like ‘Gough’s Cave Inhabitant,’ the ancient cave-dweller is envisaged as a cannibal, ‘Chewing deeper than England, | eating kindred.’ Ravening on our own kind is presumably where Borodale is suggesting the country is ‘at’. But his presiding metaphors enable him again to slip away from such mockery, through an easy acceptance of some version of primal myth: ‘But this is not England, under England,’ we are told before we come upon a ‘black’ river ‘where I hear the craving, gnawing/for meaning at the first sump’. The establishment of levels below levels, times ‘before’ time, becomes mannered, despite the ‘change’ of site and perspective from poetic event to event.
None of this is necessarily other than laudable as a project at this moment. But the poems, for all of their admirable vigour and deftness, do not really ever escape the somewhat self-regarding ‘programme’. The failure to capture into the poems’ own sonic reach the alien and un-human sounds of the earth remains a key problem across the book.
Zaffar Kunial’s inaugural collection, Us, renders heard complexities, both in the everyday, and in the more existential aspects, of the country. I first encountered Kunial’s work in the pamphlet ‘Faber New Poets 11’ in 2014
– he is a graduate of the publishing house’s New Poets mentoring scheme. Kunial’s pamphlet was clearly more achieved and certain of itself than any of the other pamphlets, amongst the first twelve from the scheme, in terms of variety, technical skill, and imaginative scope. It feels unfair to mention this – but is not so, since the cover-fold for Us tells us of Kunial’s progress in this regard. It is an odd, potentially disabling, thing for the publisher to have done, as though suggesting that Us should be measured as a part of the poet’s ongoing development, and that the first full collection needs to be read in the light of the pamphlet.
Taken in this light, the progression of Us beyond ‘Pamphlet 11’ is very mixed, more than slightly disappointing, I feel. Too many of the new poems deal with the vocal pressures of multiple linguistic inheritance (Urdu, many dialects) beneath the poet’s English. They read like ‘variations on a theme’ of the earlier remarkable ‘The Word,’ and ‘Hill Speak’. The speaker of many poems here is cast as ‘between,’ ‘halfway’, amidst competing vocabularies and registers, between the written and the multiply-resonant spoken. As ‘Hill Speak’ itself puts it:
truly, though there are many dictionaries for the tongue
I speak, it’s the close-by things I’m lost to say….
The poet is marooned by this linguistic perplexity in everything ‘pulsed and present’, and wittily yields the poetic demand to stumble ‘towards some higher plane’. Yet many of the poems in this vein in Us have little to add through iteration, and operate what has now become a recognisable ‘mode’, since as poetry readers we are very familiar with this kind of work. And they leech away something of the variety of Kunial’s original pamphlet; I personally regret the suppression of the Wordsworth poem, ‘The Placeholder,’ in the full collection, for instance.
Iteration interestingly is one of the quirks of the collection (as it had also been for Borodale). ‘Stamping Grounds (Earlier)’ is placed twenty pages in advance of ‘Stamping Grounds (Later)’, which tightens the material and
places it under a different epigraph, from Donne instead of Dickens. It is as though Kunial wants us to remain aware, amidst the swirling linguistic inheritances, of the concerted poetic purpose and ambition of the book – he can draw us into his own self-consciousness about the embarrassments and awkwardnesses, out of this context, in writing poetry. ‘Sparkhill,’ a mixture of prose and poetry about the site of Kunial’s early years, ends by drawing back to the keyboard, the scene of writing:
And I sit down, quite some way from St. John’s primary school, Sparkhill Park, and that slope where time felt dense. The opposite of light. And I look past my knuckles at it – it, the black, up-tilted
keyboard…And I start to type: Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight.
Childhood skirmishes on the playground become the basis for a poetic manifesto towards an action that is about to occur, the taking of the past into a solving politics through poetry into the future. Kunial’s sense of the difficulty of this, his wearing the pose as it were on the surface of the poetry, is positive, positive in its alertness to preciousness (‘it’), and this is a deliberately literary collection. Nonetheless, it can all feel too selfconscious – the lower-case ‘p’ and ‘s’ in ‘primary school’ here, for instance, as though the pun were not obvious otherwise.
Kunial in fact has been done few favours in the editing of the poems throughout, and in the design of the book. The decision by Faber to print the poems in a reduced font size means that many do fit one page. But this also produces a hectic and cramped impression of the poems, which in itself makes it difficult to unearth the complex dialogues being enacted between them and the longer sequences in the book. A case particularly in point would be the impressive final long piece, ‘Ys’, where the use of a variety of poetic forms and shapes, and intersecting prose passages, focuses tellingly together various aspects, gaps, spaces, and varieties, of what has gone before – but the look of the work remains helter-skelter. To adopt Kunial’s equal-unequal oppositions in ‘Sparkhill’, the poems are at their best when they are ‘light’, rather than ‘dense’, as in the witty spirallings-out of ‘And
Farther Again’, where speech continues its musical, fugal, verve, sweeping through history and relationship trauma:
And as you’re telling me that a nail won’t get far in the stone bricks above your door, it brings up the three-
chaired counselling the two of us undertook; how each hour was a strange loop… .
