Full Disclosure: I’ve met Jo a bunch of times, she’s excellent people and her constant support of my writing is greatly valued. She also chaired the panel I was on at the Sabotage Awards; I can only assure you this’ll be the last time I bang on about that time I won a thing.
Review: Kith appears in the wake of Bell’s 52 project, a year-long community of five hundred poets centred around weekly writing prompts. 52 took the Sabotage Award for best one-off event, and not without good reason; the sheer scope of the project (which eventually had to turn people away, such was the demand) and its underlying message – poetry is something you can do, now and in the future: look, here are hundreds of people who agree – should not be downplayed. The project shows a hell of a lot of people will write poems, given the chance, that doing so is a skill that often needs only the slightest encouragement to become something weird and valuable. In interviews Bell has commended Carol Ann Duffy’s work as an ‘ambassador’; given Duffy’s appearance as a blurbist for Kith, I think it’s fair to assume she provides one model for Bell’s writing practice.
All of which is relevant, I think, to the ideas at the heart of Kith, which in a post on Sarah Jasmon’s blog Bell defines as ‘the opposite of kin’, ‘a self-made mesh of love affairs, near-strangers, lifestyle companions and lifelong friends’. Self-made, in the above context, is particularly important. The poems in Kith almost obsessively return to themselves, push back against potentially compromising forces; their willingness or determination to say no, their clear sense of who is unwelcome in the tribe (which in a great many poems is a tribe of one), is just as keenly felt as those who are admitted with an open heart. For all that, Kith is overwhelmingly a warm and sharp-witted collection; while I’ve doubts about the quality of Duffy and Armitage’s recent output, Bell shares many of the qualities of their early work, particularly in their light touch and clear communication, and has keener self-awareness, I think, an active willingness to deflate her own poetic authority.
The poems themselves kind of wrong-foot any promotional bumf I could find on the book, in that while sex is certainly the vehicle in several poems, it’s the tenor only rarely; many such poems are more interested in a shared, preserved moment, like the beautifully gentle ‘Whales’:
‘Naked, out of bed and both surprised to find ourselves
standing at all, we lean together. These are clearer waters
than the day can offer us.’
For all the apparently straightforward language, the dynamics in these poems are against the norm. They insist on framing such relationships as even-handed, well-matched, and strongly reject situations where such an understanding is absent, as in ‘Eve naming the birds’ or ‘Talking to myself’, a one-sentence poem moving from idealisation to unpleasant realisation, and ending in the one-word line ‘leave.’ ‘Given’, ‘Cuntstruck’, ‘Beginnings’ and ‘First, cause no harm’ are all clear-sighted poems of experience, which see – in terms that still manage to be humanising and engaged, ‘We made a travellers’ pact to go wherever water let us pass, / together until each stood in the other’s way’ – all the pieces on the board. It maybe shouldn’t be that shocking to find a healthy attitude to sex in contemporary poetry, but contemporary poetry has a way of reminding us what an uphill battle there’s still to be had. What’s remarkable about Kith is how normal all this feels, how little of a deal it should be to demand respect from one’s partner, and, vitally, respect for how one represents this artistically.
As a mostly-aside, the poem ‘Fair play’ (published here by B O D Y Lit) is a weird anomaly in this regard. Here’s the opening stanza:
‘Men, believe me. If in doubt, just
look her in the eye and say I want to fuck you.
It will work one time in three.’
I’ve no doubt the tongue’s in cheek here, but this is pretty blunt advice. The following stanzas make it clear the speaker is referring to herself, but its framing as a generally applicable tenet is deeply questionable. The implied interchangeability of the object of desire (just try twice more!) runs counter to the vital specificity of the other poems’ lovers, and introduces an unappetising market-forces attitude to finding a partner. Again, the good work done by the rest of the book argues that there’s some explanatory context here, but it’s missing from the text of the poem, and leaves ‘Fair play’ as close to outright cynicism as Kith gets.
For all the book’s promotional bumf tends to give primacy to these poems (‘Love, sex, boats and friendship’, begins the blurb), Kith seems at least as comfortable in its more contemplative modes, when the practicalities of canal life are allowed to sit still long enough to take on some new aspect. The nine lines of ‘Severn, from Purton’ seem plain enough on a cursory glance, but they do extraordinary work in harnessing the experience of guiding a small and low-powered vessel along the island’s longest river to being in love, by way of Sonnet 116:
‘this fluid strength is what we borrow,
what we lean against when love inhabits us.
It alters when it alteration finds, alright
and so it should. There is no ever fixèd mark.
The bark’s the thing: the dot that battles tides
and if the river lets it, makes its small unlikely win.’
Shakespeare might have been emotionally hyper-aware but he was a tad prescriptive. This poem embraces such variousness, the needful negative capabilities. Incidentally, the opening line ‘Don’t take my lightness lightly’ could be a keyphrase for Bell’s aesthetic.
The book’s opener, ‘Crates’, is its own Donaghy-ish magic trick, somewhere between the teacher’s pay attention and the magician’s nothing up my sleeve: ‘Observe that when I speak of crates / your mind supplies one straight away’. The following stanzas describe with uncanny accuracy what springs to mind – ‘the fruiterer’s crate: / a shallow slatted box of rain-napped pine’, ‘the sturdy plastic tub / of the eco-minded council’. Et voilà, the final stanza:
‘Your crate exists as soon as it is thought.
Its shape is shown in speaking of it.
Now, let us speak of love.’
The poem has clearly thought long and hard about the direct physical experience of reading, about what can be achieved by creating this kind of direct address and shared space. And the conclusion isn’t just a neat touch; it emphasises that although the following stories are explicitly personal, they carry more than a simply journalistic import. The love you think of when prompted by the poem is every bit as legitimate as the magical crate, and that’s before you get into the ways the book puns on that first ‘crate’: as boat, as house, even as stanza. Maybe.
In a similar vein, ‘Lifted’ is maybe my favourite poem in the book, and if anyone’s thinking of putting together an anthology of self-care poems, it has to be a contender. The premise is simple but convincing, examining the mechanics of a water-lift:
‘All water wants, all water ever wants,
is to fall. So, we use the fall to lift us’
It’s in a similar conceptual mode to ‘Severn…’, acknowledging difficulty and struggle but ultimately trusting in some large and ungraspable ideas. Maybe it’s me being a massive softheaded polyanna but the closing lines get me something fierce:
‘Wait, then, for the shudder in the gate,
the backward-drifting boat that tells you
there and here are equal, an imbalance
righted. Ask of water; help me rise
and water says: I will.’
Kith makes this attempt to speak as straightforwardly as possible about some pretty deep stuff, which is laudable enough in its own right; it’s easy to imagine such poems in less careful hands turning to conventional wisdoms or dead-white-dude-endorsed authoritativeness. (Not that this plain-spokenness doesn’t occasionally stray into self-parody; ‘Silbury Hill’’s ‘our northern pre-historic strongholds are better than your fancy southern megaliths’ has a bit of the Monty Python about it, however genuine the archaeological basis.) Bell’s first principle, I think, is to build common ground, to establish some firm footing for the book’s more ambitious pieces to leap off from. As the 52 project showed, accessibility and ease of communication are valuable and difficult skills; Kith, I think, argues that they are not an impediment to excellent poems.
Tl;dr: If you’re trying to get non-poem pals into poems, Kith’s a dang fine place to start.