“a rough draft of a man waiting to be rewritten…”

Guff, Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Jim Murdoch
kennelly guff
Brendan Kennelly’s Guff is, according to the blurb, “both mouthpiece and mouthed off, Devil’s advocate and self-critic, everyman and every writer consumed by self-doubt and self-questioning.” He takes his place in the queue behind Leopold Bloom, Belacqua Shuah and Dan Milligan, his Irishness central to his character. Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s most distinguished and best loved poets, is in his seventies now though you could be fooled reading this. Guff is described as “a poem” but it feels like a collection, albeit a higgledy-piggledy one.

Guff’s “afraid of answers/ but the questions won’t stop.” He reads a book but then the book reads him. He “works with rhythms” but “[t]he rhythms play with old Guff.” He “writes in his notebook” but “[t]he notebook says nothing, just/ hoards the words.”

It must be added, though, that Guff
never strays far from words
which are his way of seeing
and saying what is and what is not.

[from ‘Teeshirt’]

“The extent of his not knowing/ hammers Guff now and then.” “Words are bullets. Guff is a target.”

The word is the world
without the L
without the hell.

[from ‘Guff hopes’]

In the beginning was the word.
We learned to use it, abuse it,
till it cried for mercy.

[from ‘Rescue’]

Guff’s a writer who speaks his mind. “A writer may get on well … with other people. He rarely gets on well/ with himself.” Guff is “a rough draft of a man/ waiting to be rewritten.” Guff has something to say about everything: religion, nationalism, sex, love, history, seagulls and takes 145 pages to get his 159 little rants out of his system; some as short as a couple of lines but none drag on. Guff is nothing if not concise in his verbosity.

Guff comes near to choking at times
not just with fishbones and chickenbones
certain words do the trick

[from ‘the trick’]

Impossible to do justice to in 500 words, Guff’s a biting response to modern life. A writer crawls inside himself—Kennelly describes this as a cave which made me think of a Beckettian skullscape—and shouts at the world from within. With no discernible narrative it took me time to get into but there are recurrent themes. I’ve chosen to focus on his obsession with language and its limits. The poem’s breadth, however, is striking and often flippantly profound: “After fifty years of breathing in this world/ why wouldn’t your breath be foul?” An easy book to get lost in. Not an easy one to let go of, even when you’ve put it down:

Are emptiness and appetite the same thing?
Is everyone eating everyone else?
Call it a state of rest, feel the earth’s pulse

throbbing music for the night
advancing across the fields, down roads
that are a map of appetite.

Guff turns, walks, sits, hears cries
dropping like crumbs
into his rich, abysmal emptiness.
The oldest friend he has.

[from ‘Oldest friend’]

No excerpts online but this link to Bloodaxe’s page is informative.

Jim Murdoch

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