Review of ‘Forbidden-by-the-Sea’ by Kathleen Kenny

I am delighted to review this week a poet from that wonderful Scottish poetry publisher, Dreich. I’m a relative latecomer to the readership of Dreich publications, but they have rapidly become one of my favourite publishers. Kathleen Kenny and her Forbidden-by-the-sea is typical of the high quality of its output.

Kenny tells us that this collection is a product of ‘a year spent wrangling with love and life, whilst renting a shore-side cottage within spitting distance of the North Sea.’ A year in a cottage by the seaside sounds idyllic, but Kenny’s focus is on realities rather than on dreams, on the world as we experience it, rather than on the world as we would like it or imagine it to be. It’s not that she doesn’t deal with fantasy, but when she does she shows is to be distracting and destructive. For example, in House Hunting she describes the dream home she would like to inhabit: one that ‘has a private beach/ with His and Hers facilities/ and an inexplicable flotilla/ of tourists sailing past/ with long lens cameras.’ Instead she ends up in a house with ‘newly/ formed holes appearing in the roof// and the front door wrecked with rust/ and all the secret passages bricked up’ and her fantasy ‘takes off in a red Ferrari.’ Dreams are like that, they are insubstantial, and have a tendency to evaporate. If we’re sustained by them, she suggests, we’re bound to be disappointed because we have to live in the real world.

This is true of our relationships too. In A New Man for Doctor Frankenstein she describes the good doctor trying to create the perfect man: ‘I mould him from putty: tweaking, stroking, teasing/ locks of hair.’ The verbs suggest an act of love and the striving for perfection. Yet perfection proves to be impossible: ‘Another fault appears’, ‘the nose is too fat, the lips misaligned’. More than that the real man proves hostile and violent and its creator begins ‘to think it was a mistake’ that his ‘hope for the perfect/ mate will fail.’ Though the poem ends more optimistically, it remains a powerful statement regarding the dangerous seductiveness of fantasies and the limited power we have in making them a reality: a point made again but more humorously in The Donkeys of Tynemouth and Lindos in which she describes the delusion of seaside donkeys who ‘batter their lashes/ like butterflies’ and ‘ dream of knights/ in chain-mail and armour/ coming to their rescue/ on sleek white chargers// with whom they might fall in love.’ The image, ‘Batter their lashes like butterflies,’ conjures an incongruous picture that effectively conveys the absurdity of such romantic fantasies, and makes ‘donkeys’ of all of us who invest our hopes in similar ideas; people such as the ‘old strangers/ in aprons/ with rolls of fat’ in her poem, Street in South Shields, who don ‘dark glasses and Hepburn scarves…searching for succulent lovers/ like starved seagulls scavenging for chips.’ There’s both humour and sadness in these concluding lines that tragically juxtapose movie inspired fantasies with the desperation that informs them. Foolish though they are, we know the women are doomed to fail in their search.

Kenny’s view of the relationships between men and women is frank and unromantic. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in her amusing poem about enduring love, Sunken Treasure.  She compares this mainstay feeling of romantic fiction and poetry as radioactive waste! Yes, you haven’t misread.  Radioactive waste! The image aptly evokes all the conventional qualities of love: the excitement and the thrill (‘effervescent’); the mutual identification (‘fused into one writhing energy’); the belief that it will endure for ever (‘nothing will kill it’). Yet this is no clichéd, stereotypical, romantic love poem. She describes the hearts as ‘gangrened’, they leak ‘spew’, ‘writhe’, ‘grunt’. There is a sense here of a different facet of enduring love: something significantly less attractive, limiting, dangerous even, as suggested in the warning: ‘End of the World. / Do not touch.’ In other poems in the collection she returns to this exploration of relationships, unsurprisingly characterising them as transactional (Blind Date Operetta); deadly (Ms Scorpio and Mr Airhead); and transient (We Will Bury It At Sea and Night-sight).

The same frank perspective extends to Kenny’s descriptions of the environment. Don’t expect idealised landscapes, or romanticised seaside views in this collection as Kenny tells it like it is.  For her the Seaside is both a place to enjoy and to endure. There’s the ‘Whitley Bay rock,’  ‘ice-creams and lollies,/ kiss-me-quick hats,’ ’sand’, ‘bathers’ and ‘bronze life-savers’, but there’s also ‘the fret and the fog’, ‘wasps,’ ‘macs,’ ‘windswept dogs/ and precarious caps.’ Furthermore, her description of a moonlit seafront is a long way from the romantic view one might anticipate from the title, Seafront Moon, focusing as it does on ‘cold green boats’, ‘a dredger…cleaning the river bed’ and ‘a Russian ship is bringing in coals/ while dire boats spume mink champagne’ and ending with the appropriately ironic statement, ‘Such revelling (my emphasis) as I wait alone for nightfall.’

Kenny’s poetry is delightfully frank and authentic but it’s never bleak for throughout the collection there is the thread of a wicked sense of humour. It’s there in her poem The Gibraltar Rock and the Food Cycle which describesthe outcome of the holiday buffet in the following terms: ‘soon to be/ devoured, then piped back out to sea -/ the great gastric feast’s big-job finale.’ It’s there in the wry, epigrammatic Survivor: ‘Every day/ you think about dying/ disease, starvation,/ violence, war, and/ the end of the world// It keeps your mind of things.’ It’s also in the imagery of so many of the poems, softening any harshness in her critical perspective. At times she made me smile in recognition and at other times, laugh out loud.

It’s for these reasons I rate Kathleen Kenny’s poetry highly. She is a poet comfortable with her craft, writing with great economy and with telling effect. This is a collection worth £6 of anyone’s money! Thank you, Dreich, for drawing her wonderful work to my attention.

Kathleen Kenny is a poet and novelist. As well as several published collections she has seen work produced in various anthologies and many poetry magazines. She lives and works in the north east of England, where apart from focusing on her own writing she also runs creative writing workshops for those who take similar delight in experimenting with words and exploring language. You can follow Kathleen on Twitter @KennyKathleen. To purchase a copy of Forbidden-by-the-Sea click here.

Next week fellow OUP member, Ross McGivern, drops in to reflect on a poem from his deeply moving chapbook, Fragments and Stages.

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