Book reviews: Black Sails, Black Cadillacs

Luke Kennard, CAIN, Penned in the Margins, £12.99, ISBN 9781908058355
Frederick Seidel, Widening Income Inequality, Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571330706
Reviewed by Edwina Attlee

The saddest story I knew when I was small was that of Theseus who fought the minotaur. He had promised his father Aegeus to sail back to him with white sails if he had been victorious. But in the heat of victory, or another strong emotion, he forgot to change them. His father, seeing the black sails from a distance, killed himself in sorrow. Luke Kennard’s CAIN reads like a slow motion expanded edition (with director’s commentary) of that sad tale. Ostensibly a book in which Cain (of Bible fame) helps the author out with his divorce, it’s an account of the many shapes and sizes of regret. The book contains its own review:

‘Here’s my review,’ says Cain, ‘To his delight Kennard discovers
that not one but two of his own ancestors were murdered. And if you
think he’s above using this as poetic grist to his poetic mill, prepare
to be poetic disappointed.’

Cain by Luke KennardThe phrase “poetic disappointed” gives a glimpse of the self-deflating humour that runs throughout CAIN, much of it served up by the eponymous anti-hero who acts in turn as guide, matchmaker, murderer and therapist to the other main character, a writer called Kennard. Cain is similar in stature and mission to the crow in Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and occupies a similarly redemptive yet malevolent space in the narrative. Both figures, pulled from the scholarly study and abandoned depression of their charges, arrive (politely) at the front door – waiting, like vampires, to be invited in. Both are large – looming and mythical in spite of their clear familiarity with the modern world (they both make scornful reference to the philosophy of fridge magnets).

Porter’s father is mourning a death he had no part in. Kennard’s ‘Kennard’ is in muddier waters, mourning lost faith and the end of a marriage for which he admits some guilt: “In the photos your face wears several expressions / you don’t make anymore and I know I’ve destroyed / everything about you which first drew me to you” (‘Painted Dream-Bird (I Wanted to Send You a Message)’). He closely echoes Anna Karenina’s Vronsky here, another enemy of matrimony: “He looked at her as a man looks on a faded flower he had plucked and in which he can hardly recognise the beauty which made him pluck and destroy it.”The tone of the collection is not one of guilt but a kind of time-sickness brought to life by continued attempts at making sense. There is a beautiful account of how rephrasing a word can be a defence against stammering. The speaker tells us, “this is how my vocabulary / developed” (‘Vestigial Stammer’). Book II plays with the tension between rephrasing and repeating. The section is made up of 31 long-form anagrams which rearrange the 355 letters in Genesis 4: 9–13 – the section that begins “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?” It is both tortuous and very funny. Each anagram or “episode” appears in a bed of textual explication that elaborates on the doomed history of the fictitious View on Demand series Cain. There is an invocation of scholarly and Talmudic exegesis, as well as the box-set reviews and commentaries we witness Cain and Kennard suffering in ‘Binge’. 

The final poems in Books I and III seem to take Cain’s side on the matter of handling regret, which means steering “into / the skid” (‘Painted Dream-Bird’). Lightness, hilarity and a chronic attack of meta-fiction does nothing to disturb these wanderings from homesickness to resignation. They are full of tangible imagery; a knife wound is “a smile that spreads” (‘Shroud for William and Richard Jeffrey’), the image of the broken family (mended) makes the speaker “feel like an illustration on a jug” (‘Cain Reverses Time’), and they push their reader towards new knowledge. By the end of the book it’s not clear whether this takes the form of premonition or hindsight: “Something you meant concealed by what you said: / it burned a little through the weeks ahead” (‘Shroud for William and Richard Jeffrey’). Convinced that neither Cain nor Abel could have avoided their fate, we want to read again and again to work out why:

We all live likewise, embroidering excuses
on excuses, weaving our own safety-nets,
death-shrouds until one day
our own murderer would like a word with us.
                       (‘Shroud for William and Richard Jeffrey’)

Widening Income Inequality SeidelI did not intend to link the reviews for these very different collections, but the image of Cain’s hair shirt struck me as an apt metaphor for the discomfort elicited by Frederick Seidel’s book. Each poem bristles with an alert energy, a rhyming, erudite, scornful morality that is itchy. Take the final poem in the collection, ‘Widening Income Inequality’, in which the speaker is to be found “Eating buttered toast in bed with cunty fingers on Sunday morning”. The stanza closes, “I have a rule – / I never give to beggars in the street who hold their hands out.” The speaker tells us what the poem is about, inequality, articulated here through two conditions of the speaker’s life, appetite and privilege. The itchiness is not so much for the alarming coincidence of his indulgent hands and the un-indulged outstretched hands of people begging in the street, but in his refusal to present one as good and the other bad – the reader is left to itch, to fidget, to sit uncomfortably in their seat. He parodies another well-known position:

I admire the poor profusely.
I want their autograph.
They make me shy.
I keep my distance.

That distance is surely the poem’s real target, the itch it really wants to scratch. “Widening Income Inequality” is in itself a distancing term, colluding in some way with the man who has rules about begging, both sidestepping something unforgiveable. The poem ends with a call to arms against these widening distances:

Open your arms like a fresh pack of cards
And shuffle the deck.
Now open your heart.
Now open your art.
Now get down on your knees in the street
And eat.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Seidel has said of the formal elements of a poem, “they are on stage… the rhymes say, The subject isn’t the subject. Don’t be fooled.” The presence of rhyme in ‘France Now’ is fooling and foolish. Making a neat couplet like, “It’s absurd in France to be a Jew / Because someone will want to murder you”, is galling in its trite, satisfying way, but it keeps the fact of the poem as something written and constructed as part of the poem. This is important – for Seidel, poetry is awkward and persistent but it does not make bad things good (even if it makes them rhyme):

It’s alarming
And queer to read Osama bin Laden writing an essay about global warming.
So he was also human, like the ISIS fighters writing
Poems in the manner of the great pre-Islamic odes in the midst of the fighting.
                    (‘France Now’)

The poems in this collection would not have much time for terms like bad and good. They are written from a position that understands such distinctions as childish. Now, “age desegregated dark and light […] / In fact, there is no daytime or nighttime, it’s all one page” (‘Winter Day, Birdsong’). That kind of clarity comes only in dreams and even then it is soured: “In the colored section of St. Louis, back / When life was white and black, / I’m skimming the modest rooftops in a stolen black Cadillac” (‘The Lovely Redhead’). There are black sails as well as Cadillacs flying through the collection, but its enduring impression is that of an invigorating itch; an upbeat, irascible, unflinching witnessing, best expressed in ‘City’:

Right now, a dog tied up in the street is barking
With the grief of being left,
A dog bereft.
Right now, a car is parking.

The dog emits
Petals of a barking flower and barking flakes of snow
That float upward from the street below
To where another victim sits:

Who listens to the whole city
And the dog honking like a car alarm,
And doesn’t mean the dog any harm,
And doesn’t feel any pity.

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First published in The Poetry Review, 106:2, Summer 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author. Edwina Attlee’s pamphlet the cream was published by clinic in May 2016.