Book reviews: Bevel | The Same Life Twice
It is both a pleasure and a privilege to review two fine collections by two Scottish poets – one a debut, the other the work of one of our most prolific yet persistently underpraised writers – that are so strikingly different.
by William Letford
Carcanet, 62pp, £9.95
The Same Life Twice
by Frank Kuppner
Carcanet, 258pp, £9.95
Contemporary poetry is a far less homogenous field than either prose fiction or drama, and part of the trepidation associated with it is no doubt caused by the limited exposure within the educational system to the diverse forms it can take. Both books – Bevel by William Letford and The Same Life Twice by Frank Kuppner – are accessible after their own fashions without compromising on the Modernist injunction that poetry should “make it new”. The fundamental difference between the books is one that courses through the whole history of poetry: the competing claims of the lyric and the philosophic. They might be united in wonder, but they are profoundly opposed in method.
The poet and translator Gavin Bowd wrote an incisive essay in the 1990s on how assiduously poetry in particular and Scottish poetry specifically eschewed the experience of our working lives. It is not a criticism which can be levelled at Letford’s work: the biographical note on the collection informs the reader that he has “worked as a roofer, on and off, since he was 15 years old” and that this “gives him a particular perspective on life at ground level”. Many of the best poems in the collection draw on these experiences, but render them metaphorical as much as they shrewdly describe their literal reality. In Be Prepared, Letford writes “pay attention to the moment/the way water drips/the way a spider scuttles/have a healthy fear of heights/when working from a ladder/know which way to fall”. That first line – “pay attention to the moment” – acts as a metatextual turn to the whole collection; insisting that labour and poetry are both concerned with that transience and scrutiny. Wit is it is a brilliant poem in Scots, offering different craftsmen and tradesmen’s perspectives on an imponderable question: lines like “The plumber told mi no eh complicate things/Ivrythin’s movin in one direction/We just caerry it fur a while then lit it go.... /The labourer stood up, it’s aboot strength, son/Wit kin yi caerry, wit kin yi leave behind” are beautifully honed to express a dignity in labour, and to link “a living” with life. Not all the poems are concerned with the world of work – there are some frank and beguiling romantic poems, wrestling with the difference between sex and love in the 21st century; and a few poems about poetry itself (a forgivable indulgence in a young poet). Overall, the collection displays a mature confidence and promises much in the future: a work like They speak of the gods is amongst my favourite poems read this year, and ends sublimely – “She says Zeus, and I see /Casey, framed against the sky, bloated and happy/carrying cement across a tiled roof”.
Frank Kuppner is the author of eight previous collections, including one with the typically Kuppner-esque title What? Again? and an ingenious book, Arioflotga, which took the form of the first lines of a lost anthology. The Same Life Twice is no less playful with form. The book is divided into three section of 366 poems: at first they run simultaneously on the left and right pages, then consecutively. It immediately forces the reader into a choice. Does one read all of the left poems, then the right, or shuttle between the two first, two second, two third poems? Rest assured, each possible combination reveals different aspects to Kuppner’s wildly idiosyncratic world-view.
This triple structure – as well as the repeated addressing of characters called Adam, Eve, Beatrice and Dan (short for Dante at times) – brings to mind Dante Alighieri’s vast triple poem, The Divine Comedy. Kuppner has always had a sardonic theological bent, and it is used to hilarious effect here; this too is a comedy, but one where Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are interchangeable and indistinguishable. One of his abiding themes has been the shocking contingency of things; how, as he puts it “Basically, my dear Eve, we are the results/of God knows quite how many inspired blunder/other things have been making up until now./(Oh, the occasional success too, I suppose./If you absolutely have to call it a ‘success’.)”. Kuppner manages to be both melancholy and bawdy, daft and erudite, all in the space of a five-line poem. I particularly liked “A final terrible cry of “-----“/echoed throughout the Universe./ Or perhaps ‘terrible’/is not quite the right word?/(But ----- certainly is)”.
The overall reverberating and refracting effect means the book is best read in small, meditative snatches – one can overwhelm oneself rather soon if the book is read too quickly. As with previous books, Kuppner introduces aporia and technical, pseudo- academic glosses throughout, further complicating the echoing and re-echoing structure.
Despite the intellectual pyrotechnics and barely suppressed hysteria of tone (a device perhaps last used by the great metaphysical poets such as Donne), there are moments of utterly clear and unbearably poignant reflection. Kuppner’s entire oeuvre – including the two wonderful non-fictions Something Very Like Murder and A Very Quiet Street – has dealt with how humans manage to cope with grief and the absurd knowledge of mortality. The same holds here, especially in poems like: “The clunk of the letterbox again!/Only a single item today./Dead for fifteen years - /And yet the religious charities/ are still appealing to her repeatedly proven good character”.
Perhaps one reason why Kuppner, despite his testy wit and tetchy wisdom, has never quite achieved the level of recognition of some of his peers is that his work has a wonderfully sceptical attitude to the values of art and poetry themselves (more than a few of the poems here are sly and occasional unsubtle digs at the great claims made by aesthetes). His work always, however, manages not to saw off the branch he’s perched on, and in fact this questioning approach to art allows him to stress the humane even more. The last words, certainly should go to him: “Alas, none of these public statues/are even half as interesting/as the life on the benches beneath them!/And I suspect that remains true even/when there is no-one [sitting] there at all”.
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