-reviewed by Alex Campbell-
“Client danger to self, others. Client already sees self as ‘author’. Having book out only exacerbates aberration. And for what? Does book even sell? Editor hangs up.” (Case Notes)
Last month I was fortunate enough to catch a reading from Luke Kennard at a writers’ soiree at Warwick university, where, amongst other things, he read a few poems from his new collection, Planet-Shaped Horse. From the first line I was hooked: his comic timing is superb, and his deadpan delivery absolutely spot-on. His poems; wry, blackly humorous and revelling in the absurd, are a joy to listen to, and just as good to peruse alone, later.
The actual book opens with a quote and a map, but of the two the map is more interesting. It follows the conventions of map-making, but turns them on their head, with its strange, skewed perspective, a childlike, hand drawn aesthetic, and little embedded witticisms from the start: “Key: Minimise discomfort”. It’s exactly the right kind of map for the world we’re about to explore.
The poems too have a studied naivety, which is charming, warm and engaging (Special mention must be made of the owl singing “Ted Huuuuughes…” who re-appears as a drawing on the ends piece) and just a little bonkers. His imagery is whimsical, but winning, such as the description of a toothbrush that “leans forward / as if condescending to admire a child’s painting.” (The Environment) or minks as being “little apostrophes of teeth and cruelty” (Mink Farm). At the same time, he manages to create a strange world of porcelain horizons (Mink Farm), Hermitologists, scheduled arguments (Farfalle or The Argument) and other absurdities, but litters it with insights, ironies and a hint of sadness that seems to bring out a clearer way of seeing. The titular conceit – that the world is a planet-shaped horse, ‘it gallops faster the more you beat it / with the undersides of your feet’ (Eyes) – is introduced quite late in the book, but works as a sort of pinnacle of all the quirky metaphors splashed liberally throughout the text, as well as a statement about stasis and movement. What could seem like non-sequiturs, here actually have their own logic to them, and when you’re forced to look at things from this 45 degree angle they make more sense than some things do the right way up.
The fact that this collection is a poem-play cannot be forgotten. There is a strong narrative thread running through the collection, which gives it a depth of meaning and character that no single poem could have achieved on its own – though many of them could theoretically stand alone. The characters; Simon and Miranda the case-workers, the Hermit, the Hermitologist, and of course our protagonist, Client 1764, are all engaging and well realised. The format of a poem may require a certain sparseness of detail, but these characters never suffer for it. Kennard’s incisive observation and quick turn of phrase means that a little goes a very long way, and Simon, with “his courteous smile like a weak / line-break, the fashionable cut of his jaw-line.” (‘More Sad News From Your Stupid Planet’) Miranda, who “practically is an exclamation mark’ (ibid) and 1764 himself, with his ‘feet – little decommissioned tanks’ (two Hermits) and his farfalle bow-tie, are alive and vibrant as any.
The best thing about Kennard is perhaps that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, so he’s not afraid to make himself the butt of his own humour. His quiet mockery of the pretensions of art is refreshing – “I Faked My Own Life (Felt, wire wool, craft / knives 65 acres land, 1997)” (Time Capsule), “Second-marker comments: You seem to think / you are being satirical, and your raised eyebrow / prevents you from achieving a higher grade here.” (The Environment) – but he is self aware enough to realise that he is mocking himself as well, and good humoured enough to laugh along with it. Though the joke is almost always on him, it never slips from wryly self deprecating into angst or whining. He is happy to suggest that there are “Too many poems addressed to much better artworks, / too many poems addressed to much better writers. / Oh, Borges, I take off my hat to you, / a hat filled with a million libraries, etc / Let’s at least agree that’s bullshit.” (Farfalle or The Argument), but still accepts that “the incandescent wierdoes who hate you / make up at least 10-20% of your audience, which is quite a market share.” (Mink Farm)
Kennard’s work is clever, fascinating and with an off the wall, tongue in cheek sort of humour that is a joy to read or listen to. Perhaps though, we should take one final warning, from this collection; that “Like most jokes, the joke is on the people who pretend to get it” (Sobranies)…