It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,
it starts when you do it again after they said no,
it starts when you say we and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

I Want To Be The Light
Monday, 07 March 2016 20:27

I Want To Be The Light

Written by
in Poetry

In honour of International Women’s Day, I would like to share with you some new poetry that I have been writing which looks at women from the past, who I have a lot to be thankful for. I have also been exploring issues that women have to tackle day in and day out, not just within society at large but also within their own thoughts and feelings towards themselves.

The first poem is about my search for the foremother of Black British Women’s Poetry, Phillis Wheatley. An African slave educated in America, her collection of poetry was published in London in 1773, and called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

they say she was an uncultivated barbarian

Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker
of one's own understanding. It is a map for
those who follow after us - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Chapter 1

i look for you when i lecture in Boston
i walk the long avenue through budded
trees and snow unsure of my path
i need to see you
for myself     what is left of you
it's cold and bright     busy and noisy
i think the city is getting prepared
for their marathon

you are a memorial
poised in bronze  imagining the stars
you strike the pose i've seen many times
quill in right hand   left hand tucked
under chin   deep in thought

i advance close    look into your eyes
the eyes that claimed the authority
to see for yourself
but you   here   now   are   still
carved  in the way    they saw you
always having    to prove    your worth
prove your humanity

Chapter 3

i take your story like medicine
the facts are there
sometime in 1772
you  as the young African girl walk
into a room in Boston   Massachusetts
to undergo an examination
by (white) men of worth
merchants   governors   pastors

they give you permission to use
your voice    a voice already yours
i'm interested in    how you stand
are your hands begin your back
wringing within your lap
or sticking firmly to your hips

Chapter 5

long i stand in your radiance
this afternoon
my hand    on your hand
with the weight of history
against us   but i see you
i walk on     down the avenue
on my own terms.


Our Labour Saving Device

the lay sister sits by the open fire
knitting after another busy day
she longs for space to breathe
her clicking needles keep time with
the clock upon the mantel
and a barn owl swoops between the firs
as the new moon remains hidden
she longs for that moment of release
too old for use then she will take off
her stockings and run barefoot amongst
the fallen blossom    cool petals
clinging to damp flesh
and one heart beating just for her

(A lay sister is a woman who has taken religious vows and habit but is employed for manual labour and nothing else.)


Sometimes, women have a difficult time around their own and others' opinions towards their bodies. Self-hate, as well as trying to live up to unrealistic standards that are within the airbrushed media, puts serious pressure on women to fit ‘the standard’. Here I take a serious and not so serious look at my own body. Self-love is a practice, something we as women have to learn and keep re-learning.

i want to be the light

i will roll upwards towards the light
tilting my breasts out and up
pushing out my rounded stomach
i gain a stretch through my thighs
it takes me closer
i will not gather up my broad backside
and try to squeeze tight into a small space
that will never accommodate my size
i want to spread share my flesh
like the warmth touching me
as I arch my back hands behind my head
head turned towards the light opening
my body to the light
i want to be the light


On discovering my navel

Just the other day, I caught a glimpse
of it while getting out the bath. I almost
lost my balance as I was unsure what to make of it.

Even from that angle, I could tell it was deep,
a deep cavernous tunnel
burrowing through the centre of my being.
Almost like a gaping mouth forever

open as I clutched the billowing flesh
around it. I'll be honest with you,
I was quite perturbed by the whole affair.
And would you believe that I let out a cry

of Eureka. Yes quite definitely Eureka.
And then I proceeded to name it Norman.


In some societies marriage is still the only way out for woman. ‘Out’ being the optimum word as it can be argued in some cases, that this ‘out’ is from one restricted life into another. In the past a woman's worth was defined by her husband's status. Things are changing, but in some societies, a woman is still nothing without a man.

a wall of ocean between

she threw away the two person
turkey carcass that morning
as three waves thundered
their way over a tropical island

he spent the holidays
glued to news reports
how can you watch the destruction
i'm being a witness   he replied

upstairs she placed the red dress
and black heels into a Sainbury's
carrier bag    the whiff of vanilla
reminds her of their wedding

the warnings were there to see
just like the ocean quickly withdrew
from the shore    a curious sight
luring people closer

only to be left exposed
when the water returns
powers over their heads
tunnelling through their homes

she left him on the couch
absorbed in the spectacle
she heard later    more women
than men perished

women waiting on the beach
for their fishermen's return
ready to fillet the fish
ready to discard the bones

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me
Monday, 07 March 2016 09:19

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me

Written by
in Poetry

Sheree Mack, the poet mentioned by Andy Croft in his article on the privatisation of poetry, presents a selection of poems to mark International Women's Day.

Phenomenal Woman, That's Me

by Maya Angelou

‘Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.’

International Women’s Day is the one day in the year when we actively mark, honour and celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women around the world. Women contribute so much to the day to day working of this world that one day is hardly enough to recognise this. But it’s a start. And we may celebrate this day, but the fight to recognise and equally repay our debt to women in society is far from over. The move towards gender parity has slowed down.

‘The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn't close entirely until 2133: see http://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme

So this year’s IWD campaign theme is #PledgeForParity. How will you mark the day? What will you do to help women advance equal to their numbers?
Visit the link above to pledge your action.

