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Review: Claiming Kindred, by D. M. Black

The last poet under review here is D. M. Black. Black first came to public prominence with D. M. Thomas and Peter Redgrove in one of the Penguin Modern Poets volumes of the Sixties. He belonged to the generation of Scottish poets before the one whose presence so dominates British poetry today; he was also a poet associated with narrative, and fitted in well with D. M. Thomas's science-fiction poems, and Redgrove's taste for bizarre narratives (such as the amazing Mr. Waterman). Black's narratives don't quite have Redgrove's taste for the bizarre, but he often suggests darker currents flowing under ordinary lives. In The Mistletoe, the woman in a middle-aged couple urges the man to make love behind a hedge just off a main road. She demands that they get naked. Afterwards she is delighted, but the man is very angry. Seeing mistletoe on a nearby tree, he walks across and pulls the plant from the tree. Black's formal sonnet combines technical strength with psychological acuity.

Half a dozen poems towards the end of the book are, alone, almost worth the price of the book. These are pieces in which Black explores Christianity with a generosity that's often unusual in contemporary non-religious poetry. I'll quote Christian Theology whole:

The fly that has to negotiate this orchid
Is weary with the complication of the trumpet,
The baroque pistils, the astounding stamens,
- But reaches, finally, the drop of nectar...

As a conceit for what believers look for in Christianity, again, this seems both acute and telling, with its deft adjectives and neat construction.

The finest poem in this book is the wonderful St. John on Patmos. Black addresses St. John in that difficult form, the second person narrative; difficult because you can end up in an odd collusion with the reader, as if the reader were the you too. Black avoids this ambiguity in the precise way he depicts St John:

You are ageless now,
Gaunt awkward angular man, unoccupied,
And surprisingly healthy considering what you have come through....

That lovely unoccupied stops the momentum of the other adjectives in the line, and forces the reader to think about the visions that would have occupied the younger man. But not so self-consciously that the overall picture of the divine is obstructed, or the poem thrown out of kilter.

However, Black's interests really lie in what the divine does after the composition of the Revelation, how he goes back to living normally, but not normally. As Black puts it,

And now your other life begins-or not begins,
But is foregrounded, is the life you will live
Until your death, which is part of it.

Black's doubling, hesitant syntax mimics the life of a man who has got almost as close to God as it is possible to get, and yet lived to tell the tale. Whether or not Black is a believer, he's been able here to empathise with someone whose religious transports changed the world. And he's created a very great poem.