A Stack of Smokestacks [part two]
Alan Morrison on
Caught by Victoria Bean
Bonehead's Utopia by Anrdew Jordan
Caught by Victoria Bean
Now that we’ve entered the New Victorian Age for the British justice system following, to quote our prime minister, the ‘exemplary sentences’ – some might say reactionary – dished out hastily by the courts during the recent rioting trials, artist, volunteer with Young Offenders, and Arc Editions group member Victoria Bean’s Caught (an inspired and appropriate homophonic-play of title), a poignant first collection of pithy and powerful observational verse written while she spent a year at Horseferry Road Magistrate’s Court couldn’t be better timed, even if it was I believe published – certainly composed – long prior to last Conflagrating August.
These small but loaded verses act rather like poetical sketches or vignettes, glimpses of down-at-heel defendants, the shadow-projections of our society thornily caught up, one might argue, in the tangled jungles of inner-city ghettoising, Brutalist sink estates and piss-fumed shopping precincts. Many of the ‘cases’ come across, in wistfully figurative glimpses, as those lost to the outsourced tags of ‘chavs’, ‘gypos’, ‘hoodies’, ‘scroungers’, ‘scum’ or ‘thugs’ – Britain’s vast and varied pool of cheap sobriquets, many of whose short-sharp-shock Dickensian educations of rough scrubs and hard knocks in prison-like comprehensives and high-rise nests of dysfunctional council estates seem to groom them for the courtrooms in teenage and adulthood. Bean’s thumbprint-sized poems – some only of haiku-length – are however considerably greater in scale and nuance, particularly in terms of emotional and social punch, than many longer, averagely-sized verses prevalent in pedestrian literary supplements: length here is deceptive, these are skilfully and sensitively compressed miniatures which frequently pin their subjects with a socially compassionate eye.
The book-cover’s strikingly threadbare cartoon of two stroppy-looking youths, one in a hoodie, loping in monochrome past a bold brown fence, both emphasizes the invisible plight of today’s marginalised, and captures the moral greyness of poverty-related crime, as well as, textually, the blunt but empathic sparseness of Bean’s lyrical observations inside.
Bean’s ability to encapsulate so much in so few lines is most baldly exemplified in two-liners such as ‘Keeping an eye out’:
He’s not looking around the court;
he’s casing another house.
Bean also demonstrates deductive instincts regarding defendants’ social backgrounds, as in ‘30 years’:
30 years a painter and decorator
‘external work and snagging’
he doesn’t sit on the Central Line’s seats
in respect of the people
but perhaps most movingly in ‘Pirate’:
he pleads guilty to shoplifting at M&S
while a creased green carrier bag
from the same store
holding all his worldly goods
hangs between the handles of his wheelchair.
and ‘The benefits of a real fire’:
the judge says you’re on a hopeless, homeless spiral
but when you set that bin alight
you had some warmth
and for a moment
a bit of a welcoming glow.
Bean has a canny eye for clean, needling imagery and evocative description, as in ‘So I’m free now, yeah?’:
they’re not going to
punish you today.
and ‘Lady ravens’:
In hindsight there were shadows
from the bank to the market
you like off Edgware Road.
There was a lookout, a cloak,
and the chance to spread it like an invisible wing
around your bag.
They’re still watching now, this time from the dock,
the sentence unreadable on their faces,
only a muffled cry
from the hinge of the door as it closes behind them.
But there are so many striking, vividly imaged pieces in this book it’s impossible to excerpt all of them.
In some cases the titles are an implicit, elucidatory part of a poem, as in the powerful ‘Wife beater’:
he saw in Iraq.
Caught is by no means an entirely doleful, penal-bleak book, but a collection of many varied shades and tones, and Bean unearths some of the black humour in courtroom tragicomedy, as in the hilariously nonsensical, Clouseau-esque interrogation, ‘Not there’:
Do you admit
to have been?
There’s no doubt that this is an important project, something of a statement or testimony by a conscientious objector to all forms of judicial determinism, a holistically inclined witness or ‘appropriate adult’, on behalf of the scores of mostly disadvantaged and misunderstood souls who rotate in the dock with the regularity of football fans through stadium turn-styles; each has a story to tell, but little means to tell it, at least, if it weren’t for keen poetic eyes such as Victoria Bean’s. This is a humbling and poignant collection, and that rare thing: poetry of witness, poetry as social document. This is a promising debut collection from a poet of social as well as self-expressive purpose, and in that sense, a strong example of the broad definition of ‘political poetry’ which Smokestack’s very interactive and inclusive community of titles represents.
