Alan Morrison reviews Smokestack Lightning, edited and introduced by Andy Croft, Smokestack Books, 350 pps.
Smokestack Lightning is an anthology comprising excerpts from 199 titles published by Andy Croft’s Smokestack Books since 2004, a thumping 350 paged testament to the vitality and variety of socialist poetics, contemporary and historical, British and international. This is a formidable anthology, bringing together within the same covers radical voices of the past, present and, one might even say, future.
I must from the outset flag up that as a three time Smokestack author there are excerpts from each of my titles included herein, but it is no revelation to anyone who has read my poetry criticism over the years on The Recusant that I have long been a champion of this press, trying my best to keep up with at least a fraction of its prolific output; and my many reasons for doing so should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into this devastatingly strong gathering of varied and vital talents.
Andy Croft’s Introduction is a compendious manifesto and recapitulates Smokestack’s core mission:
Smokestack Books was established in 2004 in protest at the dullness, narrowness and triviality of so much of the contemporary British poetry scene. Smokestack’s declared aim has always been to keep open a space for what is left of the radical poetic tradition in the twenty-first century…
…all these poets may be said to inhabit a shared seriousness, and a common preparedness to write about the circumstances in which they found themselves.
There are many diﬀerent – and sometimes competing – intellectual and political loyalties represented in these pages. But all these poets may be described as politai or citizens of the Republic of Poetry.
A ‘Republic of Poetry’ is an apt phrase to represent the metaphorical space this publication and its citizen voices inhabit, not only poets but also verse-activists—witnesses to and protagonists of major events—of their times and ours. A chronological arrangement gives the anthology some serendipitous juxtapositions which constantly surprise in stylistic and tonal contrasts.
Heinrich Heine’s ‘Caput 1’ (Germany: A Winter’s Tale, tr. John Goodby, 2005) shows why the German Romantic poet is so highly regarded for his lyricism:
It was in the glum month of November,
with days growing overcast,
and the wind tearing leaves from the trees,
when I left for Germany at last…
My song’s pure epithalamium –
better, newer! – and in my soul,
stars of the most exalted
consecration are ascending –
Andy Willoughby’s wonderfully titled ‘Out of Work with Crows’ (Tough,2004) is strikingly alliterative: ‘Hands red from sanded swarfega,/ Counting the stolen hours and wages’. David Craig’s ‘Robin’s Escape’ (The Fourth Quarter, 2005) has some arresting images:
He would not see their dandelions
In their toothed and rampant sprouting,
He would not see the linens
Stitched to the tapestry of the hawthorns.
The black cowl of the abbess loomed in the doorway
Like a hollow tree…
Equally beguiling iambic lyricism from the late Sebastian Barker in ‘What the Statue Saw’ (The Erotics of God, 2005):
I woke in a whirlwind, sweating in bed,
senseless in safety, rubbing my eyes.
The future’s a rainbow over the dead
clothing the statues posthumously wise.
Tom Wintringham, Marxist poet and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, is represented by his sharply descriptive poem ‘International Brigades’ (We’re Going On! The Collected Poems of Tom Wintringham, 2006), which bears comparison with Ivor Gurney and Drummond Allison:
Men are so tired, running fingers down football tables
Or the ticker-tape, or standing still,
Unemployed, hating street-corners, unable
– Earth–damned, famine-forced, worn grey with worklessness –
To remember man hood and marching, a song or a parable...
While the free men of Europe
Pile into Madrid.
This is a heart-stirring encomium to a transnational moral crusade, which seems almost quixotic in today’s climate of Brexit and xenophobia:
Forming today the third of the brigades, equipping Italians,
Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, Jugo-Slavs, Greeks,
- The names mean languages only: these are Europeans –
The staﬀ, corduroy-trousered…
Jacques Gaucheron’s ‘Legend of the International Brigades’ (When the Metro is Free: Contemporary French counter-cultural poetry, tr. Alan Dent, 2007) takes a more declamatory lyrical tone:
O far-sighted Brigades
Come to bar the way to the spectre of war
To take on the sowers of discord
And if possible
To put out once and for all the torches of evil
Michael Povey’s ‘Weaving History’ (Sedgemoor, 2006: first of numerous Smokestack titles depicting historical conflicts of sociopolitical import) is an evocative period piece set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion:
Sick of weaving, perhaps, to keep a clothier rich:
Devout men, fearing a Papist king force-feeding them
Wine and wafer: village men, eager for pike-thrust:
The chance to cut a lace-wrapped throat…
Ellen Pethean’s dialect poem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ (Wall, 2007) recounts her working-class father taking her to a library when she was a girl: ‘He said Hen – Libraries are there fer all and readin is free.’ Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ ‘Cover-up’ (Tell It Like It Might Be, 2008) is a short striking lyric meditation on the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and Picasso’s groundbreaking depiction: ‘Draw the curtains over Guernica./ On no account remember screaming horses,/ let alone the howling mouths of children’.
