The cover image of Hugh Dunkerley’s new poetry collection (Kin, Cinnamon Press, 2019) is of a newborn baby emerging from a birthing pool so I was expecting to read poems about human vulnerability, frailty, pain, the complexities of parenthood, anxiety and joy, among other things, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Poems in the first two thirds of the book explore feelings and experiences to do with pregnancy, birth, parenthood and early childhood from a male perspective. Poems in the voice of a parent, yes, and presumably autobiographical, but also poems that explore the different ways an adult might be a parent, to their own and to other people’s children; poems that engage with childhoods and parenthoods from history, myth and religion, as well as poems that reflect their speakers’ own childhoods and their changing relationships with parents as they become adults and parents themselves.
“When does being begin?” asks the speaker in the prose poem ‘Quickening’, addressing an unborn child:
“I imagine you in the womb, a clutch of cells seething with division, a bud of life opening into spine, tubular heart, nascent limbs.”
The imagined personhood of “you” in contrast to the scientific language describing the foetus, setting up a tension which is framed in several other poems that engage with ideas about life beginning at conception or birth. These poems maintain an objective stance throughout, in the same way that a person who is not in possession of the body that is pregnant might choose not to invest any emotion in a pregnancy before it is confirmed as wanted and secure. At the same time, at the edges of objectivity, is the knowledge that these “cells” have the potential to shape themselves into human life. Thus the language of “cells” “foetus” “DNA” “zygote” merges with “boy” “girl” “son” “daughter” – the poems refusing to pretend that such merging and imagining doesn’t feature in many private and public conversations involving pregnancies.
In ‘The Red Telephone’, the speaker, finding out he is to be a father, holds an old fashioned telephone in his hands:
“I remember buying a telephone,
red, a seventies replica,
on the day your mother told me she was pregnant;
standing in the shop in Bristol
and wondering, selfishly, what would become of my life.”
One thing that will happen to him, the poems in this section reveal, is that the experience of parenthood will herald a means of communicating more far-reaching than the means afforded by a telephone, since parenthood will connect the speaker with his own and deep past, with his own childhood, with long-forgotten memories, with the dead, with nature and evolution, with the future and across time.
“You’re still a long way off,” the speaker says in ‘First Contact’ addressing an unborn child seen on an ultrasound scan, as if he/she is travelling through time and space to be with the waiting parents, its form alien-like, still in flux “…little amphibian/curled in your amniotic pool.” In ‘Evidence’, a child’s handprints on a window connect the speaker to their own prehistoric ancestry and signal that the handprints could, in turn, provide evidence of human existence to an unknown person in the future. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Your handprints on the window
like those paint-blown silhouettes
deep in prehistoric caves
There are echoes, too, of cave dwelling in ‘Pillboxes’ an intense, visceral poem evoking the childhood memory of chancing upon a disused military underground concrete guard house, “pissed in, scrawled with graffiti…” where there is evidence of the building blocks of human DNA although the child in the poem didn’t know this:
Stepping inside, we’d enter a muggy
closeness, the semi-darkness freighted with
odd smells; sheep shit, the acrid scent of old
fires, tramps bedding; wonder at the flaccid
sacks of rubber we found, something
milky clotted in their slack ends.
It’s extremely satisfying to find these echoes and connections between poems and I admire the way the collection has been ordered.
‘Fist’ deals openly and honestly with the sleep-deprived early days of fatherhood “feeling utterly useless and exhausted/after so many sleepless nights/I thumped the wall with my balled fist…” reflecting the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness that many new fathers experience as they struggle to discover what their role is in the life of a days old human. Lovely to contrast the frustration, shame and bewilderment in ‘Fist’ with the tranquillity of ‘Night Drive’, a poem which beautifully captures the realisation that, rather than being worthless, a father and son not doing anything, just being – and being together – is enough:
After three hours of road and noise
and lights strobing your sleeping face,
we’ve come to rest
on the corner of our street,
and with us the world:
the darkened houses,
the motionless cars, an enormous moon
looming over the trees.
Father and baby sit in the car while the mother goes to unlock the house:
the only voices are the elms’,
their leafy whisperings
moving like a conversation,
from tree to tree.
The poem reminded me of a phrase I once read by the Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu, which acknowledges the importance of not doing – don’t just do something, sit there.
There are a couple of times when poems in the first section of the book tip into overwriting and sentimentality but it would take a reader with a harder heart than mine to criticise this in a collection dedicated to the poet’s young son. In any case, a small amount of sugar is more than compensated for with many sustaining lines and poems and Dunkerley is especially strong in his shortest poems which skilfully deliver viscerally-affecting experiences with impressive economy.
The first section ends with ‘Nuclear Dreams’, a three part poem documenting three incidences when world safety was compromised by nuclear technology and ‘Referendum’, a poem which recalls a sleepless stormy night when the UK voted to leave the European Union.
The second section of the book is called ‘Anatomy of a Breakdown’ and Dunkerley’s writing becomes riskier and more experimental, to brilliant effect, as we are transported to more troubled times. A sequence of seven poems in this section confronts both mental disorder and climate breakdown. It is no longer possible to sit doing nothing with your baby son while your wife unlocks the house. In ‘Dread’ the stark reality of climate change and the startling shift in the world’s political climate, the breakdown of the old world order of things, is unavoidable. Here’s the poem in full:
Somehow the present is never enough,
the scoured sky,
the green tree of now
translucent with seeing.
Instead the racketing mind
must keep putting its eye to that keyhole
which it imagines is the future
and which is always dark with becoming.
This poem articulates the dread and fear so present in conversations I’ve had with so many people ever since the EU Referendum result and the election of Donald Trump. The optimism of earlier poems, fingerprints on windows, evidence of life, signs of evolution in caves, smells and textures of earthy sexuality is swamped by unarguable scientific data and facts. “ninety-nine point nine per cent/of species/that ever lived/are gone…” (‘Losing it in the Natural History Museum’). Exquisite patterns and orchestrated movement in the solar system, viewed through a telescope, are proof to some of the presence of God, but to others further evidence of our planet’s impending destruction: “…billions of tons/bowling, untethered, through nothingness.” (‘Telescopic’). If the beauty of the natural world ever reinforced a person’s religious faith, the approaching ruination of earth, its species and natural phenomena is now tested, as exemplified in ‘Prayer’, a chillingly imaginative re-working of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our father, who art in hiding,
harrowed by thy name,
thy kingdom gone, thy will be undone,
on earth as it is.
This sequence, which also includes a praise poem to medication which treats insomnia and anxiety disorder and a brutally vivid poem about mental illness soothed by a sleeping pill, indicates that Dunkerley is a writer who is unafraid to break new ground and gamble with form and material. These poems make me feel excited for Dunkerley’s work to come.
This varied, authentic and thought-provoking collection closes with two poems movingly placed side by side – ‘Song’ a gorgeous memory of the poet’s father and ‘Ode to Ted’, a joyful love poem to the poet’s young son. Ultimately, this is a hopeful book grounded in realism. I shall return to it many times.
Kin is published by Cinnmon Press and is available to order here. Hugh Dunkerley is Reader in Creative Writing and Contemporary Poetry at The University of Chichester, where he runs the MA in Creative Writing. He has a particular interest in environmentalism and ecocriticism. His chapbook, Walking to the Fire Tower (Redbeck Press), came out in 1997 and Fast (Pighog Press) was published in 2007. His first full collection, Hare came out in 2010.