Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

Summer Poetry Round-Up
Thursday, 07 July 2022 07:40

Summer Poetry Round-Up

Published in Poetry

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Declarations of Love Jim Aitken cover

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.

hound mouth

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.

Do Geezers Go To Heaven: Review of 'Breeze Block' by Jake Hawkey
Thursday, 07 July 2022 07:23

Do Geezers Go To Heaven: Review of 'Breeze Block' by Jake Hawkey

Published in Poetry

Breeze Block, the debut collection by Jake Hawkey, confirms Lumpen Press as a serious and exciting poetry publisher. Hawkey's haunting collection is the second in Lumpen's chapbook series, following on from Dorothy Spencer's accomplished and engaging See What Life is Like. Hawkey shares with Spencer a commitment to foregrounding working-class experience and voice. Breeze Block is particularly focussed on the often complicated relationships we forge with lovers, friends, family, and with our wider communities. In the brief 'Author's Note' that precedes the collection, Hawkey credits the title to the ingenuity of his family, 'the people of London who call talking nonsense chattin breeze', and to the council estates on which he grew up. This small gesture already offers the reader an insight into Hawkey's signature style and characteristic concerns: the tone is playfully self-deprecating, impling that the text itself is an elaborate form of nonsense. Yet the literal breeze block is also emblematic of the estates that contain the communities Hawkey so compellingly writes about.

In laying claim to this most utilitarian and uncompromising artefact in a genre of writing typically associated with the ephemeral, Hawkey reclaims poetic workmanship from the myth of bourgeois literary production, and the privileged interiority of middle-class prosody. These poems respond to and engage with the real world through the structure and stuff of language. Throughout the collection Hawkey's poems are admirably self-aware, they temper their moments of emotionality with observations both meticulous and tender; in places they evince a wry humour reminiscent, perhaps, of the late Frank O'Hara.

The opening stanza of 'Tuesday' (p.5) is perhaps the best example of this technique: 'I fire an email to a big cheese poet in Pennsylvania/ asking if my attached poems ‘capture God’,/ then realise this question is like asking/ if my balsa glider landed on the sun.' The way the first line extends beyond the rest of the stanza, both the nerdy specificity and the syllabic awkwardness of 'Pennsylvania' contrive to perform the email's slightly pompous overreach. That Hawkey's speaker catches himself in this moment of fallibility is both humorous and endearing. As the piece opens out through a series of vignettes – a hilariously banal vlog, a vivid description of birds on a wire, the death of an old lady's goldfish and her ritualised mourning of it – the poem expands into a meditation on how art and ego intersect with dailiness and our responsibilities towards one another.

Middle-class discourse and working-class experience

Breeze Block is a deeply thoughtful collection; but it is not a collection that traffics in abstraction. Rather, thought originates in embodied  experience, specifically within (an often traumatic) working-class experience, and many of the poems expose the friction that exists between middle-class discourse and working-class experience, both inside and outside of the academy. 'Laughing Poem' (p.2) begins boldly with: 'I didn’t know I was poor until I could spell middle class subjectivity./ I didn’t know I was poor until I could write middle class subjectivity/ mistaken as objectivity to the detriment of everybody as a sentence. This is a form of wealth.' The poem then moves between a visceral memory the speaker has of hitting back at a bully with a truck of his skateboard, then running away while laughing, and theoretical discussions surrounding the nature of both performativity and violence in which the speaker's lecturer, his fiancée, then his counsellor act as interlocutors: 'A lecturer says collage should perform a balance of sorts./ I aim to write a poem where laughter is performative.' Hawkey writes, and later: 'My fiancée says male violence is wrong in all circumstances', then towards the end of the piece: 'My counsellor says rage is an expression of the deeper;/ anger cannot be judged moral or immoral in itself.'

By writing the kind of collage the text describes, 'Laughter Poem' becomes both an exploration and critique of the idea of 'balance' as a staple of middle-class taste and ethics. 'Balance' is not a luxury afforded equally to everyone. It is the aesthetic disposition of those who can afford not to be angry; who live without the disruptive overwhelm of traumatic memory. A refusal of violence is also a 'form of wealth'. Right or wrong are moot points when violence is your mechanism of survival. Abdication from this fact is a function of class privilege. By rippling and refracting the speaker's childhood experience through the lens of art, intimacy and therapy, Hawkey creates a layered picture of the ways in which childhood experience shapes our creativity, our relationships, and our sense of who we are. It is a satisfying poem, both psychologically and politically, and one of its most significant themes – a theme that recurs throughout the collection – is that the middle class has been so effectively naturalised as the sole implied audience for art and literature that they feel no qualms about using their own experience of the world as an absolute model for all human experience.

In 'Guts of a Piano in the Rain Beneath a Block of Beautiful Brutalist Flats' (p.14) the speaker's lecturer remarks that 'I have too many traumatised women in my work. I say I have too many traumatised women in my life. This lecturer has a brilliant poem in their collection highlighting the importance of a poem’s end, or its over-importance.' On the surface level the speaker's response serves as a witty riposte to a piece of unthinking criticism, but it also reveals the deep difficulty of accommodating and containing working-class experience within the strictures and limits of middle-class style. These kinds of observation from middle-class lecturers and critics will be familiar to many working-class writers, I am sure: write what you know. Unless what you know happens to be unpleasant or depressing or generally “too much”.

The final stanza contains the gorgeously ellagic lines 'O to grow in a city where you cannot leave but you cannot stay' followed by the stark 'There should be a fully-funded team of counsellors on every council estate in Britain'. This stanza turns on a razor sharp description of gentrification; the 'posh regional kids who would form bands while ‘slumming it’ in working-class areas like ours; they cut their teeth on some grime to think of themselves as groovy, price us out, then take well-paid jobs elsewhere': working-class pain is hoovered up as middle-class cultural cache; stripped of its lived and loving context, hollowed out and parroted back at us in a series of two-dimensional symbols. 'Groovy' is the ironising distance afforded to those who may choose to leave at any time, for whom 'trauma' is a trope and nothing more. The poem's beautiful fuck you is an ending fearsomely sincere: 'Mum is still the strongest woman I know and I dedicate this song to my skinny girl cousins.' While Hawkey's phantom lecturer composes 'brilliant' poems about obtuse literary niceties, Hawkey's text is an unselfconscious salute to life.

Working-class masculinity

Without being sentimental, Breeze Block is nevertheless an incredibly tender book. It particularly excels at chronicling moments of male intimacy. Working-class masculinity is not a subject typically given nuanced treatment within contemporary poetry, so Hawkey's collection is especially striking in this regard. Through the figure of the speaker's father, Hawkey explores love, reciprocity, communion, and grief. He also tackles the difficulty inherent in verbally expressing affection for the working-class male subject, and this is most affectingly realised in 'Fathers and Sons' (p.3), which uses an unobtrusive sonnet form as a quiet undersong of love and care.

In the first stanza the father-figure's casual dismissal (and disposal) of a handmade gift leaves the speaker inwardly crushed, 'a paperboy folded'. In the second stanza the speaker makes an imaginative leap to picture his father as a younger man, 'in the salt air of Blackpool [...] in dancehalls, in Church’s brogues'. This stanza concludes by uniting the speaker and his father through their 'shared taste/ for motorhomes beyond our means, further and father.' While the line suggests an experience of male bonding, the aural affinity between 'further' and 'father' implies a distance impossible to broach. In the final stanza father and son are united again, this time through a shared experience of financial precarity: 'We sell my first guitar when the internet is young,/ making one hundred pounds and did I love you/ wrapping our shipment like an Egyptian queen./ You cannot extract our money from the screen./ You’re so embarrassed I say Let’s send it anyway'. There is a great deal contained within these five lines: the tactile gesture of care mediated through the guitar; the recognition of the father as both fallible and vulnerable in his lack of tech savviness, and the warmth and solidarity contained within the speaker's determination to 'send it anyway', both to save his father's embarrassment and to acknowledge his efforts to so carefully wrap the guitar.

It is interesting to note that the son's protection of his father's feelings in this final stanza is an inversion of the father's obliviousness to his son's feelings in the first. Love doubles back on itself, mediated through a world of things – the cardboard foal, motorhomes, a guitar – and through moments of bruising miscommunication, emotional distance, but also a deep unspoken empathy and respect. As with much of Hawkey's writing, the portrait this poem paints of working-class masculinity is understated, complex and convincing.

The figure of the father is a significant presence throughout Breeze Block. In 'Self-Portrait with Jesus's Donkey' (p.4) he spends his Christmas day driving around in a doomed attempt to replace the speaker's broken Tamagotchi. The poem is redolent of exhaustion and defeat. It begins with the troubling admission from the young speaker that: 'The toilet bowl’s the red of the Nile where Mum’s been before me and Oldman is right to say drinking heavily makes you bleed from your arsehole', but the poem does not foreground or dwell on these details. Rather, the focus is on a detailed description of the father's care for his son, which is enacted in small and practical ways: through the shovelling of snow, placing the speaker into 'the tin belly of the van', and hitting the asphalt to find somewhere that's open. The pair are 'defeated', but they share their defeat. 'I’ll just have to wait for things to be better; I’ll just have to wait', the speaker concludes, in a statement that evokes both immanence and delay, and alludes not only to the broken toy, but to the disturbing disclosure of the opening stanza.

In lesser hands the poem might become mawkish or contrived, but Hawkey writes with admirable restraint and dark humour. The announcement that 'O my Tamagotchi is broken!' echoes and parodies the sounds of 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' filling the room from 'the lungs of the TV congregation'. The hymn, of course, is also a prayer for salvation and fulfilment. Its appearance lends further gravity to the speaker's 'I'll just have to wait' and signals a world of unrealised hopes far beyond the poem.

Perhaps the most affecting piece in Breeze Block is 'Dad’s still in a coma so I’m sent' (p.6). A poem in four parts that leads the reader from the initial stages of end-of-life care to the father's funeral. The poem is notable in a variety of ways, but perhaps most significant is its focus on relationality: the way people feel and are together in times of grief, what they do to get through their worst experiences. In part one, the speaker is sent 'beyond the hospital doors for five bags of chips', and the errand becomes an occasion for reminiscence and humour – a release of pressure and a solidifying of familial bonds.

Do geezers go to heaven?

In the second section of the poem the speaker begins by asking 'a blonde Irish nurse if geezers go to Heaven/ and she gifts me two handfuls of rectangular shampoo/ like it’s mayonnaise or ketchup.' The poem then focusses on the mundane details of the family's bedside vigil: attempting to wash Mum's hair over the sink in the family room, attempting to sleep on gashed ICU settees, smoking endless cigarettes for something to do. The revelation that 'Dad's being switched off tomorrow' does not appear until the sixth line of the first stanza, immediately followed by a description of a bottle of Strongbow in its 'blue plastic shroud' below the basin. Hawkey does not rely on a high-stakes emotional register to achieve his effects. Rather he explores with an acute eye for detail the way in which grief and tedium intersect and exacerbate one another in end of life care.

The father's death is not described, but signalled through a shift to direct address within the third section of the poem, and the stanzas contract and compress into tercets embodying the tension between the desire to speak and the inability to do so. In the penultimate stanza the poem succumbs to rhyme: 'A patch of Brylcreem left/ on the board of your bed/ as you’re confirmed dead', as if that singsong musicality were needed to carry the speaker through the difficult description of his father's last inglorious traces. The brevity this section creates a palpable sense of awkward silence and oblique disclosure, of an inward struggle to fit words to feelings. When the speaker and his mother walk past the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus and 'Mum says/ It’s not Eros—it’s Anteros./ God of love returned', we read between the lines and are deeply moved.

The final section of the poem expands back into the family and language, there is listing and ritual; shared memories and jokes, and a humanist celebrant who fudges the 'pyjamatime lyrics' unique to the speaker's family: 'Dad’s lull bathing us before bed:/ Jim-jam gooly-wooly gooly-wooly get your jim-jams on, jimmy-jams on.' It almost feels fitting that the celebrant gets the song wrong. The celebrant is not part of the family and as such cannot fully participate in this ritual of recuperation. In this section of the poem Hawkey gives us the power of words to map meaning onto tragedy, and to unite a family in grief. Throughout the poem Hawkey's speaker does not dwell on their own subjective pain, but rather describes and expresses that pain in communion with others. This differs significantly from a good deal of contemporary lyric poetry which is apt to exceptionalise the suffering of the individual. Hawkey's poetry feels generous and socially situated in comparison, and it is difficult not to read that difference along class lines.

