By Frank Kuppner (Carcanet, 2004)
Beware the writers who give you what you want. Like the gregarious person at a party who immediately compliments your shirt, the over-accommodating writer, so pleasing at first, may in fact have nothing much to say. So in reading the poems of Frank Kuppner, whose charm is a very easy one, you may be on your guard. When he has a good line, he isn’t shy about it: “If I weren’t myself, I would like to be Bias of Cyrene,” he writes, “assuming that Bias of Cyrene himself wouldn’t mind, of course.” His wit is effortless to smile at, so you might resist smiling. But what can you do if the author possesses, as Kuppner does, a wit that is tireless, diverse in means, deep in learning, and abundantly delightful?
A God’s Breakfast consists of three fully developed book-length poems containing so many varieties and shades of humorous ingenuity that wariness of his charm must quickly be replaced by amazement at his gift. He also writes with a marathoner’s endurance. The first section of A God’s Breakfast, “The Uninvited Guest,” consists of over a hundred pages of epigrams (one is quoted above) by an unnamed thinker of the classical world, peppered over by annotations from an equally anonymous modern scholar. The set-up allows Kuppner to trace characters and launch subplots that lead to some brilliant and bizarre turns of phrase. These may be lewd: “A little boy walked past me in the street / With scratches all over him. Hmmm. Zeus, I suppose.” Actually, quite a few are lewd, but just as many make for fair philosophy: “What sort of lunatic would worship a stone? / No-one. It must be something else they are worshipping.” By this hodge-podge technique, the epigrams and their commentary gradually form a composite picture of the learned mind, be it classical or contemporary, and how it ceaselessly flickers with doubt, insight, and silliness.
It’s a democratic point of view: One senses in Kuppner a distrust of things deemed special or impressive. He has Juvenal’s instinct, but he applies it at a deeper and almost empathic level. In the second work of the book, “West Åland, or Five Tombeaux for Mr Testoil,” his target is another learned writer, T.S. Eliot. The poem is narrated through Eliot’s droning disembodied voice, as he grapples with his prim Anglicanism, jots down notes on possible rhymes (“we stood together down a deep hole / anguishedly discussing the soul / either that or the sole / near Knole”), and unconsciously channels his own collected works (“so here I sit, an old man with bad teeth”). The tone is unquestionably satirical, but if that were all, it would again be merely what we think we want—to knock Eliot down, to humiliate the mirthless, mincing old poet—and not nearly so satisfying as the actual achievement of Kuppner’s ventriloquism. For every dig Kuppner takes at the master, he allows himself to feel a sad sort of camaraderie. One imagines that if Eliot had just been less lionized, Kuppner would respect him more. So “West Åland” is a corrective; it’s also an assemblage of some lovely and very natural verse. If Eliot had written certain of these lines, there’s no saying if he would have quite been able to throw them away.
In “What Else Is There? 120 Poems,” Kuppner disencumbers himself of the conceits of the previous pages, allowing himself to speak as himself. It’s a freeing switch for the reader as well. The unvarnished Kuppner specializes in humor and metaphysical alienation; his vernacular and down-to-earth attitude is perhaps over-pronounced, but his sureness with the line is moving. The poem “Busy Tram, Löwenbrücke” begins:
All these thousands of people whom one talks to only once. Yes. If even quite that.
A dry hurricane of uniqueness through year after year. Excuse me. And then gone.
Down the roads which only they know.
Kuppner allows the 120 sonnets, dithyrambic meditations, and other varieties of verse to play off each other symphonically, a technique he seems to allude to in the sweet and open final poem, “The Tenth Symphony.” Here, he identifies silence, too, as a vital instrument in all great compositions, and the human urge to locate hope where there is simply the future tense. But Kuppner’s silence in the United States—he is Scottish, and apparently none of his books have been published outside the United Kingdom—has clearly lasted too long. American readers of poetry do not usually shy away from what is plainly wonderful. When will he arrive here?
James Copeland's poems appear in the upcoming issue of 6x6.