Raleigh Review vol. 6, no. 1 (spring 2016), pp. 86-88.
Rhythmic History: Doggerland: Ancestral Poems
Dicko King. Doggerland: Ancestral Poems. Somerville, Massachusetts: Off the Grid Press, 2015. $15, paper.
Reading Dicko King’s first poetry collection, Doggerland: Ancestral Poems, the first thing one notices is the deftness with which King explores time and place. The Ireland of this book is a place that constantly explores its own chronicled history, searching the primordial past for evidence of human evolution and the meaning of culture inherited. King strikes me as a poet focused on the prismatic and multivalent, and Doggerland does a wonderful job, both narratively and linguistically, of revealing the organic connection between humans and nature and the ways the truth behind that connection becomes skewed over centuries.
The poems here are chronological, but King’s understanding of chronology is cyclical. While the book progresses forward through time, the imagery constantly references the primitive birth and development of human behaviors like nomadism or vocal communication. The result is a constant unearthing of the human from the earth, a reminder that the difference between the King and Queen of Ireland and the first Neanderthal is merely one’s interpretation of history. King’s Irish ancestors emerge from nothingness to find themselves buried by landscape and time. Moreover, King manages to trace and connect about thirty thousand years of Irish bloodline and heritage. For example, he compares Irish migration with the Ice Age in “1905” and looks to pre-Celtic Portugal for clues to the evolution of Irish culture in “Henge.”
The language here is rich and tactile, filled with tightly packed rhymes and rhythms that provide fluidity. Simply put, this language is enjoyable to read. But it also reflects the closeness of the relationships King draws between man and nature, past and present. King’s style shines with lines such as those in “Cambrian Sea”:
Our fortune at the dug
of mud-borne luck,
and at the expense
of each beast
or slug unlucky
to have met us.
While this skill with sound is impressive in its own right, what is more remarkable about King’s poetry is his ability to convey narrative and theme while maintaining highly musical and rhythmic language. Each is in service of the other—rhythm and music compress the expansiveness of the narrative’s history while the narrative provides trajectory and direction for the language. “Separate” is one of many places where King exhibits this:
Without the wobble
of rapid change—the quickstep
a fix for the misstep—the hazelnut
trees grew into thick cover,
the lime and the oak grew
old. We took hold.
Throughout the book, King covers some large issues: the evolution of humanity, connection between humanity and nature, the validity of history. Yet King manages to craft poems that dance around and between these issues, finding the small moments that muddy the biggest questions. In “Speech” he wonders at the origin of the first words of the Neanderthal, “whether it was a weak larynx / or some predisposition to solitude.” In a later poem, “Myth/history,” King asserts,
never a frog prince
with a lover who wasn’t a frog. Or a toad blessed
with stories. Nothing stops a truth wending
its way to the lie…
Again and again, King comes back to the idea of history as fabrication, evolution as untruth. And exploring those ideas alone would probably be enough to carry a collection of poems. But King takes things a step further through his attention to the natural world, searching high and low throughout the Irish landscape for links between himself, his ancestors, and the primordial muck they were born from. As a reader, it feels like I have undergone the same transformation, which is at once a revelatory and mysterious feeling.
In his author biography, King states that his poems “have appeared out of nowhere.” Given the richness of Doggerland: Ancestral Poems, I hope they continue to do so. His poems in this book are expansive and engrossing, linguistically complex yet accessible, and at once a lesson in Irish history and a questioning of that history’s truth and purpose. King’s poems are tools to dig with, instruments of unearthing the meaning of what has been buried.