Shakespeare Country

Luke Kennard, Notes on the Sonnets

Penned in the Margins, 212pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781908058812

reviewed by Connor Harrison

Even if it does feel like a kind of middle-class aliens-built-the-pyramids project, I find it hard not to be fascinated by the Shakespeare authorship question. What I mean is, if I were to be offered one use of a prototype time machine — to go anywhere at anytime — I’d already be wearing my neck ruff and make-up. But when it comes to the work of Shakespeare, the need for certainty is a contradiction. Imagine, for a moment, that we knew everything there was to know about William Shakespeare: his physical health, his eye colour, the shape of his brain and his thoughts on immigration. For every new object discovered, he would be reduced, particle by particle, until we had a writer completely within the limits of fact:

Will Shakespeare is a poet from Stratford, where he lives with his wife and son. When he’s not writing, he can be found pottering around in the garden, or drinking tea. He is currently at work on his first play.

The first time I made aware of the authorship dispute, was in an essay by Borges, in which he made evident the need for Shakespeare to be plural, multi-faceted, endless; an essay in which he provides what might be the best summary of what it is to read the work: ‘Shakespeare had the power to multiply himself marvelously; to think of Shakespeare is to think of a crowd.’

In Luke Kennard’s Notes on the Sonnets, that crowd is a party; more specifically, a house party, told in 154 parts. The arrangement of the sonnets is ‘determined by events’ we are informed before the book begins proper. ‘They are to be seen as improvisations, or annotations, or variations.’ The first of these variations, serving as our entry into both the house party, and the book’s tone, is of sonnet 66.

My ideal recreational drug would be a pill that makes people feel more insecure and I’m the only one at the party not taking it. I’m in the kitchen with a man who says he can recite any of Shakespeare’s sonnets if someone gives him a number from 1 to 154. And I’m like, Wow, that’s great. 66? And he says, no. Not 66. Anything but that. I’m like, Okay, hahaha, you’re full of shit. He says, I’m not lying, I’m just not reciting sonnet 66, tonight or any other night. I hate it. This has honestly never happened to me before. Give me any other number. […] I sigh and say, okay, 102. And he starts, I swear this is a true story, he starts cold, My love is strengthen’d though more weak in seeming. . . I turn on the convection hob and put my palm on it.

What becomes clear by the first few of these improvisations, is that the title of the book is a kind of joke. Notes on the Sonnets sounds like a work of scholarship; it is the title of a book you might buy to accompany the sonnets, to provide an expert close reading. But the poetry here is not a crash course in understanding the Elizabethan sonnet sequence — Shakespeare is not the subject matter of this book, but the fabric. Using the house party as a foundation, Kennard draws each sonnet in like a guest, and sees where the conversation might take him, sometimes directly referencing a line or a word, elsewhere only orbiting a sonnet’s voice. The opening line of sonnet 44 goes like this: ‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought.’ And from Kennard’s parallel note: ‘If the dull substance of my thoughts were skin we’d walk along the skin-lined thoroughfare and pause under a fleshy, pulsating tree, I’d say, In all this hideous world you found me.’

Because these poems are so free, and dexterous, and unique in their execution, you might find yourself wondering how important an awareness of the sonnets is — their form, rhythms and context — to understanding the collection. Since I don’t have a memory like Kennard’s pretentious partygoer, I kept a copy of the sonnets to hand while I read Notes, and shifted from one book to the other, as if reading wildly different translations. What this way of moving through Kennard’s book allows for is a kind of guided tour of the house party. Reading sonnet, note, sonnet, note in real time clarifies the relationship in the book — Kennard as narrator, Shakespeare as the party itself.

In sonnet 113, love turns vision into a liar, where ‘if it see the rud’st or gentlest sight,/The most sweet-favour or deformed’st creature,/The mountain, or the sea, the day, or night,/The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature.’ The world has become love, and in his note, Kennard preserves the balance of the intricate and the broad, a montage of sights becoming one.

The coffee cup. The flooded rails. The empty cracked shell of a snail. The grey fuzz of a scratch-card nail. The things we said inside the whale. Prostrate before the turning sail. The something and the something else. Betrayal of, betrayal from. Look over, through or set upon. The double dream, the double glaze, a less bad way out of the maze. Sometimes the action cannot match a long recalibrating daze. And sometimes, sometimes even when I’m the only one with you I want to text, ‘Are you okay? Is this guy bothering you?’

So really the question is, does having sonnet 113 fresh in the mind make the variation a stronger poem? Well, it really depends. Notes on the Sonnets is a project with its ekphrastic heart on its sleeve, and reading the two books together (or memorising the lot by rote) illuminates context; there is a satisfying thread to be followed from sonnet to note. But Kennard is not dependent on Shakespeare. At no point does he use the sonnets as a crutch; nor does he need to. Every one of the 154 prose poems offers language shot through with a kind of original giddiness; lines constructed with an aphoristic beauty. ‘I lead you from one room to another. One season collapses exhausted into the lap of another,’ and ‘Sometimes you can see how someone mutes the one who loves them like a television.’

What’s important here is that Kennard’s style is not one for reverence. While there is a deep, personal respect for the sonnets in Notes, the kind found between any writer and an attentive reader, there’s no pedestal in sight. Instead, there is Kennard’s signature, self-effacing humour, often applied with a comedian’s timing. ‘Does the warrior really fear being forgotten?’ he writes in the note to sonnet 25, ‘I don’t know. Posterity is like a cat that thinks it’s Jesus: we wouldn’t even know.’ Or, in response to Shakespeare’s belligerent demands that his lover reproduce: ‘All I’m saying is that it’s selfish of you not to have children because you are so wonderful you’re essentially depriving future generations of the chance to meet you.’

At the same time, the book is aware of its parameters, and Kennard’s choice of a house party is not an arbitrary one. He understands, as Borges did, that Shakespeare had the uncanny ability to multiply, and morph, to become a crowd. Read together, the notes overlap and congregate; each conversation sifts into another, and previous notes become background noise to those we’ve yet to read. The notes’ anonymous narrator is as ambiguous and specific as Shakespeare’s; and from bathroom to bedroom to office, they carry the sonnets’ deep, heart-breaking affection.

I remember standing in the carpark, the tiny stones frozen into the ground, the texture of trying to scuff them up with the sole of my Hi-Tec trainers, anticipating going home, feeling warm, the cat in its plastic box in my coat pocket, and I have no idea why this is the happiest I have ever been or why it’s exactly the way you make me feel, to the last neuron.

There is no correct way to read Notes on the Sonnets. The poems stand up just as well alone as they do in a pack, and while there might be a chronology, it isn’t bound so tightly that you couldn’t read them in any order you wished (like the sonnets themselves). You might read them with a copy of Shakespeare in your other hand, you might not: each reading will deliver different, equally complete results. ‘You are never at the same party as anyone else,’ begins note 127, ‘and every room is filtered through every other room you’ve ever seen, it’s like that for everyone.’ Just as no two people have ever read the same sonnets, no two readings of these notes will look the same — and nobody except Kennard could have written them.

Connor Harrison is a writer based in the West Midlands, UK. His work has appeared at New Critique, Lit Hub, and Longleaf Review, among others.