Review | Kin by Hugh Dunkerley

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Gregory Leadbetter


Kin

Kin, Hugh Dunkerley, Cinnamon Press, 2019, £9.99, (Paperback)

Hugh Dunkerley’s second full collection of poems, Kin, presents humane and often moving explorations of life both within and beyond the self. Children, parents and parenthood, evocations of loss, fear, ecological and psychological crisis, and meditations on the interconnectedness of living things are its principal themes.

‘First contact’, the book’s opening poem, celebrates the birth of a child and their emergence from

the ceaseless, inexorable

mill of the world
where the dead

and the yet-to-be-born
commune with glacial till,

and in these lines the reader can sense both the wonder and the tension in that relationship between the human and the non-human that animates much of this book. Dunkerley often speculates, frankly, on the bafflement of consciousness in the face of life (‘the moment when matter wakes up’), and muses (without praise or damnation) on human experiments in synthetic life, too: ‘your DNA shaped / by computer / and the human hand / you will never touch’. The poem goes on to reflect upon the place of the poet and the scientist in ‘the 3.8 billion / years of mishearings / that led to this’ (‘Ode to a New Life Form’).

Many poems here are short narrative vignettes: ‘Rite’ is particularly successful as an unsettling story in which a lyric touch reveals a tragedy as if in silhouette, and ‘Nuclear Dreams’ recalls moods that many of us moderns will have experienced in living with the deathly hazard of nuclear technology. The poem ‘Exile’ is engaging for the imaginative obliquity with which it handles the figure of Jesus, alluding to the non-biblical Gospel of Thomas – ‘Split the wood, look for me. I am there’ – in a way that recognises and penetrates the paradox of ancient texts: their affective proximity and their historical distance.

The timbre of the poetry is largely that of figuratively enlivened, intelligent conversation, driven by clear prose sense. There is some fine phrasing: ‘where every breath / is a stumbling foothold’ (‘Premature’); ‘After six years / they are still / seven days old’ (‘In Vitro’); ‘the undone sum of your cells’ (‘Twelve Weeks’). The prevailing manner of the book is descriptive and observational, and as such tends to feel closer to comment than psychic irruption – but sometimes this changes, and the ordering of the book draws attention to the shift.

The poems in the first part of the second section of the book, ‘Anatomy of a Breakdown’, open up language more elliptically than elsewhere – a less companionable mode, perhaps, but also more imaginatively direct. The section opens with ‘Dread’, where

         the racketing mind
must keep putting its eye to the that keyhole
which it imagines is the future
and which is always dark with becoming.

‘Prayer’ reworks the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ of the Anglican tradition to potent effect, and I quote the poem here in full, as an example of this less typical style:

Our father, who art in hiding,
harrowed be thy name,
thy kingdom gone, thy will undone
on earth as it is.
Give us this day our daily bloodshed
and forgive us our terrors
as we forgive the terrors of others.
Lead us not into despair
but deliver us from belief
for thine is the crisis, the powerlessness
and the absence
for ever and ever
amen.

The rhythmic variation from the liturgical version familiar to Christian and post-Christian cultures accentuates its act of displacement. I also hear an appealing affinity with certain poems by Paul Celan here (‘Psalm’, for example). Sedatives and anti-depressants, placed ‘like God’s own holy wafer / on your tongue’ in the poem ‘Sanctuary’, are also the object of a memorably ironic praise-poem (‘In Praise’).

An ecological sensitivity pervades the book, but this is worn lightly. While there are poems like ‘Song for the Song of the Common Starling’, where the sounds the birds make are ‘thoughts / around a wild idea’ (a poem for which I feel a particular connection, given my own love for the starling), the collection more often reveals its ecological anxieties in their chronic effects on human beings – not least, the reader can assume, on the poet himself. Despite bearing witness to that experience, Kin ultimately embodies a structure of affirmation: a coming-through, and a testament (in the words of ‘First Contact’) to ‘life’s / infinite scribblings’.

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       Gregory Leadbetter is a poet and critic. He is the author of two poetry collections, Maskwork (2020) and The Fetch (2016), both with Nine Arches Press, as well as the pamphlet The Body in the Well (HappenStance Press, 2007), and (with photographs by Phil Thomson) Balanuve (Broken Sleep, 2021). His book Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) won the University English Book Prize 2012.


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