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The Honicknowle Book of the Dead by Kenny Knight

(Shearsman books), 106pp, £8.95 / $16 ISBN 9781848610170

In this book the world of suburban Plymouth is transfigured by the the imagination in a stream of anecdote, wit and invention reminiscent of the New York school.  Kenny Knight's seemingly artless poems in fact combine a number of techniques that require considerable skill from the poet, and which achieve their effects without being in any way intrusive. Apart from anything else, Knight has a good ear, and there are some beautifully musical lines:

"Under the Abercrombie arches of Whitleigh Bridge I walk"

          (from "Woodland Wood")

In plain-speaking language, Knight manages to take the everyday and transform it:

I sleepwalk to the living room light switch
in twenty seconds
I'm somewhere on the map of Plymouth,
moving quietly above an alphabet of streets."

          (from "Queen Log")

Here he is thinking of an eye operation performed by a doctor of non-UK origin:

I drop a pyramid teabag into a fifty year old mug
and think about Mister Habib,
who came all the way from Egypt
to stitch my blue eye with a silver thread.

There are nostalgic pleasures for people of a certain age - Fireball XL5 did it for me - but these poems aren't dependent on that nostalgia; they create a convincing world that is at once real and imaginary: they're myth-making, and the myth is of england with a small 'e' i.e. the culture of a locality as it manifests itself in the doings and preoccupations of ordinary people. And the gods, godesses and heroes are Kathy Kirby, the Dalai Lama, Lorna Doone, Elvis Presley, Albert Tatlock and the rest of the huge cast that moves in and out of these poems. This ability to create a personal mythology within a poem, or a group of poems, is something rare; Barry MacSweeney could do it, and so can one of MacSweeney's admirers, Kelvin Corcoran (who provided an endorsement on the cover of Knight's book); it requires an intense identification by the writer with the figures involved, but, more crucially, the skill to convert that into a poetic trope using repeated and varying references to build up a motif. Knight does this with, for example, 'Buckingham Shed' (his mystical conflation of Buckingham Palace and his garden shed), in a perfectly natural way that convinces the reader that these characters and places are important to them too. So, we have:

Avalon is the old name for West Park

The Holy Grail was a pasty shop

... King Arthur is linked / to the Spice Girls

Buckingham Shed is the home of Queen Log

These are comical, but there's a seriousness to them too, and Knight walks a fine line between the two, managing, ultimately, to convince the reader to share his personal imaginative universe.

It's interesting, when presented with poems that on the surface are quite straightforward and free from artifice (I'm speaking relatively here) to analyze how they achieve their effects. How does this book work? One might agree with James Brookes' in Horizon Review when he says "Though not quite like a Zen mantra, the steady circling of the same territory induces an altered, heightened perception". But there's also the nature of the language used. Much of the humour and apparent naivety of the poems is due to the child-like language:

I wanted to go home.
I cried and I don't know why.
I was lost and the big city was famous,
too famous to know about me.

          (from "Treehouse")

Knight manages to apply this child-like language to other areas, in a way that lends an irony to the apparent innocence, and is both the voice of a confused child and that of the more sophisticated author of these poems:

The Cold War was for boys
Who'd grown too big for snowballs...

...The Cold War was chilly.
Propaganda was an exercise
in temperature control.

And this allows the poems to reach the most comic-absurd conclusions:

I imagine Ruth Padel reading
The Honicknowle Book of the Dead
to the Dalai Lama...

...In her shoulder bag
Ruth Padel was carrying
the collected works of Geraldine Monk

Whether it was the dead-pan humour of “I met My First Girlfriend at a Bus Stop on Honicknowle Green” to the child’s confusion of Ted Heath the band leader with Ted Heath the politician (and the Eurovision Song Contest with the EU), the poems made me laugh out loud at times; but they are never just playing for laughs; and in fact, in addition to the improvisational riffs of the long poems, there are one or two short poems of great tenderness:

...there's a number Thirty Two
on the door...

Inside, peace and security
wraps a medley
of hot water bottle blankets
around my soul.

          (from "Haven")

And the short poem 'Cancer', is a masterclass in understatement. The language of these poems, even at their most high-flown moments, always consists of plain, conversational language. The longer poems have an incantatory nature, reminiscent of some of the Beat poets, but, these also are capable of capturing a moment or emotion that brings the reader up short. The poem "Guthrie to Ginsberg" contains some perceptive observations on mid-twentieth century American culture, and at the same time captures the yearning of youth, combined, as it is, with the an intense awareness of life's limitations:

All those blacksmiths
who wanted to be beat poets

at a time when I was a young man
and you were a young man
growing up in sunflower backyards
in the fifties and sixties
of the twentieth century.
One eye on the girl next door.
One eye on America.

          (from "Guthrie to Ginsberg")

This is a book that appeals to people like me - denizens of the remoter regions of contemporary poetry - but would also appeal to the fabled 'general reader'. It's a book that should be stacked high in Waterstones and advertised on TV, because it's poetry which manages to be genuinely popular without in any way sacrificing its integrity.