Worth the Risk


Signs of the Sistership, Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer
(Knives Forks and Spoons)
Porterloo, Niall McDevitt (International Times)


According to the introductory 'note on the text' these fragments are 'found' texts which were discovered on the walls of a feminist squatted community known as 'the sistership'. This is an intriguing starting point for this collaboration between Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer, however 'worked-on' (or not, or entirely invented) these pieces are. There is no claim of 'intention' behind the composition of these poems though a clue can be gained by the Guardian quotation on the last page, from Adrienne Rich, which suggests a strong political and feminist slant and 'on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the 'free' market'.

           Last night those once-called brothers
           came, knocking down our door.
           For shame. They came with rods &
           regulations, with the bones
           of the revolution still on their breath.
                      (from '19
- Written small in the dust by the back door step')

The poems veer between inner monologues and assertive, celebratory moments and are filled with strange erudition and an often haunting, erotic yet prayer-like quality which feels biblical at times (there are quotations from a new translation of The Song of Songs). Richly lyrical sections are intertwined with more down-to-earth narrative constructions and the timeless and archaic rub shoulders with the here and now and immediate in terms of day-to-day living:

           Shlomo works for weeks on the float,
           finding fabrics and wood in skips.
           Aerosols of gold and silver, given by
           taggers to give it shimmer. Ultraviolet
           wristsnaps and glowsticks for his dancers.
                         'and the daughters of the place of peace
                         paved it with love'
                               (from '15
')

There is the naming of names and the celebration of seasonal change - 'Ha! flower/power. Springing/from seeds' wintersleep/under frozen ground.' - and if this all sounds a bit hippy dippy and 'counter-cultural' then it surely is in an 'Adrian Mitchell sort of way', a positive response hopefully to the Occupy movement and the near-collapse of the banking system. There are dangers though as made explicit in this brief lyric from poem 6. :

           watch the doves
           against the sky

           watch the hawks
           against the sky

This is risky poetry in the sense that the positive assertion and celebration of 'peace, love and understanding' by the powerless, can appear na•ve and hopelessly idealistic, especially in a contemporary setting. And yet, I think it has to be worth the risk. Another intriguing poetry collection from the 'Knives Forks and Spoons Press'.


This new collection from Nial McDevitt begins with a bristling introduction from Heathcote Williams and concludes with an eloquently argued essay which extols the virtues of David Gascoyne and acclaims him as the great British poet of the twentieth century. It's an unexpected finale and a sweeping tour de force which adds gravitas to a book which must rate as one of the most articulate and extended rants in the history of poetry. It's actually a series of poems, of course, not a continuous piece
but its 'state of the world' polemic is both streetwise and gloriously enriched by its wide-ranging vocabulary and partisan complexity. By which I mean that while McDevitt is clearly 'of the left' he is also fully aware of the limitations and straitjacket possibilities of the 'ism' and is very wary of the dangers of reading only within 'a prescribed field':

     I favour the bohemians, say Benjamin and Debord,
     to the academic flat-liners
     and anyway as Ken Campbell said
    'I'm not mad, I've just read different books'
     and the brick wall of English Marxism
    is a book wall
     and man cannot live on frankfurters alone
              (from 'Umpteenth Epistle to the Marxists'
                    
'I am not a Marxist' - Karl Marx)

The cover illustration depicts a flying eagle, claws outstretched, yet with the head of Dame Shirley Porter crowned with a golden lavatory seat. This gives a strong clue to the territory we are in!

While I'm reminded of Abiezer Coppe and the ranters of the seventeenth century - also the lavatorial humour of their 1980's namesakes - when I read McDevitt, there is also the European modernism of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and while he largely steers clear of the 'academic avant-garde', I'm also thinking Aidan Dun (an improbable reference point, you might think), Andrew Jordan, Alan Morrison and Sean Bonney. This is ambitious writing which combines a streetwise attack from below with the more lyrical qualities which great poetry can exhibit. McDevitt's heterogeneity is impressive and politically focussed, a great blunderbuss blast against the current administration and the ethos of consumer capitalism.