Kunial is definitely a poet of massive potential, but one who needs to relax away from the programmatic which underlies too many poems here, and to be allowed to breathe, vent space into the content and formal directions of the work.
The poems in Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly are notably given such space, and a proper proportion (in a larger font) on the page. This strikes me as McKendrick’s best book so far, an integrated but ranging piece of work. It deftly and cleverly includes a welter of reference, whilst never losing sight of the poignant necessities which both draw us together and separate us. The title poem itself, four seeming quiet and modest couplets, opens onto realms of memory and portent. Not being able to escape traffic roar, in this ‘neck of the woods’, leads to regret that there’s ‘Never a chance that you’d hug me again’ as once previously, and a swift follow-on about the progressive worsening of ‘weather’ even from last year, which ‘felled the tall eucalyptus.’ This is a poetry which allows the reader to adopt and adapt its suggestiveness, which is constantly surprising in its rapid switches of perspective. ‘Above the Treeline’ recalls an alpine climb which leaves regret for everything left behind, including the animal selves of the climbers. This is all too exposing, driving towards a possible metaphysics which the poem holds away from, as ‘Facing that sky, now far too close’ a church bell in the valley sounds ‘so small it could hang on a cricket’s collar.’
Everything is potentially out of kilter, or misheard, but also, as a result, full of possibility. ‘Earscape’, where the speaker recollects the deafness
brought on by being exposed to dynamite blasts as a ‘boy who blew/up bits of Derbyshire’, celebrates the intentness of a deep-space hearing which enters ‘out in the air beyond our telescopes/the admonition of a blackened star’. The wry longer piece, ‘Translating Yves Bonnefoy,’ turns all of this into a play upon the near impossibility of translation, or of hearing poetry in any sense – the way it opens us up to things whilst also denying us them. Staging a scene in which the speaker ‘eavesdrops’ on Bonnefoy as he speaks to a companion in a café in Arezzo, we hear that
I could not fault Yves Bonnefoy’s French accent. It was marvellous, liquid, like a native speaker’s only he received relatively low marks
for audibility – he was clearly indifferent to his extended audience… .
Actually to read Bonnefoy’s poems would leave this speaker ‘none the wiser’, so he returns sullenly to his own grounded meal, the exotic plate of ‘earthy beans and chicory’. The notion that hardness-of-hearing leaves even ‘native speakers’ askew from their own ‘accent’ focuses this venture into the nature of poetry and its quiet but significant place. Poetry as an intimate thing, but as a testing whose accents and vocabularies are almost impossible to catch.
Ultimately, maybe, we can only commune with ourselves; yet this bravura performance by McKendrick expands through a great range of situations and vocalities. ‘Hibernaculum’, for instance, finds the speaker wintering out, yet abandoned, ‘with the swallows that failed to migrate.’ ‘Arboreal’, too, embraces the avian emblematism of poetry. These poems take their occasions through versions of Baudelaire, Magrelli, Anedda, and Machado, as well as ekphrastic poems from Giacometti and Canaletto, as the book ranges the cultural and psychological landscapes of Europe. And there are also poems drawn back to the local and to first places such as ‘St Michaelin-the-Hamlet’ (‘the house I write in’), notably to a father whose own experience in the war includes charity and aid to others, such as:
the German colonel who’d gone scouting too close to the English line….
The father ‘patches him up’, in this colloquial verse, ‘as best he could and always/wondered if he made it’. McKendrick’s assurance in many poetic styles in the book acts as its own admonition against historical forgetfulness and current curbs on imaginative empathy built upon such unlikely and tragic shared European experience.
But the book is always also attentive to the continuing uncertainties, the ‘Questionnaire on Matters Physical and Metaphysical’, to appropriate one title, that poetry also offers. The final poem, as others, examines the performance aspect of all of this, what we can and can’t believe. ‘The Bluff’ takes as its subject a newt ‘that plays so delicately dead’ in order to escape its enemies. This perfect act, however, only puts the newt further into danger, especially from ‘a sentimental species such as ours’ which might, sensing the lifelessness in the creature, bury it prematurely. The poem therefore ‘plays’ with this proposition, noting however that ‘it’s play for mortal stakes./Play for keeps and not keepsakes.’ The speaker shows a proper respect for the newt, having played upon it as a complex conceit, and replaces it beneath its stone:
There it can lie pretending, presumably, to be alive.
The book’s final lines return upon the self-mockery towards the figure of the poet shown in earlier poems in the collection such as ‘The Urban Field’. What is inspiring in reading the poems is their mobility and speed of ideas and images, the swiftness and assurance with which the poems move from perception to perception, turning them, reviewing them. Anomaly is a heartening and consistently excellent book.