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Róisín Kelly reviews Brendan Kennelly's newest poetry collection.
After completing her MA in Writing at NUI Galway, Róisín Kelly came south to partake in Cork's literary scene. As well as writing journalistic pieces, she also works on poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been published in Doire Press's North Beach Nights: Anthology Three, and a short story featured in Adventure Hat, the anthology brought out by the Black Fort Writers. In 2013, she won the short story competition run by NUIG's student newspaper and was shortlisted in both the poetry and fiction categories for the Cúirt New Writing Prize.
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The work of a poet who once published an epic poem titled Poetry My Arse (1995) is unlikely to appeal to readers with more delicate poetic sensibilities. Yet the enduring popularity of Irish writer Brendan Kennelly demonstrates that there are plenty who share the disdain of the main character of his newest work, Guff, for the ‘shapeless freeverse moan’ of contemporary poetry. Such readers will no doubt feel at home with a collection that blatantly places itself in opposition to muddied metaphorical language and hidden meaning.
Like the aforementioned Poetry My Arse, Guff is a work epic in its scope (it's described as a ‘book-length poem’, although it is broken up into shorter poems that rarely run beyond two pages each). But a potential reader might be forgiven for getting no further than Guff's exhausting blurb, which is bloated with tiresome contradictions that are clearly supposed to tease us with their wit. The eponymous Guff is described as a man who ‘questions everything including words that seem to constitute answers and answers that question both questions and answers’. Such a jumbled, irritating introduction does no justice to the poems that follow, which for the most part succeed in conveying their ideas without resorting to convoluted language or emotion. A disadvantage of this style is that some of the poems are just crude or vulgar (‘[u]sing all her moist means and ends / she gives whores a bad name’), yet many contain delicately expressed moments of revelation and surprising little compounds like ‘parentlovers’, ‘slickscissored’ and ‘goingplaces crowd’. The presence of wordplay is apt, as Guff's relationship to words, and what words can even mean in today's world, is at the core of this work.
Too sad is when words are useless
They are fire made of snow
Burning in a legend centuries ago. ('Sad').
The fleeting presence of made-up words such as ‘ponderwonder’ reflects the absurdity of the world as Guff sees it: an Ireland that couldn't be further from the Ireland of legend, and which is presented to us through Guff's unsophisticated vision. He's not half so unsophisticated, however, as the Celtic Tiger 'cubs' roaming throughout this work, who are the particular subject of the poet's scorn. Guff is peppered with references to the country's Celtic Tiger era and 'Tigertown', while money is awkwardly described as Ireland's 'real religion'. At the same time, a theme such as emigration is as pertinent to that vanished country of myth as the one we live in today. Kennelly finds a new and touching way to describe the effects of Ireland's deep-rooted culture of emigration: ‘The sun came through like a bit of news / to refresh the heart and brighten the mind. / Then the sun took the boat to England.'
Guff accompanies the reader through these modern-day concerns in varying states of bafflement and dull horror at what the world has become. Does Kennelly intend us to view Guff as a new Kathleen Ní Houlihan to represent Ireland in the 21st century, with its uneasy balance between the present situation and that age-old Irish way of clinging to stories about ourselves? As the aisling figure that once stood for Irish nationalism had an inherent connection with countryside and nature, so too does Guff have an affinity with a natural world that still exists below Ireland's damaged political and social layer. This provides some of the more tender moments in Guff, as when the character's memory of blossoming flowers is described as 'roses sweetening in his mind'. Yet even this aspect of Ireland is fading, to someday become as obsolete as our nourishing but meaningless myths:
Certain birds, like certain words, are dying out.
Soon they will be heard no more.
Guff will test the killing silence
in meadow, laneway, cliffwalk, hill and slope
Resonant places once. Now, nothing there. ('The killing silence')
Kennelly's poetry lacks a subtle touch, but this could be seen as a welcome change from the kind of poetry that lightly dances around its meaning for so long that it trips on its own cleverness. There's no danger of that with Guff, even if its subject is confusion itself. Yet it is a shame that the effect of some of the poems is akin to being hit over the head with an axe: 'What does it mean to kill? he asks. / what does it mean to care?’ The biggest flaw in this collection is its tendency to be preachy, epitomised in the poem 'flesh'. A poem that truly wants to question the excesses of the Celtic Tiger era should really strive for something more subtle than literally putting the word 'why' to the reader. In fact, many of these poems are made up of frustrating rhetorical questions. Surely the role of a writer is to make an effort to answer these questions, not simply to scatter them in the air until some loosely hang together in a shape that could – maybe – be called a poem.
But the sometimes-moralising element to Guff takes on a more interesting dimension when we consider that Guff is most likely a poetic alter-ego, and that much of what we see here is autobiographical. The poem ‘Rough draft’ contains the notion that words can be rewritten, while we never can be; we are only rough drafts of the people we might have been. Behind this sentiment we glimpse a sympathetic portrait of not only the fictional Guff, but the poet himself. And although the opening lines in 'Final page' have an undeniably preachy tone, they suggest that Guff doesn't merely want to find and know his own place in the world: he wants to be recognised as a man of morals.
Be on the side of the forgotten
Lettie says to Guff.
Find a word for those who’ve no word to say.
You’re that last page in a book
it took a lifetime to write.
Here we begin to suspect that Guff is more concerned with how the marginalised, the mistreated and the forgotten can be used as a way to express his own nobility, which makes for a much more sinister and fascinating character. Add in the autobiographical element and suddenly the poems that are especially pontifical are cast in the light of the poet’s intentions of how he, too, wishes to be observed by the reader.
In Guff, there isn’t much evidence of a sharp editor’s hand excising the fluffier material. It is as though there are two books very different in style and content sitting uneasily beside each other within one book-length poem. While some poems quietly shed their meaning through restrained language, others are coarse and clumsy, their only aim broad humour or obvious sentiment. I would prefer less throwaway lyrics like 'if shite was cash, Guff, you'd be rich' and more of Guff's longing to become a 'starry earthy spermy rivery man'. We're also left with the question: why did the poet choose to create an alter ego in the first place, therefore deflecting his experiences and ideas onto an external character, and ensuring that the reader is at a remove from the poetic voice and its revelations? Why, in short, should anyone care what Guff thinks? Which is exactly the point that Guff makes.
©2014 Róisín Kelly
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