‘Finger of a Frenchman’by David Kinloch

'Finger of a Frenchman' by David KinlochBy David Kinloch’s own disarmingly frank admission, when he has ‘waited in dark rooms it has been for the anonymous touch of flesh’. In this intriguing cabinet of curiosities, Kinloch comes out into the gallery, exploring the possibilities and limits of poetry and the visual arts. His pockets filled by the AHRC and ‘SAC folly’, he devotes his considerable talent to ‘ekphrastic art’.

A sojourn in the Hotel Chevillon, Grez-sur-Loing, proves perfect for this enterprise. Kinloch captures the strange beauty of that corner of Seine-et-Marne which continues to attract writers and artists from Scotland and Sweden and beyond: ‘An evening filled with jackdaw cries,/the persistent jackass laughter of a plague/of ducks out on the River Loing’. Some of the ghosts of Hotel Chevillon haunt this book, notably Melville, Stott of Oldham, Carl Larsson, and that enigmatic pioneer of photography, Comte Henri de Lestrange:

Monsieur le Comte, you embalm
the living in baths and washes.
like a sleuth you track the flux
of light and try to snare its vital spirit
in a print.

De Lestrange is ‘sleuth/of the night-time breeze,/its taste and touch/of the current in the tree’.

The gallery extends well beyond the Hotel Chevillon, while maintaining a Franco-Scottish focus. Five portraits of Mary Stuart show her embroidering an ominous vista: ‘the haar which lies on/this strange country like a mourning veil’. Her head stamped on a coin anticipates ‘the purview of the miller’s guillotine’ and the clumsy decapitation of Fotheringay. Another early modern Franco-Scottish woman, the calligrapher Esther Inglis, tries to ‘resist hell’, ‘easing out the periods of her silent race, the pinks and pansies of shamefastness’.

Indeed, this is a collection riven with conflicts, some tragic, others petty. Ramsay’s portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau looks resentfully across at that of David Hume, ‘The turtle-eating, pensioned, imperial/alderman, tacitly propped up on Tacitus’. In ‘Lob: a Platonic tennis match for two voices’, Sir John Lavery and Jacques Henri Lartigue joust over the relative merits of painting and poetry in capturing a sporting event. In one of the self-reflexive prose sections that punctuate this collection, Kinloch returns to Little Sparta and the controversy which led to the cancellation of his projected celebration of the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in the ‘garden of small pleasures’. While rightly pointing out the importance of the miniature in Finlay’s work, which expresses ‘real nostalgia for the gods who have fled’, he also makes the cheeky observation that Finlay’s attachment to the ‘impersonality of tradition’ echoes his arch-enemy Catherine Millet’s insatiable quest for the ‘momentary annihilation of orgasm’.

Elsewhere, Kinloch evokes with lyricism the struggles of the artist. Thus, we have Charles Rennie Mackintosh painting in the Port Cendres air:

The private dream dies hard,
is hard, persistent as a cherry stone,
immured, declarative as those roses
made of lips and eyes.

Peploe paints The Pink House in Cassis: ‘Stave off stasis. Take the tulips’ touch,/finger their enquiring stems right/down to the roots in teapots’. At the Place de l’Institut, Paris, Anne Redpath strives to ‘wring fantasy from this banal angle of the city unmoved/unmoving, even when Resistance fighters/are put against its back and shot’. Both poem and painting can be triumphs:

Eileen in a white chair
is an island in the lie
of pattern, a pebble
on the scumbled green
and the red paths of the world

These are certainly not ‘bad poems about painting’, as was maliciously suggested to the author by an unsavoury anonymous author. The ‘curiosities cohere’, without Kinloch really achieving ‘a flexible poetic prose that refuses the competing framing devices of lyric prosody’. It is indeed the lyricism which makes this collection worth reading. Beyond that, there is the danger of Kinloch confirming the disparaging view of his nemesis: ‘Masturbation, Sir! Masturbation!’


References & Further Information

Finger of a Frenchman by David Kinloch is published by Carcanet Press, 2011.

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Gavin Bowd

Gavin Bowd
Senior Lecturer, French
University of St Andrews

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