Penned in the Margins
reviewed by Charles Whalley
The Harbour Beyond the Movie (2007), Luke Kennard’s second collection, includes the sequence ‘The Murderer’. The speaker, apparently in a government programme, is caring for a ‘murderer’, taking him for coffee and picnics as part of the ‘rehabilitation process’. But safe in the certainty that, whatever they do (short of a murder), the speaker will always be morally superior, they continually torment their ward, refusing to acknowledge the ‘murderer’ as anything else, refusing to allow him to progress beyond his past crime.
The murderer likes to play badminton.
When he loses, I say, ‘That’s what you get for being a murderer.’
When he wins, I say,
‘I guess you got yourself in pretty good shape
Murdering all those people.’
I’m not about to let the murderer forget he’s a murderer.
The petty, relentless sadism is darkly comic, and leads us naturally to empathise with the murderer, who says nothing throughout. Even murder isn’t enough to deserve being stuck with someone so annoying. But the poem is too clever to tell us, merely, that Murderers Are People Too. The glimpses of the murderer’s life – his dirty house, his ‘third tube of Oriental Spice flavour crisps’ – are troubling not only because they suggest the murderer’s humanity, but because they show how this is irreducible to the frame that the speaker continually forces upon it. The speaker’s impoverished grasp on matters starts to show strain. Tellingly, every poem in the sequence except the last ends with a banal detail, with an intrusion of the quotidian, such as the weather forecast (‘for snow’) or the speaker’s plans for ‘taking up Yoga or something’ or a phone call from their mother (‘Somebody sold her a carpet she doesn’t want.’). Our focus is reset suddenly beyond the reaches of the speaker’s obsession, released, bewildered, from the mercilessly preoccupied relationship between carer and murderer into the cares of a mundane reality.
The carer-murderer dynamic is interrupted by the arrival of ‘the murderer’s girlfriend’ in the fourth poem of the sequence. She tells the speaker that her train was delayed because ‘a horse died on the tracks’, which took ‘three hours to remove’. ‘A horse is rather like an unforgivable sin, isn’t it?’ the speaker responds with smug immediacy, providing both a bold metaphor and an insight into the speaker’s warped interpretative frame. Suitably for this obsession, the speaker then asks if the girlfriend is also a murderer:
‘Actually,’ she says, quietly ‘I think we’re all murderers.’
This is richer than its platitudinousness suggests. The line is about more than just ‘he who is without sin’ empathy amongst a fallen, imperfect humanity. Rather, it suggests that we are not all simply like people who’ve committed murder, but that we are all like people who then have lives consisting of their and others’ mindless, petty, or beautiful responses to their lapses. It suggests that our identities are not the results of struggles to forgive or blame others or redeem ourselves, but are (if anything) the endless, embittered struggle itself.
In the sequence the murderer never speaks, never asks for anything; he refuses to be interviewed at one point; he acknowledges his girlfriend’s arrival and gift orangeade ‘with a grunt’. He accepts the speaker’s stewardship and torment with patience and resignation, and indeed without any of the violent reprisal his name could lead us to suspect. The murderer is inscrutable, which is perhaps what the speaker fears most. In refusing to acknowledge the ‘murderer’ as anything but that, the speaker maintains that he truly knows him, or that he knows him as well as he needs to. In his continual repetition, the speaker lets slip that he isn’t convinced of this himself. ‘The Murderer’ is not so much about guilt and forgiveness as about communication, about the rift between people who, in their attempts to connect and know, make connection impossible. The poem suggests that compassion and forgiveness is less about the empathy of truly knowing someone and more about the humility of realising that you can’t.
In this exploration of guilt, miscommunication and sadness, ‘The Murderer’ is something of a precursor to Kennard’s newest collection, Cain, a book-long sequence in which the speaker, after the collapse of their marriage and faith, is visited by the biblical murderer. Published with Penned in the Margins, it is Kennard’s first collection since moving from Salt after 2012’s A Lost Expression, his first since being named one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets 2014, and his first since the recent acquisition of his debut novel by 4th Estate. Cain comes from a poet who, 9 years after The Harbour Beyond the Movie was shortlisted for a Forward Prize, has been an influential and idiosyncratic presence in British poetry long enough to see it reflect him. Amongst a tradition that values neat poignancy angling towards resolution, he is our foremost poet of the troublesome indeterminacy of sadness and embarrassment.
While we live we are all little finely calibrated barometers for measuring unhappiness.