The first poem in my selection comes from Mark Smith who has been campaigning endlessly to support his friend, Aderonke. Aderonke fled to the UK, from her native Nigeria about a decade ago. She was sentenced to death there for being in a lesbian relationship and has witnessed terrible things there, including the murder of loved ones. Despite this, she has been a strong campaigner for LGBTQI rights and in recent times has been awarded the LGBT Positive Role Model National Diversity Award. In addition to this, Aderonke has for two years running been officially one of the 101 most influential people in Britain. She faces a continual struggle to remain in the UK, having lost numerous (and humiliating) court cases. I continue to share her petition, (which has many signatories) in the hope that she shall finally gain political asylum here. Mark’s poem is a mini-tribute to her.


An Ode to Aderonke

by Mark Smith

She has passion, love and resilience
though her life requires great persistence.

Fighting prejudices of intolerable measure
she still seeks out the joy of life’s treasures.

Having gained many supporters,
there is a lot she has taught us!


The next poem was generously given by Caroline Kemp, a woman who tirelessly provides a voice for people with mental illnesses through her university work, lectures, talks and poetry. The poem explores the difficulties faced by women wanting to write.

Poem for Katharine Mansfield

by Caroline Kemp

'Oh to be a writer, a real writer, given up to it and it alone'.

I see you as the middle child,
Unwilling             Willed out
No favourite        uncomfortable words
Family remarks
'I see you are still fat'
Restless little thundercloud.

And later grown taller
cello fingers head full of words
the river pulled you,
the pine forests called
sultry swooning heavy with heat
in stockings bodices petticoats arm shields and dress
hem lines water damp wet.
A cover of night stars
A morning of birdsong
breast high in the manuka trees,
mimosa clover lily of the valley
pausing in the moment with the giant horse fly
by the clear water.

Splashes splashes of light falling falling
falling through the trees

I dream of your pen tumbling
with ink
slipping easily over paper
feelings rushing
living in the twilight.

And so much loving and hating,
Packets of love and hate hastily doled out.
Virginia grasped it straight away
Lawrence's rainbow
The presence of those eyes,
the mocking lips,
a mask a ghost

I see you in Paris
a hat of cherries    a long cloak     a white fez
a turban over a bold red mouth.

Soon the bacillus would grow.
Pen teeming emotion
A garden party in your head.

Lies    Lies    Lies
How you loved them, breathed them....your truths.
Living a life of half made dreams....such dreams....
The black bird in the corner of your eyes
waiting to alight,
shadows racing across the sky
Grass of bluebells cuckoo song
afraid to stop or settle
footsteps hurrying on.

The ink spilling
'I feel I shall die soon but not of my lungs'
Your blood buzzing rushing
your heart full of bees....
These truths you told yourself ....

Too soon too soon the bacillus gathering,

The feeling of the closed door, the locked gate
the twilight, the leaves, the dust.

And at the end too soon too soon
Virginia would mourn
despite the words, the promises,
your miss.
She saw the wreath on your hair,
the cold white flowers.
Another dream....
Leaving always leaving
impatient to be gone
The ink spilling
Leaving leaving
the curtains closed
impatient to be

With thanks to Claire Tomalin for her fine biography 'A Secret Life'
And the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.


Catherine Graham wrote the next poem in response to hearing Lucia Matibenga’s story. Lucia Matibenga is a Zimbabwean politician working with the United Movement for Democratic Change.

Sticks and Stones

by Catherine Graham

Even though you beat me,
you cannot keep me under your table.

You beat me
to put me in my right place
as a woman. My right place is being free.

Free to fight for the right to speak out.
Speak out against injustice, inaction, poverty.

If you believe that pain will
make me put my hands over my mouth,
then you are misled.

I cup my hands up to my lips and drink
to Justice, Equality, Dignity.

For I do not fade like a bruise fades,
I heal like a broken bone.

from Things I Will Put In My Mother's Pocket (Indigo Dreams Publishing)


Eliot North submitted a poem in honour of IWD which is taken from a developing collection of poems called ‘Flora Speaks’, a working collaboration with Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians. Henry’s book ‘Doctors in the Medicinal Garden’ has been source material throughout and this poem was inspired by ‘Asclepias tuberosa’ or ‘American Milkweed,’ named after Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo.


by Eliot North

My re-birth will eclipse
Mother’s funeral pyre;

Layers of self stripped
Back and light-bolted,

Biology enhanced
With digital snips.

How I milked my host,
Poison sap to bone;

A snake wrapped around
The wooden staff of life.

You. Do not eat my hope.
These wings are poised

To visit Pine valleys
From Canada to Mexico.

I’ll overwinter there,
My undergarments spun

From the senses, coded
In silken memory.


Next up we have translations by Niveen Kassem of two poems by Ghada Al-Samman. Al-Samman is gaining an international reputation, as she continues to write controversially about the Arab world. A prolific writer, she isn’t afraid to speak out, documenting and sharing, in innovative ways, Middle Eastern life and suffering which mostly goes ignored.

Al-Samman's writing shows defiance and determination to challenge the status of women in traditional, patriarchal Arab society. The poems tackle gender inequality in all affairs of life. Taking women's emancipation to a higher level, the poems take off like spreading wings of thoughts, flying in our imaginations like liberated birds, escaping a tradition that enriches and nourishes gender inequality.

