Declan Ryan reviews Zaffar Kunial

Us published by Faber & Faber (2018)

Zaffar Kunial’s debut Us opens with ‘Fielder’, and finds the narrator “just past the field, over the rope,/having chased a lost cause”; an apt summary of the voices throughout much of this quietly resolute, diligently hesitant, collection. Kunial’s tone is corrective, even reluctant, a meandering and circuitous habit joked about at times, punning on his name in ‘Jane Austen: Selected Letters” – “I was an Affer, or Faffer -/which proved true, Mum later said, of the latter”. This is a portrait of the poet as faffer; Kunial’s first published poem, ‘Hill Speak’, another bravura display of deflection and correction:

        And, either way, even at the rare moment I get towards –
        or, thank God, even getting to –
        my point, I can’t put into words
        where I’ve arrived

Kunial isn’t being precious, or fussy, in these moments; there’s a winning kind of rectitude, a desire to keep one foot slightly off the floor for fear of over-committing to something untrue. Likewise, in Us, the point of treading these tangled linguistic paths, part punning part etymological digging, is to avoid misspeaking, misdiagnosing: “Us. I hope from here on, I can say it // and though far-fetched, it won’t be too far wrong.” Our ear is so tuned in to Kunial’s voice by this point that we begin to unpick even familiar terms, like ‘far-fetched’, for ourselves, he has made linguists of us all – we are sent back to ‘fetching’, mindful of the earlier ‘Fielder’ out beyond the boundary searching for a ball, this term ‘Us’ contextualised as another symbol knocked for six, escaping and evading, to be hauled back, shined on the trouser-leg, made useable again. These are poems that polish the language, and that slow the pace; test series not one day international reading, slow-cooked not zapped (one almost writes Zaffed).
    Kunial’s virtuosity as a lexicographer and engineer of words is what captivates most in the poems built by his close-reading style, such as ‘The Word’, ‘I’ and the breath-stopping ‘You’. Kunial is the sort of poet who can break the heart with a line-ending, as a tale which begins in Indian Mutiny and the stop-start dialect of the telegraph, another oddly appropriate analogy, shifts to Kunial’s parents arguing over – what else – language; Kunial’s father’s “tongue can’t make good fist / of speech like you. Because of you”. The poet then intercedes, after the event, part gloss part director’s commentary:

                    You. The English
        second-person plural. Or singular

        who arrived in the world in 1947.
        A teacher. Five foot tall. I’d hear her         Stop        

There is so much to admire here that it’s easy to miss how deftly crafted moving this ending is on first and even third or fourth read. That stanza break between ‘singular’ and ‘who’ acts as a surprise, a jolt, but also serves to humanise Kunial’s speech to remind the reader that ‘you’ is a flat mark on a page until it is owned: this you isn’t a word, it’s “A teacher. Five foot tall”, there’s warmth and care in this gesture, a preservative appropriation, tagging and reanimating before that voice comes in, the answering ‘you’ speaks, ‘Stop’, a perfect close, echoing the 1857 telegraph’s dot-dash language but perhaps it can also be read as a direct answer or command to the implicit, invisible poet too, a slightly Keatsian breaking of the fourth wall, either protective or piqued: ‘Stop’.
    The same kind of movement takes place in ‘Prayer’, a poem made of stitching and conduction, in which breath, rather than a word, forms the thread which is pulled through family history with captivating brio. Kunial’s music is no less impressive than his engineering, and the opening stanza of ‘Prayer’ sets us up for a repeating echo of an ‘-er’ sound of ‘heard’, ‘prayer’ and ‘ear’, half-rhyming them with an allusion to Herbert, whose line “God’s breath in man returning to his birth” acts as the engine of a compact but resonant narrative. The middle section is a heartsore study in compression and minimalism, “hurled language’s hurt // at midday, when word had come. Cancer. Now so spread / by midnight her rings were off. / I stayed on” Later, when we get to ‘You’ we will remember the ‘stop’, and it will have a further resonance with this stop-start description, cancer as end-stop, as sentence arrester. There’s also a mordantly cheerful energy to that slight pun, “rings were off. / I stayed on”, but one which points – as so often – to the truth behind the symbolism, the apparent signs of eternity, the rings, are gone before the human connection, the son speaking into the ear. The last line is powerful and affecting, and its precision is clinched even further by its sonic settling of earlier expectations, “She stared on, ahead. I won’t know if she heard” – the ‘heard’ is a shutting door, but it echoes the earlier prayers, ears and Herbert’s, and in that way the reader is able to feel it ‘returning to his birth’ by closing the poem’s circle.
    Kunial shares something of Heaney’s ability to find meaning and symbolism in the hearth and home, as well as Heaney’s sense of the poem as a slant inheritance or alternate labour – ‘Sparkhill’ has something of ‘Digging’ to it, in its sense of gearing up to tackle the world with a pen, or in this case a keyboard, rather than a fist or shovel. The last poem in the book, ‘Ys’, is perhaps the highpoint of the whole collection, and also serves as a précis for some of Kunial’s most beguiling habits. There is something autumnal to its mood, but it’s a Nick Drake-ish autumn (the epigram is from his ‘Northern Sky’), mottled, cello’d and willow-tinged, in Island Records colours; “It was Monday, bank holiday, near the end / of May, rough middle of the day, year, and / of the country if the country is England”. Typographically the poem’s early sections leave the top half of the page empty, suggestive perhaps of big skies above the tree which is the heart of the poem, but also of the childhood scale of the world; there is space to grow into here, as “The tree held court in laburnum time” (what a line!), mixing in Old English and folk-song feeling to evoke boyish longing for an absent father, promised to return “When all the leaves / fall from your tree.” The true and the lived, as well as the timeless and the folkloric come together in the poem’s final section, exploding into longer lines and tightened sections, into something symphonic and symbolist, Kunial yoking his knack for wordplay and significance into a grand, scaled-up meditation on time and time’s passing, the laburnum tree standing in for England, for family and for life at once, but gracefully and quietly, swelling strings perhaps, but not bells and whistles.

Declan Ryan was born in County Mayo, Ireland. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry (US), Poetry Ireland and the New Statesman, among others. His pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series. His criticism can be regularly seen in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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