Poetry of Transformation
Bonehead's Utopia by Anrdew Jordan
On a similarly penal line and certainly another poetry of witness, is a collection whose topical importance and power is difficult to overemphasize: it is essentially a sequence of poems based on poet and 10th Muse editor Andrew Jordan’s residency at HMP Haslar – previously a ‘Home Office Holding Centre’, now a ‘Removal Centre’ – a detention centre for ‘illegal’ refugees and passport-stripped victims of foreign torture. Again, with crime and immigration topping headlines under a new clink-happy Tory-led government, this too, like Bean’s, is a highly topical and polemically important book. What Jordan does in these challenging and extremely powerful poems is to transfigure the gritty reality of the detainees he has interacted with into a projected ‘tolerant new world’ founded by a fictitious prisoner who is, curiously, the prison’s namesake – and thus the remarkably imaginative and hugely engaging Bonehead’s Utopia is born.
Jordan’s transfiguration of the real-life scenario into a projected ‘utopia’ is quite ingenious in that he is able to compare and contrast how hopelessly limiting HMP Haslar was by reflecting on its past via a – admittedly ambiguously – transformed present, but one which, at least ostensibly, both ex-inmates and ex-prison officers appear to share equally and harmoniously – as in the opening poem, ‘A Celebration’:
… perform a folk dance for the new regime.
In the past the officers would pace
From door to door, along the corridors,
Lifting their feet at intervals to show
A nimble step, a sensitivity,
Like Morris Dancers, uniformed, with keys.
This almost bucolic opener ends on a quite profound aphorismic note:
…loneliness makes statesmen of the weak
who dared to dream, or – worse – who dared to speak
of this unity, this strange republic…
The following poem, ‘Prisoner’, has a darkly satirical air to it in its vague exposition of the utopia’s founding principles and their shadowy source (presumably Haslar himself) casts a sardonic glance at the fogginess of Christianity’s own sources and origins; it begins with a challenge:
What is a nation, if not blood and soil?
What is the name that binds a man
To his brother, regardless of blood, regardless?
Then Jordan probes the muddy origins of this religion’s founder, which ingeniously serves a figurative polemical purpose of juxtaposition with the common ‘folk devil’ invested in the trans-national Johnny Foreigner ‘immigrant’ scapegoat:
He was an African, Asian or South American –
An Arab or an Eastern European – or a Balkan-Caribbean?
The early texts do not make this clear.
They obscure his origins deliberately.
he spoke all languages and none, I think.
there was no meaning and no point,
but he came. He was light. …
Then a detectable comment on the figure of Christ as a prophet-by-proxy through the four-authored Gospels:
He spoke so very little but we caught
the gist of what he said and wrote it down;
we wrote the constitution of our state
from things he might have said or might have meant.
A chilling vagueness then to this utopia’s founding religion; one which reveals itself, steadily, to have something akin to the tacit masochism of some of the more hair-shirted Christian doctrines, most notably Roman Catholicism with its implicit emphasis on forgiveness through suffering, or psychic self-flagellation – a disturbingly painful notion of collective grace scratches through ‘Crime and Punishment’:
In our ideal state there is no criminality;
We have no use for punishment, as such,
Yet each of us is punished every day.
Compassion is the wheel we break upon.
All things illegal have been nationalised.
We have beneficial pain, carefully targeted.
A collective hurt, administered by the state.
(How topical this sounds, though unlike HMP Haslar, the punishment our Con-Dem austerity tsars are administering is not shared equally, in spite of spin to the contrary, and in spite of figuratively striking but inaccurate allusions to this government’s policies of ‘national self-harm’ – unfortunately the only harm is being inflicted on the most vulnerable citizens by a seemingly insulated political class, so not so much masochism as just good old-fashioned sadism operating in that regard.)