(‘2nd RING-PULL OF HELL’, The Necropolis Boat)
In his first advice to the speaker, Cain remarks:
‘I think the trouble is you’re trying to fight
the sadness,’ says Cain. ‘That’s like trying
to steer out of the skid: intuitive, understandable
but completely unhelpful. You steer into
the skid, you regain control. Perverse, but…’
(‘Painted Dream-Bird (I Wanted to Send You a Message)’)
‘The sadness’ is a constant through Kennard’s poetry. It is his favourite subject. In all his books his characters are afflicted by broken relationships, mental illness, blindness, war. They are forever weeping, flying into useless rages, being interrogated and bullied, bleeding from the lip, hating themselves, recording their own screams at night. Despite fits of manic optimism, they are pessimists to the last. Occasionally his poems are so acutely demoralising that you look up after reading them, flushed and puzzled as to what you’ve done to deserve such treatment. (‘The Sunken Diner’ from A Lost Expression is memorably thus, its speaker coldly advising that you ‘have to submerge yourself in your job like a toad / in aspic.’)
Sadness is, in Kennard’s poems, felt as an impossible burden, something that comes in incomprehensible magnitude, something that leaves room for nothing but itself. Even beyond sadness, all empathetic feeling expands to sublimity, a boundless excess almost as painful as sadness that threatens the dissolution of ego; e.g. in ‘Raven – A Text Adventure’:
Everything is so, so wonderful
Your tiny heart can hardly stand it.
Much of the emotional drama in Kennard’s poems is then in slipping in and out of a state of overwhelming feeling, of either being receptive to and so completely drowned in unhappiness or tying oneself into knots to escape it. His characters’ arbitrary rages and bursts of irrational selfishness are not just immature melodrama – although they are childish and melodramatic – but assertions of their ego against an emotion that would engulf it, thrashing about to keep their heads above water.
Paradoxically, this essential sadness in his poetry is easily overlooked because he’s also very funny, mostly at the same time, to the extent that the misery could be dismissed as a sort of emotional slapstick, the plank to the clown’s face. But this would ignore the humanity and thoughtfulness with which he treats the subject and its centrality to his thinking on personhood. For Kennard, sadness is not just a crisis to give insight into character but is fundamental to the nature of having a character at all. For Kennard, the main philosophical question is not how do we live a good life, but how do we live with unhappiness? How do we live with softness to the world despite its cost? As a consistent sequence, Cain begins with a despair: the speaker’s personal tragedy. Against this background it directly explores the central Kennardian grapple with unhappiness. In this, it tests out a selection of the possible responses: sarcasm, alcohol, television, self-violence, self-obliteration. It arrives, finally, at faith.
Cain is a book about television. In the first section, at the lowest ebb of the speaker’s depression, we have an ode to the TV, ‘Television Knows No Night’, beginning:
Oh open window, oh immobility of Nature,
oh spectacle of emotional magniloquence,
oh error about life entirely necessary, oh
Miltonic angels of the subchannel, oh
aspect ratio I’d love you but would fade away,
oh bitrate of energy and spirit oh,
copyrighted and catastrophic legions, I found
myself, I found myself praying for you
It frames its metaphysical, even spiritual, qualities in direct relation to its technical features: ‘Miltonic angels of the subchannel’. It seems we become obsessed with a machine the more it apparently achieves something beyond the machinic. Even within that phrase, the highest (consciously literary) ethereal of the ‘Miltonic angels’ crashes into the drily technical of the ‘subchannel’. In the ‘aspect ratio’ and ‘bitrate’, the poem’s need to exalt finds only technology before it, and so praises that with sacred reverence anyhow. There seems to be an impossible gulf between cause (screen) and effect (‘spectacle’), only getting wider with looking. And like all art, the bridge that transmutes pixels into plot is us, in our ability to interpret. In the false start of the last lines quoted above, it isn’t clear if the speaker is more surprised at their need for television’s equation for creating magic from matter, or at finding that the missing term in this equation is ‘myself’. It’s spooky to get all the way to the bottom of something beautiful and find what must be yourself looking back. Faced with the threat of overwhelming sadness, it seems better to absolve oneself of responsibility, better to be lulled out of any external feeling at all. Whilst personhood in the world is perilous and tiring and open to hurt, personhood in front of a television is granted, easily and without qualification, like grace. The light illuminates us: the viewer. The adverts and cameras and viewing recommendations assume and interpellate. They dissolve and free us, presenting a person-shaped space for us to sit. All TV asks is that we keep watching.
