Review of Kate Wakeling’s ‘The Rainbow Faults’

During an extended trip to Bali and Java in the 1930s, the Mexican writer Miguel Covarrubias first heard gamelan music and described it as ‘an Oriental ultra-modern Bach fugue, an astounding combination of bells, machinery and thunder’ and this description serves equally well to describe Kate Wakeling’s work. The poems in her debut pamphlet, The Rainbow Faults (a to-die-for title, btw) are muscular, technical and highly musical. This last detail shouldn’t surprise us as Wakeling studied music to post-graduate level at the School of Oriental and African Studies and works as an ethnomusicologist at a conservatoire and as writer-in-residence for an orchestra. It is this highly-attuned attitude towards music that is the presiding quality running through and uniting Wakeling’s work. As you would expect, many of the poems allude to musical instruments or forms: “Watching One’s Loved One Play the Piano/Scalp Scabs”, “Trumpett CXXXIII”, “Twelve-Tone Scale”. There is a poem here entitled “Gamelan Poem”, which is a list-poem offering various definitions of this amazing musical phenomenon: ‘Gamelan is thrust and tussle/full-throttle hoot of smashed/tones’ and ‘Gamelan is sombre/thud of gong pursued by raging cloud/of bronze bees’.

“Riddle” is the poem that highlights this most of all in its question-and-answer form. It’s a poem that Wakeling has described as being about the ‘opaque and slightly provoking relationship I seem to have with music-making’ and I could feel a sense of menace, a suffocation almost, in the poem’s nine calls and responses. Here are just three:

And how does it move?
Its fat, blind feet pound my hands.

What does it show you?
Murky gold; a rage; where the dust falls.

What does it wish for?
To heap its rough tongue across dainty machines.

The poem’s answers never seem to quite hit their target; it’s as though they can only outline the shape of some huge, grotesque monster (a centipede, Jabberwocky?) that is invisible and yet fills the room. It is one of the most astonishing poems I’ve ever encountered about the relationship between work and its creator.

Wakeling’s poetry is not only about her relationship with music-making, however, it also moves into the realms of cultural and textual myth and displays a fantastic playfulness with form. There are two poems that reference Shakespeare (including The Tempest, the most musical of his plays), a poem entitled “Tarot” (whose line-endings are anagrams of the word ‘tarot’), a mirror poem, a prose poem and poems set in Alaska and the Atacama desert. “A Spoiling” reminded me of many of Liz Berry’s poems, which similarly depict a variety of local selkie- and harpy-like womenfolk that emanate from or return to the sea:

You didn’t watch her lug that crooked hip of hers
 across the rocks to give each lunar tug the snip,

The ‘lug/tug’, ‘hip/snip’ internal rhymes here are typical of Wakeling’s work — rhymes that draw the poem’s skin tightly around itself making the poem as taut and lean as possible. No fat here. “Apparition”, too, is about another ‘invisible other’, who ‘range[s] across the greedy souls/to seize their tithe,/churn them mute.’ The following poem, “White Story”, is also written in the first person, describing the gradual whitening out of a room, ending again with the notion of dryness, evisceration and absence. “In the Next Room” is another ghostly monologue, this time narrated from what appears to be place somewhere underwater and ends with the line, ‘The days will leak constantly into twilight and you will love that.’ This transformation from one state to another, of matter changing its quality, is another motif that runs through the pamphlet.

One of the standout poems has to be “Correctional”, which was recently the subject of one of Carol Rumens’ excellent series of articles for the Guardian on individual poems. The description of the poem in the article as a ‘gruesome political poem, filled with phlegmy onomatopoeia and vivid imagery, is an evocative reminder of the atrocities humanity commits against itself’ could hardly be bettered. The poem works as a series of existential situations of the inmates in what is presumably a concentration camp. Men stand on roofs, walk in circles by a wall, sleep on ‘beds/of pale, assembled limbs’. The words for the body parts mentioned — knuckles, elbows, heels — are hard, guttural, uncomfortable. They stick out and are worn down. It is a harsh, cruel world, yet the men must unite to survive: ‘Each eats from another’s clasped hands.’ The poem’s obvious reference point is the nightmare of Kafka’s non-Euclidean world, but it also calls to mind Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of the gulags and even Fernando Pessoa’s world of exhausted bank clerks and downtrodden administrators.

Throughout the 20 poems on offer there are countless phrases that really leapt out at me — ‘fossil self’ (“Looking Glass”), ‘bacterial patience’ (“Lift”), ‘onion lens’ (“Snow Shirt”) among many others. These unusual phrases made me stop reading and ponder the phrase itself, excavating it for the multiple meanings that lay buried deep within. But there is an attention for language across all the poems that really impressed me. Each is a kind of syllabic crash, a battering ram of precise sounds, a display of linguistic acrobatics. Here is an example in its entirety — a dervish-like gem of a poem, entitled “Pluck”:

Tick-tock say so:
 go or be goblined,
 toe a bright step o’er trilling bricks.
 Mind the gawpies, the slys,
 mind that foul-lipped optic
 in his crouch. Pad on
 with teensy freight,
 with pouch of uppity,
 without peep,
 trample it here, there.
 Go quick
 or be skimmed
 or flicked.
 Go quick
 and be

I didn’t just enjoy these poems, I tasted, relished and devoured them. They will remain inside me as linguistic jitterbugs, verbal jumping beans. To read them is a quicksilver zip through language and Wakeling should be congratulated for putting together such an assured, bravura body of work.

Originally published in The Next Review, Vol. 3/№6, August/September 2016.

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