An independent small press poetry review

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ISBN 1 904781 59 4

read a poem by James Kirkup on Pickings
read a remembrance of James Kirkup (1918-2009)

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Having read James Kirkup's poetry for several years I came to his new collection, THE AUTHENTIC TOUCH, with high expectations. The poems lived up to their potential high energy poems of great originality and humanity presented with a wry sense of humour and laughter at the expense of oneself and one's foibles. The poems have passion, difficulty, risk, that sense of pushing beyond the comfortable, of being forged with a genuine pressure.

FOR WHOM DO I WRITE? the opening poem, is a moving questioning of the poet's need to write and the recognition that though no one may be listening, there is always one "who hears what I say":

	Is there no one there?
	I cannot give up calling
	in case there is one 
	just one  who hears what I say,
	and lets me hear its echoes.
Many of the poems deal with the edgy and jarringly disturbing portrait of time passing, sleepless nights, growing older, and the decline of the body. In BIRTHDAYS Kirkup doesn't flinch from giving us a full, extraordinarily open imaginative living of the experience of ageing:
	"On your 85th birthday,"
they inform me,
	"all at the Laburnums wish you many of them . . ."
	Many of what?  It's getting past a joke.
Kirkup's difficult and painful engagement with his subject is registered by the constant tension of language, leading to the poem's moving close:
	I haven't the wind to blow them all out
	at a single breath.  They seem to take
	a whole lifetime to extinguish.
TALKING TO A TYPEWRITER does not take the reader much beyond where a prose version would have taken them. Nevertheless it is skilfully written on its own terms and the emotions come through clearly.

THE BODY FARM: KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE recounts the story of the

	Farm of the Dead
	Researchers investigate the exact time of death
	and the conditions of dying in each new delivery 
	in bodies discovered by joggers, ramblers, the police:
	men, women and children assaulted, left abandoned in
	a quarry, a cave, a condemned building, a sunny glade
	by robbers, murderers, deviants famished for sex.
Wavering between commitment to the story and commitment to the poetic form, I found the poem unsatisfying. From the opening line
	The only such farm in the world 
to the closing lines
	And in the end
	our whole world is one great body farm,
	richly productive, territory of all
seems too predictable and not a forum for poetry. It seems to remain in the shared world of public discourse and newspaper articles, yet even at that level it is a disturbing topic.

By contrast ART NOUVEAU shines strongly with the poet's vision of the immediate, the natural, the beautiful, where the imaginative energy has more scope to be at play. Poems as clear and fully realised as CANICULE, DEATH OF THE SUNFLOWERS, HIGH DIVERS IN BARCELONA, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE, stand out with their open uncertainty, their sense that make the poems bend and twist spontaneously.

In GAME, SET AND MATCH, the rhythm of the voice is edgy, always engaged in seeing more, unable to stop itself. The poem carries a feeling of chill as we witness the two players

	to hold back the night
The complexity of what is seen, caught in fresh images, rising and falling, finds a completely convincing idiom and cadence:
	Their white shapes struggle
	in greying air, that chills as
	they lose their shadows;
	racquets beat their flagging wings
	against the declining light.
Even the small matters of each day can be transformed into a journey that probes, questions, takes us somewhere different. TIME AFTER TIME: AT THE THIRD STROKE is one such poem with a delightful sense of specific reality, a voice, an energy that encapsulates something we may all feel at some time or another:
	Now that I am old,
	I always know what time it is.
	Even when I waken clueless in
	the middle of the winter night
	I can tell, without a watch, what time it is.
Kirkup's delight in nature is both incidental and insistent. It's evident in all but one or two pieces in this collection, and provides an added dimension to his writing as in the poem NIGHT STORM, where the poet lies awake listening to a train approaching and hears
	the rain
as it thunders gently
	through the long tunnels of
	summer's heavy foliage
Time is equally alive in the poem SECOND HAND, a reflection on the passage of time as the poet studies
	The frail little red hand
of his watch. ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT recalls the intrusion of a lightning storm into the poet's reveries during the night, when the mind is lost in settings of colours and sounds:
	Slow-motion summer's
	lightnings languidly flaring,
	flashing lazily,
	reluctantly, with silent
	sulks in caverns of the clouds.

	Night landscapes  stage sets
	lit by dumb electricians,
	unconscious artists
	illuminating shadows,
	actors in spectral dramas.
Kirkup writes of a private rather than public world, an inner landscape detailing the minutiae of daily routine the dealings with time, ageing and sleeplessness, the poet's delight (and focus of a number of poems in the book) of writing and writers.

Yet the heart of the collection lies not with time, ageing or nature but with the emotional landscape of creativity itself. Personal relationships do not intrude in Kirkup's poems. He writes nothing about the intimacy of family bonds, and more about relationships with artists, musicians and the poets that he plainly admires: Murasaki Shikibu, Mallarme and Baudelaire. In MURASAKI SHIKIBU: WAKA, for example, Kirkup uses the Master's form of tanka to express his feelings at the pain of life and his longings for the time when his body will take its leave "in a wisp of idle smoke":

	The year is ending
	and old age approaches with
	the noise of the wind
	that all night long keeps raging
	within my love-ravaged heart.
Focussing on the creative process in several poems, Kirkup seeks to make sense of why people have the urge to write. In HOW TO GET INSPIRED the answer may not be readily forthcoming
	no one knows
	quite what to say to the unknown author
	who does not mind not knowing who you are
	as long as you keep listening to him
Responses may be neither wise nor considered, but that's simply the process "the hapless author" must go through with help from mentors.

HOMAGE TO BAUDELAIRE perhaps expresses best how Kirkup has arrived at a collection of such an even tone of quiet resolution and, if not contented, as least calmly philosophical withdrawal. This poem asserts that life is flawed, yet that in such error lies its beauty. The mistake is evidence of the act of making, and so of humanity itself:

	Boredom, yawning gulf
	of fatal insomnias 
	chasm on whose brink
	the abused soul meditates 
	in appalled resignation.

	Vacant looking-glass
	that always reflects the same
	split enigmas of
	solitude's funeral frame.
The final poem, PERFORMANCE ART AT A BUS STOP, acts not as a farewell but an au revoir, as we see the adolescent juggler
	bungling too many
	fistfuls of water 
just as the poet practicing his art and fulfilling his promise must balance the voice of the actor, the teller of stories, the dramatist.

Kirkup's poems are a privilege to experience, their generosity and musicality complementing and complicating the reader's own truths with each and every read. The poems strike a tone of light, deft whimsicality, but within the wit and whimsy, the wisdom and fine irony, is a ruthless commentary on the human condition.

reviewer: Patricia Prime.