There’s also a faintly Stalinistic tincture to this collective imprisonment of values, as hinted at in ‘The Founding Fathers’:
Their portraits are compulsory, we make
all our myths from what they might have said…
Jordan’s clipped aphorismic style is perfectly suited to his dialectical calling. ‘Naming the State’ strikes some profound teleological notes and is written in a Gospel-like balancing-act between analogous vagueness and half-glimpsed illumination:
It is the failure of the word to hold the thought;
it leaves the thought free, it discards it.
We have bars on the windows, my friends,
and the light above the sea that strikes the clouds
from below, shedding radiance, cannot be grasped’.
This is exceptional philosophical poetry, composed with an almost Zarathustran assuredness, though of course of a very different sentimental timbre. And that poem is no serendipity, for only over the page we have ‘The Hunger Strike’ which concludes with the subverted profundity of another stunning trope:
In my memory I can see
the giant machines working
fields of light where hunger
fills you up like nothing else.
The equally thought-provoking ‘Litmus Test’ is dosed with Orwellian doublespeak – or more, doublethink – and, again, a hint of Catholic self-abnegation, when it celebrates an orthodoxy that
protects us all from the forces we’d unleash
in freedom of thought, or in thoughts of freedom.
Masturbation, human rights and global conventions;
the things that make you blind.
but even more striking here is the beguiling aphorism ‘the present tense is empty’. ‘True Narratives’ has Jordan pushing his philosophical reach still further with unnerving play on the nature of identity:
… each man is informed of who he is
by the Bureaucracy of Immanent Identities.
This poem ends with an almost Solzhenitsynian* flourish:
In this clean world, where no-one disappears,
are we merely uninvented, removed from narrative,
or do we die? Killed-off by writers who
are very good. Poetic. Evocative. Committed.
[*Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of the Stalin-era labour-camp set One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962].
‘A Map of the Republic’ is another marvel of meta-narrative where the founders of this utopia, like exterior-designers, ponder on how best to cartographically describe their immanent and internal nowhere-land, toying with painterly prison-coloured ‘sky of tungsten’ and ‘A vision of the citadel of stars, seen through / branches’ – but then comes the now typical Jordanian aphorismic punch:
… Our meek utopia
… is lost within a metaphor of maps
That we cannot relate to nor perceive
as anything but harmful to the soul.
Now we are trapped on the wrong side
of every border. Our land does not exist
except within the mad map on the wall.
This very much echoes the original meaning of the term utopia from the Greek utopos meaning ‘no place’, but which became homophonically merged, apparently, with the other Greek term eutopos meaning ‘good place’; but the negative association has ever remained implicit in subsequent uses of the term, so that utopia means ostensibly to us a perfect or ideal place, but with the subtextual note of tragic absence, of fictitiousness which was echoed more directly in the title of William Morris’s New from Nowhere, sadly appropriate for an exposition on an imagined socialist paradise. Jordan closes this exceptional poem with a slightly chilling open invitation to what is possibly not quite a ‘utopia’ and thus most probably very much a ‘somewhere’ – playing as he does also on the notion of a less satisfactory, even terrible reality that needs very little imagination:
We are an unnamed nation you do not believe in.
You think we are beyond imagination?
Tread carefully, fellow traveller,
lest you find your way in.
Another serendipitously topical piece, given the recent hacking scandals and the subsequent debate about new media censorship, comes in the dialectical shape of ‘Free Press’, which ostensibly can be read as a double-polemic both on the Soviet mouthpiece Pravda (Truth), and the differently though equally anti-democratic tyranny of the red-top tabloids in our own culture – it begins with a familiar-sounding piece of whitewash as would be gullibly or deceitfully upheld by most apparatchiks of our so-called ‘free press’ today:
There are a number of titles available and these
guarantee our rights and liberties, offering
different points of view,
radical or conservative perspectives.
These days, particularly under the self-proclamations of the Con-Dems, terms such as ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’ have been rapidly devalued to the point of either pedantry or meaninglessness – what our government calls ‘radical’ in any other language would simply be called what it actually is: ‘draconian’, ‘ruthless’, ‘extreme’; ‘radical’ tends to imply an element of progressive transformation, and over the centuries has come to be associated therefore more with the modernising and transcendent values of the left-wing. But under the ethically straw-man reign of David Cameron, both terms have been effectively singed of meaning entirely by their frequent oxymoronic combination, ‘radical-conservative’.
