OK, I should declare an interest: when Janet and I ran Ragged Raven Press, we published Chris Kinsey’s first two collections, Kung Fu Lullabies in 2004 and Cure For A Crooked Smile in 2009. We’re still proud of both. Each was widely reviewed, widely praised. We knew from the start that this was a gem of a writer whose take on the world we recognised. Her writing felt, and still feels in this latest collection, true.
When she writes about nature you know she’s right there in the middle of it, out on the hills, walking, perhaps with her dogs, exploring and responding to the countryside of the Welsh borders where she has lived most of her life. I recently saw a film on a great poet, acclaimed for the way he deals with the natural world, and yet there was an almost off-hand admission from his family that, actually, he didn’t like going outside that much. I don’t mean to call him a humbug (well, not much…) just that his take on the wind and rain, all the elements of the rural world was, or had become, indirect. In his heart and soul, he was an academic. Chris Kinsey could never be accused of that. Being in the open air thrills and inspires her.
Against that, while she won the BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year award back in 2008, and yes, she comes across sometimes as perfectly content to be solitary, she doesn’t hide from the complexities of human interchange. From Rowan Ridge, published last year by Fair Acre Press, is an unrestrained collection, wide-ranging, intelligent and warm. She is not a poet who needs to tell people to keep their distance – although she might sometimes prefer it if they did.
She has worked as a teacher in a pupil referral unit, perhaps because she has an empathy with the excluded. In her own childhood, you get the feeling that school was at times an irritant, an interruption in an otherwise perfectly productive day that could have been spent exploring fields and the teeming life around the stream that ran past her house. Invigilating A Maths Exam begins We start with a sigh/ and the bickering of blackbirds./ Scratchy biro, calculator, tap, tap. And it’s a fair bet that if she had been taking the exam she’d have been distracted by birdsong and whatever else was going on outside the window. It feels like a lost hour. By the time we finish, the leaves/ on the graveyard elder have opened.
This finds echoes in a more direct memory of her schooldays, Private Collection. I failed sums, sequencing and all/the hypotheticals of 11+ reasoning -/ more interested in ivy-leaved toadflax/ growing in walls and nits hatching/ in Sandra Davies’ hair than how much/ change a boy would get from buying/ three imaginary cakes with a shilling. There is redemption, though, when the headmaster shares his butterfly collection and tells her: ‘Keep going for bike rides.’ Other echoes of school days emerge from time to time, even in lines here and there, as in the splendid poem To Enlli, which refers to the constant crossings out/and re-writes of the tide.
The appreciation of the disenfranchised appears through the narrator of They Call Me Red, about an old miner now volunteering in a museum. Friends say I was dipped in Socialism, instead of baptised… Had a string of jobs after the mines closed/ all of them crap pay and no camaraderie. And on a similar theme in On The New Mining Sculpture Erected In Wrexham Town Centre – Cast in combustion, I rise to rally memories/ of Gresford’s dead. My raised pickaxe scrapes/ a bluer sky, stirs old fights for wealth and safety. Gresford, should the connection not be made, refers to the mining disaster of 1934 when 266 men lost their lives. And still with those on the fringe, a poem Busker is one of the collection’s high points. His violin knows/the weightlessness of fugitives crossing borders.
Dear Earthwrecked Foundling opens with gentle humour, a message to an alien, of which kind take your pick. Wales is good for sampling light./ We can splash in puddles. But the mood shifts to offer the stark warning of impending disaster. I’ll try not to shiver you with worries – worries the air will soon be exhausted/ soils will fail to raise harvests/ fish will suffocate in ocean plastic. But then, as if she senses the need to find some moment of hope, echoing again the poems that include those for whom formal education does not cater, she throws in an anecdote. Today a boy who tossed his school desk like a ship in a tempest/ turned up in my yard to choreograph scaffolding poles.
The sense of the toll human existence in taking on the planet is an underlying present, as in a sequence called Four Visits To Mitchell’s Fold where the invitation is to feel winter’s/ hard dry bite on over-grazed grass. And a later poem, Cuckoo! Cuckoo!, brings with it memories of competing with her mother to hear the first one in spring when cuckoos were abundant and, it seemed, hay meadows were forever. And a list-poem, High Summer On A Shropshire Hill, which names a succession of wild plants, all of which have a place in the chain, ends with a chilling conclusion: Famine waits as we taint soils, strain genes, skew climate. And again in the final lines of Watching For Season Change, If climate shifts/out of calling range/ we will all lose our footing.
This increasing sense of the insecurity of life switches from the general to the personal with poems about the illnesses of people close to her now, about her late mother’s increasingly restricted mobility, about a deathbed visit to her father. She honours her mother in Wimberries, when she thanks her for the gift passed down of the love of wandering. Water beads and berry-bloom are scrying pools/ They show you at your happiest, a girl/ on the Long Mynd gathering wimberries -/ no thoughts of having me or the pains/ that stopped you walking so young. And also she remembers when she became her mother’s ears and eyes through her own explorations, when she brought home treasures like wild mushrooms. I once picked so many that riding my bike home was a circus act./ That night we chopped and fried for the whole street. And the moving poem to her father, linked by the poplars that provided one of her earliest memories. I turned my back on TV/ lifted your raspy breaths to the open window/ sent them across town/ to the same stand of black poplars/ which took your restlessness into their own.
Back to the sequence, Four Visits To Mitchell’s Fold, one section is titled Royal Wedding 2011. Is it a poem about watching the event on television? Of course not. She’s out on the common walking her dogs, making sure to steer clear of a circle of cows, feeling a part of a far greater, more enduring human event – screened by last year’s bracken/ tracing the footsteps of axe-traders, farmers, miners. All while a Lancaster bomber, perhaps linked to the royal festivities, perhaps not, drones overhead. Her technique of naming these out of the way places has the effect of proving an intimacy with them, giving them human recognition and connection. Still with this sequence, she walks the dogs Along the saddleback to Stapeley Hill,/ lark song lights grates of scorched gorse. There is the wildness of an ancient place called Tregaron Bog, and also Reservoir Hill, where Anthills are sealed against frost and wind.
Yet we know solitude is sought out but not always achieved. There must be human contact, a degree of conformity, however much we kick, however accidental it might be, as in the wonderful Another Church Tour. I’ve filed in with a flock out of politeness/ and sit in the stalls feeling shifty./ I want to escape this scripted space. She can smile at herself, knowing there is nothing for it to be patient. I’m not made for the monumental, she says. Human contact is tiring, described expertly in Back From The End Of The Line. Tonight I’m on the run from narratives./ I want this near ghost train to run blank film/ and wipe my head clear.
Poem after poem brings some new gem, in a line, or a line of thought. It’s no surprise that many of these have already appeared in magazines and anthologies, but I found reading more than 60 of them in what is now her fifth collection an immensely satisfying, enriching experience and I thank her for it.
From Rowan Ridge, Chris Kinsey, Fair Acre Press, 2019.