Queering the Green: Post-2000 Queer Irish Poetry, ed. Paul Maddern (The Lifeboat Press, 2022)
It’s about time somebody undertook the difficult, necessary work of editing a collection of contemporary queer Irish poetry, and I am so glad that The Lifeboat Press accepted this challenge. Queering the Green is a thoughtful and important work indeed, one that requires and deserves a much longer review than the short introduction offered here. You can read my full review of this landmark text here.
The anthology is generous in extent and in scope; it features established and emerging poets alike, from both the north and the south of Ireland. While these poets take vastly different approaches to theme, structure, and form, they are united by a keenly sensitised queer subjectivity; a queerness that shapes and drives their engagement with language, history, and national identity.
As editor Paul Maddern points out in his introduction, we can think of ‘every poem’ as ‘a queering of the language’, yet ‘only we are queer’ (xxii). The queer happens inside of language, but language is not magically separable from the bodies and communities that make and use it. The prevalence and rising status of the queer within discourse comes with the real risk of erasing those bodies and communities. Queerness is not rhetorical or abstract; it is fiercely, often perilously, embodied. Queerness is situated. Queerness is lived. One of the things that makes Queering the Green such an exciting and significant book is that it reinstates vulnerable queer bodies at the centre of queer poetics.
In Padraig Regan’s ‘Salt Island’, which serves as a poetic introduction to the collection, the queer speaking subject is centred in – and interrupts – the rural Irish landscape. Regan’s speaker describes themselves as: ‘the little rip in the surface/ where my eye might snag’, clashing with and obtruding into the natural scene in his ‘red tartan’. I adore this poem, for the way it reclaims and conjures a queer pastoral, but also for the way it disrupts the long-naturalised image of the rural gaeltachtaí as the repository of some kind of essential Irishness, defined in terms of the traditional, the normative, the pure. ‘Salt Island’ is a work of nature writing par excellence; it is also a subtle refusal of the way national belonging is made and policed. For all and any of us who have felt the pain of loving a country that did not quite love us back, this poem resonates powerfully.
Spoken Irish is often conceptualised as political, rebarbative, inextricably tied to suffering, to protest, and to a (usually masculine) normative performance of identity. For this reason especially Ciara Ní É’s Irish language poems of wistful intimacy feel profound. These poems focus on tactile and sensory pleasure, on a generous, though sometimes melancholy, extension of affection towards another other. These poems perform an act of queer recuperation, they invite us to image an Irish of small things; of little-huge connections, as in ‘Leabhardhamhsa/ Bookdance’ (p.274) where owners of a book, decades apart, become ‘name-neighbours’ across gulfs of time. The act of naming, so often misused, so often divisive, forms the basis of a supernatural communion between the living and dead.
Elsewhere, as in Kevin Breathnach’s ‘Morphing’ poems (pp.6-10) words infiltrate and warp the structural integrity of bodies, and language – specifically English – is not merely subject to but an instrument of queering. Breathnach’s poems give us ‘morphing babble in a field of swept/ horror rhymes for muted words’ (p.6), ‘the yell of brief intentions’ and the ‘dreary/ attic drone’ (p.7); they conjure ‘life as reckless heated words’ (p.8) and ‘the smack of a plague racket stream’ (p.9). ‘shit on the grammar’ writes Breathnach in ‘Morphing #2’ (p.6) at once exposing and refusing the violence contained within hegemonic English, subverting the sanctioned syntaxes of lyric to strange, queer ends.
Throughout the anthology the intersection of language and body is evoked in a variety of provocative ways, but for me one of the most arresting pieces is Mark Ward’s ‘The Swamp’ (p.368), written after the painting La Palude by the contemporary Italian painter Roberto Ferri. Ferri’s work is heavily influenced by the Baroque, and La Palude is a remarkable painting, reminiscent of Caravaggio. It features a single hunched figure in a dark, obscure space, his back toward the viewer. The figure’s dipped head is in shadow, his face averted. Cowed and twisted, in obvious pain, his body bears the marks of violence. Historically, to be queer has been to be visible in all of the wrong ways: a target for ridicule and violence; a medical curiosity and a sideshow spectacle, a sinner, a sin. Your visibility was punitive and policed. You were supremely, dangerously visible, but rarely ever seen, and never heard. This contradiction seems to be the heart of Ferri’s painting and of Ward’s poem. In describing the scene as ‘primordial,/ some Beckett set design’ Ward seems to signal a specifically Irish context for the ‘swamp’. By using ‘primordial’ in both his opening and closing stanzas, Ward draws an explicit link between place and the suffering felt by the bodies that inhabit that place. The ‘swamp’ is not literal, it is simultaneously a figure for the seething morass of historical bigotry and persecution and the mental anguish of the silenced queer subject who cannot but experience themselves as freakish or monstrous.
