The unity of a thing with itself: Laura Kilbride

I picked up Laura Kilbride’s In the square (Punch Press, 2014) several years ago, but a succession of house-moves and other disruptions meant that I hadn’t properly read it until now. Which is my serious loss.

The book fell off the shelf while I was packing for a few days away, and I’ve been reading it obsessively ever since. It’s an extraordinary work: a thousand lines of intense, almost incantatory verse that seem propelled by their own sound-patterns and syntax even as they weave multiple conflicting meanings into a strange symphonic whole. Line after line pulls off the difficult trick of conveying its own necessity — the conviction that these words, and only these words, flow inevitably from the ones before, with an energy, harmony and syntactic strength that tirelessly keep bringing you back for more.

Sustaining a thousand lines of complex, tensely-wrought modernist poetry is a serious technical challenge. The poem uses a loose line with four pronounced stresses, often reinforced with alliteration or assonance, though even in the unadorned lines there’s an echo of the cadence and propulsion of Old English alliterative verse or its slightly freer Middle English descendants. This alternates with interludes of blank verse or a more regular iambic tetrameter, the effect of which is somewhere between a sudden change of speed limit, the clearing of previously-suppressed background noise, or a musical key-change. Where a thousand lines of twenty-first century blank verse or iambic tetrameter would almost certainly sound monotonous, these occasional variations simultaneously bring clarity and dislocation, before plunging us back into that surprisingly-versatile four-stress line, which is here handled so skilfully that it never comes close to feeling repetitive or flabby.

The book is dedicated “to my friends in Italy”, and Italy suffuses the work with a rippling light. Sometimes this is clear from the surface content (“all words lead to rome”; “talks with a roman slur on the corner”; “close on the skin after Umbrian nights”; “Pelizza da Volpedo”), but there’s a subtler sense of layered history and Mediterranean life that gives simple phrases like “the clink of the coffee cups heard from the pavement” or “sleep among ruins” an Italian flavour. The phrase “in the square” or its near-equivalents occur eighteen times in the poem, and for me are repeatedly circling the “piazza x/x” referenced in the opening pages. We are squarely (sic) in the architecture, geography and lifestyle of a kind of cubist-folded, transhistorical Italy where Rome and ruins and contemporary overload coexist. Within this, the work tackles some serious themes: the mediation of knowledge and experience through language; the ways we form meaning; religion and ritual; and the interplay between different time-periods and works of art.

There’s a joyful brilliance in the way the poem uses direct, foregrounded allusion — not the one-upmanship of The Waste Land, but something closer to the serious play of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s late poem “Cordelia”. The assumption that the reader gets the reference is life-affirming rather than exclusionary, and never takes itself too seriously. Hence we get “apparent in the wet black crowd”; “since the siege and the assault was ceased in troy”; “after the headlines read by stony faces”; “the quay bell gently struck”; etc. Meanwhile, every page brims over with sharp combinations of clear thought and concrete detail (“in cloisters of quiet still wet with new rain”; “the cold stone frieze or the last kiss motif”).

This is an extraordinary work: at minimum it deserves to have been reviewed more widely at the time, and I’m already becoming convinced that it’s a thing of genuine significance. There’s not much to be gained from my talking around it at length, so here’s a short extract to give some proxy sense of the whole:

go back to sleep it was only the wind
burning white the lace curtain braced
flush to the wall to the floor to the earth
frameless and world worn leak towards stone
seeping through silk at the ladderless edge
cracking through probable halo or sun
daring to mix up new blue out of Egypt
whim stopping short at a shoulder shrug
above head-height the fish-bone leaf
waves in the wood of an ancient door

This is exceptional writing, and characteristic of the quality of the whole work. Incantatory but precise; brilliant in its sound-play but never allowing itself (or us) to settle into the comfort of unexamined poetic certainties; metrically and syntactically self-renewing.

In the square is still available from the publisher, and I’d urge anyone interested in the leading edge of contemporary poetry to track down a copy and read it, repeatedly.

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