But to return to Jordan: we glimpse some examples of the kind of popular reading matter of HMP Haslar in titles such as 'Abnegation Weekly' and 'The Talk of Nowhere', whose writers ‘always tell the truth/ and what they say is never interfered with’. Jordan then goes into full dialectical tilt with a faintly anti-Stalinist comment on the tacit state regulation of artistic expression – here the argument of a totalitarian orthodoxy seems to be that censorship no longer exists, has been removed altogether, but paradoxically only as a result of having first removed all potential carrion of censorship; in other words, censorship is no longer needed because there is nothing left to censor:
Gone are the days when a man
could pour his heart out into a poem
to have his words denied
in an act of censorship
in this land between nowheres,
in our oblique state.
Freedom of expression is the foil
to forces that deny democracy
and though those who wrote
Valley of Death and Haslar
have been removed, this was done legally
and nothing should be drawn from their
their awful silence. Other voices have replaced them.
Indeed: those of the resulting police state. But Jordan also touches here on art’s, or in this case poetry’s socio-political purpose, its weaponry of words whose ambiguities can be used as atrophic ammunition against any entrenched hegemonies, subjective liberties as bullets – and here Jordan takes an almost a Bradbury-esque dialectical take on the moral and social responsibility invested in literature:
Anyway, as Plato said of poets, expel them.
They are conjurers, mystics and fakes,
pulling brute matter out
of our camouflage of words.
They ‘tend towards disorder’, awake desires
in those who can’t control them.
This indeed echoes the profoundly disorienting monologue of Beatty in Ray Bradbury’s sublimely dystopian Fahrenheit 451 – memorably filmed by Francois Truffaut in 1966 with the cherubic, nuanced Austrian actor Oskar Werner as the hero Montag and the brilliant Cyril Cusack as his fanatical fire chief – in which he rants obsessively against the ambiguities and contradictions throughout the vast array of the world’s authors, of imagination’s violation against pre-literate humanity’s happy ignorance, of others’ ideas implanting impossible dreams and ambitions in readers’ minds and thus making them ‘unhappy’ at the knowledge of the unobtainable. It’s a profound, even sublime argument, a kind of counter-neurotic damage-limiting philistinism.
From geology and mythology to ‘The Archaeology of Keys’ and another fascinatingly figurative parable of a post-prison society which empowered itself by its own cramped parameters as providing ‘a barrier/ to keep things in’. In ‘Political Prisoners’ there is the hint of polemic regarding the sadly common though unspoken phenomena of poetic policing, or even ‘poetical correctness’ as one might put it; one of the more bizarre products of capitalist cultures where creative mediums are muddied by a contradictory fusion of tacitly elitist (in attitude, not outcome) high competitiveness with a superficial and mythical notion of ‘democratic’ meritocracy, that anyone from any background can achieve anything in society – in the case of modern rootless (in the sense of having no foundation in anything exceptional) ‘celebrity’ and reality TV contests, no matter how little one’s talent – a kind of consumer-communism which implies, say, that with the right course or application ‘you too could be a published prize-winning author’; but this is a cruel mock-egalitarianism which builds up false hopes in many and simultaneously demarks and devalues the often hard-won outcomes of more naturally talented persistency, frequently in the face of poverty on many levels and not without its permanent sacrifices. (While the mission to uncover talent in the most obscure and marginalised parts of a society – which is in part the mission of this webzine – is highly noble and worthwhile, it must not be confused with the cynical capitalising of floating ambition that promises with a mischievous air of infantilism, as if in thoughtless acquiescence to a spoilt child’s tantrum, that one can not only have but can also be or become whatever their momentary whims convince them they desire).
There are no inferior stories. We are working towards
Equality of Narrative, the ideal of inclusion:
Many Stories, Many Voices. That’s our new slogan.
Inclusion is fine as long as it is not at the exclusion of distinction, individuality or divergent gift; however, Jordan has an uncanny knack of pulling some of the more challenging and tangled cords of literary leftism, its inevitably internal conflicts, its struggle to strike the right balance between equality and distinction, common purpose and individual expression (and for some swift antidotes, or rather diversions, I’d recommend the singularly ‘acquired’ socialist arguments of Oscar Wilde in his The Soul Under Socialism).
