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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Guest Review: Hymas On Brennan and Kinsey

Sarah Hymas reviews
two recent collections
by Catherine M Brennan and Chris Kinsey -
Beneath the Deluge and Cure for a Crooked Smile

Beneath the Deluge is Catherine M Brennan's first collection, published as one of Cinnamon Press's prize-winning collections. A cohesive and focused thematic collection, it considers boundaries, particularly those that exist between humans and the natural world.

These are not clear borderlines. The opening poem presents an image of Vikings:

fade now between monochrome borders
on the slow return from a naming, a wedding, a wake.

so blurred it is possible to interpret the figures as doing anything. This loosening of possibility is what opens the poems out into the realm of the readers' imagination. Nothing is prescriptive. Everything is open to interpretation: what are the boundaries between "skin and air"? How substantial are shorelines? Where are the regional divisions invisible to the seer?

When you look, as Brennan does, so much becomes indistinct: Sunday mornings dissolve, Nothing blinks from shadows, words fail, rivers and roads run parallel, light filters fine china and absence offers more uncertainty. But she doesn't allow her language or imagery to follow this preoccupation.

'He cannot escape the drowning', one of the collections many water (or drought) related poems, is a fine example of precision that defines a contained world. From the "estuaries alive with the black calls of gulls" to the "cool solidity of stones floors in the chancel" the chill and echoes of the place's history and the present, are laid as carefully as ships' timbers. The poem rolls forward, pressing against its edges, to travel through the landscape to the humanity of those within it.

The referencing of water underpins the movement within the collection. A cool movement. The tone Brennan maintains throughout is detached, a careful marvelling at what is observed; reminiscent of a traveller passing through, unwilling to become too attached to where they are. At the imminent death of a spouse,

He carries the watering can
through the house, patient while earth cracks
('Facing the drought').

Even two lovers in bed are described as having hollows between them,

as soundly as an old tree holds earth
in the hollows of its base
('Hollows').

The effect of this is not total dispassion but an unsentimental care of the poems' subjects. In 'Crossing Niagara Falls', we're told "The balance is in the mind". Brennan appears keen to keep her poems balanced. So while exploring love, nature, decay, fragmentation and faith, there is no unhinged siding, but the experiences are spread carefully out for us to view. The danger is of "text book weather talk" (how much this line could be applied to some of the poems?) But the delicate observations save the collection. The many ghosts and remembrances peppering the collection hint at it being one washed in the past, already at one remove. Hence the blurring, that presents a quiet honesty illuminating our relationships with ourselves and each other, as well as the world we inhabit.

Chris Kinsey's second collection, Cure for a Crooked Smile, is also primarily a book that concerns itself with the natural world and its creatures. But where Brennan is measured in tone, Kinsey is interested in a larger, more robust scale of nature ("sky soon heals"), in recounting the delight of witnessing glimpses of creatures, or exploring the psyche of greyhounds.

Kinsey clearly enjoys the naming of things. The collection flurries with kingfishers, goldcrests, wrens, toads, angelfish, swallows. Also, she wants to get inside what she sees. An otter she spots "turns somersaults inside my head"; a greyhound she walks:

dream scents twitch his limbs,
and he's off
howling
running the horizon down,

and she is ready to admit it:

I mark time mumbling: mallard, merganser, moorhen.

The compactness of language evident here, coupled with Kinsey's love of rhyme (particularly through alliteration) ensures a vital race through activity. The physicality of being alive, of experiencing the natural world resonates in many of the poems.

This exuberance does not preclude the frailty of humans: people notice the age spots on sycamore leaves, there is the waiting for news on health:

The thin wind that clicks the alders,
crisps fallen leaves and silences the blackbirds,

announcements of death  come with their own portents, "A large moth flew from my sleeve". The natural world seems to be what Kinsey aspires to, for "the stamina of a river", the kingfisher that provides "a drop of antifreeze".

The sequence 'Appointments with Hades' reveals how this love grew during her childhood. Where childhood songs and rules led her, how the "white open mouths of convolvulus" offered a sanctuary.

It wasn't that she muddled amphibian and ambition
they just swam together.

This early connection has grown so the adult constantly watches the light and motion around her, seeking to capture the essence of where she is:

how to catch the scent
of stalks refusing to be straw?

As if to counter this unknown, Kinsey often resorts to humour in her imagery: "I love a good hoar" is a cracking first line that sets an energised tone sustained through 'Blue Skies Thinking', suggesting the might of nature over our besotted selves. We are at the mercy of it.

And this is perhaps at no time more evident in the recent weeks with the Haitian earthquake, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano and the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This insistence of poets to use the natural world as subject underlines a widespread preoccupation that leads me to question what can each individual poet bring to it? What is the continuing relevance of new volumes of 'nature poetry'? Perhaps this will become only clear in years down the line, when a narrative stands proud from the crowd of voices, pointing what we do not yet know.

Sarah Hymas is a British poet and editor
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