Frank Kuppner, Arioflotga (Carcanet) £9.95
Frank Kuppner is the funniest Glaswegian poet writing today. He also holds the world record for most impressive poet’s lambchops, only shorn in recent years, though any proof of their existence remains deep within the Carcanet file cabinets of authors photos. His latest collection, Arioflotga, is introduced on its back cover, where Kuppner writes,
Surely none of us can have been left quite unaffected by the recent startling and unfortunate disaster of the disappearance of the Great Poetic Anthology into the electronic cracks between the major academic institutions which were preparing it – something which one might have thought to be impossible in this age of unremitting communication. Nothing can compensate us for a loss of such magnitude. And yet here is some slight alleviation. Just over a year and a half ago, a copy of what seems to be a version of the index of first lines of the vast confusion of lost poems mysteriously turned up in a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow. No time has been lost in offering it to a still disconsolate public. It is not nothing that a portion of what promised to be the greatest collection of poetical thought of all time has not been utterly lost. And, as it happens, such is now not the case. No. Not so. For here indeed are depths, insights, provocations and astonishments. Or, at least, the beginnings of them.
The collection is, as its description suggests, a 114-page index of first lines, beginning with, “A, b, c, d and so on. Where’s the problem?” and ending with “Zzzzz. No, no. Don’t wake me up. In fact,” all in alphabetical order with no attributions. As one early British reviewer pointed out, the collection is nearly impossible to complete. That would not be a problem if the reader were to take Kuppner’s claim of origin more seriously, but the production of the book itself does not complete the form of its framing device. If anything, that is its greatest fault, that it sells itself short by not completing the joke. Still, this is among the best of Kuppner’s seven collections, all released by Carcanet. He is able to maintain a balanced tone of humor and introspection throughout the book, while simultaneously succeeding in producing diverse enough—though perhaps too self-standing on the whole—first lines to be believable:
The Gods of this location were never seen without hats.
The Good Lord creates you either one way or the other;
The Governor himself told me he had nothing but admiration
The great Bolivian inventors of the aeroplane
The great freedom-fighter’s son does seem, er, somewhat fragrant;
The Great Inca sits in Cuzco Town, drinking the blood-red wine.
The great novelists were, in their various great ways, fools;
Christian Bök, Eunoia. (Canongate) £9.99
Bök’s Eunoia is a Oulipo-meets-English tour-de-force, which won Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002 after its initial Canadian publication by Coach House Books in 2001. The collection is a univocal lipogram in which each chapter—some over twenty pages long—is composed of grammatical sentences utilizing words that contain a single vowel, arranged as prose poems. Chapters A through U also abide by subsidiary rules that include the seemingly arbitrary—that each chapter “must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage”—as well as the rigorous—repetition is discouraged and all chapters must exhaust at least 98% of the available lexicon of univocals. Amazingly, Bök manages to weave narrative through the melodic cadence of each chapter. From Chapter A:
Hassan can watch as all hands land a small warcraft
and camp at a lava sandflat – a basalt strand that has
tar sands as black as magma ash. Wasps and gnats
swarm as all hands stack sandbags and start a spar-
tan camp. A campman, smark at campcraft, can spark
a match and warm an ashpan that thaws what hard-
tack a clan wants: bran mash and lard, spam hash
and salt, ballpark franks and flapjack stacks (all
starch and fat). …
and from Chapter I:
Fishing till twilight, I sit, drifting in this birch skiff,
jigging kingfish with jigs, bringing in fish which nip
this bright string (it’s vivid glint bristling with stick
pins). Whilst I slit this fish in its gills, knifing it, slicing
it, killing it with skill, shipwrights might trim this jib,
swinging it right, hitching it tight, riding brisk winds
which pitch this skiff, tipping it, tilting it, till this ship
in crisis flips. Rigging rips. Christ, this ship is sink-
The five vowel chapters are followed by shorter poems exploring related themes, including words that contain only consonants and a homophonic translation of Rimbaud’s sonnet “Voyelle” (Gulfs of amber contours/evaporate the tint.//Linseed glass or oblong/freezing dumbells). Unlike the first five chapters of the book, these poems require too much explanation. While they achieve wild success as literary experiments, they don’t shine with the poetry of the first five chapters. Bök’s collection is an interesting commentary on the range of possibilities belonging to our English language and its generous orthography, allowing multiple phonemes to be represented by single letters. His formalism, as George Szirtes, American neo-formalists, and others have suggested (albeit regarding more traditional forms) truly is more liberating than restrictive.
Arioflotga was released in October 2008. Canongate will publish the softcover UK edition of Eunioa in September 2009.