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Review: Claiming Kindred, by D. M. Black

This is D. M. Black's first collection since publication of his Collected Poems by Scottish publisher Polygon twenty' years ago - born in South Africa in 1941, the poet was brought up in Scotland from 1950. Previous collections had appeared from Scorpion Press, active in the 1960s, and Barrie and Rockliff. The next two collections came from the Scottish publisher M. Macdonald, publisher of the long-running Lines Review. Tracking the publishing history, the course a poet takes through the choppy waters of the poetry scene, can be revealing. Black's is a course that places him to one side of mainstream poetry publishing, though at the same time he was never affiliated to any self-consciously experimental or avant-garde grouping. In an introduction to the Collected Poems James Greene wrote:

It looked in the sixties, when he was published alongside Peter Redgrove and D. M. Thomas in Penguin Modern Poets 11 (1968), as if Black would become prominent on the English literary map. But, although he's lived in London since 1972, his residual allegiance to Scotland perhaps got in the way.

Whether Scotland should take the blame I'm not sure. There could be other factors, and it must be said that the issue of 'national affiliation' within the UK can on occasion appear puzzling and inconsistent.

Black's involvement in the Findhorn foundation, epitome of 1960s new-ageism, and his interest in different forms of spirituality - after his degree he did research on Eastern religions - link him to that decade. This new collection contains an elegy to Peter Caddy, one of its founders, where he dwells on the man's energy and life-enhancing qualities, while avoiding mention of his more eccentric beliefs in communication with extra-terrestrials and so forth. Black's earlier collections were marked by an exhilarating, free-wheeling fantasy. The surrealism was energetic, edged with sardonic humour, and without the airless or programmatic quality it can have. Nor was it the watered-down kind, degenerating into a kind of whimsy that seems to be the staple of so much of the 'well-workshopped' poetry product nowadays. And of course back then the Penguin series did exhibit a particular openness and catholicity.

But what has changed in his work in the intervening twenty years? There's still that valuing of energy, embodied in Black's frequent use of a long, rolling line. In The Bumble Bee he goes into a room I had neglected, finds the creature crawling torpidly against the doorstep . . . But I invited him to step onto a compliments slip from the British Journal of Psychiatry':

He lay still. I turned to go in
but a sizzling arrested me -
I looked back - he was gone - Like a humming arrow
I saw him sing into the green depths of the air, then higher and higher
on a swerving, all-but straight path, lofting superbly above the tree-tops
like someone in no doubt at all where he's got to get to.

Section 11 of Thirteen Ways of Looking at Birmingham echoes the earlier style:

That summer evening in Birmingham
- Street sweet with the scent of heliotrope -
Thousands of ants were milling about on the sidewalk.
Many were winged, some went naked,
All were in ardent confusion.
And I remembered my teenage excitement, realising
That every girl in the city
Had two breasts and a vagina.

But in this new collection, there are also poems in strict sonnet form. Writing in Poetry London on the poet Richard Wilbur, Black says the function of form is essential to contain a piece of the world ... so that its internal relations become visible. . . A piece in formal verse is cut off from the flow of time and he compares it to a 'box of mirrors' reflecting on itself. At the same time he refers to 'our prejudice in favour of unhappiness', while Wilbur presents himself as a 'happy and fulfilled man.' In Claiming Kindred there is a reckoning with experience, an aspect of which could be summarised in the tide of one of the poems In Praise of Reconnecting, where he recalls an incident from his African childhood. There's an elegy for his father, 'Distinguished scientist to whom I greatly defer', while in I Allot the Honours in the Second World War he offers a carefully balanced account of the stresses in his parent's marriage. Black is a psychoanalist. Re-writing a Poem concludes:

And so it goes, down the decades
Till I find a desperate baby
Speaking the pristine poem -
Crying: Turn to me! look at me!
Love me! weep for me!
O! be moved by my sorrow
Stone-faced mother of mine!

And in The one who couldn't cry from the sequence 'Pencil Sketches' where one assumes he discreetly evokes his professional life he writes of

A virtuous man, he paid his way
And no one ever heard him say
Things more impetuous than he meant -
So thriftily from day to day
He watched how joy and longing lay
And kept his loves ambivalent.

Gautama: Thoughts in Savernake Forest recalls Black's earlier interest in Eastern religions. But the poem's conclusion expresses what is perhaps the main emphasis of the collection as a whole, and refers to the 'claim' of its title:

For, to be truthful, you who loved all beings,
You who had lost your mother, and who had abandoned
Wife and child in that lust for contemplation -
You longed to be back in the world of men.

A humane and pleasurable collection that might also serve to return the reader to the earlier work with its fertility of invention sustained by exceptional narrative power.

Claiming Kindred, it's worth noting, is a remarkably well-produced book. Tony Ward of Arc has of course been running a printing business for many years, making a lot of handsome books for, among others, Anvil, where he worked with the late Asa Beneveniste, publisher of Trigram, as typographer and designer. And Arc is one of those publishers who, most regrettably, have lost their Arts Council subsidy.