The speaker’s wish in ‘Television Knows No Night’ for the TV to ‘be more real than me’ is granted, in some sense, in the second, middle section of the collection. ‘The Anagrams’ describes a fictional television series, also called ‘Cain’. This section is the trickiest in the book, and I struggled with it as much as I enjoyed it. A summary will perhaps show why. All thirty-one poems are anagrams of Genesis 4: 9-12: the discovery of Cain’s crime. The poems are necessarily convoluted and linguistically inventive as they work within this restraint. They relate the plot of a niche drama series broadcast on a shopping channel, which features three characters: Father K (presumably the speaker), Cain, and Adah, with whom they are both in love. Briefly, the characters take drugs, overthrow and then flee a university, stage a play, escape a war in a truck of watermelons, and then are betrayed and captured, spending much of the rest ruminating in prison. Surrounding the poems, like a gloss in the margins of a medieval manuscript, is a commentary from an unnamed critic, who explains the story (and some of the wilder vocabulary), discusses the difficult production of the series (sometimes quoting the show’s writers or mentioning ratings), and, at one point, becomes convinced that the episode is mocking him specifically. This gloss focuses on the artistic tyranny of the show’s ‘renegade’ creator, ‘Mitchel Halberg’, and, unsurprisingly, we’re told that the series is cancelled before its completion. The final two poems continue without commentary, in the nightmarish idea of characters persisting, in a purgatory, no longer filmed or watched. With plot and progress over, as following the end of time, it seems for the characters only suffering remains. Finally, after a long absence – there were only seventeen ‘I’s to use, after all – the speaker appears to return in the last anagram, offering a prayer, a call for mercy for ‘even me’.
‘The Anagrams’ are certainly engrossing. It’s testament to Kennard’s skill that their Oulipian restraint seems the least interesting thing about them. This immersiveness, this sudden telescoping of layers within the existing story, reflects the speaker’s escape from depression into fictional worlds: watching ‘so many episodes of something in a row / we get bedsores’ (‘Binge’), or perhaps inventing them himself, ‘never leaving the confines of his imagination’ (‘On Being Very Annoying’). But the poems are anything but hopeful. Trapped between the formal constraint, the commentary (literally on the page), and the show’s erratic creator, Father K, Cain and Adah seem destined only for misery. The bleak, doomed universe of ‘The Anagrams’, at this point in the sequence, seems to dramatise the speaker’s sadness rather than interrogating it. The collection is only turned inside out, its interior becoming an outer surface and us only guessing at what could now be left in the middle. Inevitably, then, when the series ends, we discover that depression was postponed. To labour the metaphor, the telescope is snapped shut, ‘the sun comes up’ (‘Binge’), and all that has passed is time. It’s a little dispiriting. Despite being so clever, ‘The Anagrams’ do only feel like an interlude, a boldly failed experiment, rather than a fruitful new mode for an already inventive poet. It is, even so, hard to imagine the sequence without them.
What you suspect about yourself is true.
(‘THE GREAT NECROPOLIS SONG BOOK #2’, The Necropolis Boat)
So he became of those who regret.
(from the Koran, 5:31)
Kennard is famously, hilariously, mercilessly self-excoriating. His poems explore petty envies, lusts, schadenfreude, vanity, bitterness, all the undignified minor vices that rattle around a personality such that they can come to comprise it. Cain includes a pair of poems relating events from primary school. The first, ‘Self-Portrait at Primary School’, describes, blankly, the speaker being ‘so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me / because I thought it might make him feel better.’ It ends, wistfully: ‘And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one.’ As if getting a taste for it, as if getting a good scratch at the scab, the next poem, ‘On Being Very Annoying’, takes up the theme immediately: ‘See because looking back the wonder is that I wasn’t picked on a lot more.’ These confessions are unexpected and somewhat disconcerting in their candour.
Those are completely drawn from memory and, in a way, they’re trying to do something similar to Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill in Stations and Mercian Hymns, which are two collections that I’ve written on, and I admire them greatly, but I also felt a bit dismayed that there was a sort of lack of embarrassment. It becomes a deliberate and playful type of self-mythologisation, but one that leaves out the more painful elements of childhood.
This takes up a point that he makes in his PhD thesis: that Heaney’s and Hill’s autobiographical prose poems strive ‘towards a gravitas that seems comparatively undeserved’, that the poetry ‘fails in its refusal to encompass failure’. For Kennard it seems that the poet should aspire to the condition of the fool, not professing any wisdom or virtue other than honesty and self-suspicion, revealing their failings and uglinesses to provoke the reader towards a certain type of questioning. His objection to Heaney and Hill is, I think, not that autobiography is inherently self-aggrandising, only that they are not autobiographical enough, that their selection of ‘meaningful’ episodes leaves out the moments which, due to their ability to reach into the present, are more pertinent to an honest depiction of personhood.