Two Poems

by Ghada Al-Samman


Do not bless me coldly
kill me warmly
so we can be loyal for life

rather expiring together slowly
we become patriots in death.

Behold, I now open the box of sins

to recall my share of stars,
of flowers, butterflies and the lies;
I run from the orphanage of women
Who yield kindness and tearfulness

to where I can make my own seasons,
winds, forests and falcons
and demagnetizes my compass needle that leads
only to the directions of you …


When met
the gypsy inside me suddenly wakes
from long slumber of social oppressions.

Nature had spoken,
her delicious river beckons:
‘Come and learn how to swim,’

breathe and your lungs filled with air.

And the wind assures:
‘I am the voice of the unexplored Continents,’

do you miss travelling there……

The Sun declares:
‘Avail the wisdom of birds,’

residing in the nest, a transient ritual.
Only aviation is the absolute truth.


The final poem included in this selection comes from Sue Spencer, a former Senior Lecturer of Nursing, now fighting hard to marry her writing and good health together. I think this poem illustrates well the lengths a woman has to go to in order to be true to herself, to be authentic at the same time as changing the world around her. Check out Sue’s blog, https://kindandcurious.wordpress.com/

Finding the path

by Sue Spencer

She thought that to be a trail blazer
you had to create an indelible course,
burning signs into the landscape.

Now she knows that the route
can be determined by subtle,
almost imperceptible chips in the bark.

The way ahead will then be there
for those that know what to look for,
those who can notice nuanced clues.

That way the tribe can grow slowly
and also they will get there in their own time.


Women Without Face
Sunday, 06 March 2016 11:11

Be Someone

Written by
in Poetry

Be Someone

For Christ’s sake,
learn to type
and have something
to fall back on.

Be someone,
make something of yourself,
look at Gertrudo Ganley.

Always draw the curtains
when the lights are on.

Have nothing to do
with the Shantalla gang,
get yourself a right man
with a Humber Sceptre.

For Christ’s sake
wash your neck
before going into God’s house.

Learn to speak properly,
always pronounce your ings.
Never smoke on the street,
don’t be caught dead
in them shameful tight slacks,

spare the butter,

and for Christ’s sake
at all times,
watch your language.

from The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 06 March 2016 10:37

Still Boiling: Two Poems for International Womens' Day

in Poetry
Written by


Your gob packed a punch like a fist –
any opponent floored by a come-back.

Like Ali, your one-liners would float then sting
until you punched above your weight;

and were punched by my fist for your gob. Ali,
my girl, it’ s time to knuckle under –be a butterfly.

You talk gobshite, need a jab to stop your jabber.
You’re inside my ring now: I watch you twist it

around your third finger, trying to box clever
staying silent, but I know your twisted thinking

as you watch Countdown – other contenders’
way with words. Face it: you were never one.

But now you’re up and spitting blood,
saying, inside of a ring or out,

ain’t nothing wrong with going down.
It’s staying down that’s wrong. And I’m dumb.


Death Certificate, Burnt Oak

Dealing with the paperwork of dying,
the registrar looks dead bored, and, sighing,
he asks for my dad’s place and date of death
and birth, job, names, and last usual address.
As he writes it down, his signet ring gleams
on his little finger. He looks up, leans
towards my mother, and his pen is poised,
as he asks her, as wife of the deceased,
her name, and, at last, her occupation.
‘Housewife,’ she says. A hesitation,
he wrinkles his brow, and, again, he sighs,
taps his pen. ‘Is that all?’ ‘Yes,’ she replies,
and in her voice, there’ s no hint of recoil,
while I said nothing, but boiled. And still boil.


Death Certificate, Burnt Oak, was first published in the anthology The Book of Love and Loss.

Aberfan and the Free Wales Army
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 28 February 2016 12:40

Aberfan and the Free Wales Army

in Poetry
Written by

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. The injustices that the bereaved families of Aberfan had to deal with on top of their grief were beyond belief. Deborah Price remembers how the Free Wales Army helped the families of Aberfan, and Mike Jenkins memorialises the disaster with a poem.

At 9.15am on the 21st October 1966, in a small mining village that quickly became known worldwide, ‘The Aberfan Disaster’ struck. The unsuspecting Pantglas Junior School pupils and staff were preparing for a normal day. Looming above them was Mynydd Merthyr, the National Coal Board's dumping ground. A deafening roar was heard by many, but there was no time to react. The landslide took out 20 houses and demolished Pantglas, quickly burying it in a debris of slurry and loose rock. Rescuers came from nearby villages to try and help the frantic parents, but to no avail. 144 lives were lost that day, of those 116 were children.

Who was responsible? The NCB of course. Did they have the decency to acknowledge their blame, to bow their heads in shame? That's not how those capitalists work. The raw pain visible on the families' faces packed no punches with those hard-nosed bosses. The NCB's Lord Robens' excuse was that there must have been 'Unknown Water Sources!' What a deceitful response, every map of the area showed natural underwater springs, many directly below the dumping ground. People who had grown up in Aberfan used to play in those once-clear and beautiful waters, when they were children.