In 'Death Metal Rainbow' (p.41), a drunken Nana on her birthday 'knows more than most,/ as do I, the real battle waits/ within;/ the real fear is being/ unable to withstand ourselves'. This fear is the ambient hum at the back of Breeze Block, infusing the text with a nervy restless energy. It is the ambient hum at the back of working-class life too. Sometimes this fear solidifies into tangible forms, and its damage and destruction become explicit in the text. Lenny (p.42) beings with 'The counsellor says Being the child of an alcoholic/ can create confusions around love, death and women.' Alcohol, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism are all strong currents throughout the collection, but Hawkey doesn't write about alcoholics, he writes about people: loved, loving, and surviving as best they can. 'Self-Portrait with Jesus’s Donkey' contains a savage indictment of the festishising ends of much contemporary poetry in relation to drinking: 'it is not glamorous like in the movies or poems imitating poems of the past with their lah-di-dah never-worked-a-day-in-my-life lyricism, la la la.' Indeed. Hawkey's text is refreshingly empathetic and non-judgemental. Rather, there is an embracive reach toward the wounded other, an acknowledgement of shared trauma impossible for  Hawkey's middle-class poetic peers to adequately capture or understand. These final lines from Lenny could very well serve as a epitaph to the collection as a whole: 'Yes—I know why you stay out late, where all this begins, why we need to be loved so ferociously. Sit here now, stay with me.'

queeny land / ’er indoors
Friday, 10 June 2022 10:28

queeny land / ’er indoors

Published in Poetry

queeny land / ’er indoors

by Fran Lock

i

coined us a country. ’er indoors
is a branked scold crowned
at the kirk, hands in the hinged
pillory of power, confession’s
fork between breast and neck.
’er indoors is milking a shrew’s
fiddle into music. smiles as ’er
writhes, is kitsching the gilded
freight of flame, frocked for
the fire, us sinew passed
through a calyx eye. crewel-
work crochet, corded lace.
into the gown’s embroidered
yoke: couched loops, golden
bugle beads. into the fust
of coming dread. and birdsong
stilled, the clocksong whirs.

ii

for the long-winded letting
of blood. priests, roused to
procession, routed from holes
in the snug dust blown from
a family bible, ’er writes
the tidings of us sect, will
carry this in ’er tyrant’s circlet,
sprouting narrow horns of light.
pageant, whose sleeves the gory
oriflamme of agincourt; banderols
of famine cut from sack. ’er
trodden hem is red, is rot’s musk
wafting. partition’s plough. us
am the offals of empire. awful
treyf. us camps. us cargoes. us
wealth of nations. silent. but ’er
indoors is a stunt ghost, draped in
glory. majesty grows over ’er
like briars. ’er bows ’er head.
they quack their raving magic
for the crowds: pinched faces,
plebby-gobs, round around
their bent pennies.

iii

littled to a sufferance of souvenirs,
’er husky rumour bates the racist
breath of cabbies; face franked
onto shankill terraces, hooky curios.
’er rise remade in the blue tattoos
of cheap fidelity. bargains binned.
is hanging in the smallest rooms
of east-end gangsters. ’er face in
the saturated glyphs of pure slogan.
is hoary and floral on netflix. is
camping through tabloids, lights
up the iphones of touristing teens.
hands flap at ’er like gulls. ’er
closes ’er grim endorsement
over them, a smiling arcade claw.

iv

the slow orbital warp
of decay will scatter us
stars. the sundered wold
in flood, a beast’s last
cunning trumped by
gun or hunger. this,
’er world. the stale
vow grafted into iambs
by poets in love with
the sound of their own
entropy. ’er does a fucked
mysterium, an end times
charleston of musical chairs.

Poetry against the monarchy
Thursday, 26 May 2022 20:50

Poetry against the monarchy

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock presents four poems which capture the oddity and the horror of living in a country without class solidarity and where we are encouraged to accept a monarchy symbolising inequality, privilege and oppression. Image above: Paul Harrop

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee is looming, and my own small section of England’s Garden Coast has already witnessed worrying outbreaks of union bunting. Festivities are threatened. I’m dreading it. Having tried and failed to invite myself somewhere – anywhere – else for the entire obnoxious duration, there’s nothing left to do but watch the spectacle unfold with an appropriate mixture of anger and nausea.

I was living in London when Britain ‘celebrated’ the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. That was stomach-churning enough: a nasty little marketing manoeuvre designed to recast the monarchy as a cultural agent as opposed to a political one. The Diamond Jubilee sought to free the monarchy from its difficult, morally compromised political context, and cement it instead at the very heart of Brand Britain: a series of cultural levers – music, literature, film, sport, art, and drama – intended to evoke a nebulous though crowd-pleasing notion of Britishness with which to distract the populace at home and to woo the global marketplace. It was deeply cynical, but it did make some level of strategic sense.

London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games that year, taking full advantage of the opportunity to socially cleanse the city of homeless, poor and working-class populations, while promoting the capital as a securitised playground for the rich. The relentless frenzy with which The Games were hyped was matched by an equally zealous clampdown on any potential unrest. Protest was denied through preventative policing, and by a virtual blackout on dissenting voices across the mainstream media. Coverage of the Olympic Games encouraged a profound and disturbing disconnect between the feelgood spectacle and its grim political underpinnings.

A particularly egregious example was Paralympic sponsorship by ATOS, the outsourcing giant and ‘health care’ provider whose infamous fitness to work tests caused wave upon wave of often fatal misery to be visited upon those with physical disabilities and mental health issues alike. How was it possible for the public to be so inspired and galvanised by the achievements of disabled athletes, yet happy to ignore the injustice meted out against other disabled people, or to accept the cruel irony of ATOS as a ‘proud’ and prominent Paralympic sponsor?

Irrational jingoism

Noam Chomsky describes sport as a crucial component of the ‘indoctrination system’. In Manufacturing Consent, he states that sport functions as ‘a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And you know, group cohesion, behind leadership elements. In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism. Which is not to decry sport in and of itself, or those who follow or participate in it. It is rather Chomsky’s call to be conscious of the way notions of ‘patriotism’ and belonging are manufactured and exploited: by companies like ATOS who hijack the achievements of athletes to rehabilitate their damaged public image, or by nation states and governments to create an uncritical consensus reality.

The Diamond Jubilee rode the surge of nationalistic sentiment stirred up by ‘Team GB’ and the Olympic Games. What was being celebrated was not so much the Queen herself, and certainly not the monarchy, but the amorphous sense of Britain or Britishness, an idea of which Elizabeth Windsor is the kitsch and endlessly marketable signifier. A symbol, in other words, ripe for reproduction across one hundred thousand souvenir keychains. The flag-waving spectacle created by mainstream media discourses empties the monarchy of historical and political context, allowing them to become a hollow receptacle for whatever idea is expedient to government. Cultural discourses have tended to heavily moralise the monarchy through representations of nationhood, philanthropy, and family, effectively masking their relationship to centuries of exploitation, accumulation, corruption, and conquest.

Fast forward to 2022 and the monarchy seems symbolically shaky. The glorious moment during Liverpool’s FA Cup match against Chelsea on the 15th of May, when fans booed the National Anthem, seems to suggest both a disillusionment with these British figureheads, and an abiding frustration with the ‘values’ they are supposed to represent. It isn’t only that the royals themselves have shrunk in the public estimation, as indeed they might, but that government propaganda has welded the idea of Britain to these fallible individuals too successfully for either party’s good. What, after all, are we being summoned to celebrate with ‘God Save the Queen’?

The leak of the ‘Paradise Papers’ way back in 2017 revealed the extent to which the Queen’s private estate used offshore private equity funds to avoid paying tax on its holdings. Not exactly a scrupulous move, especially when you consider that the Crown is already exempt by law from taxation, and also from inheritance tax on ‘sovereign to sovereign’ bequests. As Laura Clancy has pointed out, the royal family ‘relies on the (uncodified) British constitution and political custom to play the same game’ as corporate tax avoidance giants such Amazon and Facebook, thus the monarchy ‘stitches together historical customs with financial capitalist logic.’ The scale of this corruption is immense, and sharply felt by the poorest amongst us during times of austerity. According to findings published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2019, Austerity caused 130,000 preventable deaths. As the cost-of-living crisis escalates, this terrible toll can only increase, blighting the families, communities, and individual lives of our most vulnerable citizens. Under such conditions why wouldn’t a hymn of subservience to monumental privilege be booed?

But if obscene wealth corruption weren’t enough, over the last couple of years we have also witnessed the sickening sexual assault allegations against the walking disgrace that is Prince Andrew, alongside the ongoing and surpassingly tedious saga of ‘Megxit’ with its troubling overtones of racism and misogyny. I could go on. But it begs the question: if we’re not evoking love for Britain’s ruling elite when we broadcast ‘God Save the Queen’, what are we evoking? Britain itself? Britishness? What’s that? A country in which food banks are now forced to provide kettles and cold boxes, for those who cannot afford to use their cookers. A country in which Tory MP, Lee Anderson, felt secure enough of his position to brag that people in his constituency are now required to sign up to ‘budgeting’ and ‘cooking’ courses when they register at a food bank. Anderson is the same hypocritical toad who claimed £222,000 in expenses last year. Just saying.

Partygate, pandemics, profits and poverty

Britain is the Britain of Partygate; of the callous and incompetent handling of a global pandemic that exacerbated the shocking extent of inequality between rich and poor. It’s a country in which energy companies and supermarkets are currently enjoying treble profits, profits that the Tory Government are monumentally reluctant to tax. It’s a country with an asylum policy so staggeringly inhumane as to draw condemnation from every quarter; of wrongful deportations enacted against those who have made Britain their home for decades, and illegal detention of those recently arrived and fleeing from violence.

There is little there to be proud of. So why should fans passively condone the achievements of their team being yoked to dynastic wealth by a bunch of gilded hypocrites? The team weren’t playing for ‘Queen and Country’, but representing a city that has a long, bitter association with poverty, hunger, state violence, and the remorseless grinding of the class system. That sport might be activated as a place of protest is a potentially mighty thing. Grassroots initiatives such as Liverpool and Everton’s Fans Supporting Foodbanks scheme suggest that rather than an indoctrination tool, sport might provide a space of solidarity and shared social consciousness. Once, that is, it is stripped of its tired, jingoistic trappings.

But jingoistic trappings die hard, and here on the coast I have a close-up view of the way in which national identity is selectively edited towards political ends. The Border Force patrol boats frequently mar an otherwise idyllic view of the Channel, and the hateful Napier barracks, where asylum seekers are detained under the most appalling conditions, are a stone’s throw from the gorgeous rolling hills in which I walk my dog. In the build-up to the EU referendum in 2016, the White Cliffs across which I often hike had become symbolic in the debate over immigration. It is difficult to square such stunning natural beauty with their difficult legacy as icons of British insular exceptionalism and racially exclusive identity. As you walk into Dover there is no shortage of racist and anti-immigrant graffiti, no shortage of union flags, no shortage of embattled border mentality. The paraphernalia of the Platinum Jubilee merges with and glosses these more overt forms of racism, a racism that Tory Brexit legitimated and exposed.

Dover and Thanet voted overwhelming to leave the EU, a campaign that recruited the Cliffs and the town’s historic status as a defensive stronghold to project an image of Britain besieged by menacing ‘others’. There’s a sad irony here: according to the Centre for Progressive Policy, Dover and Thanet are likely to be ‘pushed into poverty’ by the Tory government’s failure to tackle a cost-of-living crisis they themselves created. Dover, hit by P&O’s sudden sacking of 800 seafarers, is especially suffering. The town has become, in recent years, a post-Brexit carpark, and this chaos seems set to continue indefinitely. These towns are not served by the class system, by the ruling elite, or by the monarchy that is their symbolic head. Britain needs better symbols, and a more inclusive, empathetic vision of itself.

