Before I opened this book, I liked the cover’s atmosphere — sedges against a hazy grey-blue background. Imagine fenland, mist and water. The title Lowland stands pale and eerie across the top, as ‘there’ and ‘not-there’ as a vapour trail. The 80 pages are full of fenny atmospheres and remind us how vast landscapes dwarf human desires and aspirations.
Lowland, Kemp’s second collection, is a sequence on love and unfulfilment, set against the lonely opennesses of East Anglia and the polders of coastal Holland. The North Sea stands as a great, chill, opaque-blue mirror refracting sameness and difference across the regions. The two opening poems, ‘Holland’ (about the Netherlands) and ‘Holland Fen’ (a village in Lincolnshire), begin to explore the hazy distinctions. Though Kemp has (or deserves) a stake in both places, his connections prove unequal to the restrictive effects of borders. And though the physical places are distinctly different, they are similar at least in their sharing of the same skies, to which Kemp frequently refers. The colour blue is a recurrent motif too. Nothing is as solid as one might hope it to be.
In ‘Night Boat’, Kemp considers the effects of making the crossing between the countries. He is in love, leaving his Dutch girl behind:
Nothing happened, though
something was happening to me,
as that wake cut the stillness…
Then, thoughts of his girlfriend, her family, and his awkwardness with them, leave him “already wanting to go back.”
The poems in Lowland deploy a subtle lowness of tone and timbre to great effect. These are poems of great empty sadness, where desire takes root in silts of the past. Between the texts, we piece together the ‘back stories’. At the core are two failed love affairs with Dutch girls, and many other disappointments and mistakes. As these accumulate in the lowland silt, the traveller finds it harder and harder to get where he wants, or know where he truly belongs.
This sequence ranks among the most coherent I have read. The overarching links among the poems are deft, and evince Kemp’s sharp awareness of structure. The individual poems are carefully crafted too. And, cumulatively, they develop a powerful, expansive pathos.
Late in this book, in ‘Vondelpark’, we discover Kemp himself is one-quarter Dutch. This helps readers locate origins of his affective ties, emotional commitment and the unfulfilled desires that burst from Lowland. It isn’t easy for anyone, ever or anywhere, to fully assume a firm identity, particularly when the individual’s family roots transgress national borders. It’s even less easy to write about, but Kemp manages to do so with real clarity and poignancy. In ‘Vondelpark’, he describes the experience of feeling himself an alien in Amsterdam, in spite of his family connection. He is watching the cyclists:
How effortless they make it look, pushing
to work or a lover by the water’s edge.
But then nothing here is too much trouble.
Except being one of them. I tried it once,
near Amstelveen. But people weren’t
quite so laid-back as they seemed,
the cycle lanes not always lined with trees.
Maybe today the tramps will look up
from their papers, call me kempenlander,
friend— and to my amazement I’ll reply
in my mother’s mother’s tongue.
But that doesn’t happen. Kemp continues through the park alone..
I was always on the outside, looking on,
and I look on still, at the passers-by,
Extreme tenderness underlies all this sadness. Lowland is a book that proves personal sadness to be a rich subject for poetry. And Kemp reveals the links between sadness and generosity of spirit. That is what makes this book ultimately optimistic and rewarding, both from the quality of the work and the integrity of the poet’s feelings. The reader will find it subtle and transformative. By way of evidence, I leave you with one complete poem—
in the moonlight
her pale back lost
in drifts of sheets
where I want to
plant tiny kisses
Andrew Sclater has edited Darwin’s letters. His work was shortlisted for the Picador Poetry prize (2010) and has received a Northern Promise award (New Writing North 2011) and a New Writer’s Award (Scottish Book Trust 2012).
Lowland by Will Kemp is published by Cinnamon Press, 2013, £7.99 paperback.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)