The Wilson government found the NCB guilty, but the price they placed on each small head was just £500. The indignity of it! Worldwide, people were less insensitive, donations poured in daily and a trust fund was set up. But another insult ensued. The bereaved families were not thought to be competent enough to distribute the funds. An initial committee was selected with not one person from Aberfan included. The grieving families were outraged. The villagers took it upon themselves to form a Parents and Residents' Association, and their solicitors eventually persuaded bureaucrats to include five representatives from Aberfan. The ten officials who were not from Aberfan accepted highly paid salaries from the fund.

Tensions were running high, applications to the fund were complicated and the Aberfan people were proud. The complacency those families had to deal with was unacceptable, something had to be done. Perversely the barrister in charge was now installed in the newly built offices at Merthyr Town Hall, paid for by The Aberfan Disaster Fund. A demand for £150,000 for clearance of the tips was also paid to the government and the NCB, 'to make the area safe,' they claimed.

The journalist, John Summers, was disturbed by the residents' plight and out of desperation contacted the Free Wales Army. When The FWA heard of the miscarriage of justice, they knew they had to take action. The fact that the families had had to pay for their own children's funerals was abhorrent, whilst using the fund to pay for the clearance of the tips was just another insufferable smack in the face to all of those families who were experiencing enough pain already. They vowed to challenge the authoritarian figures in charge of releasing monies from the fund and make sure that the bereaved families received what they were entitled to.

Dennis Coslett and David Bonar Thomas met with The Aberfan Residents' Committee to discuss immediate action. The following day a press conference was called, the venue was The Morlais Castle public house. More than fifty Free Wales Army representatives, dressed in their uniforms, marched through Merthyr High Street. Flags flying, white eagles adorned their berets, as they proudly sang their battle hymn:

“Behold the Red Dragon Flag,
Is floating across the silver sea,
And the soul of Wales is crying,
In the very heart of me.

Crying Justice, Crying Vengeance,
Pray my sons for strength anew,
For the many that’ll be dying,
At the falling of the dew...

They issued forth an ultimatum to be printed by the many newspapers present:

£5000 must be paid to each family within one week or let the consequences be on your heads. Our first action will be to bomb The Town Hall where the Disaster Fund Committee sits. Next the acting solicitor, then the treasury if we must. If all that fails we'll blow up The County Government Offices and then The Government Offices in Cardiff.

The money came forth within a matter of days. As a result, a memorial for those who died could be erected. The families of Aberfan had waited almost a year for this money. The following was printed in The Daily Telegraph magazine on 6th October 1967:

Families of the 116 dead children are to get £5,000 each, but the rest of the huge Aberfan disaster fund sits at Merthyr Tydfil, where the man who launched it says: ‘Even when all the survivors are dead, still most of the fund will be unspent. Then it will go to the Exchequer.’

The fund was growing fast, there was over £1,800,000, but people were saying that the money was being used to give Merthyr Tydfil a facelift!

Why did the government pay out so quickly after the intervention of the FWA? Well, prior to 1967, the Free Wales Army had been linked to a bombing that took place in the Clwedog valley in March 1966. A forage cap dropped in the area with their emblem on it had thrown suspicion upon them, but nothing had ever been proved. However, the incident had resulted in them being under the surveillance of the Regional Crime Squad.

Further suspicious activities in 1967 saw rumours that the FWA had formed an umbrella group with The Patriotic Front. The Anti-Investiture Front were planning some kind of destructive action in relation to Prince Charles's investiture, which was to be held in Caernarfon in July 1969. This information led to an emergency meeting at Buckingham Palace, which included members of both the Home Office and the Welsh Office. There was sufficient information to treat this as a serious potential threat. Members of the FWA were aware of the government's suspicions and the fact that as a group they were now
considered to be a real menace to public order in Wales.

On the 17th November 1967 the FWA did blow up the Temple of Peace in Cardiff, where an all-Wales conference of Lord Mayors was due to take place. Princess Margaret would have been present. The bomb went off at four in the morning. At 11am the dignitaries arrived and were confronted with a wrecked building.

The following is a quote from Denis Coslett, who was at the forefront of the FWA:

“I think one of the proudest moments in my life was to see those people,
at Aberfan, having that bit of cash. It wasn’t the money for itself they wanted. Their
grief couldn’t be soothed by money. It was just the recognition that it was their children who had paid the price – and no one else!”

Denis was presented with a watch by the parents' association for his help. Fred Gray, who was a leading member of the association, and lost a child himself, had this to say:

“If it wasn’t for the FWA the families would never have received a penny.”

The repayment of the money, in 1997, came about after the opening of public records under the 30 year rule. Iain McLean wrote several newspaper features about the behaviour of the NCB, the Ministry of Power, the Welsh Office, and the failure of the Heath government to hold anybody responsible for the disaster. He sent an article to Ron Davies, in May 1997, looking for the £150,000 to be repaid to the still extant Aberfan Memorial Trust, which maintains the cemetery and the memorial garden on the site of Pantglas Junior School.

The injustices that the bereaved families of Aberfan had to deal with on top of their grief were beyond belief.


He loved light, freedom and animals

by Mike Jenkins

No grave could contain him.
He will always be young
in the classroom
waving an answer
like a greeting.

Buried alive –
alive he is by a river
skimming stones down
the path of the sun.

When the tumour on the hillside
burst and the black blood
of coal drowned him,
he ran forever,
with his sheepdog leaping
for sticks, tumbling together
in windblown abandon.

