1. Cain, Luke Kennard’s sixth collection, could be described as the poetry collection equivalent of a concept album, and as such it risks disappearing down the rabbit hole of its own conceptualised universe. Does it emerge? Yes and no.

    In the interests of brevity, here’s (most of) the blurb which does an excellent job of summarising the Big Idea:

    “The year is 2016 and Luke Kennard finds himself estranged from his family, his publisher and his faith. With the help of his Community Psychiatric Nurse, who claims to be living embodiment of Cain – the first murderer – the poet changes his name to Father K and searches for answers […].”

    Without this as a guiding hand I would have struggled to fully grasp the book’s project, but armed with it I entered Book I. This part contains funny, diverse poems which contextualise the abject state of the central figure:

    There is a chasm between Luke and Kennard.
    There is a pause like a cat weighing up its chances
    at making a jump before I manage to say ‘Luke’ in Starbucks.

                          ‘Vestigial Stammer’

    Into this self-referential chasm comes Cain, cast as a kind of spirit guide accompanying Kennard through his period of misery.

    Cain is a figure out of time, both caring and cruel. He drags Kennard from his nostalgia for a personal past which doesn’t offer much more consolation than the present and its “unpopular poetry tent”. The increasing references to TV shows, cameras and filming (and their framing and distancing of experience, paralleled in the act of writing the poems themselves) lead into Book II.

    This opens with the verses from Genesis in which God berates Cain for the murder of his brother. Next to this is the break-down of the distribution of letters in the Genesis passage, and Kennard uses this as a constraint to write the 31 anagram poems that follow. Each poem is an episode from avant-garde TV show Cain. Surrounding each anagram poem is a ‘frame’ of small red text (unkind on the eyes). This provides a commentary on the writing and production of each ‘episode’, the register of which throws into relief the pyrotechnic syntax and sounds of the episodes/poems:

               Brunette A.D.D., ol’ mouthwash.
    Adahhhh! Tetchy demon & conventional
    Frenchwoman. Death, wishbone,
    horseshoe.

                          ‘iii.’

    The episode/poems are, by nature of the constraint, fractured and partial. In contrast the commentaries are gleefully excessive in their piling on of information, including definitions of words used in the episode/poems and speculations as to their metaphorical deployment. At times this satirises critical discourse, as in this example from ‘xviii’ and its ‘VESTIGIAL SONNET #13’:

    We are given only one complete sonnet here, which appears to abandon the Shakespearean rhyme scheme half-way through the octet and finishes one line early with a botched couplet (the letter restrictions were never more evident).

    Though the commentaries are constructed from the discursive mode, they deconstruct it at the same time as using it. In this way the anagrams pre-empt potential criticism, heading off discourse at the pass. Where does that leave a reviewer who might be tempted to say, ‘I’m not sure that quite works’? Impressed but a little annoyed!

    Book III returns (for the most part) to lyric and narrative modes to explore self-hood, production and excess, more in the manner of Book I. Kennard appears again and is once more concerned with his own production: “Also, the Waterstones near the Bullring doesn’t stock my books, so fuck them” (‘Interfaith Dialogue’). Despite the quality of these poems, the final part of the collection felt recursive in its concerns, and a little flat after the very particular experience of reading the anagram poems which dominate Cain. On reaching Book III I felt like I’d come out of a cinema into the brightness of a sunny afternoon and was struggling to see clearly. But Book II had already anticipated this concern:

    A heteroclite is an abnormal thing or person. The dictionary gives the following adjectival example: “the book suffers from the heteroclite and ill-fitting nature of its various elements.”

                         ‘xix’

    There are games within games being played here. As a reader you need to decide if this is the kind of fun you like to join in with.

    Katherine Stansfield’s first collection Playing House was published by Seren in 2014. @K_Stansfield

    cain luke kennard

    Cain by Luke Kennard is published by Penned in the Margins, £12.99.

  2. Jane Bonnyman’s first pamphlet, An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, is a gothic wonder of a book, an adventurous, swashbuckling exploration of an extraordinary life. The pamphlet opens as the heroine travels from Indianapolis to California (her daughter in tow) to meet up with her first husband who is hoping to cash in on the gold rush. It covers Fanny’s scandalous divorce, her meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson, his death, and her quiet retirement in her own small Eden. The life expounded here is startling and vivid (it is difficult for me to believe that no one has written a collection about this subject this before) and luckily the writing lives up to the challenge, sheathing those good bones in appropriate flesh.

    The first poem, ‘Dawn’ traces Fanny’s journey across America in pursuit of her treasure-hunting husband. A taut, precise poem, it perfectly encapsulates the triumph of hope (in the guise of will) over the conventional stagnation of death. It begins with a description of seemingly-inescapable desolation: Among stagnant pools where dead fish float and coconut leaves drift over rotting flesh like helpless souls, and feverish women lie curled in hammocks chattering to revenants of their lost men Across this landscape, Fanny strides armoured with her purpose. She wills her way through the land of death, like a heroine from one of her future-husband’s books: she buys liquor, hot coffee for her daughter, finds a guide, three mules and a road that leads beyond the cemetery to Panama City ‘Dawn’ is structured in two evenly-divided parts; there are nine lines for death, and nine for forced rebirth. Not a word is wasted. The effect of reading this poem is very much like inhaling the first breathless fifty pages of an adventure novel, when the story first starts to get really good.

