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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Guest Review: Taylor On Kingsnorth


Maria Taylor reviews
Kidland and other Poems
By Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth’s debut collection Kidland and other Poems is nature poetry with teeth. These poems eschew sentimentality or mere description and instead are characterised by radicalism. ‘It is often that I hate my Humanity,’ writes Kingsnorth, yearning for a natural world which is unspoilt by human destruction. In this respect, his poetry is underpinned with a sense of loss as well as anger.

Ecopoetry is, arguably, relatively new and marked by presenting ‘distinctly contemporary problems and issues’, as J. Scott Bryson has noted in his introduction to the genre. Kingsnorth’s poetry could be deemed as ‘anti-humanist,’ as well as ecological. Kidland longs for a return to a pre-human history, calling upon ‘dark gods’ to re-establish the order of nature:
           
There is a heavy, heartless beauty anchored
in the black soils of Europe,
silent and uncaring, overlooked
by its busy patrons, waiting
as the Earth turns toward the dark.

There’s a sense of prophecy here, suggested by ‘waiting,’ and of coming change, of ‘something in the air’ (a title of one of the poems), that will overcome human cruelty. 

            For Kingsnorth, poetry is an elegy for nature or a sounding board for the poet’s disgust at human complacency. Kingsnorth asserts that words have limitations, no doubt because they are man-made: ‘...the shape / is unnatural, it is words only, and the world’s greatness / will not fit.’  These lines are from the opening poem, ‘The Tower,’ introducing many of Kingsnorth’s preoccupations from the very start. Despite doubting the capabilities of language, Kingsnorth perseveres, attempting to use poetry in order to ‘bring out the Wild.’ The views put forward are uncompromising; human civilisation is a ‘disease’ which ‘dulls everything.’ This is not faint-hearted poetry. Opinions are inflexible  and there is little subtlety here, noticeably in lines where ‘poison’ is revealed as humanity’s malign ‘gift to the world.’ 

            Kingsnorth himself is a controversial ecological figure, branded by The New Statesman in 2001 as one of the UK’s ‘top ten troublemakers,’ a redoubtable label by anyone’s standards.  As a poet, Kingsnorth uses words to vent his anger at the violence wrought upon nature, by humanity, maybe even by you:

            You are clever and hungry and foul breathed.
            You will kill because you must.
You are human.

This simultaneously apportions blame on human civilisation, whilst asserting that human beings are simply programmed to be arrogant and destructive.  It is, of course, the use of ‘you’ which makes this accusation more personal. Here, and throughout Kidland, there is an obvious reliance on pronouns to reinforce meaning and opinion. The poetry is peppered with pronouns, such as ‘You,’ ‘We,’ ‘Us’ and a ubiquitous ‘I.’ This creates heavy stresses, reminiscent of Old English forms at times, but without the constraints of metre. In ‘The Bird Killer,’ these stresses are combined with visceral imagery.  Here, a hunter stalks a pheasant squatting ‘deep in the guts of the hedge’ and ends its life uncaringly with a malign ‘twist’:

            I am the stone spirited, the bird killer.
            Life is distant from me, I am above it.

Overusing pronouns makes for an abrasive and aggressive tone. The ‘you,’ which even Kingsnorth admits sounds like an ‘accusation,’ won’t be to everyone’s taste and the rhetoric might be too heavy for those who prefer a lighter tone. Still it raises an interesting discussion on the use of ‘you.’ Is the poet angry with us, or are we the converted? 

The long narrative poem ‘Kidland’, from which the collection takes its title, is named after the vast man-made forest in Northumberland.  This serves as the location for a lone figure, named Roland, who tries to live in a ‘utopia of one,’ but his experiment fails when he is killed at the end. Perhaps Roland, if you excuse the pun, is kidding himself that he can find a world that has been lost. Is this poetry of a lone and alienated voice?

            It is only through loneliness that you meet the world
            on equal terms, on anything like equal terms.

With such a strong focus on ecological issues it sometimes feels as if the musical elements of the poetry are lacking. The following lines from the ‘Kidland’ poem feel  more like prose: ‘and knowing what and not wanting to, and all of this she felt / as if it were her kneeling cold and white, angry and disgusted and thrilled / on the stinking sponge of the dead forest floor.’ There isn’t a delicacy of sound here, and lines are sometimes too long to suit the demands of meaning, rather than carefully controlled.  That’s not to say that Kingsnorth is incapable of writing with tenderness, but this tenderness is only for the natural world:

            and night comes and I rise and move towards the trees
            I hope they will have their way soon
and I tell them so

There are shades of Ted Hughes in some of these poems, perhaps in terms of their conceits rather than their writing. In his later writing, Hughes often expressed disgust at man’s contempt for nature and the environment and did so succinctly and evocatively. Hughes also wrote elegantly about the anthropomorphism of animals and gave them voices. Kingsnorth similarly creates animal voices in his poetry – voices which it is the poet’s responsibility to translate: ‘Crows do not speak, he said / except in poems.’ These voices expose animal suffering:

            Man, you are grounded also, let us exchange
            pity. Greatly you have sinned against us. Still
            I am grateful for the warmth of these hands.

As a minor point I’m not fully convinced by the line endings here. In terms of imagery, however, there is something rather moving about a man cradling a dying bird in his hands, with ‘its feathers’ coated in ‘the dark beauty of an oil slick.’ Here, it is almost as if Kingsnorth suggests there can be some reconciliation between humans and other living beings, and perhaps through poetry this can be realised.

What struck me about Kingsnorth is his vibrancy and strength of opinion. This isn’t somnambulant poetry about making dinner or being a teenager with a broken heart; this is poetry which exhibits powerful and radical opinions about ecology. As for the quality of writing, the register remains fixed throughout and perhaps the writing needs to enjoy language more and play with meanings, sounds and form. Nevertheless it is worth applauding Kingsnorth for making poetry an active force for change, even if ‘utopia’ has not yet been realised.

Maria Taylor is a poet and reviewer who lives in Leicestershire, her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and a collection is forthcoming with Nine Arches Press. She blogs at: http://miskinataylor.blogspot.com/ 
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