David Kinloch is surely one of the most innovative poets ever to come out of Scotland. At times, he plays with archaic Scottish phrases, while spinning narratives about literary and art figures as various as Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Roussel, as well as translating Paul Celan. All of these threads are amazingly interwoven with discussions of Kinloch’s homosexuality and, as in this book, small feminist-based poems. Kinloch’s readers must be prepared to take a long voyage through language, imagination, and space. While it isn’t always easy, it’s always worth the trip.

In his newest book the poem goes in search of Dustie-Fute, a Scots figure who is a merchant, a troubadour, a juggler, and in this book “a figure of Orpheus.” The latter is all the more appropriate since a central poem/essay of this book in this book, “Felix, June 5, 1994,” explores photographs of quilt-like works by Canadian-born artist A. A. Bronson; Bronson’s works are dedicated to men who have died of AIDS. Kinloch’s poem focuses on Bronson’s lover Felix Partz, as well as the artist’s powerful photograph of Partz taken shortly after his death, also titled “Felix, June 5, 1994.”

You thread a sea with your eye;

each time the needle enters your flank

the pain composes you;

trees that hung your voice

among those patterns

wrap your quilt in foliage;

a dog barks through the branches;

a girl’s arm passes like an oar

across the unlit patches;

now your song kneels

at the river’s edge

and will not flow;

your passport head is pinned in silk.

It’s difficult to parse this poem. It is, after all, a gut response to Partz’s awful death. Perhaps it’s better to read Kinloch’s narrative about Bronson’s art and the photo of Partz. But the poem clearly represents the poet’s sharp insight into the worlds he represents and creates. Given the almost pin-size head of the original, set against various patterns and colors of the rest of the work, the last line of this poem is particularly painful. In death, Felix’s head has become almost insignificant to the song the work sings about the underworld—the mad swirl of colors and patterns—to which he has given up his being

Another poem in the book, one of its most brilliant, takes the viewpoint of Saint Joseph:

Not mine. The call wasn’t for me. The phone

rang in the next room and it was the Angel.

This multi-sectioned poem is a beautiful portrait of a man who loves yet is kept apart from the object of that love:

The boy

 I teach him. He is grateful.

Holds love back for a future

as big as this nail

I beat into the bench

where it lies almost

flush with the wood.

This lovely piece suggests the gentleness of the patient carpenter, while hinting at his sensuous desire for his beautiful son through the phallic image of the nail he beats into the wood and the coming together of the nail with the bench on which, we suspect, the young Jesus lies. This Joseph, although described as a saint, is not always saintly. In “St. Joseph’s Dream,” for example, he expresses what might almost be envy for his wife’s ability “to shake / hands with the Angel.” And some of his dreams are violent, particularly when his internal voices speak in his dreams, compelling him to Flee into Egypt. Kinloch’s Joseph is a sensual man attempting to make sense of his wife’s mysterious birth and his “perfect son.”

Some of strongest poems in this moving book come near the end, where the poet’s Orpheus must come to terms with his Eurydice. In the two long poems the comprise “Some Women,” Kinloch gives us entirely new perspectives of Lilith, Cain’s wife, Adah and Zillah, Sarah, Rebekah, Deborah, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, the daughters of Job, King David’s concubines, Hannah, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and others. If you think this suggests a religious text, think again. These women are quirky and strong, proto-feminists who recognize that their positions in the world are untenable. Mary Magdalene, for instance, is married to a Christ who demands that she “Look within,” but because of the society in which she exists she cannot find anything:

What I remember is I was weeping,

and I turned to the gardener (who looked like

my husband) and I screamed, ‘The body has gone!’

He told me to look inside. ‘Look within.’

Two words. So I think he meant into myself.

I tried but found nothing. Their questions

never stop. I feel my bones going off

to preach on their own, each with a slightly

different story. ……

Sarah is presented here as a tart-spoken elder, not afraid of angels or the God who has sent them:

Angels are good for a laugh: they come up

and they say: ‘God will give you a child.’

I laugh and I say: ‘I’m ninety!’

They stand up indignant, unfold their wings,

‘You can’t laugh at God,’ one says.

I laugh and I say: ‘I’m ninety!’

They leave in a flap and I have a wee boy

called Isaac whose name means ‘he laughs’.

I laugh and I say: ‘I’m ninety!’

Kinloch ends his work by revisiting the Orpheus and Eurydice myth through Rilke’s sonnets and a photograph by the art group PaJaMa (Paul Cadmus, Jarend French, and Margaret French) and strangely overlaying the homosexual poet Cavafy with a Syrian refugee from whom he hears in Glasgow. The refugee demands that he go, perhaps like Mary Magdalene on her inner journey, to Alexandria. In this poet’s world anything is possible, as the poem’s speaker suddenly discovers that it is only “nineteen and a quarter / miles from Glasgow to Alexandria.” (In fact there is a Scottish town named Alexandria near Glasgow.) Indeed, the world has shrunken. Dustie-Fute may exist just around the corner.

In Search of Dustie-Fute (2017) by David Kinloch is published by Carcanet and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press, and later...