‘Asylum Seekers’ continues the sublime thread of self-salvation through imaginative redefinition of one’s immediate reality, proclaiming ‘We have made a nation from the moment/ fixed in the present tense’, and concluding, again along the circuitous logic of the caucus-like censorship dialectic of ‘Free Press’:
We do not
compromise the rights of such a man,
nor could we, for such a man has none.
Shorn of one’s freedoms what else is left but the imagination’s recourse to capsize the purpose of imposed incarceration to one of a chosen protection from the outside world? The are Lotus-Eaters behind bars.
What follows is another astonishingly disorienting poem on the nature of identity via the motif of the passport, ‘Anthem: The Origins of Man’, which produces one of Jordan’s crowning aphorisms, a truly beautiful and sublime trope:
This passport was
his lyric and his life, the broadside of his soul –
a little chapbook of images and symbols –
with a picture of his face to mark his individuality.
A coat of arms, a watermark, an official stamp.
The poem ends on another thumping trope:
Then, the endless journey back into identity,
or the hurt discovery that all identities are false.
‘One World Day’ speculates on art as a political collaborator with the state, or at least, as a corrupted agent used to protect cultural vested interests:
He is shown in the Portsmouth News
fixing the last tile to the Tree of Life –
which was made by detainees –
it depicts the creatures of the earth…
Well, some of them. Art prettifies the state we’re in.
Art collaborates readily, making the most of pain.
It’s the inclusive moment that shuts you out.
‘Policing the Self’ is an Orwellian vignette focusing on the blurred boundaries between the prisoners and their guards, including a ‘nimby’-like quip from one of the latter, ‘I wouldn’t want one living next door to me, / would you?’, then ‘Sit with a prison officer too long/ and you end up thinking like one’. But it’s not entirely clear here, and no doubt deliberately so, who is perceived as the outsider or ‘illegal immigrant’, the prisoner or the guard – the line quoted above indeed has a hint of the pan-motif of Johnny Speight’s ingenious, Godot-like play If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them – in which ‘black’ is a metaphor not only for dark skin-colour, but for any form of social ‘black sheep’, foreigner, gyspy, immigrant, offender, molester, pariah, tramp, outsider, of any ethnic minority whether Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Jewish, or even Irish – although in this context it seems to be in reference, curiously, to the prison guards rather than the prisoners. Jordan proceeds further in his Orwellian doublethink:
A frail shape at the edge of the dual carriageway;
Adam, abandoned, without a leaf to hide himself.
So, we must have our police – even here, in Paradise –
where otherwise good manners are the law
and no-one hides behind the deceit of truth.
Later comes a sublime juxtaposition:
The story of discipline is repressed.
We are punished in our dreams, which we forget.
And mostly those who punish us are nice.
In some way the love of the parent must hurt.
‘The Bishop’s Knowledge’ is a sardonic response to a complaint in the local newspaper by the Bishop of Portsmouth as to the treatment of detainees at the real-life Holding Centre; here Jordan pulls no figurative punches, ending on an ambiguous and thought-provoking biblical image: ‘Offering an apple called Asylum, he said ‘Blame this’’. ‘Choosing the Flag’ describes the challenge in designing a flag to represent an invisible ‘state’ – the sort of subverted within-without kingdom of Heaven suggested by the obscure, discursive scriptures of ‘Haslar’: the ‘hermetic embrace’ of the circle is considered, before they settle on ‘barbed wire diagonals, a cross of bars’.
‘Time and the Forest’ is a sublime, beautifully lyrical piece, that, as pre-nuptial Adam innocently opines that there’s something indefinably absent from Eden’s perfection, a cousin form to echo and contrast his own; so here Jordan ingeniously juxtaposes the womanless Eden with the hermetically sealed testosterone of a prison – bar the ‘female officers,/ helpful tutors, bossy managers with false smiles’. Unlike Adam however, these male prisoners are tormented by the memory of woman, of ‘valiant wives’ whom they can only recount from stilted meetings through the un-touching celibacy of glass visiting screens, leading to the sublime: ‘Here, the echo of a smile can break the heart’. These prisoners are each reduced to an Orpheus mentally haunted by the ghosts of another gender:
Invisibles, they walk the corridors like spirits
and we are blind men, lost in seeking ourselves
on the line of the horizon, which is forbidden.