A good place to start in creating that vision would be in ridding ourselves of an institution whose wealth and history is inseparable from the depredations of colonialism, and whose cornerstone is inequality. In recent months, many former British colonies in the Caribbean have declared their intent to abolish the monarchy and remove Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica and St. Kitts. Barbados has already cut ties with the British monarchy to become the world’s newest republic, and to rightly pursue reparations for the horrors of the slave trade. Campaigners are right: an apology is not enough. Prince Charles ‘acknowledging’ the ‘atrocity’ of slavery isn’t enough. An institution whose wealth was built on and maintained by slavery telling the descendants of slaves, whose families, cultures, and communities were scarred by colonialism, that they feel their pain is frankly insulting. You cannot cherry-pick which parts of Empire to whitewash and to fetishize. The foundation of Empire is slavery; slavery is the direct consequence of empire. The same applies to hierarchy, poverty, and gross inequality at home.

Much of the criticism levelled against the monarchy – at least much of the criticism that is allowed to be heard – has been rather toothless in nature, preferring to focus on the monarchy as an irrelevant and anachronistic institution, rather than a powerful political tool, enmeshed in the structures and the logics of capitalism at its absolute worst. I think that poetry can provide a place for wrestling with these thornier complexities; to resist and reshape notions of identity, solidarity and belonging. The four poems I want to share today achieve this through very different, but interconnected strategies.

Al Hutchins’ ‘Jubilee’

Al Hutchins’ ‘Jubilee’ emerges from the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 2012. It tackles the callous criminalising and forcible removal of homeless populations from city centres in the run up to planned ‘festivities’. In hounding the suffering and destitute from sight, class war is enacted even as its evidence is erased. The homeless protagonist in Hutchins’ poem is a ‘Jesus, shoeless, on the London Orbital’. He is a subject: subject to and under a law that carts him around like freight. He is not, and never will be, an implied audience, or ideal citizen. Throughout the poem, his erratic movement across the city is embodied by the staggered, halting line. Hutchins’ distinctive use of minimal punctuation gives the poem a provisional and precarious feel, emblematic not only of a difficult and marginal existence, but the way in which that existence always teeters on the brink of invisibility; the wilful blindness with which such lives are met.

The poem makes reference to food waste with great effect. It begins with the lines: ‘It is still daylight and the string/ Round the meat has been thrown’ and later evokes ‘Good food thrown for/ Spite/ Meat and eggs crumped/ Like old letters’. The discarded food in these lines does double duty: it signals the wasteful attitudes and behaviours of those with a degree of privilege, but it also associates Hutchins’ protagonist with the detritus and trash that are aimed at him and alongside which he is forced to subsist. He too is considered waste. He too has been discarded. Hutchins uses meat and eggs specifically to summon an image of the suffering animal bodies that provided the food. An image of slaughtered cattle closes the poem, the sound of the rain evoking the ‘clatter’ of their hooves. No one wishes to be reminded of where their food comes from or what happens to it after it has been thrown away, but Hutchins’ poem exposes both those things as it exposes the fact that immense wealth can only exist by metaphorically cannibalising the bodies of the poor and desperate.

I think the most haunting passage of this poem is when Hutchins’ speaker breaks the mood of internal reverie to ask the reader a direct question that contains both imploring and accusatory elements: ‘What is the merriment of/ 60 years like this?’ Here Hutchins’ contrasts the sixty years of grim endurance suffered by his homeless protagonist, with the sixty years of privilege and ease afforded the Queen. The survival of homeless persons is a miracle of resilience and resourcefulness. The survival of a person born into obscene wealth with access to the best of everything is hardly surprising. Why should the Queen’s longevity be feted, and Hutchins’ ‘Jesus’ scorned? Further, the speaker summons his own sixty years like a sentence, inviting us to empathise with his long experience of abjection, but also to reflect that a sixty-year reign in which conditions such as his persist is a mark of shame, not an occasion for celebration.

P. V. Tims satire on the reptilian royals

P.V. Tims takes an entirely different approach to protest in the poem ‘If David Icke was Right’. On the surface, this whimsical piece imagines what our society would look like supposing Icke’s crackpot conspiracy theory of a blood-drinking ‘reptilian elite’ in Buckingham Palace was literally true. Tims has a light, humourist’s touch, accentuated through the use of a simple alternating rhyme scheme with an easy, mostly regular meter. The poem can be enjoyed as an absurd satire on Britain’s slavish attachment to the monarchy: not to be discouraged by the fact that the entire royal family have revealed themselves as a race of vicious space lizards, ‘Blighty’ loses no time in converting Buckingham Palace into a spacious reptile house, opening it to the public, and generally ‘Flaunting our cold-blooded monarchist grace’.

However, there is a violence lurking within the poem: the ‘flies and raw gizzards’ that have replaced the twee Victoria sponges of The Great British Bake Off are funny in context, but also repellently visceral. The juxtaposition of raw offal with the kitschy TV show suggests something disgusting and lethal hidden just beneath the surface of its carefully stage-managed, people-pleasing Britishness. Tims furthers this unsettling ambiguity by use of the phrases ‘cold-blooded’ and ‘forked-tongued’, which we are used to encountering in their figurative sense as applied to people who are ruthless, glib, and deceptive. Because the poem is placed in the present active tense, Tims blurs the line not only between reptile and human, but speculative future and lived present, implying that those qualities of cruelty and deceitfulness belong equally to our human royal family.

The final stanza concludes with the hapless ‘silver-lining’ that at least in their lizard form the royal family make more attractive stamps. This weak justification is reminiscent of the arguments often offered in favour of the monarchy: that they are ‘harmless’, ‘amusing’, ‘good for tourism’, as if any of those things excuse or balance the towering inequality and historical violence they represent and preside over.

Sabrina Lyall's evocation of class-based oppression

In Sabrina Lyall’s ‘The Subject’, both Hutchins’ bleak realism and Tims’ gleeful absurdism meet. As the title implies, the poem presents us with a portrait of the ideal royal subject. Lyall uses a surrealistic turn to create a grotesque and troubling image of an obedient model citizen, ‘white/ as a weak emergency’, who thinks ‘Kate Middleton/ looks beautiful in green’ and that the Queen is ‘doing a marvellous job’.

Lyall’s images are suggestive, rather than declarative, and she builds her picture by small self-contained increments, offering strange and unsettling glimpses of her poetic subject. The third stanza is particularly disturbing: ‘The subject’s body/ is a neat briquette,/ catching fire// (nobody minds).’ Here Lyall plays the shocking violence of a woman being burnt against the banality of a tidy suburban barbeque. Even in an extremis of pain and suffering the subject is ‘neat’. The parenthesised ‘nobody minds’ is chilling: so long as the subject suffers tidily, nobody need take offence at her distress. That this is her priority recalls Steve Biko’s dictum that ‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’ Lyall is repeatedly signalling throughout the poem that what allegiance to monarchy and empire requires of us is to be bland and self-effacing to the point of our own destruction; to ignore our self-interest and that of our class cohort in favour of identification with those who seek to exploit and control us.

Lyall’s subject apes the behaviours of her social “betters” in the hopes of passing as one of them. While she is permitted to exist within their orbit, she is never quite accepted, she ‘has a permit/ for her face’, is ‘allowed/ to park here’, is ‘trusted/ with the key/ to the community/ allotment.’ These mediocre privileges are only accorded to her because she has made of herself an insipid mask of conformity, acceptably middle-class and feminine in her appearance and opinions. Her life is small, ‘a tiny Hell/ enclosed inside/ a Margate snow globe’; she is forced to live inside ‘a wicker hamper’. These metaphors conjure the restriction and claustrophobia of working-class life, especially during the pandemic. Margate, with its large Tory majority, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The poem captures the dislocation of a working-class subject hemmed in and stifled by an experience of class-based oppression with which they cannot identity. Rather, the poem ends with Lyall’s subject stuffed like so much dirty laundry into her hamper, still mouthing platitudes about the ‘marvellous’ Queen.

Kevin McCann's mirroring of privilege and poverty

A different kind of willed inattention is the subject of Kevin McCann’s ‘Jubilee’: a direct address to the sanctimonious and smugly complacent. When I read it for the first time, I found myself thinking again of Lee Anderson, forcing his constituents to enrol in “budgeting” courses because there is, as the poem states, ‘no money tree’. I thought about Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden auctioning off a champagne bottle signed by Boris Johnson as a “souvenir of partygate”, and of other acts equally devoid of empathy. McCann’s opening lines are chilling, his subject wakes up, ‘dry-eyed with excitement’ on their ‘special day’. This image is immediately followed by the parenthesised lines ‘This morning another ex-squaddie’s/ Found dead in another doorway’. The brackets function as an afterthought or aside, performing the pushing away, closing off and containing of this unpalatable piece of information. It isn’t allowed to intrude upon a scene of happy anticipation, and the poem’s subject will not allow themselves to perceive its relationship to their own privilege and pleasure.

‘Dry-eyed’ is telling, unblinking and unaffected. ‘Your special day’ is telling too. It conjures both a hopelessly self-involved narcissism and an absolute identification with the Queen, whose ‘special day’ it really is. The repetition of ‘another’ achieves two effects: to signal the dailiness of what should be a shocking and nationally shaming incident, and to dramatize the numbness with which such news is actually met. In this context ‘squaddie’ feels sneering, a way of reducing the human being at the centre of the tragedy to a faceless and expendable unit. The irony is sharp: how many times have British soldiers been – often posthumously – recruited for the purposes of jingoistic propaganda and monarchic spectacle? Is working-class life only valuable if expended in the service of the military industrial complex? Are those who have survived such service not worthy of care?

Throughout McCann’s poem repetition is used to superb effect. Lines five to eight lead us through a litany of delightful surprises, from the ring at the doorbell, to the appearance of guests bringing wine and beer, linked together in rapid succession with the conjunction ‘and’. Lines thirteen to sixteen mirror this listing, but link their incidents with the phrase ‘out there’: ‘Out there the cupboards are empty,/ Out there someone takes their own life,/ Out there every state celebration’. The effect is to contrast what is happening ‘inside’ the subject’s insular and insulated bubble of privilege with the horrors visited upon those who struggle to exist outside of it, while also signalling the entanglement of these two worlds. Because both sets of repetition have the same metrical structure with the same number of syllables, McCann creates the sense that the events they describe are unfolding at the same time; that the latter is the consequence of the former.

In the second poem of this short sequence there is a powerful shift of perspective, also achieved through mirroring. The poem still uses direct address to an unnamed ‘you’, but one who wakes up ‘hungry and tired’. The bracketed thoughts this poetic subject wishes to push away and enclose are those that bring despair in their wake, ‘Every morning’s the same’, tea and toast for breakfast ‘Ditto lunch and your evening meal’. This shift from privilege to poverty is both an accusation and an invitation towards empathy: imagine this was you, waking up cold, tired, broke, with little to look forward to. It asks the cold, complacent middle-classes evoked in the first section to make the imaginative effort to see themselves in another’s skin. Lines seven to nine repeat McCann’s list formula, connecting this time a terrible set of circumstances through the conjunction ‘and’. The subject aches and is exhausted; they cough but they cannot afford to turn on their heating. This is the most affecting point in the poem. While the Queen celebrates seventy years on the throne, many elderly people in Britain are living in dire poverty, undeserved but unlamented. It is a moving contrast. It reminds us why we should be – and remain – furious.

All four poems in their various ways capture the oddity and the horror of living in a country without class solidarity, encouraged to identify instead with an elite authority who could not give a toss about you. But the poems also provide a strategy and a space of speaking back to that experience, of holding it to the light and exposing it for the cheap trick that it is.

Jubilee (01.06.12)
By Al Hutchins

It is still daylight and the string
Round the meat has been thrown
Under the bridge all the blood
And water went
Workless
Drawn down to a bead of
Victoriana
Before the avalanche of toil:
Jesus, shoeless, on the London Orbital

My desire for drink
Has gone
Oblivion will not mend
This
I dream of a ha ha
And howl
Good enough for a plague of kings
Hard pretend to happy
Ape interest in the regular
While the water levels in me
like a duel

And my birds lose wing…

What is the merriment of
60 years like this?

Good food thrown for
Spite
Meat and eggs crumped
Like old letters
Red rude
Ruby lips
Pressed against us while
We try to sleep?