It is no coincidence that monsters, chimeras, and witch-women appear across the anthology. In Rosamund Taylor’s exquisite and chillingly realised ‘The Names We Called You Meant Nothing to Me’, supressed desire expresses itself in a fever of socially-sanctioned persecution, and a woman deemed a ‘witch’ is hanged, or hangs herself (p.348). This final ambiguity is a deeply unsettling element of the text, which Taylor exploits to great effect, leaving the reader to sit in their discomfort, newly sensitised to the consequences of words and how we use them. While the poem unfolds against a backdrop of historical witch hysteria, the story is still miserably relevant, and particularly sharp for any woman who has found herself on the receiving end of homophobic abuse. Witch hunts historically blurred homophobia and misogyny. The true horror of Taylor’s poem is that fear of being thought unnatural and malevolent leads to a fatal betrayal of self and other.
Elsewhere, Taylor’s magical other is not abject but gloriously resistive. In ‘When My Wife Is A Werewolf’ (p.350) Taylor uses the conceit of therianthropy – the magical transformation of humans into animals – as a figure for the power of queer desire to remake futures, selves and lives. It is a survivalist hymn of solidarity and one of my favourite poems in the collection. In the final stanza Taylor’s speaker is vulnerable, yet safe; able to risk vulnerability because she is cherished and protected: ‘I am small/ as a rabbit against her/ yet I feel huge/ as the forest she longs for’. I can’t think of a better queer victory than that.
And queer victory is coming. Slowly, but perceptibly. This feeling is palpable across the anthology, perhaps because of its focus on living queer poets writing over the last twenty-two years. The Irish queer as represented by Queering the Green feels urgent, emergent, porous, in the process of being made. This sense of excitement and hope is reflected in the Ireland beyond the text, which has experienced a seismic shift over the last couple of decades in how it sees, legislates, and talks about queer persons. Some of these changes are momentous milestones, political with a capital ‘P, others are smaller, more daily, but no less important: the appearance of An Queercal Comhrá, Dublin’s first Queer Irish language conversation group, and the publication of an Irish language Queer Dictionary, An Foclóir Aiteach, in 2018. Tiny steps in a larger struggle but indicative of much welcome change in the air.
The Irish word for the odd or uncanny is aisteach. The Irish word for a queer person is aiteach. The poems in Queering the Green walk between these words and worlds; refracted through the lens of queer subjectivity, Ireland itself is made strange and new. There is a lot of sadness and struggle in this book, but there is also possibility, a chance to – as Sarah Clancy puts it in ‘A prayer to St Bridget in her most pagan incarnation’ – summon ‘a whole new language’ (p.49). Not just to name the damage done to us, but to articulate resistance; to mourn and celebrate ourselves and each other.
Federal Gods, Clare Saponia (Palewell Press, 2022)
Federal Gods is a book about exile, forced migration, and the complexities of belonging. It emerges from Saponia’s experience, volunteering at an emergency asylum home in Berlin-Wilmersdorf in Germany, first working with children, and then offering her experience as a teacher and a linguist to people of many different nationalities who were fleeing war and persecution. To a UK reader this book feels both timely and uniquely uncomfortable: it inevitably invites a comparison to England’s own treatment of refugees, which has been – and is – shameful. One of the things that makes Federal Gods so compelling is Saponia’s direct engagement with the discourses that drive such treatment, and with the language that frames and constitutes otherness. Saponia shows us how ‘Phobias cloned their way into books’ (p.13), evoking the age-old fear of the other through pungent and uncomfortable phrase-making. The first section of the text is particularly sharp in this regard; it sets the scene, offering vivid physical descriptions of the refugees’ arrival: ‘Flag waving. Food waving. The whole forecourt brimming with philanthropy. They cheer where you’ve come from. They cheer where you’re going. They cheer what you’ve seen and what you’ve forgotten.’ (pp.14-15) Yet these images of extrovert altruism carry an undersong of hostility and suspicion, a counter-tension that Saponia skilfully weaves throughout the text to conjure the precarious and ambivalent embrace of the host nation state.
Another thing that is particularly striking, is the way in which the poems make use of the polarising pronouns ‘you’ and ‘us’, mobilising direct address to force the reader into a confrontation with the language and tropes encountered by and aimed at those seeking asylum. As both categories shift and become porous over time, the poems effectively interrogate the way belonging is created and maintained in ways positive and negative. ‘Us’ can be an act of solidarity, or it can be a strenuously policed border, an ingrained mistrust that divides people from each other. ‘Us’ can also be coercive: a forcing together of disparate elements, a refusal of their context and specific historical pain. Federal Gods is a reminder – if any were needed – that ‘refugee’ is not a generic category; that human beings cannot be corralled and administered as some kind of homogenised mass.