                        1
                        jobless
                        I inhale the sun
                                               (honey guillotines)

                        in the Sumerian city I walk upside down
                        by a noiseless river
                                                 trees
                                                 with noises of rivers

                        2
                        'la Londonisation':

                        a non-conformism
                        of coffee shops
                                                a baptism of adverts

                        but in towers
                        doors slam (echo)
                                                of a mystery people

                                    (extracts from 'LEUN'DEUN')

McDevitt presents a rich mix of celebration and attack - he's a flaneur who suggests alienation as the inevitable response to the increasing gap between rich and poor and to the 'divide and rule' ideology of the masters. Where this may lead us we are unsure but we certainly live in interesting times.

'Processed Words'* is a brilliant encapsulation of the power of new technology to enslave rather than free us (not what we were told in the 1970's I seem to recall), not because of the technology itself but because of the use it is put to in the realm of post-industrial output. A new generation of wage-slaves (reduced mainly to the minimum wage) is put to work to 'process' the work of the 'real' producers and McDevitt's parody of PR speak is both faultless and caustic:

            We like to believe our word-workers are content
            to perform a task they enjoy (i.e. the production
            and processing of printed matter
.) Receipt of payment
           
is an essential but secondary motivationÉ

            You'll find our words user-friendly, eager to please,
            but not-we hope-too sycophantic or too trivial.

            (N.B. It is important that no one is offended; 
            although, now and then, a little controversy
            or
frisson is a useful selling-point).

            *(May contain traces of horseshit)

                          
(extracts from 'Processed Words')

This could be partly a generational thing of course as a lot of young people have bought into (or been coerced into) this new reality, which can be made to feel inevitable and while some may thrive in this 'brave new world', the majority are being reduced to a new form of misery. 'A Tory in Avalon' posits the scenario of a conservative minister gone AWOL at the Glastonbury festival under the influence of drugs and a more 'laid-back' lifestyle. Unfortunately, he's been recording his inner thoughts on his smartphone and the information has been broadcast far and wide. The P.M. is not amused and there is a sticky ending to the proceedings:

                        A Tory in Avalon ponders onÉ
                        'The Matter of Britain? The Matter
                        with Britain is the Neanderthal politics
                        of a two-and-a-half party system
                        in a land-grabbed land, class-divided,
                        with white-collar criminal institutions
                        who keep the 99% in the workhouse
                        and too many swaggering 'business kings'
                        slapping taxes on light, heat, water, etc.

                        A Tory in Avalon orders a cocktail
                        from the backstage bar. It's called a Merlin-
                        two Sipsmith gins, a La Fee absinthe
                        and a few carefully crushed medlars,
                        with mandrake-also known as Coup de Chien.

                                                  É..An ego-bomb explodes.
                        He takes the air of toxic Babylon.

                        A Tory in Avalon is missing for 24 hours
                        but in the rock'n'roll bubble, no one
                        thinks anything of a locked cubicle.

                        He takes no air. The air is taken back.

                                    (extracts from 'A Tory in Avalon')

'FUCKU' is a long, rambling, open-field, typographically adventurous piece filled with scatological squibs, witty and scabrous one-liners and 'up-ended' tabloid jargon mixed with topical commentary and onslaught - 'royal wedding /
their Shakespeare comedy / written by / jilly cooper/ É hail the right-geist!' 'A Thousand', incorporating '1The Jew', '2 The Christian', '3 The Marxist' and '4 The Whore', reminds me of Andrew Jordan's oblique 'definition' poems where the commentary is suggested by the title yet distanced from it, surreal and often apocalyptic, roughed-up at the edges, seditious and subversive:

            Salting my wound with money, and the wounds of men

            With deference and technique

            Milking their glands religiously


             I have poems as salmon

                        (from '4 The Whore')

McDevitt revels in contradiction and difference - he both rails at and celebrates ritual, has a strong sense of the theatrical and mixes surrealism with streetwise anger while retaining an abiding sense of the absurd. This is a cracking book which I hope you enjoy reading although perhaps 'enjoy' isn't quite the right word!

         © Steve Spence 2013