What’s curious about the school poems in Cain is that they don’t have a point. The events aren’t resolved into wisdom or epiphany. Much like the ideal reaction to art that Kennard argues for in an essay, we are left thinking ‘WTF?’. We don’t empathise so much as feel mildly uncomfortable and repelled, and sense the speaker feels the same of their past selves too. There’s no figurative connection forward into the present (or back to King Offa). We’re all unsure what we’re meant to have learnt. And this seems to be the point of departure from the ‘self-mythologisation’ typical of, say, Heaney or Hill: points in memory are packaged by their meaning, whereas embarrassment and regret are ambiguously significant and so endless. The episodes we cherish and remember, take off the shelves like albums, are closed in the past, beautiful and inert, matter only for poetry, whereas the things we wish to forget trouble the present, undermining our constructed selves rather than burnishing them. When people are afflicted, quite presently, by the past, through embarrassment or resentment, when their very personhood and goodness is constituted precisely of these persistent bitternesses, a new responsibility comes on to us: not just to be kind to others in the present, but to scrutinise our own embarrassment, fiercely and without pride. Cain suggests that in this endeavour the poets should go first.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
(‘The Dry Salvages’, T.S. Eliot)
This may sound naïve, but everything is just going to get better and better forever
(‘Log Cabin’, The Solex Brothers)
The obvious surface quality to Kennard’s poetry — the self-conscious surrealist acrobatics; the ironic-but-not-ironic-but-maybe-ironic self-deprecation; the sense that he’s just being funny, or being unfunny to be funny; the literary theory or pop culture references — tends to hide any suggestion that there might be an earnest moral purpose to it. His critical praise or censure has typically been that his poems are postmodern or clever, rather than much else. The poetry encourages this idea itself, in that it is continually suspicious of its own ability to speak plainly, or with any authority, or even at all. Its method is supreme self-consciousness, such that it is unable to let you forget that its literary devices are literary devices, that its tools for enquiry and argument are wholly unfit to their task. Kennard writes as if real truth must be hidden, which is mistaken for meaning that there isn’t any. This, I fear, has limited his reception a little, as his absurdist prose poem is not assumed to be a place for the real thinking that major poets are meant to do, as if his poetry is only testing our patience, as if we’d get somewhere if it would just stop messing around. Of the poets who’ve been influenced by him, few appear to have responded to both his absurdism and its capacity for thoughtfulness. (Emily Berry is the main example of a poet who has responded to both aspects, although her work is thoughtful and absurd in other ways.)
Cain is probably the strongest evidence yet for this thoughtfulness, in that it seems to have been written with a single theme in mind. In that respect, it’s a risky collection, as it sacrifices something for its unity of purpose, in its commitment to work through ideas rather than jump between them. For Kennard, these are spiritual questions, and indeed Cain is deeply engaged in matters of faith. This is perhaps the hardest theme for an atheist such as myself to tackle, but although I only come to it now we have, in fact, been talking about it all along.
The collection is often almost explicitly about religion and the experience of belief, albeit from an angle. In one poem (‘Fridge Magnet’) the speaker is assured of the presence of the soul and the afterlife by a fridge magnet of a kitten presented to him by Cain. Another (‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’) expresses something of the belatedness presumably felt by believers whose god once walked dreadfully amongst them. ‘Proof of the Soul #1’ is perhaps the most overt episode of Cain’s spiritual instruction, where he marches the speaker out of the house to ‘prove [to him] that the soul exists’. Cain commands the speaker to ogle at a ‘young woman in a white sundress’. When the woman ‘glances over her shoulder, reproachfully’, they make eye contact:
I feel humiliated. I want to say I’m sorry I’m not like that
Which is a lie and anyway all of this takes place in 0.2 of a second.
She walks on as Cain and I cross the road.
‘There,’ he says. ‘There. Your souls were in full communion.
Invisibly, miraculously. Hers was saying: Leave me alone.’
Rather than demonstrating evidence of innate higher reason or morality, the poem presents a glimpse of unguarded internal life, shabbily caught up in its own shame, terrified to be exposed. Like the examples discussed earlier, Cain has created regret, forced the speaker, suddenly, to confront the transparent, muddled hypocrisy beneath the surface of our subjective experience, to be discombobulated that they might be known as something other than who they hope to be.