I gulp back tears
because of a notion of manliness.
After the October rain
the slag-heap sagged
its greedy belly.
He drew a picture of a wren
his favourite bird for frailty
and determination. His eyes gleamed
as gorse-flowers do now
above the village.

His scream was stopped in mid-flight.
Black and blemished
by the hills sickness
he must have been,
like a child collier, dragged
out of one of Bute’s mines.

There he is, climbing a tree,
mimicking an ape, calling out names
at classmates. Laughs springing
down the slope: my wife hears them,
ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing
and I try to foster the inscription,
away from its stubborn stone.

Neptune's Staff
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 25 February 2016 17:44

Neptune's Staff

in Poetry
Written by

Many-headed monster
encased in thick dark metal
as it sails the silent seas
its existence an outrage
a deep immorality
fathomless in ignorance
and the thought of replacing
this monster with another
more gruesome than ever
as the oceans rise
and refugees flee
and hungry children cry out
seems to stink to high heaven
that can only rebuke us
and say it may cost us
the earth.


            Stop Trident March and Rally 12 noon, Saturday 27 February, London, see www.cnduk.org

Two Poems by William Rowe
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 15 February 2016 22:44

Two Poems by William Rowe

in Poetry
Written by

the sound of pigs falling

the sound of pigs falling
has fallen out of words
///dear dead///
some next-level revolution coming
cancels your silence
punching holes in the name of things
which body
from our bodies fall
the people armed
never be
mystical dreams
in other words
its representation
poetry is a virus
right in
of your face



there’s someone
whose need is reversed

the air is full
of the cries of men and women
expunged unexpunged

the air is his book

chained to the morning
already cast early sky ribs
the same thing rising

nothing is missing

Post Office
JD Sports
PC World
Haringey Magistrate’s Court
Haringey Shopping Centre
Gay’s the Word
JD Sports
Fire engine
Fire engine
Carphone Warehouse
Design Studio
Fire engine
JD Sports
W H Smith
Tottenham Hotspur Football Club
Kelmscott Secondary School
Dalston Kingsland Centre
Bus and police cars
Foot Locker
Police Car
Police car
Valens Jewellers
Ozcam Jewellers
JD Sports
Foot Locker
Carphone Warehouse
Evans Cycles
Jamie’s Italian
Brazas Restaurant National Express bus
Sony Distribution Centre
Palisades Shopping Centre
Bullring Shopping Centre
Pure Gym
Ealing Broadway Station
Tottenham Centre Retail Park
Police car
JD Sports
JD Sports
Burger King
Carphone Warehouse
Phone 4U
Cash Converters
Foot Locker
The Ledbury
Reading Angling Centre
Cyber Candy
Richer Sounds
Money Shop
Bang & Olafsen
Tesco Express
Bromley South Station
Arndale Centre
Foot Asylum
Bargain Booze
Miss Selfridge
Square Peg Pub
Austin Reed
Thomas Sabo
Admiral Street Police Station
Tesco Express
Jamaica Inn
Cabot Circus Shopping Centre
Gas main
Clarence Convenience Store
H Pollock
Salford Shopping City
3 Mobile
Meadows Police Station
Job Centre
Great Harry Pub
Canning Circus Police Station
Marks & Spencer
Patisserie Valerie
Kro Bar
Café Nero
Pretty Green
Picadilly Museums
Charles Dance Jewellers
No1 Pizza
House of Fraser
JD Sports
Liver Launderette
Belal’s Newsagent
Bloc Inc

something strictly unnameable
happens to the image of suffering
and what this has to do with riot
by previously existing criminals
political and final stone

A Poetics of Struggle: An Introduction to the Poetry of William Rowe
Monday, 15 February 2016 22:26

A Poetics of Struggle: An Introduction to the Poetry of William Rowe

Written by
in Poetry

Steve Willey introduces the 'poetics of negative energy' in two poems of William Rowe, the sound of pigs falling and index, published above.

at the end
of each line
inside its own
its all silent pain
force gathers
it names / what can
no longer be said
of what we have
we can’t say

William Rowe’s poetry is a poetry of struggle. It points out and to the limits of expression, not as a confession of personal inadequacy, false modesty, or as a transcendence of reality or even the mediating necessity of speech, but as part of a social, collective endeavour to locate the limits and the impoverishments of now so that they might be negated.

If ‘the sound of pigs falling / has fallen out of words’ (for ‘words’ read language/ for ‘pigs’ read police) then in what direction should we turn our ears so that we may hear this sound, a sound that would signal the falling away of the law, its police-language and its bodies, both institutional and physical? This is one of the questions that Rowe’s essential book of poetry Nation (Knives Forks and Spoons, 2nd edn. 2016) implicitly opens with. Trying to answer this question is what made me want to slice at the words of my own introduction.

Rowe’s poetry does indeed agitate / inside its own / silence. In the white space at the end / of each line there is a poetry of negative energy that wants to press the poem through to a different reality. Not forward in time towards a promise of utopian future, but in ‘other words’, as a disc punched from a two dimensional paper surface spinning down through its three dimensions to ‘some next-level’ where the silence of the dead (addressed by the poem but never represented) might be cancelled. This is not metaphor. This is description.

