Two recent collections by two very different poets have more in common than one might expect, writes Stuart Kelly
As readers, I think you have a right to know where your criticism comes from; especially when the books in question are poetry. As my father, a former maths teacher, kept telling me: “show your work”. So I will be succinct in this statement. If I read a poem and I understand it the first time I read it, if I “understand” it right away, I don’t doubt it’s a poem, I doubt it’s a good poem. It is an aesthetic predilection, a matter of taste. Too many poems strike me as closer to stand-up comedy than deep reflection: again, chalk it up to my eccentricity or my neurodivergence. It was therefore a joy to read these two collections, and it was doubly the pleasure to have to read them twice, and I will admit with pleasure that I do not think I have exhausted them.
On the surface, they are very different books. Looking closer, there are many things that connect them. Peter Davidson is Senior Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford, Jesuit College; David Kinloch is Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde. Nor speak to the reader. Rather, they challenge the reader in different ways.
Kinloch’s book is a “New and Selected Poems”, which is a rare distinction in poetry. I read some of them for the first time in the last millennium, so re-reading them with older eyes was insightful. He is openly gay, and in a way his work exemplifies a particularly queer style. I mean that in every way. It’s unwavering to talk about gay life and experience, but it’s also sideways, unsettling, always deflecting or tripping the reader. It is, thus, quair, as in Old Scots for a book. It is a bookish book. If anyone deserves to be considered Edwin Morgan’s heir, I would suggest it be Kinloch. Throughout the short book “Dustie-fute”, a “stranger…lost in the empty soul of the beautiful language of his ancestor” but also “the acrobat, the juggler”. In a sense, Morgan’s “Cinquevalli” is the obvious parallel.
Homosexuality here is both hidden and performative, daring and oblique, courageous and hidden. This is particularly the case in “Baines His Dissection”, a moving piece of archeology, where the “little worlds of inner secrets” are ruthlessly, gently, cut out. Perhaps the work that stands out is “Felix, June 5, 1994 – from a photograph by AA Bronson” because the poem is accompanied by an essay. Kinloch writes “In a moment I’ll explain why I’m reprinting it rather than trying to write a new poem in response to Bronson’s image”. The result of the poem and the essay is quite elegiac: for those who died of AIDS, for those who survived it. In our contemporary world, these issues of illness, grief and the simple confusion of grief have never seemed more important. Kinloch also has poems with religious undertones – a fine set on biblical women from Some Women where he boldly discusses Judges 19-21, and a fine interlude in “Needlepoint” on St Columba. There is a hymn-like quality to some of these works; a repetition and a work in the form.
Davidson is more clearly bothered by God. Many of the poems in his volumes are elegies for those long dead: Campion, the Earl of Derwentwater, St John Ogilvie. The reader is not allowed to confuse the volume in his hands because the epigraph is “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam”. It is a book written in a certain predominant tone. In “Venice Glasses II”, he describes “such sadness, icy and viridian, / The flightless angel on the midwinter grass, / The encroaching snow, the air thinned by the cold”. Other poems have “a flicker of icy winter mist” and “infinities of frozen sea”, still others have “gauze haze” and “bleached grass”. I appreciate that this is a “concept album” of a collection, in that all the poems sing to each other. It has a pleasantly archaic feel. Reading it, I kept getting a whiff of AE Housman or the nicer parts of Philip Larkin, especially in lines like “Whispering, there’s no voice that can survive the silence” ( an Alexandrian, if you care about such things). There is a long-suffering melancholy and a feeling that even the frost could melt. It frequently uses forms of prayer – as in “Prayer to the Virgin on a Winter’s Night” – but is diverse in its own way, as much as Kinloch. There are three poems that stray from the archaic, archaic voice. “Secret Theaters of Scotland” is a prose poem that could be a story by MR James. “The Museum of Loss” is an eerie delight and reminded me a lot of the underrated Frank Kuppner. But the bravery piece is “The Mourning Virtuoso”, with its image of a person whose “lovers knew you least, your friends hardly”. The notes of the book give various details, but not, in particular, on this poem.
So, back to where you started: wherever you are, walk long enough and walk patiently, and you reach the edge. Who would have thought that a gay Glasgow and an Aberdonian Jacobite could both be such good companions?
Greengown, by David Kinloch, Carcanet, £15.99; Arctic Elegies, by Peter Davidson, Carcanet, £11.99