I’m delighted and honoured to be here today to launch this new book by Kit Kelen.
Before I start to talk about what is wonderful about Poor Man’s Coat, I want to say briefly what the book is not. Contrary to the expectations of an English speaker reading the front cover, this is not a book of hard, anger poems.
Hardanger is a region in Norway. It is a place noted for its beautiful landscape, especially its mountains and fjord, as well as its cultural heritage. The poems in this collection were drafted there, during two residencies in the town of Ålvik, which the back cover of Poor Man’s coat tells us is “a sleepy little industrial town” … a children’s town … of laughter … “where winter is always coming, even when it has arrived …”
Now that Poor Man’s Coat has been published, I predict that Ålvik is going to be deluged with applications from poets wanting to go there. Even if we could tap into just a little of the inspiration Kit found, surely it would be worth it!
There is an enticing airiness and ease in this collection. However, for all the naiveté the back cover might suggest, these are not poems that could land in anyone’s notebook, just because we’re suddenly in Norway. Behind the clarity and superb reduction of many poems to only a few words, there is great skill. This is the dazzling mix of precision and risk that, I think, comes when long experience in the making of art combines with both a maturity of life experience and a willingness to be as amazed as a child.
Kit’s poems have a beautiful openness and awe—‘imagine me made of mist’ is the title of one—and sometimes it feels as if the poet is part of the atmosphere, taking in the details of the landscape as if that is more real than he is. It’s both a trancelike state on the page and a tease of the reader’s mind.
Nature, especially in a foreign country, can make even the simplest daily life surprising. Poor Man’s Coat is rich with the delights of Elsewhere. It pays rapt attention to trees, boulders, birds, clouds, breezes … but through all this wonder, Kit also reaches for words, and for new ways of using words.
He has a rare talent for combining a searching way of using words in a minimal way with a fresh, unselfconscious candour, so that Poor Man’s Coat is full of what he calls poetry’s “wise surprise”.
Coming as they do from residencies in a place for artists, musicians and writers, these poems are given great freedom to exist purely for their own sake. Every day here could be a poem …
Especially when the weather does not entice anyone out, the landscapes of introspection and lyricism prevail. But Kit also has boots with “a mountain in them” —and “a gouty toe” —so he walks out into the world, learning “Braille for the hoof” and getting to know the ancient rocks, with their physical dangers as well as the argumentative thinking state that being alone on the track can bring.
There is a peopled world nearby, however, and Kit has a sharp eye for the particulars of this foreign place and how lives are managed there. The weather that he observes so well affects the townspeople too. “Summer throws the switch / for long evenings with drill and saw”; the town’s freshly painted and “light’s lugged here and there / like firewood for the other months”.
There are beautiful, hypersensitive descriptions of the endless days of summer:
birds keep on past midnight
you have to close your eyes for the dark
and the other worldliness of this different place leads to haunting moments that are sometimes enchanted, like a child’s storybook, and at other times, unsettled, as if the certainties of nature have been turned upside down and if you blink
find yourself gone.
Inevitably—this is the Northern Hemisphere—as the season changes, daily life must move indoors. There is a lot of writing going on in the storybook house then, but the poem, ‘a record of first falls’, still has an eye on the view outside.
you see it when the mist steps back
sea and beyond, on the mountains
of a world past glass
when the peaks are done thus
you feel the sky’s touch
And though this poems worries that nothing much will come of what the glass screen of a computer collects—that it will be “just a light dusting”—the beautifully light touch in Kit’s writing gives it a surreptitious charm. The poems do not vanish like a mist. They linger in the mind like the touch of fog on skin.
There can be a prickling in this drying of the fog, of course. Just as fairytales invariably have dark threats, Poor Man’s Coat is not afraid of doubt or sadness, or realistic acknowledgements of what might be wrong in our world.
The black clouds of questions of mortality and failure, and what any individual life can amount to, breeze in with the wintry rain, even if they are mostly balanced by nature’s ability to reassure us—and by Kit’s gift for capturing this in throwaway, breathtaking images such as these from the poem ‘light up’:
light up a branch
the whole tree
is crowded with stars
as if time came
to bloom here
I’m tempted to read you the whole poem, because it is so delightful. But it’s only one of very many … and I still want to quote from another of my favourites, the very moving love poem, ‘written from a shadow’. This is the first stanza:
and all over
this face most loved
have to hang on to my hat
because isn’t it always
your clouds are mine?
this weather’s what
we have to share
The poem goes on to exquisite images of consolation, including two dragonflies “uselessly bright” … Like so much of Kit’s writing, this is so very tender and unaffected, going straight to the nerve of what is felt and expressing it clearly. It is a gift of a poem—and if there were only one like this in the collection, I’d be grateful for the book. But no, the gifts keep coming.
Kit’s poems also know how to make us laugh. There are playful episodes of Mountain Naming and in ‘Ålvik Headlines’, the glorious dramas of ordinary days in the little town, with nothing more dangerous than doors creaking, or, on a breezeless day, a leaf falling … “No enquiry to be launched”.
There are mountains to be climbed, sheep, and (be warned, potential applicants for residencies), an awful lot of rain. There are visits to other places in Norway, too, including time in a gallery with Munch and Klee and bucolic Scandinavian painters, which leads to fine ekphrastics.
Scattered through Poor Man’s Coat, are some striking black and white photographs: tall trees, a human shadow over low stone, shining light on the fjord … One of them is of a gravestone, on which the words translate to “Thanks for everything”. That could be an apt summary of the overall feeling of this collection. Although there’s room here for sardonic questioning and a curiosity about why so many graves would have that inscription, there is a kind acknowledgement in these poems that life is good, and that it is worthy of a thank you.
That is also what I want to say after reading Poor Man’s Coat. “Tanks for alt”, Kit. Thank you for everything. It has been a great joy to read this collection. There is a whole, charmed world in this book and I cannot recommend it too highly.
I started this speech with words from the covers of Poor Man’s Coat. I want to finish with a small poem, which appears in a different form on the back cover. Its perfectly chosen imagery is a beautiful introduction to the world that Kit’s words create.
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
I hope that many, many readers will respond to that invitation and be as lightened, enlightened and delighted as I have been.
Jean Kent, 8th December 2018