How many pieces of paper have been used to record, ignore or silence the names of the dead (for silence read the Chilcot Inquiry)? How many pieces of paper are used to send and keep someone in jail? Despite our digital age paper still plays a role in the bureaucracy of state-sanctioned silence. Rowe’s poetry is nothing like this. It wants new relations between bodies and language. At the end of ‘the sound of pigs falling’ are the lines ‘poetry is a virus/ mutating/ right in/ front/ of your face’. It is difficult to disagree. The poem enters us through our eyes which brings our reading body into direct relation with its viral shifting strains, the bodies it struggles to name and provoke: dead bodies; institutional bodies; police bodies; animal bodies; falling bodies; armed bodies; dreaming bodies. This poetry is a construction of new collective forms in the midst of a hostile, nostalgic alphabet, which is Rowe’s definition of ‘nation’.

Rowe’s six-page poem ‘index’ is doing similar work. In a recent and useful review of the poem on Stride Magazine ‘index’ is criticized for its ‘unimaginative’ use of a list of retail outlets and street names to comment on ‘the soulless homogeny of zero-hours commercialism’. It is also reprimanded for its misspelling of shop names which suggests to the critic that the ‘retail landscape’ has been ‘registered second hand’. I suspect Rowe is less interested in using the list form to comment on anything as nameable as the injustice of the zero hour contract, and is much more interested in the name as name, and in what happens to these names in the process of their accumulation. ‘Wimpy’ is a name for suffering. ‘House of Fraser’ is a name for suffering. ‘JD Sports’ is a name for suffering. ‘Jessops’ is a name for suffering. ‘Vodaphone’ is a name for suffering. This poem is an index of suffering, and as the poem notes ‘nothing is missing’, except perhaps a full, direct account of suffering.

Would a more ‘imaginative technique’ be better equipped to find a name to help us recognise the pain these words produce, contain and conceal? These names are scars. They don’t deserve to be spelled correctly. The stupid, sickening boredom of the list is their form, and it has been carefully conceived. It is notable, for example, that commercial enterprises are not the only things indexed. The ‘Job Centre’, a ‘National Express bus’, a ‘Police car’, a ‘Fire engine’, ‘Kelmscott Secondary School’ and ‘Admiral Street Police Station’ also make it onto the list. These are things that were looted or burnt during the riots of August 2011.

It is no accident then that Rowe places the camera retailer ‘Jessops’ at the end of his list. The riot was received and contested through its images as well as produced on the streets. But what does it mean to loot a name? What is the language of the riot? Can the riot redeem an unnameable experience of suffering? I don’t know the answers to these questions but they are ones that ‘index’ and the rest of Nation demand we look up.
Ewsed T Be Ooverville
Monday, 01 February 2016 17:20

Ewsed T Be Ooverville

Written by
in Poetry

Em’tiness. Them factree sheds.
The las shift leaves
an ev’ry machine stops.

We ewsed t be Ooverville,
ower washin-machines
sent all over
like rails an cannons
from them ol ironworks.

We could even afford t larf
bout Sinclair an is C5,
puttin it in-a window
as a crazee failure.

Now, we drive away
f’r the las time
with nowhere t go :
the toy factree’s gone
an we ardly make nothin.

It’s all retail an ousin
in this once great town :
but oo cun spend
an nobuddy’s buildin.

All them yers, all them skills
wasted like my son
with his degree, signin on.

Em’tiness. Rot an rats move in
an on’y the diggers o Ffos-y-fran
never stoppin like the lines
we left be’ind: the memrees
o frens stay welded,
as joints break an roof’s collapsin.

Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns
Sunday, 31 January 2016 16:45

Universalism, People and Song: A Last Toast to Burns

Written by
in Poetry

Below is the text of Chris Bartter's address to the Socialist Correspondent Burns Supper held in the UNISON, Glasgow City branch office, February 2015. It was on the theme of What Makes Robert Burns Immortal?

An Immortal Memory? That’s some claim, isn’t it? Particularly for a 37 year-old failed farmer and exciseman. But it is said that only the good die young. Or should the saying be reversed – only those who die young are good? For they don’t have the opportunity to renege on their youthful idealism, or for their early promise to be unfulfilled. However, Burns has had a huge impact on the literary, political, and musical world – not just in Scotland - but across the globe. In some circles that would be enough to consider his memory immortal, but you’re not going to get away as easily as that! Following the eloquent contribution of last year’s speaker, David Kenvyn, I am pleased to still be able to add the views of a fellow countryman after the febrile debate of the last two years – and hopefully I will not be considered as a ‘settler’ or even worse a ‘colonist’.

Invention or Necessity?

Of course we are all products of our background – and to deny one’s upbringing seems to me to be not only a futile exercise but also a self-damaging one. In these days of avatars and false identities it may be sometimes tempting like Jeffrey Archer to invent a beneficial back story, but, I suggest, would probably have as much long term success to ones reputation as his had! Of course literature has more than its fair share of invention – indeed it is an essential part of the genre – and I’ll deal with that later.

One of the myths generally noised abroad – particularly current in Scotland for some reason - is that the English do not know about Burns. If that was once true – and I don’t think it was, I remember learning Burns’ songs at school, at least as much, and probably more than I learnt Shakespeare’s – it certainly has changed and continues to change. Due to the influence of Burns within politics – especially socialist politics, the advocacy of expatriate Scots and literary studies, a basic knowledge of Burns’ life and works in England is at least equivalent to that of Shakespeare, certainly outwith the academic industry that surrounds Shakespeare.

