“A poet’s task is to mouth the truth”, so says Alan M Kent, the award-winning poet, novelist and dramatist, in the title poem of his latest book of poetry. On the cover is a photograph of the Bocca della Verita, a large marble mask that is housed in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin basilica in Rome. The mask has an open mouth which will bite off the hand of any liar brave enough to take up the challenge. Kent has nothing to worry about here.
Telling it as it is with regard to defending his country’s (never county in these pages) language and culture, he is not frightened of ‘gobbing off’ and brave enough to use the vernacular of his Clay Country upbringing. In Text Message and A Good Tongue Lashing, he praises the durability of the Cornu-English dialect and rails against his ancestors for not putting up more of a fight to throw English back in the face of their oppressors.
He rebels against the imposition of the class system on his homeland in Napkins, a poem that illustrates our ready desire to fall back in line with servility whenever we visit stately homes. The poem resonates with me as over the last few years I have taken to not enjoying visits to the homes of the upper echelons for the very reason that Kent pinpoints. His raging on his Cornwall’s behalf is worthy not only of a sure hand in the Bocca della Verita but a shot at the Sword of Destiny as well.
I always love poets who are not frightened to use proper nouns in their poetry. They send the reader scuttling to Google to better understand a poem or the place being pronounced upon. Such a poem is Spar Box, although Kent does take time to explain the phenomena of how miners collected discovered fluorspar crystals and assembled them into display cabinets for the home. Although the practice was far more prevalent amongst northern English miners, the idea of it resonates and in the first group of poems, Kent mines his childhood (Gathering Urts, Bullock Trapped in Mica), his adolescence (Field Trip) and even that most taboo subject of Cornish family secrets, the sublime but ultimately sad A Face Full of Arrish) to present us with a ‘Spar box of his own making.
The Mouth of Truth is a paean to Cornwall in all its aspects, the industry (Winding Engine, Robinson’s Shaft), the Methodist religion (Sankey Evening) and its ecology (Ghost Nets). Cornwall’s rich cultural tradition is well represented in poems such as On The Cancellation Of Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss, Jam First and Dolly Dunking, the latter bringing to life an unknown (to me) annual event that happens a few miles from my doorstep.
The first section ends with Intelligent Hands, which, on reading, gave me a sense of Heaney’s Digging.
Fifty Days of Longing, a poem a day, with each translated into Kernowek (Cornish) by Nicholas Williams, documents the uncertainty of love, re-assessing it as the days go by. What at first seems one-sided, unrequited, becomes joyous in the celebration of a couple’s coming together. Though as with every relationship, there are shadows that remain.
Beyond the book’s magnum opus is almost an annex of poems collated from Kent’s travels away from Cornwall, but clearly the land of his birth and that sense of it being oppressed is never far from his thoughts.
Now that the Cornish have become recognised by the government as a national minority affording them the same status as the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish; perhaps it is high time that the Cornish also had a poet laureate of their own? I would certainly be happy to proclaim Alan M Kent, while putting my hand in a certain marble-framed hole in Rome.The Mouth of Truth by Alan M Kent (Cornish translation by Nicholas Williams) Francis Boutle Publishers £12 at all good bookshops
Review by Gray Lightfoot