Arnold Rattenbury, who worked alongside other notables including Randall Swingler and Jack Lindsay on the communist arts monthly Our Time, is represented by the lyric ‘Calendar Song’ (Various Forms of Speech, 2008), which reads like a fusion of Edward Thomas, W.H. Auden, Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas:
The apples I ate in Bedfordshire
mocked me with red from Alamein
and yellow from sand and the sun that’s there
and green from the wounds in Englishmen.
The leaves that tumbled on Somerset
like parachutists from a war
brushed down my khaki battle-suit
shaming my millions everywhere.
The big bare trees in St. James’s Park
stretched out their arms like camouflage
and ducks came down like Sunderlands
and kids pushed oﬀ in a landing barge.
The death of Edward Thomas is paid tribute at the beginning of Hugh Underhill’s ‘At Arras’ (Found Wanting, 2008); its final stanza depicts a poet who survived the trenches only to spend the rest of his life in the No-Man’s-Land of extreme mental illness: ‘the heartsick voice of Ivor Gurney –/ he who imagined voices and had/ every right to his sickness’. Michael Shepler’s starkly imagistic ‘Berlin, 1930’ (Dark Room Elegies, 2009) has an ominousness:
Forest of iron & lights.
The sputtering bulbs of electric stars
Flare & dim, casting a livid glow
On faces Kollwitz might have painted.
At windwracked stands headlines snarl
In Deutsch. Each word,
Rough. Black. Bestial.
& no eyes lit toward the velvet sky
Of tinselled heaven. & none hear
The creak of the cheap wings of
The poor lifting aloft;
Fresh from a pawnshop…
Gustavo Pereira’s ‘End of history’ (The Arrival of the Orchestra, tr. Michael Boňcza, 2010) forecasts that under late stage capitalism there will be ‘dresses and jewellery but not the transparency of waters/ metaphors but not poetry’. Andy Jordan’s ‘The General Election’ captures the aphorismic sensibility of his Bonehead’s Utopia (2011), it closes on the haunting: ‘And so my friend waits in the prison of his skin, marvelling/ at democracy; at what it protects, and from who’. ‘Can I say something else?’ is a two-liner from Victoria Bean’s Caught (2011) which says so much so briefly: ‘He says I wish to say a few things./ The judge says it’s usually unwise.’ Elliptical lyricism in Chris Kinsey’s ‘Flight Practice’ (Swarf, 2011):
What’s held in ignites –
Free-falling in burning fuselage
A blackbird’s already singing all-clear
loud and liquid from the hazels.
Paul Summers has a penchant for working-class self-assertion in the face of middle-class condescension, as in ‘north’ (Union; New and Selected Poems, 2011):
we are more than sharply contrasting photographs
of massive ships and staithes for coal, more than
crackling films where grimy faced workers are
dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys, more
than foul mouthed men in smoky clubs or well-built
women in a wash-day chorus. we are more than
lessons in post-industrial sociology…
John Gibbens’ ‘The hill’ (Orpheus Ascending, 2012) is a charming pastoral lyric, which closes bookishly:
Against the reconvening rooks
homing below by ones and twos
to croak and wheel out one more time
before the night, tattered volumes
settling into their library,
the owl has loosed her seldom cry
over our heads, a pale banner
shaking from the kingdom coming.
Victor Jara’s poem of political witness, ‘Chile Stadium’ (His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara, tr. Joan Jara, ed. Martín Espada, 2012), makes for powerful and difficult reading, especially since Jara was tortured and murdered at the age of 40 in 1973 under Pinochet’s fascist regime:
The other four wanted
to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed look of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!
To them, blood equals medals,
Slaughter is an act of heroism.
Similarly disturbing is Martín Espada’s ‘Federico’s Ghost’ (The Meaning of the Shovel, 2014), which depicts fruit-pickers in an unspecified Latin country being sprayed with pesticides as they work whereafter they ‘thrashed like dark birds/ in a glistening white net’—this is a malicious conscious act of the pilot who is last seen ‘watching a fine gauze of poison/ drift over the brown bodies’. Pauline Plummer employs rhyming iambic pentameter effectively to convey the enervation of human worker-consumers in the West (From Here to Timbuktu, 2012):
We seem somewhat exhausted and time–poor.
We obey the gods of work and earning cash
But now we want to go where life is raw
And take a little risk, be slightly rash,
Drink palm wine and maybe smoke some hash.
We’ll see how people live at slower speeds
And question our exaggerated needs...
Kate Fox’s ‘Heirloom’ (Fox Populi, 2013) is a touching, colourfully colloquial poem about her Bradford-raised father:
‘Blood’s thicker than custom,’ he adds
in the Smiths Arms,
his hat, his Embassy Number One, his pint
subtly defying the country club gin swiggers
who’d called him a jumped-up council school nothing.
