Book reviews: Greengown, by David Kinloch | Arctic Elegies, by Peter Davidson

Two recent collections from two very different poets have more in common that you might expect, writes Stuart Kelly

As readers, I think you are entitled to know where your reviewer is coming from; especially so when the books in question are poetry. As my Dad, a former maths teacher drummed into me, “show your working”. So I shall to be succinct in this statement. If I read a poem and understand it on a first reading, if I “get it” immediately, I don’t doubt that it’s a poem, I doubt if it’s a good poem. This is an aesthetic predilection, a matter of taste. Too many poems seem to me to be more akin to stand-up comedy than deep thinking: again – put that down to my eccentricity or neurodivergence. It was, therefore, a joy to read these two collections, and it was double the pleasure to have to read them twice, and I will happily confess I do not think I have exhausted them.

On the surface they are very different books. On closer examination there is a great deal that connects them. Peter Davidson is Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall in Oxford, the Jesuit College; David Kinloch is Emeritus Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Strathclyde University. Neither speak down to the reader. Rather, they challenge the reader in different ways.

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Kinloch’s book is a “New and Selected Poems”, which is a rare accolade in poetry. I first read some of these in the last millennium, and so reading them again 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 sense. It is unflinching in talking about gay life and experience, but it is also askance, unsettling, always either swerving or tripping the reader. It is, as well, quair, as in the old Scots for a book. It is a bookish book. If anyone deserves to be considered the heir to Edwin Morgan, I would suggest it be Kinloch. Throughout the book runs “Dustie-fute”, a “stranger... at a loss in the empty soul of his ancestor’s beautiful language” but also “the acrobat, the juggler”. In a sense Morgan’s “Cinquevalli” is the obvious parallel.

David Kinloch
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Homosexuality here is both covert and performative, daring and oblique, brave and hidden. This is particularly the case in “Baines His Dissection”, a moving piece of archaeology, where the “little worlds of inner secrets” are mercilessly, kindly, cut. Perhaps the stand out work is “Felix, June 5th, 1994 – after a photograph by A. A. Bronson” because the poem is appended with an essay. Kinloch writes “In a moment I’ll explain why I reprint it rather than try to write a new poem in response to Bronson’s image”. The result of both the poem and the essay is utterly elegiac: for those who died of AIDS, for those who survived it. In our contemporary world, such issues of illness, grief and the simple bewilderment of sorrow have never seemed more important. Kinloch also has religiously nuanced poems – a fine set on Biblical women from Some Women where he daringly discusses Judges 19-21, and a beautiful interlude in “Needlepoint” on St Columba. There is a hymnal quality to some of these works; a repetition and a working within form.

Davidson is more clearly god-bothered. 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 mistake the volume in their hands as the epigraph is “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam”. It is a book written in a certain predominant key. In “Venice Glasses II” he describes “such sorrow, ice and viridian, / The flightless angel on midwinter grass, / Snow overbearing, air gone thin with cold”. Other poems have “ice-mist shimmer in winter” and “infinities of frozen sea”, others yet have “mist-gauze” and “blanched grass”. I appreciate that this is a “concept album” of a collection, in that all the poems sing to each other. It has a pleasingly 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 is no voice that can outlive the silence” (an alexandrine, if you care about such things). There is a long-suffering melancholy and a sense that even the frost might melt. It frequently uses prayer-like forms – such as in “Prayer to the Virgin on a Winter Night” – but is diverse in its own way, as much as Kinloch is. There are three poems that stray away from the arch and archaic voice. “Secret Theatres of Scotland” is a prose poem that could be an MR James story. “The Museum of Loss” is a strange delight and reminded me a great deal of the under-rated Frank Kuppner. But the bravura piece is “The Mourning Virtuoso”, with its image of a person whose “lovers knew you least, your friends hardly at all”. The notes to the book give various details, but not, notably, to this poem.

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So, to return to the start: wherever you start from, walk long enough and walk patiently, and you reach the edge. Who would have thought a gay Glaswegian and an Aberdonian Jacobite might both be such good companions?

Greengown, by David Kinloch, Carcanet, £15.99; Arctic Elegies, by Peter Davidson, Carcanet, £11.99

Peter Davidson