Londoner, 'Survivor' and poet (but not necessarily in that particular order) David Kessel brings what is almost a surfeit of life-experience to his work. His poems are thrown down like slabs of raw meat into an abandoned amphitheatre - though one through which he knows feral beasts will sooner or later prowl again.
While he expresses an admiration for several soldier-poets of the Second World War (notably Keith Douglas and Drummond Allison) it is a writer from the '14/'18 conflict, Isaac Rosenberg, with whom this critic senses the closer parallels. Both of them East-enders of Jewish ancestry, both utilising imagistic free-verse of startling power - in each can be heard undertones of the starkest disgust. Kessel's 'voice' is, possibly, the more 'fractured' of the two: a jagged, kaleidoscopic affair of juxtaposed contrasts, strange narrative twists, and sudden eruptions into lyrical clarity, the more potent for their non-linear arrival.
The word 'fractured' is used advisedly for David's is a long-term experience of 'schizophrenia' -a noun derived from the Greek 'skhizein' ('split') and 'phren' ('mind'). At some point during the early course of his illness -which interrupted a promising medical career- Kessel determined not to be the passive recipient of a seismic psychical event (which in others can have the effect of completely eroding the personality). Rather, as a poet, he elected to do what genuine poets have always done: make use of what he had. His triumphs -and triumphs they are, though he might possibly disagree- have been to circumvent the prescribed parabola of the illness (and, quite possibly, that of some of its treatments); to function as an artist without recourse either to self-pity or to Denial; and to win-through to that species of informed compassion which is, perhaps, only truly vouchsafed to those who have themselves suffered.
If Kessel appears, at times, to espouse a kind of 'cockney-centric' manifesto, it is one that is marked by in- rather than ex- -clusivity. His eyes are firmly on the underdog - and this is evidenced by an underlying aphoristic urgency:
Despair in a girl's heart, where wild
chrysanthemums should be. ('Disintegration')
The rain is falling
on chipshop and battlefield, and the estuary
of your pain flows worldly into the gulled ocean ('For Drummond Allison')
Today a sweetheart's sigh is more dangerous
than massed armies ('Desperate sex')
And I'll follow the night-train to distant starved cities
to bleed and pain and sing ('Bus No 253').
Clearly, 'The vixen', 'For Zoe' and 'Hillside, Llangattock' are authentic, felt poems -tendentious, yes, but better than anything produced by the latter day Heaneyesque/Hughesian orthodoxy; certainly since those two seasoned counterfeiters made their own names via earlier, stauncher work.
No one is going to tell you that Kessel is in any way an easy read. Some years after I first encountered the poetry, I'm still grappling with it, have never yet felt on wholly familiar terms. But then, after summiting on Kessel's tortured masterpiece, 'Hungering', one arrives at his battered credo 'I have climbed this hill to learn to care' and feels that the ascent has been worthwhile for the view. Stay with it.
Kevin Saving © 2010
Kevin Saving on
O the Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken
– Collected Poems 1970-2006
[Selected, edited, designed and introduced
by Alan Morrison]
Originally published 2006
Reprint/2nd Edition 2010