Edinburgh International Book Festival
19th August 2015
The position of religion has shifted over the decades. It is no longer comfortably respectable, it is no longer part of the cultural landscape of the vast majority of the population, a building with a spire is as likely to be a discount carpet warehouse as a church. Religion has been marginalised to an extent, but in some places it has had a startling resurgence – in the West it pickets abortion clinics, in the East it smashes heritage sites and decapitates people. But hold on, isn’t that a simplistic, headline, sound-bite, knee-jerk way of looking at it?
Take the Bible for example, favourite mocking ground of thread-commenters in The Guardian – it is still as much one of the corner stones of our literacy as it ever was, you can even say the influence of the King James Version was one of the major factors why the Scots language failed to establish itself in our own country, gravitating instead closer to its English sister. It is, if nothing else, a repository of stories, language, names, and poetry.
To David Kinloch, professor of poetry and creative writing at Strathclyde University, the Bible is something with which he reconnects to his childhood and upbringing, a book which, when he re-read it as an adult, brought a ‘shock of recognition’ and an appreciation of its physicality. He recalled the Bible as an object, seemingly rice-paper pages you could see through onto the obverse print, bound in crocodile skin. When he read a piece by another poet, detailing the names of biblical women, and the meaning of those names, with inserted into that tender description a couple of lines about people being taken away to extermination camps, he was moved and inspired to look once again at the women of the Bible and, because they are little heard, to give them a voice.
Helena Nelson of Happenstance, who chaired the event, was not alone in spotting the irony of sending a man to speak for Biblical women (I mean, damn it, The Mumble sent a man to review the event!). So how did it go? Well, for a start, David Kinloch is Biblically literate and theologically adept, without which his Happenstance pamphlet, Some Women, would have been in danger of falling flat. As it was, his progression of readings from the extra-Biblical figure of Lilith, who referred to Adam as ‘that big, milk-toothed innocent’, to his ‘1st Letter of the Hebrew Women to Paul’ with its wonderfully irascible ‘faith is a stubborn doubt in what you despair of…’ was precise and compelling. The audience hung on every syllable.
As a literary agent and an Eng. Lit. undergraduate, I’ve seen more than my share of poetry, from the sublime to the gorblimey, and let me tell you this: this is how I like my free verse. Pointed, punchy, serious where it needs to be, witty wherever it can be, written by someone who knows that free verse is not just cut-up prose, someone aware of the value, and meaning, and double meaning, and sound, and rhythm of every word. The nameless wife of Cain was all rhythm; ‘Rebecca’ made poetry out of the exotic names of food; Bathsheba and David rolled the letters ‘B’ and ‘D’ round their tongues in an orgy of alliteration; Rahab ‘stonewalled… in a world of falling walls’; Ruth was the first of ‘the endless line of women who will give birth to God’; Martha complained to Jesus, ‘Resurrect this bucket’. ‘Deborah’ focused on the female Judge of pre-monarchic Israel, handing out ‘a thorough stoning’ (is there any other kind?), exhorting the Israelite C-in-C “Arise, Barak, the roots of war are everywhere…” and chiding him for not watering them; the modern reference was very vivid and was not lost on us.
Apart from the excerpts from Some Women, David read to us a handful of unpublished, just-written poems, intended as a possible follow-up to the pamphlet, and focusing on St Joseph. An angel calls on the phone – “Can I speak to Mary?” – there is a ‘silence like blown glass’, the carpenter asks ‘When is a puppet wood? When is it flesh?’ The same poetic values as in Some Women, similarly from a not-much-heard person, but I don’t know whether this selection had the same impact as his female voices.
About forty years ago, I wanted to be a poet too. I was also very familiar with the KJV. I asked a published poet of my acquaintance, who wrote on religious themes, whether publishers would accept poems that were slightly irreverent. He replied that these (those) days publishers expected downright blasphemy, let alone irreverence. When I asked David what had convinced him that the wheel had come full circle, so that now a poet could write with ‘gently reverent irreverence’, I think he was a little put out. To him, as he answered me, general trends were not important; this project, this pamphlet, was something very personal to him, and a response to serious subjects. Point taken. Maybe he felt that ‘gently reverent irreverence’ was not an appropriate description for poems in which some post-watershed words and concepts appeared, or rather poems that asked us to consider subjects of weight. Poems such as the one to Mary Magdalen, who was effectively the first actual Christian, were clearly and pointedly serious, and there was a message even in the ones that made us smile and chuckle.
There was a slightly ironic postscript. Having reminded us that the Children of Israel were, for an important part of their Biblical history, a nomadic people, David and his retinue of pamphlet-signees were led back and forth between three separate book-signing locations, until being settled in the Canaan of their final location. A fitting wee Apocrypha to the Old and New Testaments of David’s event. My last word is this – that David Kinloch is one of Scotland’s most expert poets. Read him and see for yourself.
Reviewer : Paul Thompson