Rarely does one come across a book that is both intensely ‘literary’ – stylised, sophisticated, deeply engaged with its antecedents – and achingly moving, so viscerally raw that it takes one’s breath away. A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina – an elegy-sequence for Tina Kane, to whom Paul Kane was married for thirty-six years – is such a work.
Kane’s use of the ghazal is an inspired choice. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1965) notes that the ghazal is an Arabian form that brings together the amorous, the elegiac, and the mystical, all elements central to A Passing Bell. Kane does not use the monorhyme of the traditional ghazal (aa ba ca, and so on), but the repeating twelve-line structure that he employs gives form to the poems’ intense expressions of grief.
Tina Kane – who died of motor neurone disease in 2015 – was a conservator in textile conservation at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. She was also a textile consultant, writer, translator, and critic. (ABR published a late poem of hers in December 2014.) The word ‘text’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘tissue’ and ‘woven fabric’. Kane does not belabour the link between his work and that of his late wife’s, but it is movingly apparent: ‘You knew the way of working, Tina, how – in your hands – / the smallest thread could ravel up the world’. The image of shared work, and a shared life, runs throughout the collection, and its loss produces a melancholically repetitive process of ravelling and unravelling: ‘There are threads of you everywhere I go because they hang off me, barely visible. / Tug at one and I unravel. But then, every morning, I gather myself together’ (Ghazal 109).