Chris Beckett follows the twists and turns of a collection that is both playful and serious…

 

The Prince of WailsKnight
Stephen Knight
CB Editions, 2012
ISBN 978-0-9567359-6-6
pp 64  £7.99

 

 

Behind its plain cover and apparently jokey title, this is a wonderfully rich and thought-provoking collection. The first (untitled) poem acts as a sort of epigraph, an intriguing fragment which pictures Knight’s father meeting his daughter

when she is tall and he is back
in the garden of the house where I was born.

From the blurb you know that Knight’s father has recently died, and that his daughter must be small now if she is to be tall later. So the poem prepares you for all sorts of tricks of light and time and (of course) language, which form the meat and meditation of this book.

The first poem proper, Thank You For Having Me, takes you into an emptying fairground where “everyone’s packing up everyone’s going home.”  Knight capitalises signs like “PUKKA PIES…they’re delicious CLOSED”, giving you the full gravy smell of the place, and the tannoy-tinny delights of The Ink Spots and Johnnie Ray. Here the pun of Johnnie Ray’s 1950’s album title Prince of Wails, used by a Welsh poet and one who we know has just lost his father, packs a very moving punch – especially as there is no crying in the poem: the musical wails and sobs, and the rain, stand in for absent tears and there is no mention of loss or grief at all, but a big empty feeling that is perfectly reflected by the

bone-dry box-shaped holes in car parks everywhere

Strikingly, the poem is written in 12 syllable lines, alexandrines, which one would normally associate with Racine or Baudelaire, rather than poetry in English. But Knight tells you exactly why he’s using them:

it’s raining in this poem here come on let’s shelter
underneath these rough-and-tumble alexandrines
yonder raindrops dripping off an overhanging word

The poem is an umbrella from the rain, the sadness of endings, from the absent wails of a father for his own father, a son surrounded by nostalgic sights and sounds who has to busy himself (gladly, I would say) with the present, to strap his own children in the back seat and drive them home. I am totally convinced that only these un-rhymed alexandrines can accommodate the rough-and-tumble of this world, its language (like the cheeky mock-Shakespearean “yonder”) and its changing rhythms.

If I have spent too long on this opening poem – and what about the suggestive title? – I have still only touched on its quiet brilliance. And every poem in this collection is similarly layered, inviting you to ponder and unpack it. Every poem combines a compression of feelings and expression with such lively experimentation that it is a pleasure to spend time in its company – poems bristle with bullet lists and tick-boxes, with accents and homophones (eg “are men to that” in Happily Ever After). One poem is even written in “boustrophedon” (The Land of Nod), where the lines read alternately left to right then right to left (an ox turning the plough), playing tricks with your eyes and therefore with the rhythm of reading! Word-play erupts everywhere like the uncontrollable Smiles

                                   …despite the bleedin’ rain
in spite of dirty dirty windows…
smiles eructating everywhere no symptoms nothing curable

(eructation means belching in case you did not know, I didn’t…). Not even photographs of R.S.Thomas can dim these smiles!

Which brings me back to “Wails”: with a few obvious exceptions, such as Big Parade in Dream City Cinema, Knight’s first two widely acclaimed collections did not dwell on his Welsh roots. But his 1996 pamphlet The Sandfields Baudelaire, written entirely in a Swansea accent, is hilariously funny when read aloud because the words actually mean nothing like they look. Now, in Tour through the Whole Island of Me, which begins “I was Spider-Man” and reels through many of the identities he must have tried on as a boy, including Wordsworth, Edgar Al and Po (!), Kafka, even Tennyson, Knight states

I was neither of the Thomases

by which I assume he means R.S. and Dylan. If so, this chimes with the comment about photos of R.S Thomas in Smiles. There is no Iago Prytherch out on the bald Welsh hills in Knight’s poetry. Neither is he infused with the booming sonority of Dylan Thomas, though he shares his affectionate, humorous eye for character (eg Old Man Up a Tree). In fact he seems to belittle Dylan in the poem Fifty Second Life, which reduces that famous life to 16 lines of newspaper captions. But the poem ends with a telling line: “his posthumous affluence”, which for me connects it with many of the other poems here in which the dead live on despite Brodsky’s comment that “no life is meant to be preserved.” Either they don’t know they are dead (So Early in the Year), or we conjure them up again (even in the bath, in Butterfly) or they “won’t let go” our hand (The End of Mumbles Pier).

Could this be a variant on Dylan’s “refusal to mourn”, a Knight-ly refusal to wail, at least full-throat, sentimentally, because in his process of grief the dead are not really dead, they have not gone gentle or raging or any other way into that good night, they are still here in the shadows, our shadows? Ironically, we will always be “Prince of Wails”, if the king-father never dies. I believe Knight is exploring the intense physicality of memory and grief, how they fit into the lives of the living, into the future when daughters/grand-daughters, for example, have grown tall.

So, images of a simultaneous vanishing and closeness, a very real brushing and touching, recur in some of his most anguished and memorable lines:

But if the dead return for one last look around
the house they used to own way back, and, somewhat stern,
brush past you without a sound, leaving you alone,
stupid in the hallway, let that moment go
then offer them a seat…
(Lost Things)

The last poem, called 99 Poems, is astonishingly rich and intriguing: just the title makes this small book feel massive! Why 99? It is an elegy, so perhaps Knight’s father died at age 99, almost as long-lived as the centenarians we just met in On Turning Fifty and worthy of commemoration, worth staying up late for! In any case, the poem is a collection of 99 lines borrowed with great affection from elegies and epitaphs and maybe other sources too, perhaps film, across the centuries, and arranged by first letter from A to Y, starting with the beautiful line (possibly Thomas Hardy?)

A face that, though in shadow, still appears

and ending with the simple physicality of

Your hands

Both images – the dead who re-appear and the father’s hand which holds his child’s – recur throughout the book, gaining power along the way. And it can be no accident that this last poem ends on the letter Y, not Z: there is no final letter in the alphabet of this wonderfully haunting collection.