In the tenth section of the book, ‘us’ and ‘we’ are conceptualised in a variety of conflicting and competing ways: the loosely bound official ‘we’ that yokes the ‘thirty-five butts’ of Saponia’s students with each other and their teacher, the ‘us’ that divides Saponia and her fellow teacher from their students. There is also the ‘us’ the students draw around themselves, the old networks of hostilities that cannot be healed ‘with haben und sein and present perfect tenses that have nothing much to do with your present.’ (p.36). Saponia hopes forlornly that ‘the shaky tatters of German grammar might just tear you from the shreds of your past: the flesh of your grudge’ (p.36). In this section we see both the promise and the limits of language: to bridge, to bind, and to heal. We see the trauma that words are unequal to, but we also catch a glimpse of the change language makes possible when its instrumental acquisition is animated by a compassionate care for another other.
Bringing others and otherness into focus is a central concern throughout Federal Gods, and Saponia creates intimate portraits of individual students while also exploring their complex relationships to the system that administers them, to one another, and to the wider political world outside the emergency asylum home. Throughout this process she writes frankly about the toll her work exacts; sensitised ‘In the ‘Blitz of Brexit’ (p.54) to questions of homeland and belonging, Saponia’s own vulnerability is the spur to a profound and empathetic meditation on mutual care and human community. What impresses about Federal Gods is the granular particularity with which Saponia’s poetic subjects are held and seen. They are not carted around inside the poem as inert lyric freight, illuminated by the poet merely to illustrate a point. They are people. Individuals at the mercy of an imperfect system and a brutalising world. We witness the teacher’s relationship with her class unfolding by slow degrees; a process that is moving, inspiring, frustrating, exhausting, desperate, joyful, and above all else messy. There are no easy answers in Federal Gods. Even the most well-intentioned efforts are often inadequate to the scale of suffering; systems designed to aid individuals require their erasure as individuals as a matter of course, and our flimsy attempts at organisation threaten to descend into chaos or erupt into violence at any moment. Yet throughout it all the drive to understand, to relish and sing the worth of a life – any life, all life – gives this book its motive force and compassionate core. As Saponia writes: ‘you were hungrier for life than I have ever seen anyone. You made me hungrier for the life I wore like some invisible shroud I forgot I was wearing.’ (p.15)
Federal Gods is really three books in one: it is a journalistic work, describing in meticulous detail how an act of practical solidarity is organised and attended to; detailing also the effect upon those being administered, and those who administer. From the refugees’ arrival, and the assembling of beds, an intense drive for love and kindness invigorates the most ordinary procedure: ‘The beds arrive./ This is an event./ This is happening./ More wow than you can imagine. More hope than you can handle.’ (p.18). Federal Gods is a book of reckonings, political and personal. In opening the gates to those seeking asylum from war and from the inevitable consequences of war, Germany is wrestling with its unthinkable history. Throughout the text Saponia also negotiates the complexities of her own belonging: Britain had offered asylum to her grandparents, yet in 2015, and through Cameron’s calls for a referendum, it had become a profoundly racist place, with implications for the right of European citizens to choose where they lived and worked, and with dire consequences for those seeking a place of home and safety in Britain. Saponia deftly manoeuvres through these cycles of fear and acceptance, assimilation and exclusion, offering us a vision of how home and family are sundered by – yet find ways to persist – at the mercy of political whims and hostile rhetoric. Finally Federal Gods is a book about language: how it extends to us, even at our most abject or suffering, the possibility of community and connection. While the refugees Saponia teaches are absolutely at the mercy of different kinds of language encounters, be they administrative, legislative, or emerging from mainstream media discourses, it is the doing of language in concert with others that allows a self and a community to be brought briefly and triumphantly into focus.
Mad Parade, Neil Fulwood (Smokestack Books, 2022)
Having relished Neil Fulwood’s contribution to Culture Matters’ own The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty (2021) and having very much enjoyed his previous offerings from Shoestring Press, I was delighted to receive my copy of Mad Parade, a book of uncompromising political commitment and zinging satirical energy. Written between 2016 to 2021 Mad Parade charts England’s descent into hopeless political madness. Throughout the collection, Fulwood’s voice walks the difficult line between tragedy and farce: laughter, for Fulwood, is not a cathartic release of tension, it is a form of resistance – targeted, purposeful – fed by fury. In ‘God Save Your Mad Parade’ which opens the collection, an uncritical embrace of ‘Britishness’ as concentrate in a corrupt and fallible monarchy, is given a thorough working out. Fulwood’s picture of semi-feudal deference is bitingly funny, but it is also painfully desperate: ‘Street parties hosted by those who vote Leave,/ Little England clutching at reasons to believe.’ (p.9). Fulwood’s poetic subjects cling to the last remnants of military might, cultural relevance, and easy nationalistic belonging, while suffering for the sake of these same delusions. The ‘deluge-drenched’ crowds, lining the Mall are metonymic for a populace so beguiled by power they will risk pneumonia just to catch a glimpse of its earthly emissaries.
In ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ Fulwood splices the hoary cure-all ‘thoughts and prayers’ with the sterile and instrumental language of both advertising and government. The result is that ‘thoughts & prayers’ contract into brand name: a product, a slogan. This poem functions as an incisive comment on the way neo-liberal discourse mediates and deadens our response to tragedy into politically expedient soundbites or bland, desensitised cliches: ‘Thoughts/ & prayers are not to be activated privately –/ the manufacturer’s guarantee will be invalidated/ unless sound bite or news camera footage/ can demonstrate media-appropriate usage.’ (p.10) The laboriously worded sentence shaves out any scrap of human feeling, and Fulwood’s attention to detail is sharp here: ‘usage’ rather than ‘use’, for example. No real person talks like that. Fulwood’s poem is not merely about the insincerity of our political elites, but a grappling with the language of their deception.
These poems are bold opening gambits, but wise ones. They showcase Fulwood’s signature style: rage controlled and channelled through form. Fulwood uses the structural stuff of the poem to stage a serious engagement with the ghastly world of contemporary politics. The collection contains sonnets, rock-song pastiches, remixes, and playful burlesques of pop-cultural standards, such as ‘Great Lost Episodes’ in which COVID-19 incompetence, Tory rapine, privatising mania, and ineffectual opposition leadership are refigured through the lens of beloved seventies and eighties telly: The Dukes of Hazard, Thomas the Tank Engine, Camberwick Green, and Cheers retrospectively (pp.51-56). Here Fulwood creates an absurdist tension between theme and form to superb effect. The underpinning conceit is hilarious, but the real-world stakes trouble the promised benevolence of their nostalgic fictional worlds. The poems are inventively framed commentaries on our contemporary moment, but they also seem to explore the idea of nostalgia itself, how it is used to politically neuter the past, present a rose-tinted view of a good ol’ days that (for the working class, at least) was really not so good at all. The Tories frequently weaponize nostalgia, so it seems fitting that Fulwood should collide the vexed present and fictional past to challenge their latest predations.
Mad Parade is dedicated to the memory of the comedian Bill Hicks, and this feels appropriate for a collection so combative and almost gleefully caustic. In ‘Boris: A Spotters Guide’ Fulwood lets rip with: ‘Boris thinks women/ in the burqa look ridiculous.// See Boris. Boris dresses like a banshee / on crystal meth would dress if it lived / In a house without mirrors.’ (p.28) The cornerstone of both Hicks’ satirical humour and Fulwood’s is the close observation and detailed description of reality. That the Trampy Tory Haystack in Chief would feel empowered to comment on anyone else’s appearance is almost already beyond satire. Fulwood’s skill lies not in exaggeration or in spinning whimsy, but in emphasizing the grotesque and bizarre aspects of reality. And where the Tories are concerned there are a lot of those.
Yet Mad Parade is also surprisingly sharp on the bland vacuity of political elites. Keir Starmer is certainly not as overtly monstrous as Boris Johnson, but in ‘Sonnet in the Time of Meh’ Fulwood finds a way to make the curdled rage he inspires engaging to the reader and eviscerating of his target. Starmer is not a personality – even a malignant one – but this actually works in his favour: he is almost tactically boring. Fulwood leans into this, claiming that ‘it’s a bind just to sit here writing this’, that inspiration for a polemic poetical take-down eludes him: ‘Could it be my fighting spirit’s dead’? he asks himself (p.43). But no, it is simply that the brutal and obscene truth that labour is now being led ‘by a lawyer who’s (shoot me now) been knighted’ is too stark and too sad to excite further comment. The absence of rage becomes an occasion for rage, and over the page ‘Milquetoast Paradise’ (after Gangsta’s Paradise by hip hop artist Coolio) offers us a bravura soliloquy of strategic blandness and conformity: ‘But I watch what I’m saying, don’t do too much opposing,/ My homies watch the ratings and the numbers are closing.’ (p.44).
Fulwood is an acute observer of power and its operation through language. Mad Parade is an intelligent and refreshingly direct poetic encounter with corruption, incompetence and bigotry, one that has the power to galvanise even as it entertains.
CC: DEATH CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL & DEVELOPMENT, Cole Denyer (Veer, 2022)
This is Cole Denyer’s first book with Veer, which feels like a perfect fit for a work that reads as a difficult and often frightening hex against the apparatus of the state.