…Well, that was extensively apologised
There were logistical errors…

I listen

And the rain slaughters
Clatters
Its cattle down

Al Hutchins is a West Midlands-based poet, performing “stuff” since 1997. His rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. His poetry and fiction have been published by New River Press, Eccentric City, Tindal Street Press, and by Culture Matters.

If David Icke Was Right
By P.V. Tims

Our grey, grieving Liz, tired of the lie,
Shuffles old Buck’ to a room filled with sun;
Takes off her skin with a lingering sigh
And admits to herself the deception is done.
In place of a Queen, a monitor lizard!
In place of a palace, a reptile tank!
In place of the Bake Off, flies and raw gizzards!
This is now Britain; we have Liz to thank!
What is unleashed by our scuttling Empress?
What fresh nightmare does Blighty now face?
And must we still court the hordes of tourists,
Flaunting our cold-blooded monarchist grace?
They queue round the block to see the glass wall,
Of Buckingham’s new hothouse renovation,
Where Princes and Dukes are having a ball.
Forked tongues and tails! All pomp and elation!
Not much to choose twixt a Prince and a gecko.
For either specimen, what price is fair?
“God Save The Queen” still resounds with an echo.
But at least with the reptiles our stamps have flair.

Paul Victor Tims is a Durham based sci-fi writer, cultural pundit and die-hard socialist. He sometimes does poetry (not very well).

The Subject
By Sabrina Lyall

is white
as a weak emergency.

The subject
has emptied her eyes
into ashtrays.

The subject’s body
is a neat briquette,
catching fire

(nobody minds).

The subject’s blood
is a meek scouse broth,
is a milky supper,
is a pale tea sucked
through a crazy straw.

The subject
is a bird
with lectern wings.

The subject
has a permit
for her face,

she is allowed
to park here;

is trusted
with the key
to the community
allotment.

The subject is
a little latte-stripling,
takes selfies in a Starbucks,
lengthens her lashes,
blogs about saving the bees.

The subject is
a twelve yr old girl,
trapped in the body
of a 53 year-old
daily mail reader

(she has hussy eyes).

Her world is a tiny Hell
enclosed inside
a Margate a snow globe.

The subject thinks Kate Middleton
looks beautiful in green.

The subject trails
her cursor
like a planchette over
the day’s indifferent news.

The subject is
in therapy,
but not really.

The subject is
kind to animals,
but only some animals
and not when they shit
on the floor.

The subject is
on a diet
since 1982.

The subject pretends
to have a peanut allergy
so people will think
she’s interesting.

The subject lives
in a wicker hamper,
she says doesn’t the queen
do a marvellous job?

Sabrina Lyall divides her time between Clonmel and London. She is new to poetry, but is currently working on her first collection.


Jubilee
By Kevin McCann

(Jubilee: from the Latin Jubilo = to shout)

1.

Wake up dry eyed with excitement
On this your special day
(This morning another ex-squaddie’s
Found dead in another doorway)
And now there’s a ring on the doorbell
And the first of your friends are here
And she’s brought a bottle of Moet
And he’s brought some rather nice beer
So you nip out and fire up the Barbie
And then pour a large G and T
And talk of the need for harsh measures
Because there’s no money tree:
Out there the cupboards are empty,
Out there someone takes their own life,
Out there every state celebration
Is another twist of the knife.

2.

You wake up hungry and tired
(Every morning’s always the same)
Make tea and toast for your breakfast
(Ditto lunch and your evening meal)
Then have a quick flick through the Ceefax
Because daily papers aren’t free:
And all of your bills have just doubled
And you can’t seem to shake off that cough
And though your cold bones are aching
You’ll still keep the heating switched off.


Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children: Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris Publications). There is also a book of ghost stories: It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder), co-written with the playwright Tom Green. Ov (Beul Aithris Publications) is a fantasy novel for children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry for the State We're In
Sunday, 20 March 2022 08:44

Poetry for the State We're In

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about the current economic and political crises, and introduces poetry that constructs a 'socialist imaginary', a space for hope and protest, against the distractions of nostalgia and the numbing exhaustion of working-class existence. Image above: Unloveable labour by Steev Burgess

There are times it is hard to imagine an adequate response – poetic or otherwise – to the state we are in. According to a recent report by the housing charity Crisis, over 66,000 more people will be homeless by 2024, with 8,000 more sleeping rough, and 9,000 forced into unsuitable temporary accommodation. These figures are driven by benefit freezes, towering food and energy bills, and the winding down of both Covid eviction bans and the widely praised “Everyone In” initiative that housed homeless persons in hotels throughout the pandemic. But these things aren't causes in themselves. Rather, they are the inevitable result of Tory economic policy, of a failure to regulate the energy market, the baffling decision to close gas storage, their absolute disinterest in insulating homes or investing in renewable energy. They are the result of a disastrous Brexit deal that has created disruption, delay and scarcity, hitting the poorest amongst us first and hardest.

Many people I speak to these days – friends, family, students – feel as though they're barely hanging on. The reasons are obvious: according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the recent hike in energy prices will squeeze low-income households to their limit; some of our most vulnerable citizens could be forced to spend over 54% of their income on bills. Inflation is now at its highest level in three decades, and wages are stagnating. For the lowest-income families, who are already spending predominantly on essentials, there is nowhere to cut back, no savings they can make. Keep tightening your belt, these people are told. Until it cuts you clean in two.

Meanwhile, new Universal Credit rules have significantly reduced the amount of time those claiming benefits are given to find work: from three months to just four weeks, forcing people into poorly paid jobs, however unsuitable, under the threat of financial sanctions. The new rules mean sanctions could be imposed four weeks after people make their initial claim, i.e., before they even receive their first benefit payment. This hideous scheme is dubbed Way to Work, and it is designed to fill the estimated 1.2 million job vacancies largely created by government incompetence over both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Partygate

Johnson launched Way to Work in the wake of “partygate”; it is the emergency manoeuvre of a Prime Minister and indeed a party desperately attempting to regain control of the political agenda. It has zero to do with helping people to secure work or with leading a sustainable economic recovery. Welfare experts have stated that the use of sanctions could have dire implications for low-income families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, and the government's own National Audit Office had already found in 2016 that there is no evidence at all that benefit sanctions work to fulfil their stated aim. In fact they are as likely to deter people from claiming benefits without getting a job as they are to force them into employment. To put it another way: sanctions are punitive and persecutory in nature. They work both to demonise and punish those already suffering.

What are we to do with this? A walk through any major city these days is a walk through the wastelands of a neoliberal apocalypse: estates, neighbourhoods, and the communities that once thrived there are left to languish in a state of “managed decline”, where “managed decline” is Tory-speak for wilful neglect. The roots of this neglect are deep and old. Their origin is Thatcher's poisonous Right to Buy scheme, where home ownership was only made possible for comparatively affluent council tenants off the backs of their poorer neighbours: rents for council tenants rose dramatically throughout the life of the scheme, while the rate of construction slowed to a crawl. Successive Tory governments have evinced a similar lack of commitment to the provision of social housing: only 1,650 council homes were built between 2020-21, and maintenance of existing properties has been woeful.

'You feel expendable', a student of mine said recently, 'you feel forgotten.' This is a heartbreaking thing to hear, and in a sense he's right, poor and working-class people bear the brunt of austerity measures in a variety of ways: firstly as scapegoats in a narrative of personal responsibility that presents the feckless, scrounging and profligate poor as a drain on national resources, and where individual acts of economic prudence are supposed to balance out or compensate for decades of systemic waste and failure. Secondly, in that the needs of poor people are the first to be reclassified as optional extras during times of austerity. So mental health services are cut, and free childcare is cut, and local authority spending on property maintenance is cut. But I don't know about 'forgotten', which implies that poor people are the collateral damage to government incompetence and greed. I don't think they are. I think it's worse than that. I think the poor are targeted victims of government greed. I think the basis for this is ideological.

I've been reflecting on this a lot lately, talking with an online class about Charles Eisenstein's book The Ascent of Humanity (North Atlantic Books, 2013), and revisiting some of its gloomier chapters. Specifically, the section in 'Money and Property' where Eisenstein talks about the separation that is built into the social and physical fabric of neoliberal society. Eisenstein states that those of us now living will never experience community because community is 'incompatible' with the highly specialised work and estranged faceless dependence of modern capitalism. 'The groundwork of life' he writes, is 'anonymity and convenience.' But poor and working-class people do build strong, mutually supportive communities. Or we do up until the point those communities are dispersed, our neighbourhoods gentrified, our districts socially cleansed.

Doubtless, there is an economic basis for neglect and “managed decline”, but there's a political and ideological basis too: scatter and disrupt the association of poor communities and it becomes harder for those same persons to recognise themselves as a class cohort. On a practical level, how do you come together and organise when there's nowhere for you to meet? Equally as important, how do you develop affinities for an area and the people who live in it if your own existence within that space is precarious and temporary? How do you apprehend your struggles as part of something bigger if your closest neighbour is not – for example – another working-class person, but someone who gives you a filthy look as you enter the tower block you happen to share through the specially designated poor door? They occupy the same building to you, in the same area of town, but their life never touches or acknowledges yours. It never has to. Gentrification displaces persons. It forces the marginalised out of even the margins.

A space for solidarity

I've written before about how poetry might offer a space for a network of solidarities to form, might function as a wide imaginative community that allows us to recognise ourselves as a class cohort and to extend our solidarity to others whose experiences are different to but intimately linked with our own. I still firmly believe that poetry, at its best, can offer us a space of sustained attention and mutual care seldom afforded us as citizens or as subjects. Yet how can poetry speak to a cultural moment that feels so violently opposed to poor and working-class life it is prepared to consign vast numbers of people to hunger, homelessness and untold misery? How does poetry address the political reality of living under a government so grotesquely corrupt that they lie, obfuscate, and indulge in the worst kind of spineless self-protection, securing their careers at any cost while people starve? The poems I want to share today were solicited and chosen with this question in mind. They represent various strategies or approaches for writing this reality: with admirable directness, with verve and energy, with knotty and resistive language; with humour and with hope.

Borisocracy

David McKinstry's 'Borisocracy' tackles a premiership so uniquely awful that the poet coins a new name for this grotesque political reality. The repeated refrain 'Welcome to Borisocracy' works to perform the false bonhomie and smiling hypocrisy of a country in which so few are truly welcome. It becomes particularly chilling in the context of the third stanza, where McKinstry evokes the Home Secretary, a woman with 'ice in her veins' who has made it abundantly – and for some, fatally – clear, just how unwelcome many people are within Tory Britain, whether those people are fleeing persecution in another land or born on British soil. The refrain could also be read as a form of rhetorical shrug, the kind of helpless 'that's life' statement we often make in the face of Tory awfulness. Within this context the final 'Farewell to Borisocracy' is especially heartening, imagining a turning of the tide and a gathering of courage in the midst of despair.

In the opening stanza McKinstry makes use of numerous half and internal rhymes, for example 'mythical', 'mists', 'cricket'; 'morning', 'worn', 'laundered' and 'Tory', both to create chains of association across lines and to achieve a rapid and deceptively musical cadence that belies the poem's darker content. Just as Johnson attempts to paint a rose-tinted and superficial portrait of a 'mythical' English past and to present himself – as somehow emblematic or representative of this past – as essentially kindly and benign, so the poem adopts and satirises his use of easy cliché and glib language to expose their devious underpinnings. My favourite moment in this stanza is McKinstry's use of 'laundered' and 'spun': a vivid physical description that nevertheless holds the metaphorical connotations of those words, so that the English national story, symbolised in an image of white-washed linen, becomes invested with numerous kinds of political and financial deceit.

This is a theme that McKinstry develops within the second stanza, which offers a clear-eyed assessment of Tory tactics. Specifically, their weaponising of nostalgia as a distraction and an anaesthetic. The poem presents nostalgia as a vague 'fog' peppered with unspecified glorious deeds, given a gloss of respectable authority by Johnson's Classical education. Nostalgia functions as a denial of the past in order to cope with an unendurable present. It numbs us, and it's meant to. It saps us of the will to move forward and to organise. McKinstry captures this sense of paralysis and the contempt our government holds us in within the lines 'Whilst the plebs look/ on with vacant faces'.

