Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019)
In Saudade, Nigel Kent traces lives and their losses, carefully threading themes of love, death and legacy to reflect on how we record and remember our existence. Art, poetry and the body’s demise all serve as frameworks, yet it is absence and nostalgia that dominate Kent’s debut collection.
Five poems are written after well-known artists, including ‘The Maids’, inspired by a 1987 painting by Portuguese-born Paula Rego. In this poem, hands are a powerful and ambivalent force, creating and destroying in equal measure. In ‘Lipstick Smile’, art itself is ambivalent: a father cruelly uses an artistic metaphor (‘like painting/ over flakes of rust;/ the past carries on/ corroding unseen beneath’) to warn his son about his choice of wife. The harshness of this message, as well as the father’s ability (or curse) to look beyond beauty to see what lies beneath, characterises the stark and poignant tone of Saudade.
In ‘Clearing Out’, a woman agonises over the objects that have shaped her life, unable to throw away such distinctive memories. Her insistent refusal, ‘Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!’, will later find an echo in the collection’s powerful non-ending (‘linger, linger, linger’). It is not possessions, however, but poetry that serves as the most pertinent evidence of having lived. The collection opens and closes with performances, which frame the sequence as a poetic memory. The speaker in ‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’ is inextricably bound to her creation: she has ‘iambs/ beating loudly/ in her chest’. Poetry is not the words she voices, but the marks they make on her body.
If poetry is necessary, it is also corruptible. Indeed, the innocence of ‘those naked words/ [that] shivered/ on the page’ will later be twisted into ‘oily opalescence’ by the smooth-talking speaker in ‘The Urban Shaman’. Here, the body (and our abuse of it) reveals the truth: ‘a city of a thousand/ cuts laid bare/ her sleeves ripped back/ to show the weeping wounds/ that she conceals’.
Diverse bodies populate Kent’s poetic landscape, many of which are in decline. In ‘Dignitas’, the subject is naked again, requiring assistance to carry out one of the most basic human necessities, his dignity washed away ‘like the dirt swirling and gurgling/ down the drain beneath his feet’. Another potent symbol for this degeneration comes in ‘Sweet and Sour’, where ‘frayed bags for life/ filled with Kilner jars/ of pickled strawberries’ reveal the layers of our existence. The poet contemplates how long this drawn-out life can last, the heart still beating while the body decays.
iambs‘7.30 p.m. at the Art’s Workshop’
in her chest
Kent is arguably at his most poignant in the prose poem, ‘Bleak, dark, and piercing cold…’, which takes its title from Oliver Twist. Through a deceptively profound analogy between a homeless man and discarded piece of chewing gum, he shows how bodies can be turned into unwanted stains on a landscape: ‘They spit you out like gum that’s lost its taste, yet they complain it’s you who litters the city’s streets’. The problem won’t go away however much we try to ignore it: the politician ends up ‘irked by the sticky glob embedded in the tread of handmade shoes’.
A tension also exists with technology, which is brought out prominently in ‘Faraway’. In this poem, a worried father checks his phone in the hope that his daughter will have texted. The wait for this elusive message tests his patience, a virtue that continues to dwindle in the modern world. Although technology seems to offer an immediate solution to saudade, in the end it merely reaffirms the absence. This is reflected in ‘Saudade II’ where technology cannot resolve the poet’s longing: ‘I try once more/ to cut and paste you/ by my side’.
Ultimately, reading Saudade is an enriching experience. The reader will share characters’ frustration at an inaccessible past or evasive present/presence, as well as sadness at the body’s inevitable decline. But, more importantly, she will feel quietly invigorated. For Saudade is full of small moments of pleasure and beauty which give us something for which to yearn.
Nigel Kent, Saudade (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019). Available here.