One poem I didn’t write about in my review of The Best British Poetry 2011 was Hennecker’s Ditch by Katharine Kilalea, and perhaps that’s just as well, as Don Share has just posted a fascinating reading of it at the Carcanet New Poetries blog, a better way of reading it than I would have managed. The text of the poem is also at the link and, although it’s long, it’s well worth taking time to read it.
I read it a couple of times when going through the anthology and felt taken aback. I had read (indeed, had reviewed) her first collection, One Eye’d Leigh and had liked it a lot, but I didn’t remember it containing anything quite in this mould. It felt like a step forward rather than a repeat of what she’d already done. There was so much going on, so much that wasn’t obvious, that I mentally filed it under Go Back to Read Again Later. I now have done and am intrigued, as I often am, to reflect on why I can enjoy a poem when I don’t understand much of what’s actually happening in it. Each phrase is in itself entirely clear – nothing muggy or vague about them – and the syntax is relatively standard. But the poem doesn’t occupy a linear time-scheme and it took a few reads before details of the world it creates began to map themselves in my head. So what makes the poem so effective?
Partly it must be memorable lines and images (“the trees walk backwards into the dark”, “the washing machine shook so badly/ that a man asleep four floors down reached out to hold it”), partly the sound, rhythm and the music Don Share mentions. The language, with its shifting tones, is is never predictable – the first section alone contains the lyrical “pages of a book/whose words suddenly start to swim”, the informal “Wow. The rain”, the strange “Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train”, and the consciously poetic, “Dear Circus...the painèd months are coming for us”. Perhaps, also, it feels like I am being taken to a half-lit world and shown something beautiful, haunting, and intimate, and then I’m left there to build my associations at first hand – the dark, the many different kinds of light that emerge, the trees and coastline, the human relationship(s), the bath and water, the dog, the moon, the different winds, the bakery, the house and the surrounding houses and gardens, the curious addresses to the Circus. Some obscure poems send me to sleep. Nothing about them draws me in, but the world of Kilalea’s poem feels like a place I am happy to spend time in.
You can hear her read part of the poem here on YouTube (where it's called 'Dear Circus'). You can read the full poem online at the link above or on paper in New Poetries V or in The Best British Poetry 2011.