But we are not so vacant, as McKinstry's portrait of corrupt power shows. While setting out the grimness of contemporary Britain, the poem also has a sharp eye for humour. The image of Johnson and Rees-Mogg vying with each other in a game of nostalgic one-upmanship is funny, and the poem indulges in gameplay and puns, as in the fourth stanza with 'Etonian Brexit Mess'. I think the poem's refusal to take these leaders quite seriously is in itself a serious and important form of resistance.

The Clash's EP, 'Cost of Living'

Humour is also a central component of 'The Clash's Cost of Living EP' by Peadar O'Donoghue, although it is humour of a far bleaker order. By referencing the 1970s punk record O’Donoghue summons then instantly undermines an image of youthful fire and political rebellion with one of grim subsistence living; of struggling just to get by. This is something else deliberately engineered into neoliberal poverty: the anxiety and the exhaustion. While McKinstry's poor are kept from political consciousness by a drip-feed diet of toxic nostalgia, O'Donoghue's are kept from revolution through abject fatigue.

The poem is saturated with stress, which O'Donoghue builds skilfully through the use of repeated and interrogative questions: 'Are you cold/ want the heating on?', 'Do you really need that light?' What is both fascinating and horrible is that midway through the second stanza the speaker internalises his interlocutor's questioning and there is a shift from 'do you' to 'do we'. The speaker seems, as many poor and working-class people often do, to have absorbed by dint of repetition the relentless querying and criticism of themselves.

By the short third and fourth stanza the questions have bred more questions, opening the poem up into a fevered stream of consciousness. There is a moment of unsettling humour here, where the solution to being unable to turn on a light becomes developing 'night vision'. The speaker asks, as if musingly, how much would a pound of carrots cost these days? It's as if even ludicrous fantasies must be weighed against the limits of an ever-shrinking budget.

The image of discount supermarkets as 'sacrificial alters, all/ to the blood letting of our impecunious demise' is both surreal and unsettling. The use of 'impecunious' imparts a slightly whimsical tone that sits uneasily alongside 'sacrificial', and the phrase 'impecunious demise' has an almost Dickensian flavour. There's a false jollity there, a sense of effortfully maintained normality in the face of horrors. To be 'sacrificial' someone must be sacrificing us. And this is where the poem introduces the idea of a perpetrator, before pivoting again in the fifth stanza back to musing humour. This combination of bleak humour and barely suppressed fury is a constant current in the lives of poor and working-class people. Being powerless, we make jokes out of our struggles in order to get through the day, all the while alive to the grinding unfairness that keeps us struggling.

In the final stanza the poem finds an outlet for its undersong of rage in an expression of violent intent: by reinvesting a worn slogan with renewed urgency; mock-positing the eating of the rich as a serious solution to the problem of a hunger they themselves created. 'we fatten them all the time' states the speaker, reminding us that the wealth of the few has always and always will exist at the expense of the many; that in order to survive we are forced into a mode of existence that props up and perpetuates the system that exploits us.

I do a job I hate

This sense of being caught in the perpetual motion machine of neoliberal capitalism is something profoundly captured in Wendy Young's poem 'I do a job I hate' where we accompany the speaker and her snow-balling thoughts on a bus ride to a job she desperately longs to escape. The poem is a spiralling stream of consciousness, gaining in momentum and intensity as it progresses. It provides a vital insight into the position of many working-class and poor creatives: square pegs hammered into the round holes of McJobs and shift-work, forced by economic necessity to suppress or expend their creative energies on mere survival.

What is sad, striking and ultimately resistive about the poem is how absolutely irrepressible the speaker's denied creativity is: it bubbles up in her quick-witted lateral leaps of logic; in her spoofing of patronising aphorisms, her riffing on well-worn phrases, her incorporation of song lyrics and cultural references. All of which is evidence of a mind alert, awake, and full of play.  Two strong examples of such pressured play come in the second stanza: 'toe the (bread) line/ follow the (bread) line/ don’t eat the bread/ save some for/ rainy days may come – they have/  on a drizzling Harrow Road mounting the 36/ (wheels on the bus go round and round)/ to a job I hate' and in the final stanza: 'hurry up Harry we’re going on the merry go round ‘roll up, roll up yer sleeves, roll up yer genes, grit yer teeth, Northern’s gonna rock yer'.

Throughout the poem, stanza structure and line length are breaking down and overspilling, performing a mounting anxiety and tension, but also the impossibility of containing or repressing working-class creativity. Such creativity is stifled not merely through the drudgery of poorly paid employment, but by a culture that recasts systemic inequality as personal failure. To begin with the speaker complies with this version of reality, attempting to conform to the normalising aspirations of the self-help industry, but ends by breaking out of its prison of stale phrases and prescriptive living in a hilarious and vivid way: 'be transcendental/ say ‘I can’ until I’m blue in the face/ Smurf of the turf flagging in the rat race'.

By the end of the piece Young's speaker is at her most rhapsodic: the poem breaks out of its left-lineated form altogether to become prose; it is punctuated only by commas, giving it a breathless quality, and the lines pull together a chaotic mix of references and allusions. The final 'take a ride on the eternal abyss of existence' is a sudden chilling stop. It suggests that the reality of such soul-deadening exploitation is as inescapable for working-class people as their creativity is irrepressible within that same system. In Young's poem an immovable object (capitalism) meets an unstoppable force (working-class creativity) and the two are held in a tension that the poem refuses to resolve or to release.

Full-Grown

This tension permeates our lives and art. It is a significant feature of the fourth piece I want to share. 'Full-Grown' by Al Hutchins is an oblique and unsettling poem, eloquent of dereliction and amorphous ruin. It begins 'Sometimes after a full-grown night/ Mangled out of sight or reach' but does not clarify what or who is 'mangled', what or who is 'out of reach'. The night? The speaker? Some third quantity? All of the above? The poem does not immediately resolve this question, rather, it collects small, prosaic details, arranging them into something more ominous than the sum of their parts: 'The witnesses of buses and wet cut grass and spent outcomes, thrown away fried chicken born to live and die and fry in fridge and bin'. On a sonic level the sibilance of 'witnesses', 'buses' 'grass' and 'spent' creates the suggestion of hostile hissing, like the spitting of hot fat or of a feral animal. Placing 'spent outcomes' within a list of concrete descriptions likens human destiny to dog-ends, litter, or discarded chicken bones, something thrown away, used up and hopeless.

What strikes me most, however is the use of 'live' to describe fried chicken. It signals an inevitability to the fate of being consumed, and – yet more troubling – a consciousness of being fried, consumed, and then discarded. This is a key strategy throughout the poem, where Hutchins merges the human speaker with the grimness and decay of their inanimate surroundings. The poem's 'roadside laughter', for example, might equally describe in figurative terms of the sound of traffic, but it also holds associations of human mockery for the vulnerable position of the speaker.

Hutchins’s use of the phrase 'these heaved stacked questions' also feels significant. Labour, effort, and precariousness are inscribed into these lines. Yet for all of that, no questions have been explicitly voiced within the text. Instead, unexpressed questioning saturates the poem. The open-ended lines, minimal punctuation and unusual syntax create spaces of discomfort and anxious expectancy where the reader is forced to work to interpret a landscape both threatening and abject. The reader is forced to experience, in other words, something of the confusion and misery experienced by the speaker. That these questions 'do not adjust or needle or play about with form' signals the impossibility of resolution or change; these lines suggest an inability to parley this discomfort into a trite moral message or a creative resource.

The Economy

‘The Economy’ by Pauline Sewards is the final poem I want to share. This poem also wrestles with the capacities and limits of language. Specifically, it bears stark witness to the fatal consequences of yoking human communication and care to the economic objectives of government within the context of addition treatment.

Sewards piece unblinkingly exposes the human cost of an economically driven shift of emphasis from ‘harm reduction’ to the unrealistic absolutes of ‘recovery’ or ‘abstinence’ within addiction treatment services. She registers this damage through the institutional apparatus that records and manages it: chronic and escalating need becomes multiplying ‘caseloads’, and death is plotted and recorded onto ‘the death graph’. In presenting human suffering as remote and mediated through impersonal bureaucracy, Sewards shows us how such suffering is systematised and the human edged out of official rhetoric, a process of willed amnesia that leaves the misery of human beings unattended to: ‘a scandal/ hardly mentioned on the news.’

Against the increasingly instrumental underpinnings of this system, the poem places a compassionate human listener. ‘For years I sat in rooms/ where people told me…’ begins the speaker in the first stanza, situating the reader as witness in their turn to the speaker’s accounting. The phrase is repeated in the eighth stanza; the receptive listener is constant, but what she hears subtly shifts over time. In this way Sewards charts changes to the program in which she works and the effects of these changes upon people. In the first stanza she is told ‘the narrative/ they thought I wanted to hear/ so that they could get treatment’, and by the eighth people tell her that ‘prison/ saved their life’. It is a sad and chilling indictment.

The poem’s title, and the repetition of ‘recovery’ throughout the piece conceptually link the nebulous much-touted notion of “economic recovery” to the rehabilitation of persons. The poem demonstrates the way in which mental health outcomes are now tied to the notion of economic productivity and a idealised “return to society” as obedient consumer subjects. By these metrics any therapeutic intervention is bound to fail. These goals are unrealistic: they do not account for either the recursive nature of trauma or the myriad emotional and material factors that drive addiction. How can anyone so much as begin to heal without stability or a place of safety? Or, as Sewards writes: ‘Recovery means many things./ Means nothing unless you stay alive.’

Persons struggling with addiction often already inhabit an endurable reality. Addiction is ‘a solution made into a problem/ by criminalisation.’ The ‘edict of abstinence’ kills people because it leaves them without recourse in a world in which they are already marginalised. Further, it places undue pressure on individuals without seeking to address the causes of addiction on a societal or systemic level. This pressure erodes and warps the spirit of those on either side of the treatment encounter as well as the relationship between them.

Rage is the undersong of Sewards’ poem, often signalled through subtle sonic linkages between lines and stanzas, for example the short sharp vowel sounds joining ‘stigma’, ‘pretty shit’, ‘prison’, ‘shifted’, ‘edict’ and ‘abstinence’. However, piece remains restrained throughout and does not rely on flourishes to achieve its effects, refusing to cannibalise the suffering of others into lyric spectacle.

A socialist imaginary

These five poems demonstrate the capacity of poetry to formulate a socialist imaginary against the distractions of nostalgia and the numbing exhaustion of working-class existence; they can create a space for both hope and protest. Equally as important, they can wrestle with the limits of language, tell us about what language cannot solve. If the state were a body, then poetry can show us where it hurts. It is a diagnostic tool, yet it is also a step towards a cure.

It is often difficult to sustain a belief in art in the midst of despair. We write our poems and we ask ourselves 'so what?' But I think this is because no one poem and no single type of poetry can adequately address the state we are in alone. Poems need and create communities, where many different voices and strategies can exist together. We need realism, humour, rhythm, difficulty. We need a poetics every bit as diverse and exuberant as working-class life itself.  These poems are ways in, acts of reaching out and across. They can connect, move, provoke and inspire. They can incite action. They can be the moment that reading ends and action begins. Not every poem for every person. But as part of whole, stronger together.

Borisocracy

by David McKinstry

Climbing Disraeli's greasy poll
whilst spouting a mythical past,
of morning mists, churchgoing
cricket and warm beer. All a well-
worn story, but ironed, laundered
and spun. By a sham One Nation
Tory:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

In a verbal duel with Rees-
Mogg, of competitive nostalgia
and reminiscence fog, peppered
with imperial battles and Latin
phrases. Whilst the plebs look
on with vacant faces:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Appointing a Home Secretary,
claiming that taking the knee
is no more than a convention.
With ice in her veins, and self-
advancement her intention:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Playing high politics
is a game, he couldn’t car eless,
be it Covid or Etonian Brexit mess:

Welcome to Borisocracy.

Peering from number ten
To survey the national horizon,
The Irish are talking unity
The people are slowly rising:

Farewell to Borisocracy.

 

The Clash Cost of Living EP

by Peadar O'Donoghue

Are you cold,
want the heating on?
No, not yet,
wait a bit. Let's put
jumpers on.

Do you really need that light?
Well, only to see. But do we
really need to see? And what
are we looking at anyway?