With biting irony Denyer describes the book beginning as a ‘billet-doux to an Employment Relations Officer regarding the termination of my Occupational Sick Pay; it ended from the future by saying ‘if there are any other ways in which we can be of any further help or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.’ This was an attempt to think what those other ways might be.’’ (p.46) This thinking takes the form of a lyric forensis, interrogating the malignant operations of power through language. On first reading, I was reminded of one of my favourite poets Rachel Blau Duplessis, who writes in ‘Draft 52: Midrash’: ‘Every mourner as a black Letter unwritten/ every body, stick, or piece of body ash/ a silent blanked out sentence inside of a syntax of systematic/ revulsion.’ Denyer is similarly preoccupied with this ‘syntax of systemic revulsion’, and with the function of the name inside this system. CC: DEATH CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL & DEVELOPMENT gives us, on the one hand, the violently anonymised and disappeared victims of Tory economic policy, and on the other the punitive visibility of surveillance capitalism. More than this, Denyer’s text is the tool by which the tactical concealment of Tory politicians, undercover operatives, and other agents of the state, is exposed and countered. Working at the semantic and syntactic limits of language, Denyer hacks his way through bureaucratic jargon and the numb affect of party-political pronouncements to summon and subject their perpetrators to a lyric retribution.
A particularly striking section of the book begins with a list of names and aliases belonging to undercover police, such as Mark Kennedy, who serially infiltrated left-wing activist cohorts throughout the mid-2000s, manipulating and deceiving several women into sexual/ emotional relationships, with the full sanction of his supervisors. Although Kennedy became the poster boy for undercover corruption, the list of some thirty-eight names is a visually arresting (and morally disturbing) testament to how rife and normalised this tactic was. Because Denyer does not terminate this list with a full stop, we are left with the unsettling feeling that the rollcall of informers is potentially endless. The list is followed by an italicised section quoting from a Hansard report on a Commons debate from 1818, addressing the ‘Motion Respecting The Conduct Of Certain Spies And Informers’ (p.29). This collision of temporalities signals the ongoing and recursive nature of malignant state power; its endlessly exhausting cycles of concealment and disclosure.
What follows is a passage in which the figure of the undercover cop is used to think about the ways in which identity – political and poetic – is constituted and riven. Here Denyer’s language is at its most searing and exciting. The poem resists readerly efforts to break down the text into conventional sense or syntactic units, instead multiplying constructions along different axis. The grammar is suggestive and slippery, and Denyer enacts the spy’s schizoid pinball between names, identities, allegiances, and lives on the blank space of the page, where fragmented stanzas of irregular length shuttle back and forth from left to right. It is Denyer’s phrase-making however that is most compelling: ‘friends/ your brightest human warmth/ assuming like other members/ the identity of a body who had died young/ & be made into braids of armaments/ & worships invisible now through the spy gash/ […] speak through stolen life,/ a name of deceased child’ (p.30). The uncanniness of Denyer’s language brings home to us the sheer perversity of a state cannibalising its infant dead as an instrument of surveillance. It is also hints at the psychic contortions necessary to undertake such a betrayal.
The tale of ‘Sergeant Yobbo’ is a grotesque masque in which Denyer’s oracular poet-yob turns the logics of infiltration back against the undercover agent: ‘I speak your mouths exit a bewitched helve’, he writes. ‘Yob’ by its very definition is a faceless working-class unit; a member of the mob, the swarm, the hoard. By stepping inside a ‘Yobbo’ skin, Denyer’s cop invites this seething multitude in all its warped and warping rage.
Rage is the substance and the subject of Denyer’s work, but his purpose is not merely to give vent, but to use the destabilising force of prole fury as a tool for reinventing poetic method. Sometimes this work is hard to read. This passage from the beginning of the text, for example, is particularly grim: ‘The crypt Janis Dobbie eats/ is of red-tapeworm sanctioned her dead son/ or bones blown into flag ended/ in the undercroft for ended; smyth’d/ for banisht; Iendeth/ for forgotten people screw in & be small & hard’ (p.8). Janis Dobbie is the mother from Gallowgate in Glasgow who lost two adult sons to heroin addiction, and who Ian Duncan Smith claimed to be responsible for the moral epiphany that led him to found the Centre for Social Justice. The pain in these lines is palpable, but so is the way in which this pain is bureaucratised and assimilated into the apparatus and language of the state towards political ends: ‘red-tapeworm’ connects the decayed physical body to the rotting body of the state through the idea of ‘red tape’. Government itself is necrophagous, parasitically feeding on the misery of the poor. ‘Flag ended’ with is aural affinity to ‘fag-end’ implies a spent and expendable subject, who is nevertheless yoked to a grubby nationalistic script. The use of archaic spellings ‘smyth’d’, ‘banisht’ and ‘Iendeth’ provokes another of Denyer’s temporal glitches where Dobbie’s grief becomes part of an endlessly looping continuum of exploitation and oppression.
For all the historical miseries visited upon the poor, Denyer offers a space of counter preservation. CC: DEATH CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF PERSONNEL & DEVELOPMENT requires an act of non-trivial attention, an attention seldom afforded the poor as either citizens or subjects within literature or in life. These poems are about language and what capitalism does to us on the level of language. They are also work sites, in which the work is the reclaiming of language and the renaming of experience. Don’t come to this book for catharsis, but to be provoked, confronted, and stirred into action.
