Book reviews: Not a Moment Too Soon, by Frank Kuppner | that which appears, by Thomas A Clark

These new collections from two of Scotland’s leading poets insist on being read again and again, writes Stuart Kelly

Speaking to a friend recently, I said, only half flippantly, that as far as I was concerned, poetry should only be carved. So much contemporary poetry that I read or hear strikes me as terribly ephemeral. Frank Kuppner and Thomas A Clark are two of my favourite contemporary Scottish poets, and both of them produce lapidary, terse, aphoristic work. Both are epiphanic writers, although their moments of revelation or sudden awareness are markedly different.

Kuppner has the capacity to state the obvious as if it were the most peculiar phenomenon. The first section of his new collection has 83 poems in elastic haiku form; the middle section, 522 three line poems, but with expansions, variants, queries and emendations by an aggrieved editorial figure, and we end with 25 longer poems (with longer lines), including a bravura meditation, “Visiting Time Notes” about a stopped hospital clock. On the opening page the reader gets a sense of how askance a poet Kuppner is in these lines: “Life is rarely quite / what one expects – even if / one knows what’s coming”. On a surface level this is just self-evidently true, but re-reading it, it becomes less straightforward.

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Although I stand by the sculptural metaphor, “Not Quite The Greatest Story Ever Told” is like someone anticly scribbling and wantonly vandalising the text. One of the wittiest alterations is in “Who is to blame for / all this – given that it can’t / possibly be [Ze]us?” Some entire poems are erased, on grounds as diverse as not being politically correct (the reader is left to ponder the possible offense), to being “a bit too difficult” or libellous. Sometimes the entire meaning of the poem is queried. “If I should die here / behind this bed, what a farce / it shall all have been!” is glossed, “[A bizarre misreading, The second line should properly run: on these worn stairs, what a joy. There can be no real excuse for such culpable cakeless mistakes!]” The poems set up eddies of meaning between each – the poem immediately after the one just quoted reads “It’s a farce! A farce! / A total farce!” (Yes? And yet - / what else could it be?)” But these is seriousness in all this. Kuppner’s universe is one of unbearable contingency, and what happens by chance nevertheless cannot be changed. The tiniest slip can be immense, as in a word “p[o]ets”. Is there, he teases, that much difference? Kuppner truly is the laureate of the earnestly and charmingly bamboozled.

Thomas A Clark’s volume brings together four books: that which appears, published by Paragon Press in 1994 alongside The Hundred Thousand Places (2009), Yellow & Blue (2014) and Farm By The Shore (2017), all, like this, from the inestimable Carcanet. It is a substantial oeuvre, but the nature of Clark’s work means a Collected Poems is something of a chimera. He has “poem objects” on badges, folded cards, kites, art installations and bags (in this he is similar to Gael Turnbull, one of whose poems was printed on a Möbius Strip and is technically endless). There are family resemblances between Clark and Ian Hamilton Finlay (whom he published) and the “geopoeticist” Kenneth White; although the similarity might be that of cousins rather than brothers. What they share is a deep scrutiny, but that hard gaze has very different consequences. Clark’s manifesto, as it were, is in the poem-card “Poor Poetry”: “a thin, inconspicuous poetry, persisting on the margins, / a neglected, threadbare, hedgerow school of poetry, / light and resourceful, a common or poor poetry // a poetry without glory, using plain diction, withdrawn / from ambition, lacking in rhetorical skill, a spare poetry, / not given by the culture but passed from hand to hand”. There is a lot that can be unpacked here, but take the word “common”, connoting both universal, shared and yet, like rustic, somehow low.

The old Carlos Williams maxim, “No ideas but in things” holds true in Clark. Everything is so pared back, exactly the same word can take on different nuances through juxtaposition, a technique enhanced when lines repeat. The layout of the book is all-important here. Apart from a 68-word note on the author and the legal publishing necessities, the book is nigh pristine. No index, no introductory essay, no endnotes, almost no punctuation (an occasional comma or apostrophe, an ellipsis – on page 341), very few italics, no capitals. Once – once – there is a comma at the end of a line (“a comma resting / on the path,”). The effect is of distillation, concentration; the pared poetics mean there is nothing superfluous. One poem, beginning “a thin trickle” on page 303 also exists as a vertical “pop up” with the individual words staggered and in green, like a trickle. The two versions of the poem are in effect different poems. When there is more than one poem on a page there tends to be a resonance between them, and the different books have different “keys”.

It is only because these books can be read quickly that they insist on being read again and again, very slowly.

Frank Kuppner, Not A Moment Too Soon, Carcanet, £12.99; Thomas A Clark, that which appears, Carcanet, £19.99

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