Maybe we need night vision,
how much is a pound of carrots these days?

Oh, Aldi! Oh, Lidl!
Do you even remember Netto?
Sacrificial altars all, to
the blood-letting of our impecunious demise.

That energy saving light bulb
we invested in uses less power,
but costs more, is that
a Commie plot?
Or a Capitalist trope?

Maybe we really should eat the rich.
After all,
we fatten them all the time.

 

I do a job I hate …

(After Billy Childish)

by Wendy Young

I do a job I hate
when I should create
because deep down inside’s a
love hate divide
a chasm holding my fear
SECURITY

a working class adage
toe the (bread) line
follow the (bread) line
don’t eat the bread
save some for
rainy days may come – they have
on a drizzling Harrow Road mounting the 36
(wheels on the bus go round and round)
to a job I hate
for money enough
when times get tough
they always will be
‘cause I do a job I hate
when I should create.

Guilt is reading self-help books
no such words as should or but
find other words like can or will
be transcendental
say I can until I’m blue in the face
Smurf of the turf flagging in the rat race
I will until the cows come home
and roam back into the field again – There Will Be Cud!

I’ll still do a job I hate – my fate
in this world of go-getting shafters
you mean you didn’t buy? – too late – be young, gifted and affluent?
not if you went to the wrong school
in the wrong time
in the wrong place
where they geared you up
lambast the wrong caste
survive by taking the piss
cast out Benevolents – the Benvolios

hurry up Harry we’re going on the merry go round, roll up, roll up yer sleeves, roll up yer genes, grit yer teeth, Northern’s gonna rock yer, we’re gonna Chase yer, we’ll take Manhattan then we take Berlin, not Irving, just the rummaged bricks of the wall – here we go – it’s all we know - take a ride on the eternal abyss of existence’

 

Full-Grown

by Al Hutchins

Sometimes after a full-grown night,
Mangled out of sight or reach-
The witnesses of buses and wet cut grass and spent outcomes, thrown away fried chicken born to live and die and fry and fridge and bin-
Sometimes when these heaved stacked questions do not adjust or needle or play about with form,
The roadside laughter can be heard,
High above the hem,
As derelict as broken pipes and clay;

First a peal,
Then a shrug of bellow,
Thrown braised and blinking like a chewed Slazenger,
Down into the tall sad side of days.

 

The Economy

by Pauline Sewards

For years I sat in rooms
where people told me the narrative
they thought I wanted to hear

so that they could get treatment
without too many barriers
or too much stigma.

I knew that drugs were often
a solution made into a problem
by criminalisation.

I knew that our services
were often the only revolving door
that was open and welcoming.

The word Recovery
was welded to our job titles more tightly
every time cutbacks were made.

Recovery means many things.
Means nothing unless you stay alive.
Caseloads multiplied.

Deaths multiplied.
Xanax - ten times stronger
Than ordinary blues

who would take a chance
on that escape route
If life wasn’t already pretty shit

For years I sat in rooms
Where people told me prison
saved their life

and they’d buried more friends
than I could ever imagine.
When the mantra of harm reduction

shifted to the edict of abstinence
the death graph started rising, a scandal
hardly mentioned on the news.

https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CSJJ7420-Addiction-Report-1909020-WEB-1.pdf

David McKinstry is a schoolteacher and poet who lives and works in Glasgow with his wife Margaret and son Gabriel. He has been widely published in newspapers and magazines and is currently working on his first collection of poems with the working title: Viral Verse. In addition to writing poetry, he has published books and articles on the American Civil Rights Movement.

Peadar “King Badger” O'Donoghue dearly wishes he was an actual badger. He writes, takes photographs, and co-edits at Poetry Bus Press with his wife, Collette.

Wendy Young is a poet/ performer, whose publications include Living with Ghosts (Natterjack Poetry, 2015), Ooetry (William Cornelius Harris Publishing/London Poetry, 2015) and The Dream of Somewhere Else (Survivors Press, 2016). Her poem 'The Time is Ripe and Rotten Ripe for Change' was selected for Handbook for 2021, the anthology of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2020 (Culture Matters).

Al Hutchins has been described by Stewart Lee as a “howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary”. Al is a West Midlands-based poet, performing “stuff” since 1997: his rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. His poetry and fiction have been published by New River Press, Eccentric City, Tindal Street Press and Culture Matters.

Pauline Sewards is a former health-worker and is currently writing a collection of prose and poetry basedon the known and imagined lives of her forebears who were agricultural labourers. She has two poetry collections published by Hearing Eye and Burning Eye books, most recently Spirograph (2020) and work included in The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty (Culture Matters, 2021).

This article will appear in print as Fran Lock's Soulfood column in the forthcoming issue of Communist Review.

Culture Matters presents: A Fish Rots From The Head
Thursday, 03 March 2022 10:31

Culture Matters presents: A Fish Rots From The Head

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to announce a special event in our digital reading series: the online launch of the free flash anthology A Fish Rots From The Head, with selected readings from our contributors.

Featuring artwork and poetry from over 100 contributors from England, Scotland and Wales, the anthology is a creative expression of fury and betrayal in the face of government hypocrisy, corruption and cruelty.

A Fish Rots From The Head challenges, satirizes, despairs, and even dares to laugh at our morally compromised leaders, whose malignant mixture of callousness and ineptitude has made life so hard, in so many ways, for so many people in this country. Through its demonstration of compassion for the suffering of others, and its protest against wrongdoing by those in high office, this collection of poems and artworks provides a very necessary space for solidarity and resistance. Let's hope the removal vans come soon!

Please do join Culture Matters' host Fran Lock in welcoming the contributors from this timely anthology on Sunday the 20th March, 17:00 GMT.

The Facebook link is here and the zoom link is here

Here are 2 posters with the line-up.....

Copy of Instagram Book Promotion Ad Story Made with PosterMyWall 19

Copy of Copy of Instagram Book Promotion Ad Story Made with PosterMyWall 1

 

Christmas Poetry Round Up
Sunday, 26 December 2021 11:24

Christmas Poetry Round Up

Published in Poetry

This quarter's round-up comes with seasonal solidarity and very best wishes to all our readers. It also comes rather belatedly. I have to admit that I have struggled to choose the books I would include in this selection. Not through lack of choice, but because 2021 afforded such an embarrassment of poetic riches, in the UK and beyond. This year both Culture Matters and Smokestack Books published finely wrought works steeped in the local lives of working-class people.

Chris Searle's meditative and empathetic collection, Over Eagle Pond (Culture Matters) is one such example, and Anna Robinson's Whatsname Street (Smokestack books) with its lively interrogation of communal history is another. Joelle Taylor's bravura exploration of visibility and voice, C+nto and Othered Poems (The Westborne Press) carved a place for butch and working-class lesbian women on the T.S Eliot Prize shortlist. This feels like a deserved and significant victory, as does the inclusion of Daniel Sluman's work of hybrid memoir and sparing lyric, Single Window (Nine Arches Press), which details with unflinching witness and tender intimacy the reality of disabled lives.

This year also saw two wry, intelligent explorations of blue-collar masculinity from Jake Hawkey and Ryan Quinn Flanagan. Hawkey's debut Breeze Block (Lumpen) is particularly focussed on the often complicated relationships we forge with lovers, friends, family, and with our wider communities. Quinn Flanagan's A Tripwire for the Soul (Marathon Books) is also a collection much concerned with dailiness, and with our misfiring attempts to communicate. I read both books in concert with each other, and found their directness, their deadpan and self-deprecating humour deeply refreshing.

Alan Morrison's Anxious Corporals (Smokestack Books) is also a work of notable scholarship, mental energy, and lyric reach, exploring, elegising and performing a lost working-class autodidactism. These books deserve more sustained attention than I can afford them here, and many I will return to. But for now, I wanted to signal just how much exciting working-class poetry is happening, and that I did not choose my favourites lightly. These are:

Picture1

Rocksong by Golnoosh Nour (Verve Poetry Press, 2021):

“I look at my brother through our screens” writes Nour in 'Through a Screen Darkly': “he watches me watch him feed his cat half his steak;/ she is conspicuously Persian, with an air of arrogance and/ trauma, just like my brother, and perhaps like me.” I think this is my favourite poem in Rocksong, the hotly anticipated debut collection from Golnoosh Nour, published by Verve Poetry Press in October this year. It is my favourite piece because it perfectly encapsulates Nour's key thematic concerns: specifically, the fraught interplay between arrogance and trauma, and the ways in which identity is mediated, distorted, and fractured by all the traumas and technologies of un-belonging.

To put it another way, Rocksong is a supremely decadent book, where “decadence” is not the feckless hedonism of over-privileged fuckwits, but the evidence of and resistance to the coercive demands of capitalism, heteronormativity, and poetry's implied white audience. It is a book much occupied with excess; excess as both a language tactic and a mode of being. Nour's speakers are variously raging, sarcastic, and unrepentantly perverse. Together the poems create a bravura performance of singular originality and wit; they swagger and they coax, they threaten and cajole, they – to quote Genet, which feels apt – “use menace, use prayer”. In this way, Nour brings a baroque sensibility to the shallowness and cruelty of our contemporary moment. Grotesque and tender by turns, Nour makes no accommodation to the Poetry Gods of Tedious Ironic Distance, but erects instead a dangerous and resplendent imaginary, a Tehran of the mind, her own “wicked capital,/ saturated with gold oil, dripping with black glory” ('The Wicked Capital').

Nour's poems negotiate a queer exile: which is not the same as absence from a beloved native land. It is the kind of spatial dysphoria that takes place when no “home” accepts you; the specific pain of being other to everyone, and the work of carving a kingdom for yourself from the insubstantial stuff of words, hashtags, references, and other assorted cultural ephemera. Rocksong takes this work seriously, most seriously of all its responsibility to joy, to sensual and aesthetic pleasure. In its steely refusal of victimhood, this is a defiant and daring collection, an anthem for our dark days.

Picture2

The System Compendium by Zak Ferguson (Sweat Drenched Press, 2021):

The System Compendium is a book astonishing in its extent, its scope, and its intensity. An ambitious and beguiling mixed media manifesto, it shifts between genre, typography, point of view, image, and text in ways often disorienting but always purposeful. “THIS IS NOT A BOOK” begins Ferguson, underlined and in all caps, “THIS IS A STATEMENT”. And indeed it is: the work strains at the limits of form; of what a book can and ideally “should” be according to the straight-jacketing dictates of typical/ neurotypical literature.

Described as an “autistic manifesto”, the books seems to embody the non-trivial effort demanded of neurodivergent persons to navigate a society and a culture set up specifically to exclude them. It is not merely a book in which neurodivergence manifests in symptomatic or performative traces, but in which autism itself exerts a compelling power over the rethorics and aesthetics of literature; where it becomes a transformative tool with the power to renegotiate terms of textual and political encounter. To put it another way, The System Compendium challenges our orderly, linear habits of reading. It demands more from us than passive content imbibing, and it shakes our belief in a default “ideal reader”, specifically ourselves . As we grapple with and navigate the text, Ferguson turns the tables. We are the ones wrong-footed and unsteady, our attention pivoting wildly between sensory and ideological overwhelm as we attempt to assimilate this strange new territory.

If this sounds rather dry and worthy, don't let it put you off. Ferguson can sustain this remarkable endeavour because his writing is also bloody good. This, from the opening section gives you a flavour of unnerving hard-edged humour on offer: “Do you feel the pressure from my scarred fingertips?/ Thick with a new growth of protective skin. KEYBOARD... you're on my mind! (Baby you're always on my mind!)/ Constantly I need you to be extrapolated and built upon. In your functions and processes. You need the attention as much as me, like an abused animal. Beaten, pressed. Hardened, yet still prone to needing that one thing you are accustomed to or risk another night without that of which you and your basis have been evolved around./ Keyboards of the world – do you like your pleasurable abuse?” To read this is to think of Clarice Lispector’s ‘Água Viva’, reimagined, so that when Lispector writes that she is “a typewriter making the dry echo in the dark, humid dawn. I haven’t been human for a long time. They wanted me to be an object. I am an object. An object dirty with blood. An object that creates other objects and the machine creates us all. It makes demands. Mechanisms make endless demands on my life. But I don’t totally obey: if I have to be an object, let me be an object that screams” Ferguson is similarly entangled with his machine: through punning play and pop-cultural allusion, the text posits an intimate, tactile relationship between writer and apparatus, as the keyboard becomes further and further enmeshed in the speaker's writing and thinking processes, at once interlocutor, victim, other self. Throughout the book Ferguson explores typography and technology as methods for mediating and constituting different subject positions, particularly those considered “mad” or in some way outside the sanctioned grammars and syntaxes of polite society and good middle-class prosody.