In internal subjective life, with all its cheats and dead ends, we are, for Kennard, in the arena of faith. In Planet-Shaped Horse (perhaps his only set of poems with the same sustained inquisitiveness as Cain) the speaker proposes: ‘Either every thought matters/or no thoughts matter whatsoever.’ (Kennard repeats this proposition in his Prac Crit interview.) Both of the speaker’s companions, Simon and Miranda respectively, offer opposite views:
‘Not one of them matters,’ he says. ‘They’re just the goopy
blue stuff in the spirit-level. The bubble is what matters.’
‘IT IS SOLELY THE THOUGHTS WHICH MATTER,’ she yells.
Planet-Shaped Horse recognises both sides of a question made pressing by the fact that most of the thoughts are oppressively sad ones. The speaker in the pamphlet, beset by an inability to control or distinguish between different levels of internal reality, suffers miserably without balanced self-consciousness. They struggle to work out where sadness is coming from, never mind what it means. The pamphlet suggests that, even so, rather than being an aberration, these internal realities are key to our humanity, and that treating them as expendable or instrumental rather than inherent to happiness is a form of cruelty. (Here, as elsewhere in his poetry, this cruelty is institutional.) And for Kennard, this debate is as theologically charged as whether God exists or not, in that belief in the soul means that thoughts are less a troublesome byproduct of subjectivity and more the place where we transcend material existence. As Cain’s fridge magnet advises: ‘The dreams where you’re flying are not dreams.’ In the interview Kennard argues that, for those of a religious faith, every thought matters because ‘we’re all kind of linked in this really weird way, in this way that goes beyond the symbolic if you believe in it completely’. It implies that we live the most fully in our internal lives when we accept them with equal value and entirely, as well as placing a profound emphasis on the importance of imaginative creation. It’s an earnest argument for his poetry, with all its self-conscious involutions and absurdist back-flips into the dark.
It is clear, then, why portrayals of sadness and embarrassment are so important for Kennard. It is also clear why Cain is consequently a collection of real depth that builds upon, rather than departs from, a previous body of work in precisely the places where it would be dismissed as superficial or flippant. Like all sequences, its shortcomings are forgivable as sacrifices to the unity of its enquiry, but its successes are magnified by their relation to the rest. Its final poem, ‘Shroud for William and Richard Jeffrey’, relates, we’re told, the murder of two of Kennard’s great-great-great-uncles. ‘Dick Leishman’, who fatally stabs both brothers in a pub brawl, returns to William Jeffrey’s terminal sickbed at the end of the poem to pre-empt accusations of the murder he’s committed. The poem finishes:
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.
William Jeffrey’s lingering death allows his ‘murderer’ to have a word after the event has taken place. Leishman’s ‘word’ feels somehow more galling than the previous fight: he doesn’t come to apologise, to attempt to ‘undo’ or atone for the event, but rather to control the narrative around his guilt (cf. ‘Cain Reverses Time’). The whole poem is an exercise in stomach-sinking inevitability; we even knew the murder was coming before the poem began, as ‘Luke Kennard’ and Cain discuss it in the previous poem. It has already happened, generations ago. But further than this, the murder is prefigured by the Biblical pretext to the whole collection. The final line arrives with all the weight of the previous sixty-two poems coming home to roost: ‘our own murderer’ is the great-great-great-uncles’ murderer, and is all murderers back to the first, and is Cain arriving at ‘Luke Kennard’s’ door, and is death, ready to call our bluff. It implies that self-scrutiny, that intimacy with our own fool embarrassment, is crucial because our ends and our judgement, when they come, will above all be embarrassing. It suggests, like the rest of the collection, that our internal lives, however creative and pathetic, are inherently valuable because we will suddenly be required to account for the paucity of them. We will realise that they are all we’ve got just as we lose them. And as poetic philosophies go, few are so thoroughly idiosyncratic and so thoughtfully realised. With its humanity and depth, Cain is likely one of the most compelling and perturbing collections to be published this year.
 In The Necropolis Boat, a character muses ‘I overuse “unbearably sad”.’ (‘2nd RING-PULL OF HELL’).
 cf. ‘Everything has been so, so wonderful today / I think I will drink some poison and not be killed by it’ (‘More Sad News from Your Stupid Planet’, Planet-Shaped Horse).
 In Stress Fractures (2010).
 cf. the publisher’s blurb to A Lost Expression.
Charles Whalley (charleswhalley.co.uk) was born in 1989, and writes poetry criticism.
Cover image and publicity shot courtesy of Penned in the Margins.