Another kind of ‘country of the blind’ where the mono-sex is king. Jordan’s lyrical and imagistic gifts come to the fore here:
Below them, the tops of the trees, where updrafts of air
had solidified into a green plumage, a marvellous strata.
You are far from each other now. In a kind of secrecy,
like the unenclosed privacy you felt in the forest,
the world cannot reach you. Now you pace about –
my Orpheus of the corridors, lost underground –
remembering the last backward glance as if it were
an act of betrayal, a guilt you must be reminded of.
‘Our National Flora’ harks back to the notion of identity, in this case national, and for the appropriate emblem for this, the flag already covered, now the national emblem, normally a flower or some other type of plant, but which herbaceous symbol for a country without borders?
We have no national flora. Dandelion – the radiance
of the eye, the tiny, startled innocence of speedwell –
what do they know of national borders?
No abstraction contains them, no identity, no meaning.
They do not fear death. Their art is unconscious.
They grow in the actual land that underpins all maps,
in the absolute truth below official documentation.
Can responsibility be symbolically taken?
Another poem serendipitously appropriate for our Con-Dem times is ‘The Liberal Governor’, an audacious dialectic on the self-contradictory nature of ‘liberalism’, its intransigent insistence on neutrality, its dogmatic non-committal-ism, its self-fencing and pedantic Pontius Pilatism; Jordan personifies these colourless servants of spectator-democracy in the form of a John Bull-ish prison governor, a ‘bully’ and ‘Hypocrite King’ via a counter-‘shadow projection’ (Carl Jung’s theory on social scapegoating as an unconscious projection of one’s own faults or vices, i.e. ‘shadows’, into others):
He is the embodiment of the shame we do not feel,
our evil repressed into his evil, rosy-cheeked, smiling.
the hard-liners are bastards, but the liberals are worse.
The sublime ‘The Disappearances’ relates the epiphanies of an inmate ‘seen to vanish’ and incorporates a polemical quip as to this utopia having an unwritten constitution rather like a ‘state they once called ‘Britain’ in the fairy tales’. A theme of wilful blindness, or physical sight as a distraction from the truth-perception of the inner eye (or metaphorical pineal gland) – a perennial literary motif, featured most famously via self-inflicted or imposed eye-gouging in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s King Lear respectively, and as a perceived vestigial advantage to the inhabitants of H.G. Wells’ The Country of the Blind – runs through many of these poems; in ‘A Happy Atmosphere’, it crops again more disturbingly regarding ‘The Head of the Board of Visitors’’ ‘image’ ‘arrested and imprisoned in a photograph’ ‘torn from the Daily News’ and ‘pinned on the notice board’:
They put out the eyes
with drawing pins – to make her blind, that she might better see
what was wrong.
‘Ghost Story’ is a beguiling vignette, where inmates’ memories of how they once were or might have been haunt them as ghosts,
Captured in a glance,
the strangers who walked in but did not stay’.
Now, they correspond with our anxieties –
become symbols of power, inverted,
these insubstantial people. Presences.
One past immigrant detainee is glimpsed sympathetically:
Minaev, as pale as fresh snow, is still nervous
and cannot speak except to apologise.
Identity is addressed again, this time in the Sphinxian ‘Riddle: Who am I?’ Beginning:
At sunset I was an absence – no-one expected me
to rise in the dark, to blunt the sharp edge
of the wire along the border with my substance.
There is here the hint of a messianic figure, a Christ-like etheric entity of resurrection, and one could interpret ‘On wash day the laundry is filled with me’ as a subtle allusion to the Turin Shroud’; this interpretation seems possibly confirmed by the line ‘I can walk on the sea’. When interrogated by the Pharisees, Christ was supposed to have avoided any direct reference to himself as ‘the Son of Man’ or ‘the Song of God’, but only echoed back to the questions designed to elicit his confession of blasphemy, ‘Are you the Son of God?’ with an ambiguous ‘You say I am’. At the end of the poem, in topical juxtaposition, the entity asks of his inquisitor: ‘‘So tell me Mr Immigration Officer, who am I?’’
