Nine Arches Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, George Simmers and Robin Vaughan-Williams
D A Prince:
First impressions? —a strange title, printed skew-whiff (though the poet’s name is straight), with ‘Horse’ larger than ‘Planet-shaped’ and the letters H, R, E taller than the rest. Unsettling. But this is a Nine Arches pamphlet, so it’s not a beginner’s stab at design, or faulty printing: their design is pitch-perfect. This cover is telling me something.
It’s a warning to prepare myself for the slew and twist of the narrative running through these poems, a world whose strangeness becomes more natural than our own surroundings. This isn’t a ‘collection’ to dip into—you have to start at the beginning, suspend your disbelief and treat it as a unity. It’s a poem-play divided into poem-sections, where three main characters—the (anti-)hero, Miranda and Simon—connect and disconnect in Fouracres Halfway House.
It’s Kennard’s precision with wit, language, images, ear for dialogue, range of reference that juggles the whole concept and keeps it spinning. There’s also a thread about poetry—jokes, technique, punctuation—so it’s got a writerly side to it. A disturbed writer? —quite possibly, but it also means readers who write poetry will find an added spring in the bounce and jitter of the language.
If I start to sketch the plot you’ll stop reading here, so let’s have just one quotation—
.......‘I suppose to you the owls sound like they’re saying,
.......“Ted Huuuuuuuuuuuuughes! Ted Huuuuuuuuuuuuughes!”
.......Well they’re not. Not even sometimes’
If it has a fault, it’s that the pamphlet has to be gulped down whole. It doesn’t come across in a reading, even with as good and persuasive a reader as Kennard, because any attempt to select individual poems, or set a context for the increasingly surreal action, simply unravels the tightly-connected wit.
I heard Kennard read from it and decided it definitely wasn’t for me. However, when it arrived for review, I gritted my teeth—and had my mind changed. Highly intelligent humour like this is rare; there will be imitations, and they won’t come anywhere near this.
And if you turn to the last page, just when you think it’s all over, there’s a doodled owl trying to say ‘Ted Huuuuughes’. Now, who drew that?
There’s a sort of story underlying this poem-sequence, though it often gets lost beneath the verbal fun and intellectual oddities. One poem suggests “the mind is a pen without a lid,/ left on someone else's duvet”, a simile that certainly suits the mind of these poems' narrator, which continually seeps into places where it probably shouldn't go. An unstable soul, he seems to be an inmate confined at Fouracres Halfway House, where Miranda and Simon offer friendship but are no more to be trusted than coffee (which disappears) or hermits.
The hermits (and a reflective hermitologist) crop up in many of the poems I liked best. We are asked to wonder how we can be sure which hermit is genuine: one poses as decadent and the other truly is, but there’s the possibility that “the greatest humility/ is everyone knowing you're a fraud/ and really living that fraudulence to the uttermost”.
The ideas do acrobatics, but the surreal fantasies are restrained by the neat stanzas that enclose them. Luke Kennard is writing poems, not just jokes, and is at his best when producing unexpected similes. These can be visual, as in:
.......In its glass the toothbrush leans forward
.......As if condescending to admire a child's painting.
.......It is like the face of an old man whose eyebrows
.......and moustache have grown to cover his whole head.
They can also be more strange and evocative, as in the lines that give the pamphlet its title: “Rather see the world as a planet-shaped horse: it gallops faster the more you beat it”.
I didn't know Luke Kennard's work before reading this collection, but I shall definitely look out for anything else he writes.
Before the poems proper begin (and in place of a contents page), Planet-Shaped Horse offers a number of starters that give a taste of what’s to follow. A Winnie-the-Pooh style hand-drawn map featuring the Fouracres Halfway House, a golf course, a Hermitologist Shack, a Hospital, what look like pictures of a jelly and a tortoise, and an arrow pointing to the U.N. The key reads “minimise discomfort”, and the following pages feature more surprising messages that lay bare and poke fun at the conventions of reading: “OOH, ANOTHER BOOK” and ‘YOU MUST BE VERY PROUD’.
To make fully sure the reader can’t escape as a passive observer, a section titled “CASE NOTES” leaves blanks for the reader to fill in whenever a medication is mentioned:
.......Reports “curious god-like feeling”. Trialled on _____ and ____. Reports nothing. Trialled on ______.’
The author, it turns out, is a psychiatric patient scheduled for “remedial care at Fouracres Halfway House”, and if the author is the patient, then (fill in the blanks) the reader must be the doctor. But the authority of the doctor is already questioned by the patient’s editor, who describes the author as “unique and extraordinary” and “visionary, actually”, while “we are ‘fucking thought police’”.
The first few poems in Planet-Shaped Horse are highly dissociative, to the extent that you lose yourself every few lines. I suspect it would take the mind of a conspiracy theorist to make sense of some of these pieces (although I’m already beginning to develop some alarmingly complete theories, which I won’t subject you to). But that’s not to say you can’t enjoy them. The Russian Formalists distinguished between the ‘story’, a chronological sequence of events, and the ‘plot’, the actual order in which the elements of the story appear in a fictional text. The story here, if there is one, is opaque, obscured rather than clarified by the plot, so instead what we have to focus on is the plot itself, the words on the page. As with much of Ashbery, the words are formed into perfectly meaningful lines or sentences that are themselves, for the most part, a joy to read (“The minks are little misused apostrophes of teeth and cruelty.”). You feel like there’s a story behind this; you’re just not sure what it is.
Much as I enjoyed the first five poems, I wasn’t sure I could handle a whole pamphlet like this, let alone review it. Fortunately, the going gets easier, although (also fortunately) the tendency to jerk between disparate observations and the feeling that our narrator is gloriously unhinged and uninhibited continues throughout. He has something of the holy fool about him in his ability to wrongfoot more erudite, supposedly rational minds, and the way his madness reveals flashes of perspicacity.
The final poem, ‘Fin’, works as a kind of allegory for the whole collection. It seeks to explain why “A kitten will fight its own reflection,/ but stop abruptly around its first birthday”. It’s not so much that the cat learns to understand about mirrors, but that
.......the cat knows not to mess
.......anymore with the glass cat
.......who uncannily blocks its every attack.
The author-patient of Planet-Shaped Horse is more like the kitten who does understand about mirrors but persists in fighting its own reflection all the same, generating energy and humour in the process.