His, the smoggy Bradford
of Titus Salt and hot factory furnaces.
Mine, the sandblasted city
of David Hockney and hot aloo saags.
Mark Robinson’s ‘The Dunno Elegies IX – Teesport, Redcar’ (How I Learned to Sing, 2013) is a plangent elegy to Northern industrial decline and urban decay:
All the power that once was here changed.
Iron made a place appear overnight,
now it is rusting the water ochre.
Ore in these dark hills, a dance in the pipe-work.
The covert pastoral of Gerda Stevenson’s ‘Eden’ from If This Were Real (2013) starts out idyllically (‘cabbage white butterflies/ flickered down the lane’) but then has a faintly disturbing tonal switch at its close:
Heels and stick
click down the path,
fingernail flames rip
through leaves: ‘Get out!
Get out of my garden,
you dirty, dirty girls!’
The impassioned, prayer-like ‘In Memory of Claudia Jones’ from Footprints (2013) exemplifies Peter Blackman’s oratorical oeuvre. Richard Skinner’s ‘izba’ (the light user scheme, 2013) is an aphorismic lyric: ‘She was catching crayfish with her son when he finally understood/ that the afterlife is what we leave in others’. Rob Hindle’s ‘At the cemetry’ from his Spanish Civil War-themed collection Yoke and Arrows (2014) depicts deaths by fascist firing squads with devastating poetic precision:
When they shot Alejandro and his brother Ramón
they were looking at each other and seeing in each
the diﬀerent faces of fear, one gnurled and dark,
an olive stump, one smooth and still as the moon.
When they fell, their eyes shone exactly the same.
Seminal German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’s Song’ (Mother Courage and her children, 2014) is ingeniously rendered in Scots dialect by translator Tom Leonard. An excerpt from the book-length poem on the sacrifices of the Greek Resistance, Romiosini (tr. Bill Berg, 2014), by “the great poet of the Greek left” Yiannis Ritsos, has a fairytale quality:
The troop passed by here with the flags stuck to their bodies,
with hard-bitten obstinacy between their teeth like an unripe wild pear,
with sand of the moon in their boots,
and coal-dust of the night stuck in their nostrils and ears.
…and when they danced in the square,
ceilings trembled inside the houses and glassware tinkled on the shelves.
In ‘Aphrodite on the New Economic Measures’ (Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis, ed. Dinos Siotis, tr. Angelos Sakkis, 2014) Kyriakos Charalambidis interweaves Greek mythology with punishing contemporary Troika-imposed austerity:
As for my subsidiary concerns
and the real estate portfolio
those are included in the new package
that Fate already has submitted at Olympus…
As you can see, gentlemen,
I am about to be unemployed, I’ll become
Aphrodite of Burdens, of the Rocks,
of Rationalization and Conservatism.
István Vas’s ‘The Colours that Day’ (Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust, tr. and ed. Thomas Ország-Land, 2014) gives disturbing first hand insight into 1940s Nazi-gripped Hungary in which, as the title suggests, colour is used to convey emotions, anxieties and symbolisms:
The soldier is tanned and blond, his car and tunic green.
His silken hound is brown and bright and cheerful.
Bound from Paris to Moscow, stranded here,
he regards our streets with mild but blatant loathing…
From the parting car, the hound still holds
our friendly guide in keen, Teutonic gaze.
The sun breaks through. Its yellow rays ignite
the identifying Yellow Stars Jews must display.
Ian Duhig’s ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (Digressions, 2014) is a dextrous and unobtrusively alliterative poem with arresting Eliotic imageries:
Vagrants’ graves stir by the Poorhouse
as midnight prayers to the God of Hosts
wind around the obelisk in Market Place,
a Cleopatra’s needle for bone-lace ghosts…
His khaki threads on the obelisk’s bobbin
could unwind now by candlelight to tell
the miles from his child’s bed to Babylon,
feet to Ozymandias, inches to the Skell.
Prolific Anglo-Australian poet, novelist and historian Jack Lindsay’s ‘Christmas Eve 1952’ (Who are the English? Selected Poems 1935–81, 2014) juxtaposes biblical imagery with modern day urban privations:
And still the new life cries in darkness, still
The masters hoard their sweated pence,
And then the abject terrors strike again
To massacre the innocents.
The dawn moves ever westward, flowing past
The lines of the dividing maps.
It slides through every window of man, and wakes
The heart upon whose pane it taps.
In vain are bolts and bars against this light,
The cry of life renewed
Breaks the old stones, and men uniting stand
Against all Herod’s brood.