‘The Parable of the Tree’ is no less ambitious and cryptically dialectical, this time excavating further back to pan-pagan mythology and the ancient contention that the apparently male Christian God superseded and effectively usurped the original female Earth Mother of Robert Graves’s White Goddess (itself rooted in James Frazer’s anthropological The Golden Bough). Here Jordan conjures a similar creational ‘tree’ which was anciently uprooted, but whose immortal memory serves to ‘show how/ the soul of man is feminine and wise’; it is the same on which ‘God’ was ‘crucified’ and represented ‘fertility’. Jordan concludes with a breathtaking lyrical flourish:
In this bolted grove, this empty paradise,
it grows ghostly now – in every man –
becoming golden in autumn. Glorious.
Presumably, the soul; the sexless immortal core of man?
The strikingly titled ‘Waterlights’ continues this mythological-estrogenic theme, which begins beguilingly:
Men have been known to cry when released
from this endless day of light over the sea,
which we call ‘waterlight’…
The sublime-sounding coinage ‘waterlight’ might relate the catharsis of self-knowledge that breaks through with tears, that truth-irrigated rejuvenation in emotional perception which comes in crying – through this cleansing, almost baptismal process, ‘Some have become religious’; a subtly biblical Dead Sea allusion comes with ‘a shadow/ of black unpolished silver in the mercurial sea’. Blood features as a recurring image, female spectres ‘putting the colour back into [his] cheeks’, and the curdling repetition ‘all blood, all blood’, which comes towards the end of what appears to be a pastiche of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias. One trope stands out as more sharply euphemistic than the rest of the poem, again seemingly tinctured by an allusion to resurrection:
He was transformed two days before they said
they would deport him back into the arms
of his previous employers.
Topically again, ‘The General Election’ portrays voting and the chief functions of a democracy as another form of traditional ritual or hollow worship partaken in periodically in symbolic commemoration of a historic curiosity, in the same sense that Christmas is celebrated: elections, in this prison utopia, are nothing more than symbolic celebrations of something which once had a participatory and transformative purpose, but no more; putting a piece of paper into the ballot-box is now as figurative and abstracted as the process of transubstantiation in the Catholic Eucharist – and this has come about chiefly because this society has finally realised that democratic processes have always been symbolic rather than active:
We need to be clear, voting doesn’t change anything,
but it’s important to participate. The electorate are apathetic.
So now it is all simply a matter of commemorative pomp and worship: ‘The men of the Dorms made votive offerings’.
‘Working with Narratives: Our New Reality as the Main Theme’ is a rather cryptic, aphorismic piece, which recounts some of the folkloric fables in which the current regimen is ethically rooted. We have the disorienting detail that ‘a Messiah/ was concealed beneath the uniform of a prison officer’; the curious nativity-tinged ‘princes were disguised as shepherds’; these sources are ‘the stories and the people no-one wants to know…
In this the are similar to asylum seekers; it is an engine of the plot
that prison officers bring it on themselves. Now complete the story.
‘Beyond the Pale’ deals with the ‘‘diction of empire’, that indicates a detour into how language works in our mouths’ – and here we are again reminded of how Jordan sets himself ambitious premises for these poems, a poet who certainly courts the ‘big themes’ with relish. There seems a subtle comment here on the old belief that words possessed magical properties; that for one’s name to be known opened one up to the power of another; that language was organic, living, and, not in a figurative but in a literal sense, could verbally manipulate and rearrange reality itself:
In the tradition of this place, its words and phrases,
something in essence is handed over, sold on, betrayed.
within the fence, histories of other fences;
within the man, compartments called identities…
There is in this poem a level of meaning opening up as to the ‘symbolic’ being purposive in an ontological, even biological, sense; semantic symbols being buttons the tongue presses to effect external functions in their surroundings, like machinery; words as independent operative organisms. Jordan then brings us back to the particularly abject plight of the immigrant detainee who only seeks asylum from iniquitous regimes which have ransomed their origins – and, poignantly, one of the last barriers for many of them is the unknown ‘language’ of their unwelcoming place of asylum:
Lips and lips that speak with the difficulty of language
of refuge, the symbolic language. I helped him
mouth a word. Compassion. He said, ‘What is this?