Declarations of Love, Jim Aitken with drawings by Martin Gollan (Culture Matters, 2022)
It was my great pleasure to provide the introduction to this beautiful collection from activist, educator, and poet Jim Aitken. It is a work of compassionate socialism that invites and compels us to consider what we understand by ‘love’ and what it means, at this perilous political moment, to declare it. It is not by accident that Aitken chooses the word ‘declarations’: it is a word that carries connotations of politics and law, but it is also from the Latin declarare, to ‘make quite clear’. Something is being revealed, a message relayed. Aitken’s poems enact the ethical imperative to communicate and connect, and they do so with energy and tenderness.
Within mainstream lyric poetry, and within neoliberal culture in general, love is most often celebrated as an individual expression of romantic feeling. Through a seemingly endless torrent of aspirational and escapist fantasies we are told that the ideal is to achieve self-actualisation through romantic intimacy; that thanks to a deep, personal connection with another human being, the unfulfilled, alienated or otherwise struggling subject can transform their outlook, and change their life. In this narrow conception of things, the change that love makes possible is rooted firmly in the domestic and personal realm, leaving the political sphere untouched; 'love' becomes a mechanism for evading responsibility for the material causes of unhappiness and the systemic nature of inequality, becomes in fact a tacit apology for these things. Relentless repetition has naturalised this form of love as an absolute reality, transforming 'love' itself into bland cultural freight or neoliberal fetish.
Aiken’s collection is in part so utterly invigorating because it restores to the idea of 'love' urgency and ethical impact. For Aitken, love appears not merely a matter of individual emotion, but also of perception – a way of encountering the world and its myriad 'others' – and a methodology – a way of relating to and being with those others. What is so fresh about this poetic endeavour is how utterly unsentimental it is: when Aitken writes of those ill used by the system – destitute and often crippled with addiction – he does not assume, as so many writers do, that the highest form of care is a refusal to look at fault. Care is manifest rather in an effort to understand where and how the cracks appeared: 'and left me wondering how much/ you have to drink to get like that;/ how much does it take/ to have this system afflict you so?' (Drunkard, p.5).
This sustained attention to the other is the beating heart of Aitken's collection. And here 'other' encompasses not only fellow human beings, but the natural world, which is equally exploited and equally threatened under capitalism. For Aitken nature isn't merely meaningful for the thoughts and emotions it inspires in his human speakers, but is part of a mutually vulnerable communion. Nowhere in the collection is this more completely expressed than in 'Beachcombing' (p.8): 'For fragile is what we all are,/ vulnerable our condition./ And what should flow, should surge from this/ is nothing less than compassion.' In this remarkable piece, the sea itself is included in and presents us with a model of strange and radical solidarity. The 'brotherhood of brine' is a leveller of human destinies, implicated in the politics of conquest, flight and exile, but it also provides an escape and a salve to those things, crashing 'through all razor wire' and 'smashing down all walls and fences'.
Throughout the collection Aitken entwines human and non-human subjects. For example, in 'Stray Cat' (p.43) both the poem's feline protagonist and the 'hunched heron' seem 'to challenge' the speaker's 'inner world.' There is a reciprocal relationship at work here: the poem creates a space of witness to the lives of those discarded or imperilled by capitalism, and in return the non-human other reminds us of our duty as members of a compassionate commons.
Declarations of one kind or another seed themselves throughout the collection, as in ‘Abbot Bernard’s Vision’ (p.18) in which the Declaration of Arbroath and the dream of independence is placed in fraught contrast to the grotesque spectacle of ‘the new Baron Boris’ imposing his morally compromised might upon a still ‘non-suppliant people’. Or in ‘Declarations of Love’ (p.39) in which the speaker confesses his frank admiration for nature in a playfully teasing way, concluding: ‘I have said it/ and feel all the better now for declaring my illicit loves.’ What these two very different approaches to declaration reveal is an abiding respect for the truth and the pressing need to speak it. This is a concern proper to lyric poetry, it is also a cornerstone of socialism. Through the device of the declaration Aitken cleverly unifies political and poetic worlds.
Aitken is a poet who understands the power of language to shape perception, to create or restore our bonds with each other and with the world, but also to dominated and destroy. In the moving ‘Loanesk Ward’ (p.31), one of the collections many elegies, shifts in emphasis negotiate a common ground that make a restorative solidarity possible: ‘Four of us held court in those heady days:/ there was you, Coinneach, the other Ian/ and myself – two socialists and two nationalists,/ or three dominies and one deplorable banker,/ or four married men with wives and children,/ with responsibilities and the need to talk.’ Elsewhere, such as in ‘If Only Nicholas Witchell Spoke Scots’ (p.7) and ‘The C Word’ (p.13) Aitken takes a humorous and irreverent approach to language. In the former using Scots dialect to gleefully resist, undermine and subvert hegemonic English. In the latter, the speaker plays with our assumptions about what makes for ‘bad language’ in order to tackle bigotry and repression. This is play with purpose. It is a pleasure to read, but the political confrontation that drives it is deeply serious.
