Lin­guis­tic Per­plex­ity

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Steven Matthews

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.

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