I do not know this…
The pain of the scapegoat forced beyond the pale, who walked
the boundary many times to know it so well. A human sacrifice
found along the ditch and bank that mark
an ancient edginess. …
He was detained, on the ground a long time
Then Jordan plays more on the amorphous concept of empire, of territory growing outwards organically, of occupying other spaces; empowerment for the perpetrator, imprisonment for the occupier – ‘The diction of empires bound vpon the pillours of Eternity’.
Then the linguistic challenges for the incarcerated immigrant:
A victim – sweet foster-mother tongue – a ritual
in an awkward language with no easy way into
the rhythms of sun and moon. Odd constellations
The celestial wire, the starry entanglement above.
Jordan’s finale is a dialectical tour-de-force chockfull with polemical aphorisms which could be used as counter-tropes to our Con-Dem plenipotentiaries today (even, one could imagine, as t-shirt slogans for Red Molotov): ‘Disclaimer’ begins with the note: ‘Workshop idea: discuss the irony and meaning of ‘economic migrants’. Unpack the phrase – see what it represents’. Then Jordan launches into the rich tapestry of contemporary political euphemisms, of ‘How one word is used to signify another’; the possibilities are of course legion – but we begin with the bogus memes and prejudices: ‘They are parasites. They form ghettos in our cities’. But then Jordan progresses to the imagery of prejudice as its own invisible international empire:
A gulag or concentration camp, dispersed
over the globe, it has no fixed point, no centre
or periphery, except in these legitimated fences.
Everything is in disguise. …
It’s nothing to do with us, this global holocaust.
Its narratives are splintered and its crimes are obscure.
The poem ends on the passive, self-removing phrase: ‘No blame attaches to us’ – one which echoes recent day mantras of the culpable powerful in which language is used as a means of distancing the culprit from the allegation, or at least from any hint of corrupt intention on their part; the guilty using the language of the victim: ‘I should not have allowed the boundary to be blurred between private and public interests’, etc. But language is a capricious tool: while it can assist the corrupt in escape from responsibility, it can also brutally abandon the innocent, ‘cut his words up into sobs’.
Of equal importance to the poems themselves is Jordan’s powerful expose of the grimmer reality of the real-life HMP Haslar, ‘Inside the Outside’ (interestingly, previously published in a 2004 issue of Herd and Potts' more catholic version of Poetry Review), which relays his challenging experiences while writer-in-residence there; it is a harrowing but biting polemic against the appalling conditions in which scores of ‘illegal immigrants’ are still detained today; and Jordan closes by noting the recent suicide of one Ukrainian inmate who committed suicide the day he was to be ‘removed’ – the detainee then removed himself before this, no doubt, on a subliminal level – as Al Alvarez conjectures in his excellent The Savage God – the final gesture of custodianship over one’s own destiny, and, indeed, destination.
Bonehead’s Utopia sucked me in practically from the first line onwards and I felt that nothing short of a thorough, almost page-by-page review of it would do justice to its extraordinary ambition and imaginative scope; why on earth a book of this calibre is not on the T.S. Eliot or Forward shortlists is anyone’s guess, but then in a sense, it might devalue it if it were, because this is indisputably a book for the people, for all of us, it is political poetry in the most imaginative and intelligent sense, a deeply philosophical collection of poems rich in thought-provoking and transformative aphorisms, and the importance of its unjustly marginalised subject matter cannot be overstated.
Fortunately for a poetry scene which has been so long distracted by the domestic, quotidian and egoistic, there does seem in the last couple of years to have been an emergent school of more socially engaged collections, especially residency-inspired, and more often than not in penal settings; not only Victoria Bean’s Caught, as reviewed earlier, but also last year’s empathic The Privilege of Rain (Waterloo Press, 2010) by David Swann based on his time as poet-in-residence at HMP Nottingham. But, to excuse the pun, Andrew Jordan has truly pushed the bar out in terms of his bold imaginative transformation of the experiences and observations from his own prison residency. Quite simply this is a very important book of poetry, its quality of writing but above all, of thought, quite a cut above the more quotidian stable of contemporary poetry. Andrew Jordan’s collection is a polemical and imaginative triumph and its aphorisms and images will stay with me for a long to come. I couldn’t recommend this book more.
Alan Morrison © 2011