Cain by Luke Kennard

Reviewed by Humphrey Astley – 

Luke Kennard’s Cain ought to establish him as the Stewart Lee of poetry: he’s an arch-ironist who isn’t afraid to make a satire of himself, and knows his craft so well that he can’t help but deconstruct it. This isn’t anything new – postmodernism is virtually mainstream – but Kennard’s take is very much his own.

In Kennard’s narrative, Cain is not only the literal Cain of the Old Testament, but also a kind of jobbing Virgil to Kennard’s Dante, a spirit sent to make sure he doesn’t do ‘anything stupud’ (sic). Running with this analogy, the inferno Kennard finds himself in is the hellish breakdown of his marriage, and the subsequent revelation that all the banalities of everyday life are even worse without the salve of companionship.

OK, he has Cain for a companion, but he’s not a very good one – a condescending, passive-aggressive gangster type who appears on Kennard’s doorstep as ‘An actual size, inflatable Frankenstein’s monster’ (he’s a creation, after all). ‘The trouble is you / have to live with every decision you make’, he sagely remarks, more or less establishing the moral: you can’t live in the past. Kennard has a good go, though, wallowing in nostalgia and those self-inflicted oh-god-what-have-I-dones. Cain doesn’t exactly stop him, either:

I have found 10 of your nail varnishes […]
I arrange them around me on the desk
in a semicircle and under a sad dog lamp
I paint each of my fingernails, meticulous
as a man restoring his Warhammer figurines.
‘I think the trouble is you’re trying to fight
the sadness,’ says Cain. ‘That’s like trying
to steer out of the skid: intuitive, understandable
but completely unhelpful. You steer into
the skid, you regain control. Perverse, but…’
He gives me a paper wallet of photos of you
at university which I have never seen before.

Thanks for that, Cain. Perhaps the idea is to make Kennard get all his suffering over with as soon as possible. (Besides, a stiff upper lip isn’t really an option when ‘your face is a prawn’). So Cain leads him through a series of cautionary tales and vignettes: they go to a supermarket where ‘the automated checkout says / Approval needed and Cain says, ‘She really gets you’; when asked for his name in Starbucks, Kennard regurgitates the history of his adolescent stammer, stating in lofty, literary fashion that ‘There is a chasm between Luke and Kennard’. Cain asphyxiates him at a poetry festival (mercifully, perhaps).

Book I is shot through with snatches of social criticism and spiritual agnosticism: ‘The dreams where you’re flying are not dreams’, ‘but now we have replaced quality with quantity’ and ‘it is dangerous to mock that which we / do not understand’. That Kennard describes himself as ‘some kind of gibbering outsider who satirises everything around him while never leaving the confines of his own imagination’ puts an interesting spin on things, to say the least. The overall effect is of a serious intellect having a serious breakdown. The section ends with Cain doing a bit of an Agent Smith and going rogue:

He is a camera capacious enough to film the entire world
forever, and then rewound to unmake every wound […]
But something is wrong.
Cain is not trying to reverse his decision, but God’s.
[…] He
stands over his brother’s body, a jawbone
in his fist, and we follow the drip of blood in, frankly,
melodramatic slow-motion. Thanks anyway.

Considering the fact that Kennard has lost daily contact with a wife and two sons, the religious overtones are unsettling. Nothing is ever really spelt out but, while he can’t help but be deadpan, there’s no hiding that this is heady stuff: determinism, accountability, the vortex of cause and effect. Even if you had the power to undo past mistakes, how would you know when to stop?

When it comes to form, the second section of Cain will be reassuring if, like me, you wonder why such an artist settles for free verse most of the time. Book II is a sustained, highly-wrought and virtuoso wordplay performance that goes far beyond ‘meta’ to become something altogether different (though it should be noted that its form was inspired by Gregory Betts, and that Leonard Cohen did something similar in the self-analysing ‘Death of a Lady’s Man’).

In principle, it sounds like a stupid idea: a series of long-form anagrams derived from the 355 letters of Genesis 4:9-12, serving as a kind of surrogate script for a sitcom in which ‘Cain and Father K. share a property.’ In practice, it reads like Armando Iannucci’s notes for a JG Ballard adaptation in the style of The Young Ones, haunted by Pinter’s ‘comedy of menace’. It’s crazy-good. Each anagram is accompanied by fictitious background text on the episode’s conception, making the section simultaneously a comment on scriptural interpretation and a parody of critical theory and pop culture geekery; and that’s just the notes. The anagrams themselves manage to be both humane – ‘-You’re crying. Why? / -It’s all that’s left’) – and hilarious. Kennard even tries a full-blown sonnet, though he ‘appears to abandon the Shakespearean rhyme scheme halfway through the octet and finishes one line early (the letter restrictions were never more evident).’ Quite. The series ends with ‘a bafflingly condensed collage of the 20 rejected episodes’, as if to frighten us into accepting The Way Things Are: Here’s what could have happened – happy now?

Book III has Kennard reunited with his family, though this happy turn doesn’t so much resolve his neuroses as repackage them. He’s able to consider familial concerns more enthusiastically, if misguidedly:

While researching the family tree, my father discovers that my great-great-great-uncles were murdered outside a pub in 19th century Cumbria […] ‘Do you know what this means?’ I say to Cain […] ‘It means I’m both more northern and more working class than my detractors.’ ‘That’s what you take from it?’ says Cain. ‘Wow.’

My main criticism of Cain is that slapping POEMS on the cover of what is manifestly a cross-genre work is misleading and does Kennard’s versatility a disservice. Conversely, some of the more abstruse passages (and there’s no shortage of them) might be more digestible if they were, dare I say, more poetic. But the author’s probably aware of this, and perfectly eloquent when it suits him:

Our best efforts get edited down to silence;
I mean Biblical silence: the sound of a book with very thin pages closing.