It is, of course, a false comparison on merit, in any case. A comparison between a sixteenth century dramatist and poet and an eighteenth century poet and songwriter is probably as valuable as comparing, say, Oscar Wilde and Adrian Mitchell. But there are now many Burns studies, Burns suppers, Burns admirers and even Burns marketing opportunities – there is even a specially brewed Burns Ale that is made by Shepherd Neame, brewers from Faversham in Kent!

Who was Burns?

So who was Robert Burns? And what makes his legacy immortal? A poet, songwriter and a young man who had an impact both during his short life, and subsequently. He was no ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – in fact he was taught by both his own father, and by university graduate, John Murdoch. His parents attached great importance to their sons’ education. However he was no stranger to following the plough, and was born and brought up in poverty. This had a significant impact on his life, both in his search for a career that gave him the financial stability to write, and in the empathy he always had with his fellow workers.

It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep, at times, frae being sour,
To see how things are shar'd;
How best o' chiels are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And ken na how to wair't;
- Robert Burns: Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet.

The ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ myth, of course is one that was invented by the Edinburgh literary (and indeed political) establishment of the time, so they could create a Scottish Bard who was acceptable to them. Burns, of course went along with this myth in public, creating almost a dual personality, while he was in Edinburgh anyway. Not that this kind of duality is unusual in the literary and artistic world. One of the main influences on Burns, James MacPherson, purported to act as an amanuensis for the Gaelic Bard ‘Ossian’ of whom there is no evidence for his existence. And one can give other examples of the creation of characters, and names to cloak actors, writers and musicians throughout history – from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, Mary Ann Evans, Eric Arthur Blair, through to Jimmy Miller and Richard Starkey. (A special prize for anyone who gets all of the better known names for these!)

International impact

Burns was and is hugely important in the international literary canon, influencing, apart from Scottish writers as diverse as Scott and MacDiarmid, writers the world over. American Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was reputed to carry a book of Burns in his pocket and wrote these lines about Burns’ verses.

No more these simple flowers belong
To Scottish maid and lover;
Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.
- John Greenleaf Whittier, On Receiving a Sprig of Heather in Blossom

This particular reference to song is one I intend to return to. His influence continued in the US – John Steinbeck quotes him in the title of his book Of Mice and Men and JD Salinger deliberately makes Holden Caulfield misquote Burns in The Catcher in the Rye. Burns’ impact is also particularly strong in Russia and especially the Soviet Union, where he was dubbed the ‘People’s Poet’ and where the first ever Burns commemorative stamp was issued in 1956 –the 160th Anniversary of his death. A Russian translation of his work by Samuel Marshak sold over 600,000 copies. And who of that generation will forget the astounding Scotland/GDR Friendship Society Burns Suppers, organized by the late Peter Smith!

Even in China Burns was celebrated – apparently the marching song of the Chinese resistance in WW2 was a translation of My Heart’s in the Highlands

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
- Robert Burns, My Heart’s in the Highlands

You can hear the Chinese Resistance in these lines, can’t you! Interestingly this was also an indication that Burns was quite prepared to write in standard English as well as Scots, when he thought the need arose.

The struggle against oppression

Possibly as pertinent, although less politically charged is the influence of Burns on English writers. He is an important (if not the main) forerunner of the romantic movement – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, all acknowledged their debt to Burns. Well I said ‘less politically charged’, but maybe that isn’t so true. Both Wordsworth and his contemporary, Southey were strong early supporters of the French Revolution as was Burns.

When Brunswick’s great Prince cam a cruisin’ to France
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Brunswick’s great Prince wad hae shawn better sense,At hame wi his Princess to mowe.
- Robert Burns: When Princes an Prelates

And if anyone is wondering over a translation of the word ‘mowe’ in the above quote, let us just say, that it is taken from the Merry Muses of Caledonia – the verses of Burns that polite society tend to gloss over! Of course both Southey and Wordsworth changed their views latterly – Southey dramatically so. No-one can of course say what Burns’ subsequent view of the French Revolution was, as he died in 1796, after the period known as The Terror, but before Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor. One might as well claim to know how he would have voted in the recent referendum!
Personally I’m with the 20th Century Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, who when asked what he thought about the French Revolution is reputed to have replied “It’s too early to say.”!

But support for uprising and ordinary working people is a clear Burns trait. His political writings show his sympathies with people struggling against oppression – the French revolution, The American War of independence, and here, from The Slave’s Lament.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

Indeed Abraham Lincoln himself was a big Burns fan – apparently memorising much of Burns by heart. Of course Lincoln was a friend of Scottish Presbyterian minister, James Smith – who he appointed consul to Scotland and who is buried in the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow.

Music opens doors

Burns’ influence on the development of music and on many later musicians too, are many and varied. Bob Dylan has cited ‘My luve is like a red, red rose’ as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life. A majority of folk-based musicians acknowledge their debt to him. One of them, Dick Gaughan, along with Dave Swarbrick and a Canadian band formed by Jason Wilson have been exploring Scottish and Jamaican musical links recently. There is some fertile ground to be covered here, as the Scottish links to Jamaica are considerable, and, of course, almost included Burns himself at one point, though I’m far from sure that just adding No Woman, No Cry, to the end of A Red Red Rose is particularly successful. Auld Lang Syne is recognized by the Guiness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English Language – somewhat ironically!

