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Review: Claiming Kindred, by D. M. Black

DM Black's Claiming Kindred is a welcoming book of poems, in the sense that his prosaic style, complete with links like 'and', 'I think' and 'because', moves each poem about its business with a conversational, avuncular authority. That is not to say the language is baggy, or the subject matter light, rather that there is little 'extra poetry' in the language to obscure each line of enquiry. It is an unpretentious kind of verse, talking in straight lines, but retaining room for more imagistic or lyrical moments. Take for example the opening of Marestail, or Priest's Prick:

When he was a boy, in the pious village,
The man who could turn dumb bread into living flesh
Was a magician! You could forget driving tractors
Or milking cows, those rather mucky activities -
The man the black dress, with the plump hands
And the lovely, moderate voice, he was the one to resemble!

Black rarely strains to prove anything but the point being made. In Kew Gardens, an elegy for his scientist father, he argues for otherness beyond the reach of deductive reasoning:

I want to sing an excess which is not so simply explainable...
I want to say that I do not believe your science
Although I believe every word of it, and intend to understand it

This is, of course, an argument for poetry, for 'another sense, a hearing', which makes the subject of the poem the act of elegy itself: cheating the scientific fact of death through its conversation with the 'long dead' addressee.

In The Bumble Bee, with its smart opening line I went into a room I had neglected, the voice finds He or she... crawling torpidly against the doorstep. Hoping to let him die at least in sight of the sun the voice invites the bee to step onto a compliments slip from the British Journal of Psychiatry, only for the bee to sing into the green depths of the air, then higher and higher once outside, like someone in no doubt at all where he's got to get to. The simplicity of the narrative borders on cuteness, but the effect is similar to that strange lift so often achieved by Billy Collins or Elizabeth Bishop; 'The Bumble Bee' has a deceptive lightness and easiness of tone, so that you are only aware of the effect of the poem by the time its idea has become a feeling, a thrill. So too with In Praise of Reconnecting, where playing marbles with Robin and Henry, one marble bounced in the dust / and sprang off down a steep bank of scrubby grasses. The boys then follow an odd logic ('let's set / another marble to find it') in order to locate it:

and then, from the grass far down on the bank, there came
a quiet, unostentatious clink
I have heard for six decades.

There is something of MacNeice's Soapsuds in the forward-in-time jump at the end, but again it is the simplicity of the idea, left open and underplayed, that gives the poem power and stops it being trite.

Cuteness and triteness should surely spell doom for a poem written to (not for, or about, but actually to) a dying pet dog, but hard as it might be for a cynical reader to admit, In Memory of Pippin is not only moving on the basis that the loss of every dog, cat, and long late budgie is brought flooding back, but because its skillful verse articulates something genuinely stalling about the nature of that smaller grief, and the innocence of a dying animal that has somehow found its way to human love. It takes an iron reader not to have to 'take a moment' afterwards:

We've called the vet to put you down.
Shocked by our power to end your life,

These breaking tears put us in touch
With both our loves: for you, and this
Our dubious breed whose gift it is
To care so cruelly, and so much.

(Jack Underwood teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives. His poems are published in the Faber New Poets series.)