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Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

If you relish words – their sounds and subtleties of meaning – then this is the book for you. I say ‘relish’ deliberately because Gerald Killingworth’s masterly skill turns words into something one can almost taste and savour for a long time afterwards.

‘Water Words’ illustrates this perfectly. Syllables become ‘fragments of ocean’ and their length corresponds to the different sounds and sizes of liquid. The monosyllables ‘drip’ and ‘splash’ represent the moment of the ocean’s birth but soon both syllables and water grow into ‘puddle’ and ‘rivulet’, then into ‘cataracts’ and finally, with a thrashing surge, into the magnificent, four syllabled ‘inundations.’ 

‘Tongues’ is another example of the pleasure that words bring, the joy to be found in the ‘arcane quaintness’ of ‘ariff’, ‘crizzle’, ‘fizgigging’, ‘slaughter’ and ‘budge’. But this poem is about more than the fun of playing with parts of speech. It’s about erosion, loss and the incomprehension that occurs when ‘History shifts its axis’ and once rich languages are fractured, becoming ‘irrelevant/a footnote at best.’

Concern with this erosion of language is an important motif in Emptying Houses and one that particularly appeals to me. But the main feature of this collection, the quality that makes this book so extraordinary and unique, is the way Gerald Killingworth handles humour, very, very dark humour. Anyone who has heard him read ‘A Tale of a Turd’ will know instantly what I mean. No details of the dead Viking’s excrement are spared, rather they are elaborated on – the owner of the turd, now ‘a famous exhibit’ in York’s Museum, is given the name ‘Snorri’, his eating habits are analysed by scientists who sniff ‘this marvel’, weigh it and pick it apart, concluding that Snorri ‘lived on meat’. A human touch is added as the reader imagines this character vowing ‘to eat more greens with his bacon.’ So, there is a lot of humour, laugh-out-loud humour, in the first part at least of this poem. But then we have the extra brilliant touch that Gerald Killingworth brings to all his poems – the poignancy that overrides despair, the sadness and regret that is always just below the surface. Snorri’s turd is what remains of him, the one thing he is remembered for. That is his reputation though ‘Hardly a blueprint for the whole man.’

Another poem that illustrates this blend of horror and pathos is ‘Rigid with Indignation’ where the skull of Asra, a former temple dancer, is being analysed. The poet wonders if the process might reveal her thoughts and ‘unconfessed ambition’ but any splendours, sadly, do not show up ‘in this vacuity’ which is ‘dull as an empty ice-cream scoop.’

There are also ‘vacant spaces’ in the title poem ‘Emptying Houses’ which is about the sadness of clearing a house after the death of the occupant whose ‘history is over’. Even more poignant and tender is J.I:

            Working through the house

            we found roll upon roll of it,

            Christmas wrapping paper,

            as if present-giving

            were assured for decades to come.

Impossible to read these lines and not share the grief at the waste and finality of it all.

Emptying Houses is a unique poetry collection and Gerald Killingworth is an original and special writer. I appreciate all the poems but would find it hard to choose just one as my favourite. Maybe it would be ‘Pebbles’ where the stones make a plea for wetness, to be ‘on a tide-line’ not inland and ‘faded, dusty, dim’.  Or there is the beautiful ‘In Praise of Chlorophyll’ where everything on the earth has been destroyed except for the ‘soft green throw’ of grass. But if I could only choose one piece, I think it would be ‘Habits’ which seems to echo the mood of the John Clare epigraph at the beginning of the book. It’s short and simple and perfect: 

            Take the long way round sometimes,

            B doesn’t always have to follow A.

            Scuff leaves, kick stones


            Jump into puddles more –

            remember they hold the sky.

            Peep around corners

            gaze unfocused


Mandy Pannett 20th July 2022

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