Indeed a copy of the manuscript version of Auld Lang Syne was commemorated on a £2 coin. The manuscript I’m glad to say, currently resides in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow in the foremost collection of Burns-related material in the world. It resides there due to the work of my partner, Doreen Kean. It was Doreen’s work in pulling together the finances that allowed the city to purchase the MS from Christies in New York.

The immortal threads

So, What ARE the things that make Burns’ memory immortal? There are three clear threads that run through Burns’ work that I think ensure his immortality – threads that are linked but separate. Firstly, his ability to use specific personal images to allow us to visualize the scene, but more than this – to use an individual event or scene to shine a light onto general and universal truths. This needs the talent to both visualize the scene in a way people can relate to – the first lines from Tam O’Shanter for example:

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,

Immediately that shows me a scene at the end of the working day where people are on the lookout for a drink after work – something that I’m sure we’ve all experienced! And it also needs the talent to relate these events to general principles – later in Tam O’Shanter for example Burns has the “glorious” Tam

O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!

Haven’t we all put the world to rights over a drink? As a former colleague of mine once said: ‘The difference between us and Marx, is that Marx remembered to write it down!”

This use of the everyday to throw light on general principles is a major part of Burns’ genius, in To a Louse for example, where the sight of a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church takes us via concern, outrage and humour to the realization that she is about to fall foul of the gossip and fingerpointing that he himself has had to suffer –

Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin’.
And finally it ends in the general truth,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
Now Westlin’ Winds as well, where a fairly standard romantic nature ballad suddenly leads to a condemnation of man’s attack on nature
Avaunt, away, the cruel sway
Tyrannic man's dominion
The sportsman's joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

This universality is something that has separated the genius from the good throughout literature. Recently we have had to put up with a good deal of nonsense talked about the Great War. But if we go back to the poets who wrote about it at the time, we can see clearly that those that were able to ‘universalise the suffering’ about them – to broaden their vision like Wilfred Owen, ultimately made more long term impact with their verse than did the impressively sharp personal barbs of Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps we should draw a veil over Jeffrey Archer’s favourite First World War poet (Rupert Brooke) but can I briefly put in a plea for a Scottish poet who seems to me unfairly ignored? Charles Hamilton Sorley may have died very early in the war, but his poems do seem to me to have that broad universal vision.

Art in the Community

Secondly, this ability mostly comes from writers who are close to, or based in, a community. Writers who have an empathy and understanding of the motivations of ordinary people are able to universalize the personal, far better than those who are brought up to look at life as something that is purely something for their personal exploitation and their individual pleasure. This is obviously a strength of Burns’. He wasn’t keen on the Edinburgh establishment, and his poems and songs based in his local communities have a life and reality about them. I’ve already mentioned Tam O’Shanter, here’s the opening of The Cotter’s Saturday Night:

The toil-worn Cotter frae his labor goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

Thirdly, artists who use and understand music – especially but not only – folk music are also more likely to have this talent. Music and song is a superb way to identify a concern, clarify an issue, to open doors. Folk songs – and that’s what many of Burns’ songs are – deal with the lives of ordinary working people, their trials and struggles, and also gives a voice to those people. Music and song too, are important for their ability to spread words and ideas into different environments – as Whittier had it

Sown in the common soil of song,
They bloom the wide world over.

Burns was, in my view, as important for his songs as for his poems – possibly more so. He spent much of his short life working to collect lyrics and tunes, to write, and write down, traditional songs he heard at home and on his travels. He was involved with two collections of Scottish songs, and by far the most important is Johnson’s Scottish Musical Museum.

Burns came across James Johnson, and his massive project, when he visited Edinburgh the first time in 1786. He was immediately fascinated with the idea, and began to collect and seek out local people's songs, eventually contributing around 200 songs in total, about a third of the whole work. Obviously this kind of work predated the kind of work that Cecil Sharp, Frank Kidson, AL Lloyd and of course Hamish Henderson did much later. In reality, however, Burns is probably closest to another songwriter and collector - Ewan MacColl - as he often rewrote old songs and introduced new songs to old tunes. Amongst the songs he added to The Musical Museum were:- Auld Lang Syne, My love is like a Red, Red Rose, The Battle of Sherramuir, Scots Wha Hae, Green Grow the Rushes, O, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past, Comin' Thro the Rye and John Anderson, My Jo, and many more.

An immortal legacy?

So then – what is Burns’ legacy? Is it immortal? I refer those of you still listening back to Zhou Enlai! But what we can clearly see is that Burns’ work contains the key factors to maintain its own, and his immortality. It rests in his work. He could pick up and describe the lives of ordinary people. He could relate those incidents to the great principles of life. He could (and did) stand on their side, speak up for their struggles, and call for a better world (incidentally, not a bad philosophy for a political party!). Those talents and his use of song and lyrics mean that his verse has been accessible to other talents – both literary and musical. Especially musical – for ‘the soil of song’ is the key factor that has meant Burns’ work has ‘bloomed the whole world over’ Then raise your glasses and drink a toast to Robert Burns – to his immortal memory!

This text was first published in Socialist Correspondent Issue 22, Spring 2015.

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