To Be and Become | A Book Review of Kin by Hugh Dunkerley 

You were a child once. In your earliest years, you babbled and bumbled in ways you don’t remember now. What was that time like? How did you evolve into who you are now? 

Hugh Dunkerley’s second collection of poems, Kin (Cinnamon Press, 2019), explores these questions through the perspective of a father observing his son in praise and wonder. In the poem, “The Red Telephone,” he conveys a transformation after learning that his child is to be born: “the wet Christmas streets/glittering in the four pm dusk/the steamy-windowed cafés/seemed altered somehow…” This change is all at once real and surreal—and so relatable. The cityscape takes on a new significance and is burned into memory. 

And so we are invited into a new life for both father and son. The book begins with a description of an ultrasound (“You’re still a long way off,/still trying to conjure limbs,/kidneys, a central nervous system…”) and ends with an ode (“My new life, my one and only/…my darling, my son.”). In a number of poems, the author addresses his son directly (“You wouldn’t sleep and nothing/we did made any difference.”), but there are also reflections and insights into the larger themes of evolution, ecology and interdependence.  

Consider the short poem, “Evidence”: 

Your handprints on the window

like those paint blown silhouettes 

deep in prehistoric caves.

Here we see a link back to our ancestors. In the grand scheme of evolution, six million years really isn’t that long. As Darwin pointed out: “man with all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” In Kin, Dunkerley reflects on this continuum and the miracle of awareness and life: “When does being begin?”, he asks in a poem called “Quickening,” later observing: “The fox moves too beyond the pale of the human, male or female.”

Just as Ted Hughes was concerned with nature, ecology, and how animals struggle for survival, so too is Hugh Dunkerley in how he charts what it means to be born, exist, and interact with others, while also marveling at “the loping, athletic lions moving in slo-mo, the giraffe galloping into shot, disappearing behind a solitary tree…” 

We are creatures too, connected to all that lives on this planet, and Dunkerley affirms this through praise and humility. In “The Eel,” a tribute to Eugenio Montale, he celebrates the journey from the Baltic to rivers and brooks, the eel’s strength in adapting and surviving for so long. We have much to learn from such creatures, much to admire in their habitats and longevity. After all, they were here long before us. Will they endure long after were gone?  Dunkerley brings this awareness to the forefront: “the scintilla that says/ everything begins again/when all seems burnt through,/reduced to a buried stump;/that quick iridescence,/refracted now in your unclouded eyes;/sons of man, immersed in your mud,/can you not see she is your sister?” 

Reading this poem, I was reminded of “On the Coast near Sausalito,” the poem Robert Hass begins with in his first book, Field Guide. Hass describes a cabezone (“an ugly atavistic fish,/ as old as the coastal shelf/ it feeds upon”) and acknowledges that it does indeed have eyes, not exactly our eyes, but eyes all the same. Despite its strangeness, this fish should command some respect. The poem closes with this powerful recognition after the catch. Holding the fish in his hands, the author looks it over and marvels at the great continuum: “Creature and creature,/we stared down centuries.”

Dunkerley also takes us to the moon and ponders a larger symmetry and the existence of God. Isn’t there a grand design to the universe, a bigger purpose we can’t see but must trust in anyway? This is the question his poem, “Telescopic,” seems to be posing. The moon’s “pockmarked monochrome bugling” is vivid, persuasive and—through both a physical and figurative lens—in motion. Could it also hold a clue to something sacred? Yes and no. Existentialism rises like the tide in the closing lines: “But all he could see were billions of tons/bowling, untethered, through nothingness.”

In a similar vein as his first book, Hare, this collection is compelling in its many frames, intersections and resonances. In June, I had the pleasure of hearing Dunkerley read from Kin in Greenwich, and I was struck by how well he painted the picture, his clarity of seeing and larger message, and how everyone present seemed connected to his words. This book is as important as it is beautiful, a treasure you’ll want to keep close by and read again and again. 

Kin is available here

Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash