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