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Review: Claiming Kindred, by D. M. Black

Claiming Kindred is D. M. Black's fifth full collection; but, since its predecessor appeared about twenty years ago, his name may not be as well-known as it deserves to be. This book contains some fine poems - which should give some reassurance to poets who become anxious if they let more than three years elapse between volumes.

The first section, 'Voices for Children', introduces at once the long loping lines (sometimes skilfully rhymed) that Black is fond of using. These suggest a child's voice in the way they pile up observations and parenthetical thoughts, apparently without discipline. But it is the voice of a knowing child: as the poet strolls in Kew gardens, enjoying the splendour and dazzle of flowers and shrubs, he sharply and effectively challenges the scientific view that this is all mere reproductive functionality. The heart, he says, has no need to respond to beauty with an ecstasy that does not beget children. In keeping with the book's title, Black introduces us to his family. The Kew poem is dedicated to his father; and elsewhere he awards honours to both his parents in recognition of the pain of their enforced separation during World War Two. His mother was left in Nazi-sympathetic South Africa and like a bee in a bottle she could neither settle nor fly. Elsewhere, Black recalls a childhood episode when a marble was tossed into undergrowth as a last attempt to find another lost one. A quiet unostentatious clink artfully captures the satisfaction of locating an elusive memory.

The second section 'Omens of death' brings a change of style, opening with some brief, epigrammatic Pencil Sketches whose wry tone occurs again in the sequence Thirteen Ways of Looking at Birmingham. We also meet a surprisingly relaxed approach to death in a poem about a beautiful young woman doctor: when she told you you had an inoperable cancer / even then you wanted to flirt with her. Black's long lines and flair for accurate and surprising imagery return in a poem about a mis-matched couple:

Whereas he -
It was he who was, O always aspiring, to whom the visible world
Was a rind on something profounder, ...

Black's kindred reappear as those unmet cousins he might brush past when strolling through Birmingham; but interestingly he also writes about those who are not kindred spirits. It's curious to hear of a wish and be in no way tempted to share it he says of someone's attitude to Las Vegas wealth. More grimly, reports of a horrific racial murder disturb him so that for a moment, even the streets of Birmingham / seemed populated by demons. Other pleasures in the second section include versions of poems by Cavafy, Rilke and Goethe and a delightfully MacNeice-like piece Some people just aren't reliable.

A final section 'The toil of love' opens with poems about the Iraq war. From an airliner that eats the flavourless kilometres the poet imagines our air-conditioned bubble dropping bombs. The lines God will not come out of the house at evening / and call OK, you rowdy children! Supper! cleverly highlight the sad truth that horrors of war are often embarked on far too lightly. Black does not mind bringing God into his poems of using Christian settings like Lindisfarne. St John on Patmos contains many fine touches: brackish water lolling among the shingle and a sea-bird with unshuddering wings. This poem also offers a splendid précis of the Book of Revelation:

Those Whores and horses, Virgin and her moon,
The moral fury -
The sky-wide banners and the all-dominant trumpets

It is surprising, therefore, that it refers to St John as prosaically as surprisingly healthy considering what you have come through. But even Homer nods, and a few weaker lines and phrases may be forgiven - for instance the redundancy in ignorance / of whether fortune or unfortunate mischance / drew her, which seeks to meet rhythm and rhyme requirements in Pregnant Woman. The third section's promised love poems are delayed until almost the end; and for me, the best are the rather barbed Legend and Golden Wedding. These two, and the book's final conceit about rincarnation as a double-bass (!), exemplify Black's approachability. He seems happy to take the reader into his authorial confidence, for instance by writing a poem about re-writing a poem or revealing that he took two shots at an elegy. His notes even quote some lines he removed from one of the poems because they spoiled the balance. The inclusion of such out-takes is an unusual and interesting feature of a collection that it noteworthy and commendable for much more substantial reasons.