Goran Simić’s ‘What I saw’ (New and Selected Sorrows, 2015) is defiantly humorous and ironic in its depiction of corpses in a war zone:
I saw that human feet shrink two sizes when a
person dies. On the streets of Sarajevo you could
see so many shoes in pools of blood. Every time
I went out I tied my shoelaces so tight my feet
…it would be a shame if they carried
me to a mortuary and found dirty underclothes
on me. Better to go to a blue sky with blue feet
than with no shoes.
Clare Saponia’s ‘On a roll’ (The Oranges of Revolution, 2015) is a deft sample of her aphorismic polemical style. John Tait’s ‘Big Meeting’ (Barearse Boy, 2015) is a wry vignette on the mid-Eighties Miners’ Strike:
Packed into the hall with red lodge banner
loud jabbering voices of angry conversations, confusion,
screeching chairs, men in black donkey jackets
with orange back panels
smoke drifting and clinging in yellow, grey and brown clouds
we’d seen the scabs bussed into the pit
with mesh on the windows like Belfast
then the union man with large sideburns
brylcreemed hair and crumpled white shirt
tucked unevenly into a baggy suit
stands at the front with arms raised…
‘January Twilight’ (Talking to the Dead, 2015) is typical of the late Gordon Hodgeon’s beautifully sculpted lyricism:
Sun wants off
quitting this grey, raggedy,
old overcoat, the garden…
I retreat under my blanket,
again read Lawrence’s
a new spring
Larry Beckett’s book-length poem Paul Bunyan (2015) is a muscularly musical, rumbustious epic work with hints of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Hart Crane:
Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones…
Amir Darwish’s ‘Sorry!’, subtitled ‘An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity’ (Don’t Forget the Couscous, 2015), is a powerful protesting riposte to Islamophobia:
Sorry for the guitar that was played by Moriscosin Spain
To ease their pain when they were kicked out of their homes.
Sorry for the hookah as you sip on its lips
And gaze into the moon hearing the Arabian Nay…
Sorry for painting Grenada white to evade social hierarchy.
Sorry for the stories in The Arabian Nights…
Bob Beagrie’s Anglo-Saxon dialect verse from Leásungspell (2016), represented by the poem ‘Hwenne Otha’, demonstrates strikingly—along with Steve Ely’s Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englaland (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017)—how Smokestack isn’t afraid to publish philologically challenging work.
There’s a breathtaking excerpt from Andy Willoughby’s superlative book-length Between Stations (2016):
industrialists funded temperance and Methodist churches
on our expanding ferric frontier to keep the workers sober,
washed and so called civilised for the rigours of the daily grind.
Hungry Irish held onto Catholicism to suffer beautifully in,
left redemption urges in the weave and weft of my words,
left echoes of a rapidly ageing moral world in my time line…
‘Chet Baker in Bologna’ represents Bernard Saint’s excellent time-shifting Marcus Aurelius-themed satirical Roma (2016). Roque Dalton’s witty ‘On Headaches’ (Looking for Trouble: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, tr. Michal Boñcza, 2016) speaks of the ‘historical’ ‘headache of communists’ but that ultimately ‘Communism will be … / an aspirin the size of the sun’.
Ruth Valentine’s ‘The Undertaker’s Song’ (Downpour, 2010) commemorates the Indian ‘garment workers’ who were crushed in a dilapidated building in which they laboured. Valerio Magrelli’s ‘Child Labour’ translated by Jamie McKendrick (The Long White Thread of Words: Poems for John Berger, 2016) coins the wonderful phrase ‘sun of utterance’ for the sound of an impoverished child reading aloud ‘writhing letters’ for the first time.
The experimental Belgian avant-garde poet Paul van Ostaijen is represented by the ‘Zeppelin’ page of his typographically groundbreaking book-length concrete poem Occupied City (tr. David Colmer). ‘Galgalla’ is one of the many narrative-stitched lyrical poems from Michael Crowley’s historically fascinating First Fleet (2016). Nancy Charley’s almost Hughesian-Plathian ‘Ancient Miners’ (Little Blue Hut, 2017), with its clever pun on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is particularly effective in juxtaposing miners with crows or cormorants:
Black as the coal which mined their lives,
Black as the dust which lined their lungs,
Black as the night which filled their days,
Black plumage, legs, feet, beaks and eyes.
Scruﬃly clad in workaday rags
but iridescent as sea glitter.
Restless, they scan the estuary
for barges carrying Black wealth…
Condemned to caw when once they choired,
haunted by caged and cavernous dreams:
floods of faces, bared gleaming teeth,
laid out props, bleak Black screams.
Steve Ely’s ‘Down by the River with Paul and Clara’ (Incendium Amoris, 2017) begins with a beautiful quatrain buoyant with assonance and consonance:
Dripping June. Under Clara’s umbrella,
lit by sou’wester and bright yellow raincoat,
unbuttoned in boudoir of wilting bluebells
and engorged rhododendrons.
