REVIEW by Jacqui Kenton21/08/2012
The Prince of Wails
by Stephen Knight
Stephen Knight’s latest collection of poetry is strung between these themes: the loss of the poet’s father and the former’s own late parenthood. And yet, as in the first, untitled, poem of the collection which is printed before the contents page, Stephen Knight himself seems strangely absent. It is as if his relatives meet up because of him but in spite of him, leaving him alone:
Dad somehow meets my daughter
When she is tall and he is back...
...Did I turn
To register an alteration of the light
Then drop at my feet that bedtime book
I was reading aloud, into space?
It is this sense of loneliness, absence and loss which pervades the collection. The author/narrator – and it does seem to be the one voice throughout the poems – is very aware of his own apparently diluted sense of self. In the poem, ‘The Nightingale Standard’, he is a helpless patient being managed by a super efficient nurse. He makes no choices except that of the words on the page – ‘rescue me’, it ends. And in the wonderful ‘Benthills Notebook’, it looks as if he has no faith in his own words anyway:
My notebooks full of rubbish – metaphors
Emptier than all my eight rooms’ empty drawers
He quotes Joseph Brodsky in ‘So Early in the Year’, saying that ‘there should be no continuum of anything... no life is meant to be preserved.’ And one does get this great sense of emptiness from Knight’s work. Even in a life well lived and full of incident – as in ‘50 Second Life’, – Knight manages to wrap it up in fifty seconds – less if you want. Or you can use his ‘Tick-Box Life’ method. Delete the options as appropriate.
And yet the collection is not nihilistic, as Knight knows what the great Thomas Hardy (who he references) knew all too well in his poetry: that the lacunae in life are so powerful that they become real in their turn. They even become more real than the reality around us. So Knight’s collection becomes full of the other reality, one that has the power to move, and to hurt, far more that this brief span. In ‘Mythologies’, with its quotation from Bachelard on the past, the narrator’s spirit wanders through an old home he once owned. The ‘in memoriam’ rhythms of ‘In ‘Lost Things’ are beautiful:
But if the dead return for one last look around
The house they used to own way back...
Let them linger for a while...
If only they knew how everything vanished, like rings
From off their fingers... There – those fingers,
Whose fingers: those of his children? Fingers re-incarnated through the years? For a collection pervaded by absence, hands, fingers and touching are recurring themes. The act of touch stands out in a collection where the narrator seems to stand alone.
The Prince of Wails
is saved from being solely about sadness and loss by a plucky sense of irony and wit. It is on occasion like listening to a Morrissey song. Remember the seaside town they forgot to close down (said to be Borth)? You will find the same sentiment in ‘Benthills Notebook’ or ‘The End of Mumbles Pier’:
– However slow
They are, days pass
And, every night,
Looking for a ball
Lost in the long grass
Thirty years ago,
The lighthouse light
Finds nothing at all
If you are of an age to get Knight’s 50-60s growing up references (Patrick Troughton, coal bunkers, The Light Programme or Johnnie Ray, singer of Prince of Wails) you will admire the poet’s wry humour. But there is always a sense of the narrator looking in on the ordinary things of life, as in ‘Thank You for Having Me’, the official opening poem which depicts an evening rush hour. It leaves one with the sense of no one having engaged with you. You are not part of this world. The narrator is clearly taking home a child whom he straps into the car to return home and yet he is still disengaged.
Knight’s poems to and about his children, for example, ‘Why You Cannot Go Downstairs’, will strike a chord with many parents. But one does get more of the sense of an ending, rather than a future with this next generation, a sense which is probably heightened by the poet’s own age as a late parent.
The collection ends with a quite separate piece – ‘99 Poems’. This is a paean to Knight’s father, a moving tribute in many accents and voices to his death. Part dialect, part epic poem, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, it rounds off the collection but leaves you in no doubt that Knight’s sense of loss is greater than the here and now, or indeed the future:
Here rests a gentle Man, whose modest Heart
Here shall he rest for evermo
His dreaming eyes, his brow in touch
His hat still on the peg. His shoes lined up
His watch-face like a skating rink....
previous review: The Coward’s Tale
next review: The Red House