This is a rich and complex book. It is also visually stunning, an art object of rare fascination. As Ferguson holds the notion of “the system” in its varied guises up to the light the reader finds their comforting commonplaces about language, society, technological process, and the potential of the human mind called into question.

Picture3

Be Feared by Jane Burn (Nine Arches Press, 2021):

For those like me who have long enjoyed Jane Burn's work, her latest collection, Be Feared traverses familiar territory: myths, monsters and magical transformations abound; there is an attentive and clear-sighted regard for the natural world, along with an abiding concern for language, and its potential as prayer, as hex, or as charm. What distinguishes Be Feared from Burn's previous collections is perhaps the subtle and sustained merging of this Otherworld with its mundane and struggling shadow side: Burn's speakers are a polyvocal brood of selves, imperfectly held by the Real. The magic within is always looking for an out, barely contained either by daily life or the structural strictures of the poem. In consequence, her work is a masterful shape-shifting engagement with form, moving from sonnet to villanelle to the plaintive recitative chant. These poems feel restless, but the the effect is far from being haphazard. What impresses about this collection is the sense of search and purpose at work; form embodies the transformational magic that is the thematic heart of Burn's writing. These are poems as process, poems as a gradual becoming, a painful, beautiful moving-towards. Be Feared evinces an enviable control over language; throughout the collection language in fact functions as the medium of control, of tempering emotion and experience into the white hot steel of a cutting blade.

These are also poems whose use of language is strikingly original. I have written before about the ethics of scavenging, splicing, reusing and repurposing in the poetry of working-class women, and Burn makes the most adept and inventive use of these techniques. Here, nothing is wasted: an adjective might be a noun, a local dialect word might comfortably rub shoulders with an arcane ecclesiastical reference; pop-culture might intersect with fairytale. This follows a determination to use every available poetic resource –  a literary counterpart to the tools with which we negotiate life – but in Burn's hands it is more than this, she is so much more than an omnivorous enthusiast: Burn's use of language is joyful yet disciplined, and deployed with absolute precision. Every word is available, but not just any word will do. The magic resides in the choreography, which in this collection feels absolutely at the peak of its powers.

While the collection deals with fear, the poems present the various ways in which language may express, contain, banish or subvert that fear. It is a gathering of strength, a ferocious song of survival.

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Underneath by Martin Hayes (Smokestack Books 2021):

It would be extremely difficult for Hayes – or indeed any writer – to top the political engagement, the intellectual and imaginative reach of Ox (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021 ), with its sustained interaction with fable; its complex reckoning with the animal industrial complex and all the apparatus of mechanised suffering. To be sure, Underneath is a very different book. Although Hayes' characteristic concern with the multiple assaults and oppressions of our “gig economy” is still a driving and viscerally present force, his latest collection eschews allegory in favour of vividly rendered vignettes and shorter poems of empathetic portraiture. This strategy is simple but extremely effective: by focussing on the particularities of experience that beset individual workers, Hayes slowly builds our sense of them – and of ourselves – as a class cohort. The poems becomes small units of resistance, a place to extend the sustained attention and care seldom afforded workers as citizens or subjects. With patience, with humour, and with a sharp eye for eccentric detail, Hayes sets about rendering the occluded lives of workers visible.

Underneath, then, is necessarily a large book, and it is a testament to Hayes energy and charisma as a poet that the work does not feel over-extended or heavy. As is typical of Hayes' work, the language is deceptively direct while in no way plain or simplistic. Rather, Hayes judiciously deploys arresting images and pungent phrases: “all the supervisors in the world” as  moray eels with “jaws unpeeled and teeth sticking out” is one that will stay with me for a long while yet. Hayes is not a poet to drown the urgency of his message by loading every line with ore, instead the reader is struck by sudden flashes of gold.

And what is Hayes' message? It strikes me that Underneath is a compassionate call for global class solidarity; to see ourselves as part of a collective struggle in which the the individual – their unique culture, context, talents and sufferings – absolutely matter. What is Underneath is both the inscrutable and merciless functioning of the capitalist machine, but it is also the humanity of the workers Hayes brings to life with such clarity. The book is an act of rescue, from anonymity, from a system that wants desperately to see us as a homogenised mass of faceless economic units.  Underneath reminds us of what poetry is for, and for that I am grateful.

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The Cursory Remix by Michał Kamil Piotrowski (Contraband Books, 2021):

As somebody who recently completed work on a collaborative translation project, I found this book, which is playfully sensitised to the ethics and aesthetics of translation both simulating and useful. Described as being “co-written” by Google Translate, The Cursory Remix translates passages from The Cursory Epic by Stephen Mooney into a language other than English, then back again, through the medium of Google's ubiquitous translation tool. In the process, context is stripped, nuance shaved, meaning skewed. Piotrowski's text becomes a meditation on the linguistic expressions of cultural hegemony: the hidden operations of power ceaselessly smuggled inside even the most benign-seeming of language encounters.

What is striking about the book, and about Piotrowski's process is that Google produces not merely “incorrect” translations, but subtle and suggestive shifts of meaning that complicate, extend and undercut the original. We find ourselves sifting and weighing the remix: what exactly is the associative affinity between a “friend” and a “sacrifice”? What is the exact difference between a “quest” and a “task”? Such questions are pressing, particularly within the context of capitalism, where we frequently find ourselves at the mercy of language manipulation: through small print, pseudo-speak, political and corporate propaganda. This is made achingly clear in the section entitled '[from the Cursory Epic 3.5 – The Cursory Spell Book:]' where government pronouncements about single mothers and benefit claimants are mangled just enough to expose their absurd and sinister nature.

But to my mind the most fascinating places in the book are the silences and gaps it proliferates: the moments when language technologies fail, producing a speculative space of possibility and vulnerable openness. As the book is “interactive”, following the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, the reader has no choice but to inhabit these silences, to work through and reckon with these myriad failures of communication. This is a collection retunes our attention to the fact that we are not merely language using subjects, but intimately and irrevocably subject to language.

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William Blake at the Bridge Hotel: Ten Newcastle Poets, edited by Paul Summers (Culture Matters, 2021):

Although some of the voices collected in this anthology were previously known to me, others were a wonderful surprise. The work of Catherine Graham and Kathleen Kenny in particular has been one of my happiest discoveries this year. These poets exemplify the best of the work in this timely book, introduced and edited by Paul Summers and illustrated with haunting photographs by Dan Douglas. Graham and Kenny impress in both the quality of their attentive local witness, and their imaginative and empathetic reach across communities and throughout history.

This anthology feels important for a variety of reasons, not least because it challenges the implied position of London as England's literary and political centre. It offers proof, if any were needed, that the North East has its own rich and ever-evolving set of poetic traditions, intimately connected both to embodied experience and to class identity. An intimate and tactile sense of place is woven through the fabric of these poems, a sense of life as it is lived and language as it is spoken. This is a marvellous antidote to the cult of ironic distance that prevails throughout much of contemporary poetry, and where the expressive effects and unique eccentricities of accent and grammar are flattened or fetishised in the name of “good” prosody.

This collection treasures the particularity and the diversity of local lives to produce an anthology of poems that are materially and socially situated, historically and politically engaged, but most of all viscerally and inspiringly alive. Douglas' images lend the work an air of psycho-geographic haunting, where native place is not a backdrop, but a collaborator, shaping literary production and  sense of self. This anthology offers an artistic reckoning with the North East, with its political legacies and long continuities of struggle. It also provides a rare space of preservation and joy.

What is History, Discuss?
Sunday, 26 December 2021 10:36

What is History, Discuss?

Published in Poetry

What is History, Discuss?

“History is and was and so is that patch/ of pavement” begins 'What is History, Discuss?', the poem that opens Whatsname Street (Smokestack Books, 2021) by Anna Robinson. The collection provides an account of a Lambeth housing estate across the generations. It is a work that combines oral history, patient archival research, and deep sustained attention to the fleeting stuff of memory. In this poem, which I am sharing with you today, Robinson performs a gathering together of the fragmented and ephemeral “bits/ and bobs” from which we make a life. It is a history of remnants (“the loose change in my pocket”) and absences (“the fact that there is never any/ loose change in my pocket”). It is a working-class history.

By focussing on “that patch” of pavement, Robinson situates the reader within the poem. We see in real time what the speaker sees, the world, our world, mundane and material. This is the challenge implicit in Robinson's poem: we could occupy that patch of pavement; we could – and we do – occupy history. For working-class people this is a profound thought. History, as it has typically been taught and transmitted through neoliberal culture, positions poor and working people as a motiveless mass at the mercy of and subject to social and economic forces we can neither resist or comprehend. Robinson offers the poem as a place of retuned attention to the small and ordinary details of daily life. In doing so, the poem asks how we define history, and raises powerful questions about what – and who – is worthy of preservation.

The rich live on through their monuments, architectural and cultural. Buildings, statues, and street names all serve to capture the continuity of their lived experience, inscribing their memory onto public space; canonical art and literature archive and enshrine their histories and perspectives. They accumulate things, a legacy of silverware and fine china; leather-bound books and family portraits. These possessions come to constitute history: they're what museums are full of, just as literature is thick with their narratives, their ideas, their ideologies. How the rich lived and thought become naturalised as The Past.

Poor and working-class people have few enduring possessions, they have fewer opportunities to access art or literature and intervene in culture; they are excluded from the long posterity those things engender. How are their experiences to be stored or celebrated? This is where Robinson's poem is at its most radical; by evoking the perishable and the intangible (“a Brussels sprout”, “a bumble bee”, “a brown-tail moth”), the poem locates history elsewhere: vividly embodied, kept alive through word of mouth, through the sharing of our stories. The poem, like the Lambeth housing estate itself, is a layered, communal space. Unlike the mansions of the rich, history is not entombed there, it is created and negotiated. It is a continuing conversation.

'What is History, Discuss?' invites us to consider that what distinguishes working-class history from canonical history is its deep collective sensibility. Robinson's poetry does not create a monumental space, but a relational one. Perhaps there is no “History” as such, but a collection of vivid histories, plural, spun from the long threads of intergenerational memory.

Robinson's poem so struck me because history, and our place within it, has been much on my mind over the last few months. Participating in discussions at a number of working-class studies events, it has become clear to me that we are still grappling with what are frequently touted as these “unprecedented times”. I dislike that phrase intensely. Although our contemporary moment is chaotic and scary, it is hardly without precedent. It is, in fact, part of an endlessly repeating pattern. Our current crisis, reaching as it does across multiple axes of oppression – social, economic, ecological – does so in an acute causal relationship to capitalism. Where we are now is the logical conclusion to where we've been; it is the end result of prioritising money over the health of poor and working people, over our shared environment, our rights and our safety.

This is far from new: when a third of Europe's population was lost to the bubonic plague – itself spread through burgeoning channels of trade and military conquest – Europe's largest and wealthiest companies responded by concentrating their assets, allowing them to gain a greater share of the market and a deeper influence within governments. This historical situation has strong parallels to the mess we're in today: while struggling smaller businesses and individual persons in poverty must rely on the vanishingly scant support offered to them by the state and (more and more frequently) the charities that have all but replaced state assistance, large companies – mainly those involved in home delivery and contactless payment – are profiting greatly from the new trading conditions. It is the most vulnerable amongst us who suffer, whether in the Middle Ages or the twenty-first century.

Defusing challenges to the cultural status quo

What has also become clear to me is that there are few spaces within mainstream neoliberal discourse that openly discuss or acknowledge the recursive nature of working-class exploitation and suffering. Worse, there are precious few spaces that acknowledge the working classes at all. This is another of neoliberal culture's two-faced manoeuvres: the working class have no part in history, and yet we are routinely consigned to it. To be poor and working-class within neoliberal culture is to occupy the position of the absent subject. We are frequently told that the class system no longer exists, or our “credentials” as working-class people are continually questioned because we do not present as “typically” working-class according to tropes that others have invented about us.

