Jon: More than ever, it seems Frank Kuppner is the Douglas Adams of poetry; his short, questing stanzas in The Same Life Twice take on God, time and the Universe but are shot through with droll self-deprecation and bathos, not to mention a little bawdiness. They make light of the philosophical mode, the big questions repeatedly descending into puzzled exchanges and faltering interior monologues:
As for the priceless
(bejewelled) gift of treachery,
darling – I – what? What?
Oh, where has he or she disappeared to now!
Many poets are witty, but few are as committed to their humour. Flowery/intense lyricism gets short shrift, sometimes explicitly. “All mature art,” advises one character, “is part of the precarious endeavour / of getting men / to **** women properly.” This is followed by an addendum in brackets, then another, shorter one in square brackets. The book is strewn with such afterthoughts, footnotes, corrections and insertions – mostly comical, but also adding the frisson of a profound self-doubt. The Same Life Twice is like a drawing room farce where the main character only runs into iterations of himself coming through the other doors.
Kirsten: I often imagine Kuppner’s writing process as taking place in a lightning-bothered laboratory, the author testing slight proportional alterations, frowning, adjusting and noting down each new reaction. Less cleanly disjointed in structure than Arioflotga, the collection reads like an Inner Space-style tour through one person’s brain (the delineations of Left and Right reinforce this idea), as stray ponderings, exclamations and emotional peaks and troughs swim to the surface.
J: Like Arioflotga, however, and like many of his other books, the tone is absolutely unwavering. It’s a generous collection – 258 pages! – made up of three sections, two of which are laid out face-to-face across the page. But I’m tempted to say that you only need to read a third of it to get the gist. On the one hand, it’s an impressively sustained effort, but on the other, what of economy of language?
K: Perhaps it’s more about the ecosystem as a whole than the justification of each component. The repetitions and parenthetical hiccups fling paint at the canvas as we go along. Whichever order you read the stanzas (or poems?) in, whether you choose to read straight down one side, hop across from one number to its counterpart or simply select random portions to examine, you end up with a picture from the gathered elements.
J: I have a confession: I didn’t read this start to finish. I’m not even sure I’ve read all of it. There’s no linear or thematic narrative, and I found myself simply reading arbitrary tranches, sometimes going backwards through the book, or reading a page from the end, then a page from the beginning, and so on. It’s a book with multiple points of entry, all of which seem to lead to signposts pointing in all directions.
K: And this ties back to the anxiety and self-doubt mentioned earlier. The thematic links between the parallel poems tighten and loosen from stanza to stanza. It’s an almost tidal relationship between the sides, the right lapping at the left. Kuppner is a rascal – just when you think you see the pattern, the way the next pairing might sit together, he shifts gear and twins totally contrasting lines of thought, shaking the reader from any lull. In the same way, we are not allowed to get stuck into any major metaphysical queries before they are dismantled by the speaker’s inner demons:
“(i.e. not even dead. After all, people have died by now in their almost incomputable millions – but not even one of them exists onwards in some sort of state of being dead…I could say more but I dare say I, er – hic, etc.) I’ll be completely silent from now on.”
J: In all honesty, I think the structure of the book is undermined by its stylistic consistency. I don’t think I would have noticed if the section headings had been removed and the poems renumbered in a linear fashion. I’m far more enticed by the individual flashes of fear, incredulity and caustic mockery. I love this:
I found your absolutely staggering book
absolutely staggering, to be quite honest, Dan.
In fact, I was absolutely staggered by it. Yerss.
K: But the section headings open up so many possibilities for readings! Parallel universe, reincarnation, resurrection, physics experiment, fantasy, false memory, converging into a single voice for the final, ‘echo’ section. This shift feels initially like progress, as if the conflict has been resolved following intense negotiations, but turns out instead to be a distillation of earlier concerns (“I have just done something/extremely bloody stupid”), still dogged by the bottlenecks of self-second-guessing.
J: [But I still don’t get why all the sw**r w*rds are asterisked out].
Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving
Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone co-run small press Sidekick Books and have just published their second multi-poet illustrated anthology of bird poems, Birdbook 2: Freshwater Habitats. Kirsty’s first full collection is Never Never Never Come Back (Salt, 2012), while Jon’s is School of Forgery (Salt, 2012), which was picked as a Poetry Book Society recommendation.
The Same Life Twice by Frank Kuppner is published by Carcanet Press, 2012, £9.95
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)