‘Cable Street’ is just one of a book’s worth of strikingly lyrical political poems from Ian Parks’ Citizens (2017—another of my favourite Smokestack covers: A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stone by AW Bayes):
And this, my friend, is Cable Street.
Not much to look at I confess.
But this is where we took a final smoke
before we went to beat the Blackshirts down;
and this is where we drank a tepid pint
before we went to stop them in their tracks…
S.J. Litherland’s ‘Looking Glass Street’ (Composition in White, 2017) is a striking aphorismic depiction of Zurich’s political and artistic avant-garde anticipating the imminent Russian revolution:
Across the street at No 6 close by, the Bolsheviks
deepened their plans & Lenin at his desk was at work,
accompanied by our siren songs, the purposeless
fundamental world of laughter, beauty and atoms.
We burnt our boats in a bonfire of the vanities,
no rules allowed. Our ridiculous hats, our quixotic gestures,
lived on the same street, on the Spiegelgasse.
We opened a gallery & Lenin moved under cover
in his closed train to St Petersburg, the revolution
bursting the banks of the Neva; he was never so free,
nothing was accomplished and nothing marred,
our songs were in his back pocket like bombs.
Aptly it’s followed by an excerpt from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s epic work Lenin (tr. Dorian Rottenberg, 2017), first published in 1924, the year of Lenin’s death—this excerpt is particularly fascinating as it anticipates the posthumous marmorealization of the inaugural Soviet head of state:
these eulogies line upon line like a boy
fears falsehood and delusion.
They’ll rig up an aura round any head:…
I abhor it,
that such a halo
Lenin’s real, huge,
I’m anxious lest rituals,
the honeyed incense
of homage and publicity
by tinsel beauty…
Phina Shinebourne’s ‘Flag’ (Pike in a Carp Pond, 2017) commemorates a communist mother:
…tucked in the attic
with her fur coat, assorted gloves,
and posters of Rosa Luxemburg
snuggled in the folds of a red flag.
(Always ready for the demonstration,
as my fingers roll out the wrinkled flag.
Francis Combes’ ‘The Usefulness of Poetry’ (If the Symptoms Persist, tr. Alan Dent, 2018) makes a profound point, I excerpt it in full:
A young beggar seen in the metro
had written these words
on a piece of cardboard hung round his neck;
‘As the burning forest
shouts towards the river’s water
I appeal to you:
Please give me
something to eat.’
And it seems
People were giving.
(Which would tend to point to
the usefulness of poetry
in our societies.)
Combes’ aphorismic lyricism would seem a template for Michael Rosen’s succinct polemical pieces, as in his ‘For Jeremy Corbyn’ (Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, 2017), which mocks the ancient Establishment’s notions of socialism’s outdatedness. Peter Raynard’s ‘Scholarship boys’ (Precarious, 2018) makes its polemical point in an amusing way:
Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.
Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.
By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way round.
Replete with a striking Kes-like cover image later used for the now ubiquitous Shuggie Bain, Stephen Sawyer’s wonderfully titled There Will Be No Miracles Here (2018) is an outstanding collection of poems on a working-class upbringing in a Northern mining town, here represented by ‘The Iron Woman’:
Waiting for the phone to ring in the Miner’s Welfare –
the men told last moment of the night’s mass-picket:
pressed against the roof as we swerved past haulage yards,
treatment plants, the anthracite air leaking darkness…
Orchestras, chapel choirs, dance nights at the Greystones.
Her husband’s lungs ripping themselves inside-out
on summer nights. Elvis in the Closed Shop taproom…
Sawyer’s memories of his activist mother are beautifully wrought:
…She’s as live to me as the guilt
I feel for trying to escape – not the people – the mining life,
through the promise-lie of education, to stumble upon myself
in a stranger on Collegiate Crescent, speaking a language
that wasn’t my own… She carries me home:
coal and a chicken in our handlebar basket. I carry her
in coffee spoons, sleeplessness, a love of nocturnal beasts
that run against the odds. I see her in the childhood of stars,
a spinal canal of grassed-over spoils, words I mine.
