‘Misericord’ Kevin Bailey
‘I have become my own myth, the season’s wanderer
never finding sanctuary until love and home find me.’
‘Misericord or ‘The Strange Poetry of Kevin Bailey’ is the new collection by the founder, editor and publisher of ‘HQ Poetry Quarterly’, a magazine which has itself been a model of consistency and quality for over thirty years, publishing, among many others of note, Al Alvarez, D M Thomas, Andrew Motion, David Gascoyne and Christopher Fry. It is also his first collection for fourteen years. It is therefore almost inevitable that ‘Misericord’ (helpfully defined on the acknowledgements page as ‘Apartment in a monastery in which some indulgencies were permitted’) should be well-written, well-constructed and well-presented, and even a few poems that might not have made the cut in a tighter edit are never less than professional and always have something to say.
If Bailey’s poetry in any way is strange, as the book’s subtitle invites us to believe, that strangeness lies in the fact that he seems simultaneously and effortlessly (one is even moved to wonder whether to add unselfconsciously) to be able to inhabit several different worlds – or maybe see the same world through markedly different sets of eyes. He invokes classical myth and Christian symbolism without any sense of there being a difference between the two; he sees the transience of that which has permanence –
through the neck
of an hour-glass.
Dawn; une horloge qui ne sonne pas –
a clock that never strikes…
and contrasts it with the immediacy and enduring truth of erotic love –
‘From your dressing gown
a breast casually escapes.
I am drawn to its softness and flow.
A Zen-like movement…
It is frog weather: fish weather.
Your breast has made the leap.
from ‘Wet Sunday’
His acknowledged influences include Sappho, Matisse, ‘The Tempest’, Stanley Kubrick and Thomas Hardy; the influences I myself became aware of during the first reading included Edward Thomas, Ray Bradbury, Pierre Bonnard, Thomas Gray and Krzysztof Kieslowski – and I’m sure there are plenty more. But whether a poem quietly evokes a domestic scene or is emboldened to paraphrase history or myth, the eye is unblinking, the imagery precise and unforced – a precision that owes much to classical Japanese poetry; and it is with a sense of recognition rather than surprise that we look back at Bailey’s previous publications and realise that he was co-editor, with Lucien Stryk, of ‘The Acorn Book of Contemporary Haiku’ in 2000. It is easy to imitate haiku, harder perhaps to be beneficially influenced by it –
‘From the back
You are a rush of quick legs
open coat and clopping heels
down the walled flagstone path
that slopes erratically
to the sea…
It begins to rain. The cool
sweet scent sets love adrift
but passions, readied,
cast wide their net…’
from ‘Salutatio Beatricis’
and harder still to paint a scene and simultaneously give it imagery and movement –
‘Louise has filled the white enamel bath…
On a cork-topped stool, a brown paper
bag of little oranges tears open: the floor
is scattered with setting suns.’
from ‘The Bath’
There is no poet, surely, who does not juxtapose the past and the present; in fact, very few individual poems that do not in some respect contain elements of then and now. But the future – well, that’s a different thing. I would not be the first reviewer to regard science-fiction poetry with suspicion, if not outright disdain, and yet I am particularly impressed with Bailey’s take on the genre. ‘Miss Shapley’s Poem’, in six parts over five pages, is by far the longest piece in the book and is a small masterpiece of construction, imagery and erudition, none of which are allowed to overwhelm the graceful control of the verse:
‘I ride the tube to the Gardens of Hellas – past solar farms
sparking shards of light – their snug order, partly obscured
by sprites of sand – tall vortices in a bland desolation –
almost alive… I long for green sward…
We pull in with the kind of hiss I remember from old films.
Night; the concertina doors of a bus opening suddenly…
A bee passes my ear as I vacate the carriage. Unexpected
in a carbon-fibre station – the dark hub centering π2 km
of fertile diversity, all enclosed in sky-high domes,
clouded (like back home) – but bottled-up; un-wandering
over orchards, fields, and patches of more exotic fare,
tended, and intended, to keep us healthy… and sane.’
‘Misericord’ is a book containing many fine things, a Palace of Varieties containing within its sixty-six pages a multitude of (mainly successful) attempts to render Kevin Bailey’s poetic world complete. Although I appreciate that in a crowded market writers and publishers want to find a title that makes their book stand out, I do feel that a much better and certainly more accurate title, bland though it might seem, would have been ‘New & Selected Poems’. It would certainly better prepare the reader for what is neither strange nor monastical, but simply extremely varied and exceptionally good.
‘I have seen the graves. I have seen
the flat stones covering the dead
and lizards basking on their names,
warm and quiet in all this radiance
out of the blue. The only movement,
a cat washing in the marbled shade.’
from ‘Orta San Guilio – A Triptych’
Michael Paul Hogan
Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the US, UK, India and China. His most recent collection, Chinese Bolero, illustrated by the painter Li Bin, was published in 2015.