-Reviewed by Andrew Bailey–
Luke Kennard’s The Necropolis Boat has a subtitle that offers a handy way in to the sequence: “Five songs and a tortured context”. Let’s trust that. Let’s start with the songs.
Each is titled ‘The Great Necropolis Songbook’, from #1 to #5, and most use the kind of end-stopping rhymes that explain their hobbled rhythms as the result of hitting a chime that doesn’t arise naturally:
Why go to Ireland
When you can go to O’Neil’s?
Do you really want to hang around with people
Who use platitudes like “real’?
– ‘The Great Necropolis Songbook #4’
In brief: they’re not, in themselves, terribly good. But they’re not really there in themselves, as you needn’t even leave the page that the songs are on for that “tortured context” to kick in. This particular song carries three footnotes, two of which consist of an “I” telling “Maria”, who wrote the song, about its problems. One reads “‘Oh, for the love of God, your syntax,’ I mutter”, attached to a point where I’d expect a reader to agree.
An earlier footnote, to the first song, tells us that the songs aren’t for us anyway – “Her songs are for me and me alone” – and probably unfinished, as Maria is bringing the speaker her new material “which I am only too happy to critique. Precious little to do, etc.” Through his critique, his description of the songs and his taking part in their performance, that I is more the focus than the songs are, which is to say the songs are actually contextualising him. Let’s not trust that subtitle after all, then. Let’s look at the world the songs come from.
The reason he has “Precious little to do” is that our speaker is General Baliol, a deposed dictator spending a life sentence in exile on a prison ship, the Necropolis Boat of the title. The prose poems that occupy the spaces between the songs speak of his careers (military, political, poetic), of his crimes and of his punishment. These share the tone of the Solex Brothers narratives, dressing the unbelievable and the irrational in sentences seemingly cut for naturalistic, logical prose that almost fit: “And as we outnumbered them four-to-one and had already demonstrated our moral superiority we took their jagged kitchen knives and cut their throats.”
We’re further distanced from that narrative level by three ‘Ring-pulls of Hell’. This is further contextualising that sets the Baliol sequence up as a produced object, with comments from the editor and translator, these also being found within a manuscript left for the hero of a previous pamphlet, itself framed by the worry that “Many of these thoughts should just be thrown away immediately: the ring-pull.” That’s accompanied by a diagram of the kind of modern ring-pull that stays attached to the can. All of which means that if you, like me, enjoy the kind of graphite-slippery mistrust you end up with here, you’ll probably find a lot of pleasure in the way your head has to hold the relations between the elements when one of the songs is remembered in one of the poems that is referred to in one of the contextualisations that supports the songs with the footnotes from the general on the boat in the edited document received by the Planet-Shaped Horse hero in the first ring-pull. And that’s before mentioning the chaplain, the chef or the overture poem that seems to owe something to Stephen Dobyns’ ‘Confession’.
I did worry sometimes that there’s a defensive note to writing some mockable songs, then mocking them before readers can, but it’s done with enough charm that I ended up in a forgiving mood toward that worry. Not so much, sadly, toward whoever was responsible for the kerning in the book; on occasion, its words spider into each other so awkwardly, as if they’d set the line breaks before changing the typeface, that I wanted the typesetter on that damn boat. There’s some business about the physicality of the text in the third ring-pull, but if that is a reason it’s still a reason why I was left with a headache afterwards.
It seems a shame to cavil on the incarnation of the book when I’ve enjoyed the platonics of it, though. If I’m going to close on a headache, let’s close instead on this moment from one of the General’s poems: “Y’know, the other day I saw a squash plant growing in the scrubland and it was just the most obscene sight. You have a headache? Good.”