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Luke Kennard’s ‘Planet-Shaped Horse’: Review

Luke Kennard / Planet-Shaped Horse

£5.00 / Nine Arches Press / ISBN: 978-0-9565514-5-0

Read the first four poems here.

There are, to an extent, two layers to Planet-Shaped Horse, and so it is appropriate to talk about it in two parts. This will probably seem unfair, since, at least as far as I am concerned, all the really interesting bits are in the second part, but hopefully the scheme will become clear & be useful. I can try to justify this division into layers with the words of the poet himself, talking about the pamphlet:

It’s about a man who is in a halfway house between a psychiatric unit and being allowed to go back into ordinary life again. […] It is also about […] calling yourself a writer and expecting people to be interested automatically.

The two layers are best stated as: “about” / “also about”. On the surface, Planet-Shaped Horse is “about a man who is in a halfway house” (& reviews of the pamphlet elsewhere — see links below — discuss it purely in terms of this narrative). The subtext running beneath is a struggle with questions of what it means to be a writer & how one expects others to respond to this. As Kennard’s “also” implies, the relationship between the two is not of shell & kernel, but instead both are equivocally tangled together, creating an engaging & unhinged, hilarious & melancholic collection of poems.

First of all, then, Planet-Shaped Horse is a “poem-play”, as the blurb tells us, following events from the perspective of Client 1764 as he stays in Fouracres Halfway House with his two case workers, Miranda & Simon. The plot is simple but immersive, & Kennard gives life to Miranda & Simon despite the unreliable narrator, whose uncertain grasp upon reality encourages reading the poems as part of a sequence to assemble the jigsaw of the narrative. His style is engaging immediately for its wit (in both senses of the word), & Planet-Shaped Horse is uncommonly amusing. Kennard’s live performances (such as this one) are very funny, & it seems his poetry, with its absurd observations & one-liners, owes a debt to stand-up comedy. Within the madness & humour it also succeeds in being genuinely affecting, such as in ‘More Sad News From Your Stupid Planet’, which turns on the lines:

Everything has been so, so wonderful today
I think I will drink some poison and not be killed by it,
but then it’s back to the A&E for grim smiles, clipboards,
ammonia smell, green walls, machines.

As the speaker remarks in ‘True Story Of My Own Death #2’, Planet-Shaped Horse is “funny and perhaps also not funny at all”, as it treads that sharp line in the middle of irony, with comedy on the one side & tragedy on the other. It is the middle-ground arising from the difficulty of distinguishing between “an elaborate double-bluff or an elaborate/triple-bluff” (‘Two Hermits’). For the sheer strength of this emotional bind Planet-Shaped Horse deserves high praise.

There is, alongside this narrative, a clear subtext. With comedy & madness, the pamphlet rotates around its central theme: of the writer. In Planet-Shaped Horse, the comic, the writer & the madman are united by their refusal or inability to observe distinctions over different realities, or to privilege one reality over another. (There is something of ‘pataphysics in this idea.) It arises from the fiction-making that is inherent in language, especially with language’s (& thought’s) use of metaphor as one of its fundamental building blocks, as has been theorised from Vico onwards. Kennard uses the pamphlet’s epigraph, which contains a simile of enough vibrancy to threaten its didactic purpose, to suggest this idea:

The monks praised a brother to Antony. Antony went to him and tested him to see if he could endure being insulted. When he saw that he could not bear it, he said to him, ‘You are like a house with a highly decorated outside, but burglars have stolen all the furniture by the back door.’

The narrator’s outlandish metaphors & similes are the result of his inability to resist the realities that his language can create. The clearest example of this is in ‘More Sad News From Your Sad Planet’:

If you said, Herman is the best mountain climber I’ve ever met,

I’d secretly resent Herman. So what am I? Chopped liver?
Am I some chopped liver trying to climb a mountain?
Flubbing onto the snowy rocks and partially freezing
on the underside? Picked at by huskies? Mountain doves?

The fiction-making tendency of common speech is exaggerated, stretched out by a madman. It is funny, & not unlike something from a comedian like Stewart Lee. The similarity between fiction-making (as writing) & jokes is recognised in the poems frequently, with references to jokes & how others respond to them. Jokes are a common parallel to writing for Kennard, as they provide a simplified model for the audience’s response: either they laugh or they don’t. More importantly, however, the madman, with his over-enthusiastic attachment to his own thoughts/fictions, is specifically likened to a writer. This link is made overtly, as Client 1764 has published “a collection of short stories”. Similarly, thoughts & writing are generally found together in the sequence’s metaphorical structure; for instance, ‘Pilgrimage’ begins:

The mind is a pen without a lid
left on someone else’s duvet.

The narrator’s thoughts, which constitute the poems & which, within the poems, are regularly ‘published’ to the other characters, are the interest of all the other characters in the narrative because they are treating his madness. They are a captive audience with a specific interest in the narrator’s thoughts, but, unsettlingly for the writer, their desire is generally to restrain them (although Miranda’s stance is not so clear). Doctors are figures in Planet-Shaped Horse who, with their fast cars & wasteful attitude towards jelly, view writing from a purely economic perspective; for instance, the psychiatrist behind the ‘Case Notes’ which start the sequence breaks out of his impersonal style to ask: “And for what? Does book even sell?”. From this perspective, writing, since it is generally without monetary value, is an “aberration” to be cured. A writer whose books are not popular is no different from a madman.

It is clear, then, that writing itself is the subject of the poem, & the space of the sequence becomes the area in which this exploration takes place, as the characters, the landscape, & the poems themselves are aware of their own artifice. This appears subtly, as when minks are described as “apostrophes”(Mink Farm), or when Simon suggests that the narrator adds “something mundane”(Crumb Tray) whilst doing something mundane, or when Simon tells the narrator to “start thinking about wrapping it up”(Eyes) as the pamphlet nears the end. This also often appears stark obviously, with a big grin, such as in the first stanza of ‘Crumb Tray’:

Miranda stands on the jetty knocking tennis balls into Lake Sensible.
She is wearing an Edwardian swimming costume, off-set with a
jewel-encrusted moth brooch,

This self-awareness & artifice goes to the extent that the entire landscape around Fouracres Halfway House is an art project, created from “felt”, “wire wool” and “suspended craft knives”(Time Capsule). These gestures give the subtext more strength than just a theme, becoming instead an equally valid part of the sequence’s reality. A cynic could accuse Kennard of Postmodernist box-ticking here, with the reference to Borges (albeit self-deprecatingly), & the general whiff of Baudrillard’s presence. However, this self-awareness enables the equivocal tangle of the narrative & the subtext mentioned at the start of this review.

Writers have a tendency to write often about writing, & there is a danger of it becoming tiresome quite quickly. Luke Kennard manages to explore this in an entirely new direction, without submitting to anything without involving multiple dimensions. It is a masterful collection, & a dazzling & slightly exhausting display of what can be done with two dozen prose-poems. As can be seen by the length & passing incoherence of this review, Planet-Shaped Horse is the single most exciting piece of contemporary poetry I have read in months.

LINKS (in no particular order):

The student newspaper at Birmingham University (where Kennard lectures) has a slightly dull review of Planet-Shaped Horse, as well as an interview with the poet. 3AM magazine has a more comprehensive interview, discussing much of Kennard’s work up to the present, & starting with a great big photo of his face. Sabotage has a review of Planet-Shaped Horse by Alex Campbell.

On his own blog, Luke Kennard has posted ‘bonus content’ for Planet-Shaped Horse, including, best of all, one of Client 1764’s short stories. I very much like the idea of bonus content for books; it seems a good way of rewarding interested readers.