The style of the poetry pamphlet witness is reminiscent of Oswald’s Book of Hours by Steve Ely. Ely forges Anglo Saxon legend, medieval English and Biblical language with contemporary characters from West Yorkshire: Kinsman reimagines the stories of the apostles as 21st century people living in Britain.
There is a portrait poem here for each of the thirteen – from Simon the Zealot and would-have-been terrorist to James the Great who here, like Jesus, is sentenced to death ‘arms spread against the sky’, to Judas. witness admits one more apostle – Mary Magdalene. Depicted as a single mother, she receives a reception very different from that of her namesake but will not remain ‘in the pit they dug for [her]. Nor will Kinsman omit her from the pamphlet. Including a poem for Magdalene could cause consternation in some religious circles but this pamphlet does not shirk controversy. witness deals its subject in brutal blows, not least Judas’ kiss – ‘a mouthful of stolen holiness’ which puts ‘god on trial’ and leads to the comment on a news feed, ‘dya think hes fucked em all?’ Done badly this approach would not work but Kinsman is a poet who knows what he is doing.
Punctuation is minimal and often only used when essential to clarify meaning. There is no capitalisation, even of proper nouns. This strengthens the effect of toppling hierarchies we might come to this pamphlet with- just as Jesus toppled the financiers’ tables in the temple – and emphasises that Witness’s subjects are ordinary people touched by god.
Lyricism is inflicted on the bodies of these apostles – in ‘bloodied wrists’, ‘thunder thrumming’ in veins, ‘the bread of Europe dirt in Simon the Zealot’s mouth.’ Poetic devices are borrowed from biblical techniques such as anaphora, rhetorical questions and analogy, lending an epic feel to such a short collection. Diction in the poems is a delicious blend of biblical phraseology, colloquialisms and references to contemporary culture. From Jude’s ‘rainbow painted fingernails’ to the media (and by extension the public) with their ‘open locust mouths’ who hound Jesus’ family for trivia about him after his crucifixion. This melding of language enriches the subject and makes it breathe – as in the Magdalene poem where ‘at the burial, they discover/you sing ‘ave verum’/just as sweet as joy division.’
Faith in witness is not a sterile state possessed only by the flawless; it is not inherited verbatim. It entwines with the identity of each apostle and grows with them. Through the apostles’ encounters with the world it is stretched taut, frayed and forms scar tissue. Jude, shown here as a trans woman, demonstrates this when she screeches to her abusers ‘take his name out of your dirty mouth’, reassured finally by the Messiah -‘there’s no such thing as lost causes’.
These may be portraits but they are also narrative poems with fast-paced plots that take up plenty of space on the page. As with any good story, the stakes are high – people’s lives, their integrity, their faith, their reputations, their freedoms. Each poem is rife with conflict, each apostle has their own inner life, their own motivation or radical purpose. Kinsman’s first lines are attention-grabbing enough for any thriller that could keep the public’s interest for over two millennia. They are also very much of today, the opening poem ‘andrew’ beginning with an allusion to northern towns ignored by Westminster:
in galilee, some grey and dirty town/long forgot by parliament, where the air/stinks like rotten fish, like waters going stagnant.
witness confronts us withhuge contemporary issues – the refugee crisis, capitalism, food banks, Brexit, sexuality and identity. We recognise our world and people we know – there is even a cameo from Jeremy Paxman.
As Coates’ endorsement on the back of the book says, in witness, we see the ‘disciples restored to life in all their shabbiness, in all their glory’. We relate to the apostles not as creatures of myth and history but as animated flawed humans and perhaps, through them, to Jesus himself. ‘ Let me tell you a story about a god. Let me tell you a story about a man,’ Kinsman writes.
One of the ways to read witness, the poems of which are written from the second person perspective, is as a direct invitation to deepen our thinking about when, why,who and how we follow. These questions are just as relevant now as they were two thousand years ago.
Kinsman, J, 2020, Witness. Portishead: Burning Eye
N.B. Unlike my other reviews on this site to date, this review focusses on poetry. Readers may also be surprised to see the work of a male/non-binary author discussed here. I always intended to include trans women in the reviews but didn’t see the need to say this explicitly as trans women are women. However, in light of ongoing discrimination and prejudice against trans people, I have decided to also write about books written by trans men and non-binary people. Jonathan Kinsman is a trans poet. Happy Pride Month to him/them and to all of you.