I think these moments of confrontation are perhaps the collection’s most important acts of love. I admire deeply the stillness and effecting simplicity of elegies like ‘Blossom’ (p.32) or the meditative pause created by Aitken’s seasonal haiku (p.45), but it is in those poems of witness and of challenge that Declaration of Love truly lives. Aitken has the makings of a fine nature poet. It would be easy enough for him to turn his heightened attention to scenes of solace and beauty, but there is a staying with the world and with people, in all its unfairness, in all their complacence and cruelty that is braver than that. These poems evince a radical empathy that lives electrically on the page. Nowhere more so than in ‘Voices of the Dispossessed’ (p.15), which is at once an extension of sympathy and a clarion call: ‘Going on is our mode of being,/ it is our only purpose./ In this purpose lies our strength/ and that strength is our faith in life.// And because they only value money/ not only will they never understand us,/ they will never be our equal.’.
Aitken’s poems are illustrated by Martin Gollan, whose dynamic penmanship carries a similar sense of energy and defiance. Gollan’s illustrations lend Aitken’s work an urgency and immediacy, emphasizing the poems’ enmeshment in the ever-changing political world but with a wit and lightness of touch that is genuinely delightful.
Throughout the collection love endures and is the badge of our endurance. Love makes endurance possible. This ‘going on’ is also a poetic method: a refusal to lose heart and hope, to attend to those moments of joy and triumph as well as those of pain and suffering. This collection holds all of these experience with an equal measure of care and ferocity. It is socialist writing at its humane best.
Hound Mouth, Barbara Barnes (Live Canon, 2022)
This is the exhilarating first collection from Barbara Barnes, and the richly deserved winner of the 2021 Live Canon Collection Competition. Barnes is a poet whose work I have long admired, and whose poetic debut I have been anxiously anticipating. Hound Mouth is certainly worth the wait: its title poem is the collection’s opening gambit, whetting the appetite, setting both pace and tone. The speaker in ‘Hound Mouth’ is a savvy raconteur, by turns confessional and performative, who tells the reader: ‘everywhere you listen, I’ve/ a song to fill your bucket eyes.’ (p.8) The poem proceeds in urgent, unrhymed, and mostly self-contained couplets, each marking a disclosure that mystifies and beguiles more than it reveals; Barnes’ short stanzas are jests or feints, maybe riddles and puns, they play with and subtly defy our expectations: ‘I’m more than sodden’, the speaker confides, ‘I’m up-trodden and washed down’, flipping the accustomed directionality of dissipation in favour of something more defiant, deliberate and joyous. Soused the speaker may be, but if we think they’re not in control we are very much mistaken: ‘I rehouse the rhymeless,/ paint oranges on their door hinges’ they tell us, jokingly. This speaker knows exactly what they do, is an agile manipulator of language even – especially – when they seem to be at their most abandoned. We think we are reading a poem from an intoxicated storyteller, when in fact we are reading a poem about the intoxicating effect of the story. This form of misdirection is the life blood of the theatre, and it is the theatre – and theatricality – that is the true subject of Barnes’ collection.
In her other, or rather adjacent life, Barnes is an actor, and many of the poems draw directly upon the characters, history, and daily entanglements of her profession. Some of these pieces seem rooted in personal experience, as in the touchingly funny vignette ‘Monologues for Young Actresses’ (p.46) in which a teenage girl auditions for the part of Miranda in a ‘Community Players Theatre’ production of The Tempest. Barnes is adept at playing the small-town reality of the audition (‘Foolscap taped to the gymnasium door’) against the girl’s outsized and ‘uncrushable ambition’ to comic and moving effect. Tonally, this is a difficult balance to strike, but Barnes’ treatment of her teenage subject is both knowing and affectionate, and through her vivid narration we come to understand the seductive and consuming pull of the theatre’s other world: ‘I cannot sleep nor eat as the words ribbon/ across my mind screen. The bedroom glass has instructed/ my hands in the manner of beseeching, my gaze schooled/ in Elizabethan innocence.’ Barnes speaker is ‘rehearsed/ in weeping, I no longer cry’, a subtle and somewhat troubling distinction, as she shuffles through her stock of embellished memories for experiences to mine for her performance. That these experiences – of love especially – are rather limited and innocent in scope – is not an occasion for ridicule, rather they serve to underscore the absolute vulnerability of their speaker.