Cycling past the pithead baths the miners built themselves…
…the listed Victorian colliery offices
and clock tower…
This is poetry as social document which in many respects echoes Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. On the subject of Smokestack covers, that of French surrealist poet Louis Aragon’s Les Chambres (tr. John Manson, 2018), the pale greens and blues of Louis Aragon at Else Triolet 1955 by Boris Taslitzky has to be one of my favourites. That bilingual book-length poem is represented here by a luxuriously lyrical, rangy passage:
The mirror which looks at me and grieves
He reads on me the story of the years
This deaf alphabet that a solar time tattoos on the forehead of the ill-natured man
The grey mirror makes my story out alone
In the gnarled secrets of my veins
He would have enough to say having read how the holes grow hollow in my flesh
The grey mirror has a deal of trouble in remembering…
I am only a detail of the room for him only a tear on his face
Heavy heavy tear elongated to fall slowly plumb from the eye as usual
Martin Hayes’ hilarious ‘beano’ from Roar! (2018) is an example of his prolific poem-polemics on the punishing nature of contemporary employment:
the mechanics outdid even themselves
on their latest beano down to Southend
with Scott not even making it there
detained at Loughton services
for pissing in a rubber plant next to the Cashino one armed bandits
and then Craig
falling off the pier as soon as he got there
Hayes rewards us at the end with a killer punchline: ‘nothing though/ that a day out at the seaside/ couldn’t put right’. Political cartoonist Martin Rowson has a line in humorous satirical verse, as exemplified here in ‘Angleterre Profonde’ from the hilariously titled Pastrami Faced Racist and Other Verses (2018):
I dived into Deep England,
Rural as a dying hare,
Where centuries of history
Lurks in a broken chair.
I dived down to Deep England,
Rustic as a lichened tomb
But not for them’s were driven out
And then chained to a loom.
I dived down to Deep England
Owned by classes who won’t budge
But accordingly Arcadian
When flogging bags of fudge.
In Ross Wilson’s witty ‘Ex-Factory Toun’ (Line Drawing, 2018) someone called ‘Boab’ from Kirkcaldy has just watched a Cambridge lecture on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on Youtube and mentions in passing that Smith was from his home town; the poem then paints a contemporary street scene of Kirkcaldy:
Boab had thought a visitor
could be forgiven for thinking
Kirkcaldy was called Toilet.
TO LET signs jutted over
shut shops all around him.
the bollard of a beggar
was avoided by a man
on his way to the Jobcentre,
a Jobseeker’s Allowance booklet
stuffed into his back pocket
like an empty wallet;
the image of it clear as old photos
Boab had seen of the town’s
linoleum and linen factories…
Reja-e Busailah’s ‘Remembering After Forty Years in the Wilderness’ (Poems of a Palestnian Boyhood, 2019) is a powerful poem-parable of slaughtered innocents. Similarly powerful, in clean-cut, direct language, is an excerpt from David Cain’s Truth Street: a Hillsborough poem (2019). Peter Donnelly’s ‘Die Traum’ makes an important point about the black hole that is money (Money is a Kind of Poetry, 2019).
The title poem from Deborah Moffatt’s (Eating Thistles, 2019) is as its title suggests a nettly polemic, presumably on Brexit:
We slept on stone, bathed in snow,
made combs from thorns, clothes from nettles…
Maddened by power, powered by madness,
they closed their borders, then turned against their own.
Better to sleep on stone, however hard,
better to eat thistles, though we choke,
better our frozen silence than their fiery rhetoric,
better thorns and nettles than pomp and glory…
Bob Beagrie’s ‘Enemies of the People’ from his English Civil War-themed Civil Insolvencies (2019) is another anti-Brexit poem-polemic which closes on the ironic image of ‘Cnut’s wet socks and the incoming tide’. Ben Thompson’s ‘Litakovo’ (White Tulip, 2019—which has another striking cover image, Paul Klee’s Vor dem Schnee (1929), reminiscent of John Varley Jr.’s for Thought-Forms, A. Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, 1905) memorialises his uncle Frank’s execution as a captured fighter with the Bulgarian partisans in 1944:
Here, no-one comes, no flowers fade,
Time gathers dust over a soldier’s grave,
I stand within the shadows
Knowing you are close
And are as well as I am when I sleep
Knowing no more than you do when I’ll wake.
Soviet poet Alexandr Tvardovsky’s ‘On the highway to Berlin’ (Vasili Tyorkin: a book about a soldier, tr. James Womack, 2020) is a length of verses depicting the Russian ‘liberation’ of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and in some of its stark images it brings to mind Carl Foreman’s gritty 1963 film The Victors:
All along the eternal highway,
ash in clouds like feathers flies.
And the rubble of the cities
smells like burning mattresses.
Jo Colley’s ‘Burgess in Bolshaya Pirogovskaya’ (Sleeper, 2019) is an exquisitely written vignette:
Flatulence follows you to the Moscow flat,
its four square walls.
is normal, part of the order of the day,
although the blood is troubling.
Gone, the boy who ran naked through
Granchester Meadows, swam in the Cam,
compact body pink with privilege. Now
you stagger slant through Gorky Park…
Laura Fusco’s ‘Refugees are survivor’ (Liminal, tr. Caroline Maldonado, 2020) closes on arresting juxtapositions of images:
In the empty courtyard a young pregnant Pakistani stays behind
and a child playing with her hair, pulling it towards him
so as not to fall down,
while the slip of a half-moon
appears between MacDonalds the skyscrapers
and the almond tree.
