Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat

Kit Kelen, Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems (UWAP 2018)

As I think about this book of poetry, the word ‘immersive’ comes to mind.

‘Hardanger’ in the subtitle is not an uncompromisingly hostile state of mind but a place, the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, where Kit Kelen evidently spent some time and, it seems, let the place generate poems in him.

These lines appear on the book’s title page:

the forest is the poor man's coat
keeps off the worst wind's bite

step in – let other worlds elapse
follow the trail of light

They offer an explanation and an invitation. The first line explains the title in what sounds like a folk saying, which in another context could be a lament for the poor man’s exposure to the elements, but here asserts that forest provides protection. We are invited to step into the book, as into a forest, for an alternative to whatever other worlds we inhabit. The book is offered to us as respite. That’s where my sense of immersion comes in: poem after poem offer glimpses of restorative calm, mostly in the Norwegian landscape. It’s the closest thing I’ve found in a book to walking in the bush.

Not that it’s all cosy, and far from humourless. As in ‘sweet’ (page 100):

sit zazen
and you'll draw mosquitoes
from the thinnest air

There are poems about death as well as poems describing the view of the fjord from a mountain top; poems of autumn and winter as well as summer; a lot of rain. The poet spends time in the small town of Ålvik, visits museums in larger centres, and riffs on the gravestones in a local cemetery. There’s often a sense of language not being quite up to capturing the experience of being in nature: sentences trail off, though we usually more or less know how they would have ended; or they miss their opening words. It often feels easy, throwaway, as if the poem just happened, the thought or feeling or spectacle effortlessly caught on the wing. But, of course, that’s the apparent ease of a virtuoso.

Though these are overwhelmingly poems that respond to a place, I found myself brooding on the small section of ekphrastic poems – that is, poems responding to paintings. They raise the interesting question: can you really appreciate such a poem if you haven’t seen the painting it refers to? Like the poems of place, there are three elements present when you read the poem: the words on the page, you the reader, the place or work or even referred to – and the ghost of the poet who put the words together. With poems of place, at least the ones in this book, you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the poem. (Just like you don’t need to have been in love to enjoy Robert Burns’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’.). Take the poem ‘the fjord like laid paper’, whose title doubles as its first line, which begins:

the fjord like laid paper

a ship rules a line
the only thing straight
in all the world turning

If you’ve stood and looked out at the fjord on such a calm day, you will read that differently from someone – like me – who has never been to Norway. For me, it primarily conjures up an image; for you, perhaps, the main thing is the simile/metaphor. Either way, the effect of the poem is to bring a vivid image of the fjord to mind, and I don’t feel any need to fly to Norway in order to understand the poem. (I do feel an impulse to go and see the places for myself, but that’s a different matter.)

When the subject s a painting, though, it’s a bit different. Take ‘Cowshed Courting’ (page 148), which refers to a 1904 painting by Nikolai Astrup that hangs in the Bergen Museum:

If you read this without seeing the painting, you’re left pretty much groping in the dark. I’m grateful that Kelen has named the painting in his title rather than calling the poem something like ‘After Astrup’, and I’m grateful for the internet, because it was no trouble at all to find an image of the painting online.

The opening lines have typical Kit-Kelen syntax:

fin de siècle light they caught then
we still breathe – it's unnatural

A conventional phrasing might be, ‘They caught a fin de siècle light then, which we still breathe, even though it’s unnatural.’ But the syntax serves a purpose: it reflects the process of seeing the painting. You begin with a general impression to do with the quality of the light, which makes you realise that this painting belongs to a particular era (fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century); next you have a sense of the painters of that time – no more specific than ‘they’, because after all this isn’t an art history essay; but having seen it as belonging to its own time, you realise that this painterly light still feels to us as familiar as the air we breathe – familiar but all the same artificial / ‘unnatural’.

The artifice has a purpose, as the viewer’s eye finds the figures on the left, and the brightest spot of colour in the image:

the colour's captured
a passion in the cowshed
rose cheeks and have you in my arms
deep pockets of brandy for inspiration

From the woman’s cheeks, the eyes travel over the figures. The poet projects himself into the image, identifying with the male figure and reading the bottles in his pocket as ‘inspiration’. (A different viewer might see those bottles in a less benign light, but that’s not this poem, or at least not foregrounded here.)

Then we’re taken on a tour:

never mind the pong
someone's peeping from the loft

A vague look to the right of the courting couple – yes, we notice that there are steaming heaps of cow poo all over the floor of the shed. Then we travel clockwise up to the top of the frame, and oh, there’s a creepy voyeur – a peeping tom – unnoticed until now. If the poem was a sonnet, this would be the volta, the turn. A poet less sure of his effects might have inserted a line space here, to mark the discord. But we move on without comment:

no glass but spring shines through the window
past which dung's piled – verdure and ordure

Only now do we come to the geometric focus of the painting, the window through which we can see a dung heap and beyond it some vague greenery. This is the source of that light we first noticed, and there’s an ambivalence to it: dung and greenery, ponginess and light. The assonance (if that’s the word) of ‘verdure and ordure’ reminds us that these things are intimately connected.

Our eyes travel down to rest on the middle of the image – the row of cows’ rear ends, and the unswept floor.

hear it ringing from the rear of each
and the floor steams unswept

Astrup doesn’t show the cows decorating the floor (surely ‘ringing’ is the politest term ever used for the sound of cows shitting), but Kelen gives us an aural equivalent what he shows, just as the earlier ‘pong’ has given us an olfactory one.

In the last line, our eyes travel back to the figures:

days are barefoot now

There’s a sense of completion as the poem finishes its circuit of the painting, from the woman’s cheek to her feet. With characteristic apparent ease, it has introduced a number of pairings: the pong and the ringing; the passion and the peeping; the verdure and ordure; the man fortified with brandy and the woman barefoot and vulnerable; then and now. That last pairing has a lovely complexity to it: in the opening lines, ‘then’ is the time of Astrup and ‘still’ is our time; ‘now’ in the emphatic position as the poem’s last word may refer to the changing seasons implied by the mention of spring in line 9, or it may again be contrasting the time of the painting with modern times when courting doesn’t have to happen in secret in cowsheds, but the whole day – the world outside the window – can be barefoot, open to intimacy.

The poem has made me look closely at the painting, and I may well read it differently from Kelen. In fact, by naming the peeper and then moving on quickly, the poem almost invites an argument. But in Kelen’s reading, or at least in my reading of Kelen’s reading, the painting, and so the poem, celebrate the way love can thrive in unlikely circumstances, and not be tarnished by prurient attention to it. The peeping tom is noticed and then ignored. The dung helps the greenery to grow. The poem gives shelter from ‘winter’s worst bite’. I don’t know that I could have understood any of that from the poem without reading it with the image open beside it.

Having written all that, I really should show you the image as well:

(From alamy.com)

One response to “Kit Kelen’s Poor Man’s Coat

  1. Sounds reasonable to me, JS – and thanks for the image!

    Liked by 2 people

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