Acting, even at such a young age, is an oddly defenceless experience. It demands and extracts something from you. There’s a toll to be paid. The poem concludes with the speaker’s father listening to ‘Sports Roundup’ in an idling truck, waiting for his daughter to return. His ‘last minute advice’ and the poem’s punchline is ‘just be yourself’, which works on us as humour because we have come to acknowledge its total impossibility. As advice for an actor, it is flimsy and counter-intuitive, but Barnes succeeds in delivering more a laugh: we are left with the sense that the father’s extension of care is also the dividing line between the logics of the theatre than those of the mundane world to which he belongs; as with the line of girls before her, the speaker is about to be consumed into some strange new reality.
Barnes’ poems excel at capturing the strangeness and vulnerability of that reality. In ‘An Early Call’ the poem that immediately follows ‘Monologues for Young Actresses’, the act of being made up becomes an occasion for both intimacy and yearning, as the speaker leans ‘into the last/ unnamed region of this man,/ this stranger sketching brown/ to make my brow’ (p.47). In ‘Mic’ (p.48), Barnes’ alliterative and sonically popping ode to a microphone personified, the ‘metallic maestro’ and ‘Germ-laden lollipop kid’ collects and exposes the inner-most nuances of breath and voice. The mic functions as confessor, lover, and impersonal autopsying eye, as Barnes puts it, a ‘Faithful forensic intimate’.
Throughout the collection as a whole the actor’s oscillation between bravura and vulnerability, elaborate artifice and naked truth are figured in a variety of startling ways. To my mind the best of these pieces are those that delve into the grease-paint paraphernalia and often grubby guts of the theatre. In ‘Bawdy’, for example, where the fevered sensory scramble of an erotic dance – ‘Nipples fling tassely tears to a stiletto beat’, ‘strained buttons of resolve pop like candy, zippers/ rip at the teeth’ – ends with a stark, sad ‘You act as if/ it never happened’ (p.53). Where exactly do we locate ‘performance’ anyway? On the stage, or in the world? Is it what we project, or what we do and say inside ourselves in order to survive each day? Barnes plays with a similar tension in ‘What You’ve Made of Yourself’, where the voice of the poem’s addressee delivering their lines ‘scandalizes the air, uncorks that feckless/ joy of casting away, overturning tables, authoring// mayhem, fanning to razor-hot your conman’s skill/ for passing off a tawdry heart as a glinty jewel’ (p.55). There’s an alchemy to acting, but it’s not necessarily benevolent. In becoming ‘a spectacle’ the poem’s subject loses something of their humanity, their self.
The most accomplished of Barnes’ theatre poems is the three-part sequence ‘Something About the Limelight’, a series of coruscating quick-change performances that shape-shift through continents, subject positions and poetic forms. The first piece uses the kinetics of the text to create the tapered shape of the light, describing without naming, through a series of metaphors that themselves feel like one act plays, told in vivid and flickering images, redolent of seduction, excitement, mystery and danger. Barnes gives us ‘the night torn open/ a white wound’, ‘a beckoning ghost’, ‘your dealer lighting up in a blacked-out car’ (p.56). These images intrigue but they threaten as well. Literal limelight illuminates, but it is also highly unstable and destructive. Barnes evokes specific instances of the historical use of limelight to interrogate the volatile and damaging potentials of fame itself. In the second piece the poem dramatizes the earliest known use of limelight in the UK, at a public event on Herne Bay Pier in 1836. Barnes gives us Ching Lau Lauro’s performance as contortionist and magician, with all its ‘promise of crude delights’. The performance extracts something particular from Ching Lau Lauro, and effort is inscribed into his every movement, for example, his: ‘Legs in a crippling twist, one arm pulls the other through the hole/ in his back. Professor Ching is swallowing his own head’, or ‘Hard lit, Ching’s expression is a grim white slick’ (p.57). A disturbing feeling of voyeurism hangs over the poem, as the contortionist becomes a screen onto which his audience project their sense of fetishizing spectacle, while his body is warped and deformed on demand.
The third poem is yet more disquieting, written from the perspective of the actress Kate Claxton to her ‘leading man who perished in the Brooklyn Theatre fire of 1876 during ‘the Two Orphans’ (p.58). As Kate, Barnes’ language simmers and sings, leaping like flame from line to line with urgent intensity; she describes the slow realisation that the threat is real and not ‘part of the play!’, her co-star’s fatal decision to run back for his overcoat, and the horrible sense of unreality that haunts her in the wake of his loss. The penultimate lines of the poem are ‘We must cut this act, rework the ending,/ danger is everywhere, the theatre consumes us.’ The fire becomes emblematic of and metonymic for the way the theatre consumes and annihilates numbers of its unlucky disciples. It is a powerful poem, and one of the finest pieces in the collection.
But there is so much more in Hound Mouth. One of its greatest strengths is in its mercurial and restless nature. Barnes is a meticulous and tender portraitist of family, friends and fellow actors. She is clever and funny about place, people, and her profession. What unites all of these poems is their love of language and their curiosity about life, its myriad stories told an infinite number of ways. A remarkable, big-spirited achievement and a genuine pleasure to read.