  3. I’ve now been reading Transparencies, on and off, for almost two years. This is a good period of time over which to think about a collection that works across Gaelic and English as well as seeming to span at least one lifetime of experience.

    Bateman made her name as a poet in Gaelic, though not as a native speaker. This is her first largely English collection. In Transparencies, some poems (though only twelve in a collection of sixty-four) are presented bilingually with the Gaelic originals on the verso, the poet’s own translations into English on the recto. The other poems appear in their sole English form. I know not one word of Gaelic and yet the Gaelic poems surprised and delighted me each time I encountered them. I was enchanted by looking at this strange rich language, full of consonantal clusters. I kept trying to lay the English over the Gaelic, or vice versa – one way in which the title of the collection began to work its charm.

  4. Simon Barraclough has been, for the past year, Poet in Residence at Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Barraclough remarks that his path there began with a fortuitous reading in 2013, but also long ago as a child looking up at the dark West Yorkshire night sky. His third collection, Sunspots, reflects this deep and pervasive interest in the cosmos, but more specifically, in our very own local star, the Sun itself.

    I come to Barraclough’s collection with profound interest in how science and poetry can interact, specifically astronomical and physical science. Barraclough does an excellent job of “circling” the sun in different ways, using each poem as a way of examining some facet, or “Sunspot.” His knowledge of Sun-science comes through in his application of scientific concepts and language, and his poems reveal the nature of the Sun via its interaction with us and with the broader universe. This is a cosmic long view of a book.

  5. Chris McCabe, Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, £9.99) Andre Bagoo, Burn (Shearsman Books, £8.95) Dorothy Lehane, Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press, £8.99)

    Chris McCabe’s collection Speculatrix juggles language like he’s juggling knives, mixing contemporary urban scenes with Elizabethan and Jacobean references – sparks flying from the clashes and contrasts.

  6. Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons doesn’t have a jacket that would make me buy the book. It quotes Bernard O’Donoghue: “These are poems of the utmost importance,” while artist Paula Rego’s cover image of St Christina with a swaddled baby on her back is admittedly beautiful, but miserable. Feeling like a recalcitrant pupil having to engage with ‘heavy’ poems I probably won’t enjoy is not an ideal starting point. Flipping to the back cover, however, I am reassured by the smiling face of Etter, a widely-published American expatriate lecturing in creative writing at Bath Spa University.

    Coupling with my mixed emotions on what to expect, the collection itself deals with mixed emotions, as a birthmother meets up with the son she gave away as a teenager in a series of imagined scenarios. It includes anticipated heart-breaking moments, which never become syrupy and – surprisingly – deadpan humour.

  7. Tony Williams’ second collection, The Midlands, begins on a rather gloomy note, with the first line proclaiming, ‘The Midlands are crying’. But the detail of what provokes the despair makes it convincing, heartfelt and all the more pervasive:

    They cry in the carparks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars         of buildings that used to be bookshops. They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.         They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.

  8. It says something, perhaps, about the power and mystery of Rosemary Tonks’ life (once the toast of literary 1960s Soho, turned religious recluse who repudiated all of her work) that I should have heard of her long before I read one of her poems. The image I had of her was a person who had disowned the craft of poetry but was still followed by a select band of stalwarts, initiates and rare booksellers. Until recently, I think there has been some truth in that, but Neil Astley is to be praised for all of his excavation, research and archival work in collecting together Tonks’ long out-of-print work and bringing it so accessibly to our attention in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. My major fear before reading these poems was that Tonks’ uniquely fascinating but agonised life story would threaten to eclipse the achievement of her poems, or at least strongly influence my reaction to them. Indeed, Astley’s detailed and scrupulous introduction gives us plenty of extra biographical information whilst also retaining a hint of the enigma, but the main achievement of this collection seems to be to present a rounded sense of Tonks as an artist prior to the radical change in her life in the late 1970s and her retreat from writing and literary life. For instance, Astley reprints two of her reviews and a rare interview with Peter Orr, which shows the visionary intensity and integrity that shaped her work:

    TONKS: …”I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions…I want to show people that the world is absolutely tremendous.”

  9. There are four pamphlets in 2014′s Faber New Poets series: 9: Rachael Allen 10: Will Burns 11: Zaffar Kunial 12: Declan Ryan

    Sixteen pages is quite a slender space in which to make your mark, but Rachael Allen gives us, in effect, two separate sequences, as her pamphlet interleaves found language/trash-culture prose poems with a set of childhood memory/Cornish landscapes. All offer quite static images; no movement is attempted, and the relationship between the two sequences isn’t clear, as they bleed at times into each other, leaving a giddy, slightly seasick, sugar-rush feeling in the mind. But she has a rich vocabulary, and in the tightest of the poems (‘Kingdomland’ and ‘Old Fears Are Still Valid’ stand out) strong, compelling imagery.

  10. Here are the names of some of the flowers of Carrigskeewaun – sandwort, saxifrage, asphodel; and here are some of its songbirds – red bunting, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, a wren, “its tumultuous/ Aria in C or/ Whatever the key/ In which God exists”.

    In Longley country, the small forms of the world spread and grow from book to book. His poems are miniatures with big dimensions, nests of small ephemera with long shadows and persistent themes, though they can also be decorative, lovely to hear and to look at, and even if slight, riveted with perfectly placed detail. Longley’s art and craft is an exact science with tangible effects.

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