Nicolas Calas’ ‘Spartans 1940’ (Oedipus is Innocent: Selected Poems, ed. & tr. Lena Hoff, 2020) is a sharp piece of lyrical shrapnel:
Lovers of the Fuhrer
Locked up in iron brothels
Air conditioned with fear
We made you gigolos of death
Paris Place Clichy recognises you
New York 1940
Anna Greki’s ‘July 1962’ (The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems, tr. Cristina Viti & Souheila Haїmiche, 2020), on the Algerian struggle for independence, in which she took part as an active communist resistor, begins beguilingly: ‘It springs up fully grown from its own mouth/ This love strong & vibrant as the scorching air’. Rob Francis’ ‘Burning Tongues’ (Subsidence, 2020) is a bravura slice of Brummagem commenting on the accent and nature of Birmingham people:
We ay from brumajum
weem in the borderless
pits – black be day
red be night. Where baby
rhymes with Rabbie – that old
bard who kept the burn
in his tongue.
That burn connects, it burns
like our old forges burned –
burning trade and toil and song
and burning a brand
that yow know and yow know –
burns like Saxon shamans
who’s embers were stamped
and pissed on by ministers…
in borderless pits, ready,
with Blakean bows, to fight
shot to shot – to burn back
with our vernacular…
Legendary suffragette (to the left of mother Emmeline and sister Christabel) and little-known poet Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘For Half a Year’ (Writ on Cold Slate, 2021—which includes some photographic illustrations) depicts her being sentenced to prison for protests, and in spite of somewhat antiquated language, has a vitality and distinctiveness:
Oft interrupting, now he breaketh forth,
his parchment cheeks distort, his eyes spit hate,
libel on libel hurls, that hired Press scribes
may circulate for gulling simple folk,
masking what lights may glimmer forth to show
their present exploitation and his sins,
by talk of loot, loot, loot, and pillage cruel…
Pankhurst’s indignance of tone and impassioned polemicising is stirring, rhythmically propelled by her accomplished blank verse:
For him, in India, poor ryots toil,
their immemorial Communism crushed,
robbed of their produce and by famine scourged,
dying like flies whilst he exports their grain.
For him, in Britain too, the miner delves;
weavers and spinners follow ceaseless toil,
their wage by far competitors depressed…
Here, in Wealth’s citadel, old wretched dens,
for him each week provide most monstrous dues,
a blighting charge upon their tenant hordes.
This is Shelleyean (see his powerful ‘A Tale of Society as It Is: from Facts, 1811’, for comparison):
For him are children stunted, infants die;
poor mother drudges leave their wailing babes;
herself the exploited maiden cheaply sells,
to snatch youth’s pleasures, else debarred from her;
for bare indeed the pittance he accords,
to such as she who are so swift replaced.
Upon his call to war, go millions forth
prepared to die if he will give them bread.
…to cry a challenge in this Mansion House,
this pompous citadel of wealthy pride,
and make its dock a very sounding board
for the indictment of his festering sins,
that shall go ringing forth throughout the world,
and with it carry all my wit can tell
of that most glorious future, long desired,
when Communism like the morning dawns.
In stark contrast is Chawki Abdelamir’s powerful pared-down lyric, ‘In Baghdad’s National Library’ (Attempts on Death, tr. Alan Dent, 2021):
I read, blind seer
between lines of cinders
I touch the text’s carbon
like a child lightly stroking its father’s head
as death approaches
A chair from an office
skeleton with blackened limbs
gripping a still white
It sorts the index of lost titles
and the major chapters of the fire’s history
in Baghdad’s parchment
In my hand, my pen
Martin Edwards’ ‘Freetown’ (The Out-Islands, 2021) begins with a beautifully judged piece of scene-setting: ‘Nights when the moon was sunk without trace/ the unlit planes would ghost in low over coral/ where the sea teethed and worried the lagoon.’ Martin Rowson’s ‘Banarnia!’ (Plague Songs, 2021) is a satirical verse in limerick form, which occasionally strikes serendipitous rhymes:
Push past those mothy costumes to Banarnia,
Frost glistens on the statues every night!
Disguise our lords’ eugenics
As they chomp Arbeit Mach Frei’s Turkish Delight!
(Though perhaps to better fit the meter you could put ‘ermined’ between ‘our’ and ‘lords’’ in the fourth line). Marcos Ana’s ‘My heart is a prison yard’ (Poems from Prison and Life, tr. David Duncombe, 2021) is effective in its leitmotivs (‘But the world is an enclosed yard/ (a yard paced around/ by men without space)’), and its images (‘the blue chatter of the river’). Palestinian Farid Bitar’s ‘Al-Shutat’ (Screaming Olives, ed. Naomi Foyle, 2021) is poem-as-impassioned-plea at its most searingly polemical:
I passed by the ruins of Hebron’s Gate
Where my father’s shop once was…
Why should ghettoes and death camps
Be repeated in Gaza and Jenin?
