James Roderick Burns appreciates the way Phil Kirby handles darker aspects of life with honesty but without excluding hope
The Third History Phil Kirby Lapwing Publications, 2018 ISBN 978-1-910855-78-2 54 pages, £10.00 (paperback)
Phil Kirby’s The Third History wears a key influence on its sleeve – “He began writing shortly after getting his first teaching job in Essex and reading Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ in a school anthology” – but this is no bad thing. ‘Re-Reading’, for instance, recalls ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (“none / Thought of the others they would never meet / Or how their lives would all contain this hour”) in its lifting commentary on the feelings produced by a photograph of two women on an old-fashioned pleasure boat dropping from a book:
We neither of us know their names … and, as we do, perhaps begin to ask how long the memory of this one night may last for them
And Mr Bleaney himself is almost physically present in the numbing scene of stock-taking and loss conjured by ‘Not Now’:
And then the number, still in the list he scrolls through on his mobile phone: the brother, four years dead and more; the one he almost never called; the one whose life had slowly come apart, whose drink and fags had broadcast warning signs enough. Useless now to think of things he might have called to say.
They are almost parts of a whole. The reader shudders, recognising the poise and deadly balance of this portrait, and perhaps hears the end of Larkin’s own harsh vision chiming in:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed Telling himself that this was home, and grinned, And shivered, without shaking off the dread That how we live measures our own nature, And at his age having no more to show Than one hired box should make him pretty sure He warranted no better, I don’t know.
However, though Larkin peeps out of the volume here and there (and what better guest for a poet of loss and regret?), The Third History is very much Kirby’s own. He maps a stark territory: the harshness of life, and its inevitable end (‘A Viewing’, ‘Their Mother’s Lament’, ‘The Porch Watchers’); modernity’s thoughtless erasure of the past (‘The Name’, ‘Be Not Afeard’); comfortless nature (‘Artless’, ‘Adrift’) operating on simple, cold instinct (‘The Fox Stanzas’). Yet in the fox sequence, there creeps in a small sense of hope:
I’m watching the unknowable, a twenty second glimpse of life that runs contiguous with mine: an auburn dog fox winds across a fresh-ploughed field, each zig and zag determined by some innate sense of purpose, some spoor or hidden trail beyond my dulled perception.
The blank routines of other animals (particularly birds), as here, begin to be granted a kind of contentment in their own nature, and the pattern extends to human life. No one reading The Third History could conclude Phil Kirby believes in sunny uplands, fairy-tale weddings or Brexit unicorns, as so often the book is unrelentingly grim:
However many times the circle is complete, nothing propitious comes; nothing heals (‘Midsummer ‘16’) Above the fence a glorious sky … and a rain cloud I painted – just one – to show that, though my picture was doing its best to make it so, all was not perfect with the world (‘After “Painting the Gate” by May Swenson’) ‘See, Janet. See the boy…’ with scalded scalp, whose father dipped him head first into water freshly boiled – to teach him not to wet the bed. (‘Janet & John’)
These searing images are never gratuitous, in each case making a small gesture towards illumination while acknowledging the darkness: at the close of ‘Janet and John’, for instance, we find “a broad indifferent sky, / so bright it makes itself be seen … and there’s the struggle of the light / to penetrate these rooms”. And in May Swenson’s painted gate, the poet captures a similar ambiguity: “you were about to laugh / at the way I’d splashed about, / drawn this strange world/in which we’d never walk.” The collection as a whole chooses to explore such worlds of darkness, loss and devastation – those anticipating a turn to the sunny uplands will be disappointed – but at the same time, chooses to mark those moments which offer understanding, even a glimmer of hope, with which to address the dark. The close of ‘North Light’, another poem springing from the death of a brother, at first unutterably bleak, concludes with such a glimmer of something else:
No. There’s nothing. To say or be said. Except, perhaps, this – this very lack of memories, this sense of loss; not just of him but of the things that he amounted to, all whitened out, all blank beneath the glare of this north light.
That the collection is so dark might seem off-putting, but that is not the case. Rigorously honest, it deals front and centre with the aspects of life most poets tuck away into one or two of their more contemplative poems, and is all the better for it. Aside from a small tic (deploying pithy word-pairs, such as “beam and trap”, “stalk and stick”, “tug and snag”, a bit too often) The Third History is bracing and salutary. Its achievement is summed up in a single short poem which distils everything to its essence, and stands for the book as whole:
Their Mother’s Lament There is no point in work, no point; no longer any need to fill her useless days with toil: they are gone. All gone. What’s left behind is silence – consuming, eloquent; an absence of sudden laughter and footfall down the stairs; of crying out from dreams or games on their exhausted lawn. The garden is grown large, its drained expanse unfilled. Each pace around the borders measures only emptiness. They are gone. All gone.