Middle-class cultural elites filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic people, while refusing to acknowledge the role racism plays in the perception and treatment of white working-class others. Through a representational model of cultural inclusion these same elites select their working-class ambassadors to comfortably confirm existing tropes: the older white male from the industrial north, for example. These tropes, as they appear in poetry, are often characterised by a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or aesthetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status quo.

Martin Hayes' poem 'where are the working class now' from his most recent collection Underneath (Smokestack Books, 2021), takes this blinkered representation of class to task. As with Robinson's poem it opens with a challenge: “imagine if all of the workers in this city were white”. The first twelve stanzas are a list of working-class trades practised by non-white persons, from “the Uber driving Somalian cabbie” to the “Ghanaian road sweeper”. These short stanzas have an incantatory quality; they serve not only to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of working-class experience, but to emphasise just how fundamental these workers are to the operation of the city, any city, and to society at large. Each short stanza ends on the single word: “white”, performing an almost uncomfortable act of erasure that reflects the way in which the classed experiences of these workers is erased from history and within culture, even at the moment it is enacted.

The repeated refrain “imagine if” is both an invitation and a provocation. It extends to Hayes’ worker-subjects the space and consideration seldom afforded them as citizens. It also forces the reader into a confrontation with their own unconscious assumptions. It requires an enlarging of our world-view, our solidarity, our empathetic reach. In the final six stanzas, Hayes repeats the lines “who would/ then/ be able to split us/ apart/ see?” The lines themselves are split apart into short, jagged syllabic units, serving to create a tremendous amount of emphatic force. Each word is given its own weight, articulated like a fist thumped into a palm. The language is blunt, but it needs to be: this is important. It is also simple. If it feels complex or difficult, then that is a measure of just how successfully we have been divided. Hayes' use of both “imagine” and “see” is the necessary balance between close attention to material conditions, and the vision and the courage to picture them otherwise.

The poem ends with the question: do we see “why/ they did that?”, evoking the age-old divide and conquer tactics of moneyed power elites. There is rage in these lines, but there is also hope and defiance: disunity is not inherent or natural. If it was, they wouldn't have to work so hard to create it. Change begins with a simple act of recognition, an expression of class solidarity. When we acknowledge the class-based oppression of non-white persons our sense of history also expands; our history is intimately and vividly local, but it is also wide, networked, and global; multiple and intersecting.

Struggle and the UCS work-in

'Struggle' by Jim Aitken, the final poem I want to share with you today, echoes the hope and defiance of Hayes' piece. The poem was originally written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.C.S. (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) work-in. On July 31st 1971, over 8000 shipyard workers took possession of the four biggest shipyards on the Upper Clyde, to stage not a strike, but a work-in, organising and working together to run the yards themselves. Heath's Conservative government planned to close the shipyards, making 6,000 of the 8,500 shipyard workers employed by U.C.S. instantly redundant, and causing untold misery for their families and communities. So workers fought back, supported by marches, concerts, public collections and other fundraising activities. A support fund of nearly £250,000 was raised, and reports of workers' meetings were broadcast around the world. The work in continued into February and March of 1972, when the government reversed its decision not to support UCS.

This was a pivotal moment in the story of working-class resistance, so it is hardly surprising that it remains spectacularly unattended by mainstream historical discourse, or absorbed into a broader narrative of repression, fragmentation and failure within the labour movement. And yet our history survives. Reading Aitken's poem I was reminded that as a child, before I ever knew what the U.C.S. was, I could give you the chorus of the Matt McGinn song, 'Yes, yes, U.C.S.': “Yes, Yes, U.C.S./ Tell them on the radio, tell them on the press/ Want my job and I want no less/ No more dole day doldrums.” It is often through such subaltern cultural forms: the chant, the folksong, the poem, that our history persists and is handed on.

What is immediately striking about Aitken's poem is its focus not on explaining or detailing the U.C.S. work-in but in attending to the subjective and collective experience of the work-in for those within the labour movement. This is important because it challenges the implied audience for poetry. It tells us something of the social life of the poem, how it is to be circulated and shared, and by whom it is to be received. 'Struggle' has been published in the anthology A Rose Loupt Oot, in celebration and commemoration of the work-in; by the Scottish Socialist Party, and in Community Education newsletters. In addition to which it has been read at various events. It has a lively, politically engaged public life. It is not merely a place of preservation, but a site of potential reactivation, affirming and invigorating shared political commitments.

The poem proceeds slowly, in self-contained three-lined stanzas, each one encapsulating a difficult thought, as the speaker weighs their reasons for participating in the work-in. The “struggle” is not only a class struggle, fought in the shipyards, it is a mental and emotional struggle, a raising of consciousness that must begin within the self. I believe it is this negotiation between inner and external struggle that makes Aitken's poem so interesting and important. The fourth stanza of 'Struggle' marks a shift, a pivotal realisation that it is not whether the action is won or lost, but how it changes those within it, and inspires those who come after that matters. This is a brave and difficult thought. Social and political change are often slow. Our sense of ourselves as part of history must account for this fact, must reckon with the idea that we will not be the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts, but that we are links in a long chain. We do what we do not to secure a place in some dusty posterity for ourselves, but to make the living present better for future others.

In the fifth stanza Aitken uses simple but finely wrought organic imagery: “They awaken and grow/ like desert seeds/ receiving rain” which frames the experience of political solidarity as necessary, natural, and nourishing. What I find so affecting about this piece as a whole and this stanza in particular is its lack of clamour or aggression: “struggle” is understood first and foremost as an innate desire to live and to grow, and it happens in slow-time, across generations. It is as immediate and visceral as a strike or a work-in, but it is also the building up of movements over years, the seeding of ideas, the changing of minds. Again, the poem frames the actions and history of working-class people as part of a living and interconnected whole.

All of these poems complicate and extend our idea of what history might be, of what our history is. These poems show us that it is not a smooth progressive arc, but that it is entangled, recursive and complicated. It is also created by people within social contexts, not merely something we are subject to or excluded from. We are capable of making history as well as experiencing it. We are not only witnesses; we shape and tell our own stories. Although poor and working-class people have not typically been trusted to be the authors and archivists of our experiences, we carry within our communities and within ourselves an incredibly rich fund of memories and embodied knowledge. These memories and this knowledge surface within our poetry, which offers us an important place of infiltration into the historical record. Poetry also extends a space to others, offers a lens through which to apprehend the myriad networked connections between poor and exploited people globally.

A wise friend of mine recently told me that “history tells us the facts, poetry tells us how it feels”. If we are to understand our own history, we need testimony as much as we need evidence, and poetry combines these facets more than any other art form. In the last decade or so, working-class histories have increasingly become the objects of study, but through poetry and song they also have the potential to be the means of resistance, to strike a light for others.

*

What is History, Discuss?

by Anna Robinson

History is and was and so is that patch
of pavement where one tiny leaf shape
is never wet no matter how much rain.
It’s in the shards of clay pipes on the banks
of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments.
It’s in the loose change in my pocket
and the fact that there is never any
loose change in my pocket. It’s in the bits
and bobs, the fairy on the rock cake,
at the foot of our stairs. It’s t’ick
as a coddle and mild as milk.
There’s a king and queen and offspring
and they’re effing and blinding or not –
‘cause that’s common! It’s in the darkness,
the rose moon, a clear deep navy sky
and a box of Price’s candles to light
the longest street market in London
where we ply, plight and sing a bit.
It’s in the pain of home and the urge
to command that pain with real true facts.
It is what it is, although that’s contentious.
It’s a bumble bee, a Brussels sprout,
and sometimes, even, a brown-tail moth.

Reprinted with kind permission of Smokestack Books

*

where are the working class now

by Martin Hayes

where are the working class now
by Martin Hayes
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
imagine that
imagine
the Uber driving Somalian cabbie
white
the Filipino nanny
white
the Columbian cleaner
white
the Brazilian courier
white
imagine that
imagine
the Nigerian traffic warden
white
the Afghan phone repair stall owner
white
the Indian corner shop owner
white
the Thai manicurist
white
imagine
if all of the workers in this city were white
the Lebanese kebab seller
white
the Syrian car washer
white
the Ghanaian road sweeper
white
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
who would
then
be able to split us
apart?
imagine
why they did that
made believe
that words
said often enough
could separate us
imagine
if the colour of our blood
and the stench of our sweat
was more important
than the colour of our skin
who would
then
be able to split us
apart
see?
why
they did that?

Reproduced with kind permission of Smokestack Books

*

Struggle

by Jim Aitken

Not to certainly means
worsening conditions
inevitable defeat.
To engage in action
even if you lose
means dignity at least.
It also means
just could mean
that you actually win.
But it’s more than that
for in the process
people change.
They awaken and grow
like desert seeds
receiving rain.
And give to others
a sense of vision
and possible dreams.

*

Anna Robinson's publications include Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye, 2006), The Finders of London (Enitharmon, 2010) – shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize – Into the Woods (Enitharmon, 2014) and Night Library (Stonewood, 2015). She teaches at the University of East London.

Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His books include Letting Loose the Hounds (2001), When We Were Almost Like Men (2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (2018), Where We Get Magic From (2021), Ox (2021), and most recently Underneath (2021)

Jim Aitken is a poet, dramatist and essayist. He also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh and works with the Council's Outlook programme for people with mental health issues. He has several literary and cultural essays on the Culture Matters website. In 2020 he edited A Kist of Thistles: radical poetry from Scotland and in 2021 edited a companion prose version called Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift. Both books are published and available here.

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:37

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Books

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, is selected and edited by Fran Lock, and features poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world.

This ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature.

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. Throughout each of the five sections of the book, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual. The reader is offered provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, but there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows', or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse'.

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6. For addresses in the UK and Republic of Ireland, £12 inc. p. and p.....

For the rest of the world, £12 plus £5 p. and p......

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:33

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is proud to announce the publication and launch of The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock.

Featuring poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world, this ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature; for the “unseen, the in between” ('My People', Tracey Pearson, p.22).

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. It is divided into five sections: 'Who We Are: Writing about daily life'; 'What we do: Writing about work, working, and not working'; 'A Place for Us: Writing about home, homelessness, exile and belonging'; 'With a raised fist: Writing in rage, protest, and defiance'; and 'In solidarity and in sorrow: Writing about loss and despair, hope and faith'. 

Throughout each section, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual, so that James O' Brien's grimly topical 'The Suicide Sanctions: “A parish bier burdened with the ghosts of capital,/ Eking out a funeral pace to the food bank” (p.162) shares space with Sarah Wedderburn's melancholic and subtle 'Sleeping Pilgrim': “Paths are my grace,/ their end a cathedral of stars” (p.199).

The Cry of the Poor offers the reader provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, as in Neimo Askar's beautiful 'Dua for Black boys': “this world holds/ an awaiting cemetery for Black bodies” (p.26) and in the vivid and arresting extract from Karl Parkinson's The Blocks: “Neighbours on top uv ya, each side uv ya, underneath ya. Weird single men wit beards n stinkin hallways, dirty curtains not washed in ten years, windows always gettin broken. Small grey concrete pram-sheds wit wooden doors dat held bikes n prams in dem, sum turned inte pigeon lofts n dog sheds n smoke dens n sex dungeons” ('Georgie', p.179).

But there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows': “From this view, the falling leaves look like fluttering butterflies. Rose knows that when she comes down she’ll be in a lot of trouble. So she squints up at the sun and gives the balloon some more power.” (p.198), or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse': “Poverty made you thrill at the mining/ of a table top’s rummaged vein eyes out/ for Taccini Tammy Girl Sweater Shop Squashed pixie boots/ Something a bit Bananarama Something mohair/ batwing stonewashed Something nice” (p.19).

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

Poverty is not a tragic accident or a force of nature. It is caused by a lack of love, the love, care and compassion we should feel for one another as suffering mortal beings, which is the foundation of both true communism and basic human decency. Heed The Cry of the Poor, for it is the cry of all of us.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6.

For addresses in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, £12 inc. p. and p.....

For the rest of the world, £12 plus £5 p. and p....
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