In Deir Yasin and the Khasin villages of ’47?
Why the Haganah’s ethnic cleansing
On the northern coast of Palestine?…
One day we Palestinians will return
To al-Barweh, Qatamoun,
Deir Yasin, and the Qazaza villages of ’48.
Rachel Corrie will be re-born…
The children will not have to starve in Gaza.
…No more Balfour Declarations!
No more empty UN resolutions!
Mike Crowley’s ‘Reason’ from his excellent English Civil War-themed The Battle of Heptonstall (2021) is a compendious poem:
A king that hath sent his parliament away
like a lord discharging his servants, believing
saints will cook his supper for him. He lays
with a papist plotting, with rebels turning
church into a place of coloured dolls, painted
walls and altar rails, where men kneeling
upon their own minds recite some scroll
by the Archbishop Laud…
High birth and unearned wealth shall fall.
We make our stand hereafter at Heptonstall.
Emma Jones’ ‘In Retrospect’ (The Incident, 2021) is a lyrical polemic against complacent centrism:
back then we’d have added
more clauses to Magna Carta
seen the point of the Peasants’ Revolt
we’d have stood with the Levellers in Burford
linked arms with the martyrs at Peterloo…
we’d have been the only Chartists
in the village…
we’d never have swooned into war
pro patria mori
or sat in the stalls at Olympia
praising the autobahn as we waited for Mosley
or poured over the blacklist
you’ll find us holding the middle ground
the status quo
is basically sound.
Ruth Valentine’s ‘Hostile Environment’ (If You Want Thunder, 2021) juxtaposes the plight of immigrants and refugees in Tory Britain with that of austerity-hit nationals: ‘The informers wait in shaded alleyways./ The soldiers wait tetchily at the border./ I am waiting for my landlord to evict me.’ Anna Robinson’s ‘What is History? Discuss’ (Whatsname Street, 2021) answers itself thus: ‘in the shards of clay pipes on the banks/ of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments’, ‘t’ick as a coddle and mild as milk’ and sometimes ‘a brown-tail moth’. Nick Moss’s ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ (Swear Down, 2021) is a powerful polemical poem on the plight of refugees:
An exodus impelled by abjection
to thralldom in warehouses,
building sites and homes.
True citizens of nowhere.
We build your basements
your dream kitchens,
wake from sleeping under church pews,
to mend railways
patch your roofing in the rain.
Stephen Wade’s ‘In the Library, Saturday’ (Stretch, 2021) deftly tackles contemporary prison life:
Here they come again, a steady trail of men in grey.
They come from grey boxes, wearing grey cotton.
Faces grey with being inside too long, too deep.
Is there anything here to assuage the seeping boredom?
Jim Greenhalf’s ‘VE Day and William Tyndale’ (Dummy! 2021) paints a parochial scene at a time of national celebrations where images and sense-impressions impart much of the polemic:
…dragon’s teeth bunting
celebrates VE, the day of victory.
Regatta-like loops of red, white and blue
in May morning sunshine.
From lamp post to lamp post
their vapour trail goes
along the length of the path of shades
to the chained gates of the United Reformed Church.
Outside its tall doors painted Prussian green,
I am sitting with William Tyndale,
under beeches, between river and railway.
He tells me that faith is the substance of things unseen.
A page-turning breeze sways the bunting
and brings the smell of bread and roses…
Ishaq Imruh Bakari’s ‘The Impossibility of Being Black’ (The Madman in the House, 2021) strikes many chords for the Black Lives Matter movement and the main cause for its timely and vital emergence:
thank you, George Floyd
unrestful-deadness flows abundantly
from the silence seeping
in the wailing solitude of a sorrow song
The gladiator, licks the wounds of his trophy,
sustenance held securely in the last
flutter of a chokehold, the prey speaks
with delicacy and sometimes difficulty…
The contributors’ biographies at the end of the book are the icing on the cake: they provide over thirty more pages of frequently fascinating reading including as they do so many of the past great and good of radical international political poetry.
Smokestack Lightning will take its place in the canon of socialist poetry anthologies alongside The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (ed. Alan Bold, 1970), Bricklight – Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (ed. Chris Searle, Pluto Press, 1980), Where There’s Smoke (Hackney Writers’ Workshop, 1983), Red Sky at Night: An Anthology of British Socialist Poetry (eds Andy Croft & Adrian Mitchell, Five Leaves, 2003), and Culture Matters’ many anthologies, most recently The Brown Envelope Book (2021) and The Cry of the Poor (ed. Fran Lock, 2021).
What makes Smokestack Lightning singular, however, is that its gatherting of excerpts from individual collections serves as a tantalising sampler of 199 portals into further poetries.
Smokestack Lightning is available here.