Letters Against the Firmament, Sean Bonney(143pp, £9.99, Enitharmon)
Place Waste Dissent, Paul Hawkins (171pp, £9.99, Influx)
Chance of a Storm, Rod Mengham (92pp, £9.99, Carcanet)

Sean Bonney's poetry has become ever more uncompromisingly political in recent years and his work has something of the streetwise ranter about it while retaining its links with any remaining possibilities of the academic avant-garde. He's a sort of Barry MacSweeney with a Phd, which isn't intended to be anything but a compliment. If he questions the possibility of writing poetry which is in any way relevant to the current state of global affairs, he nevertheless remains committed to a notion of poetry, provisional though this may be, and any contradiction this brings forth is more than matched by his conflicting left-wing positions - 'I seem to have anarchic tendencies / but I hang around with Trots.' - a line from 'Set One' of The Commons, a pocket-book collection which came out a few years ago and is included, in part, in the current compilation.

As the title implies, many of these poems are written in the form of letters and the opening pieces are concerned with the riots in 2011following the shooting of Mark Duggan. Bonney mixes the language of Physics - ' Electrons get squeezed / out of atoms to produce a substance never seen on Earth.' - with that of political argument to get to a rhetoric appropriate to the occasion - ' Don't pretend you know better. / remember, a poetry only the enemy can understand' (from 'Letters on Riots and Doubt',
august 5th 2011).

There's a sense that Bonney is arguing with himself in these missives, taking the point of the 'liberal recipient' of the letter (we don't know who this is, imagined or otherwise) as a way of arguing politics and poetry at a time when matters are desperate and seem increasingly likely to stay that way. It's all very Shelleyan and a bit eschatological and Bonney draws on these traditions, as well as referring to the likes of Rimbaud, in order to explore the chaos and confusions of his time. The fact that these letters are 'against the firmament' suggest a wider-than-political discourse and although Bonney seems to be trying to create a more sophisticated and scholarly 'streetwise' poetry there is still plenty of emotional intensity in his writing. It's interesting to note that another British expatriate writer, John Hartley Williams (who sadly died last year), explored the riots through the re-interpretation of Rimbaud's
Illuminations. His Paint Splashes, which are full of energy and formal concision, can be found in the current edition of Angel Exhaust (23) and are a useful point of reference to Bonney's new collection.

Elsewhere, Bonney's work is filled with irrepressible energy and manic erudition, aimed at the forces of suppression while presenting something approaching an aesthetic beauty in terms of the textures and velocities of the writing. His mixing of the vernacular with the 'high art' is way ahead of any notions of 'the eclectic' and his work in some ways is beyond the pale, out there, estranged and strangulated but retaining its grip through intelligence and sheer determination. Take this extract from 'Letter Against Ritual', for example:

     Memories. It was like we were a blister on the law. Inmates. Fancy-
     dress jacobins. Jesters. And yes. Every single one of us was well
     aware that we hadn't won anything, that her legacy 'still lived on',
     and whatever other sanctimonious spittle was being coughed up
     by liberal shitheads in the
Guardian and on Facebook. That wasn't
     the point. It was horrible. Deliberately so. Like the plague-feast in
     Nosferatu. I loved it. I had two bottles of champagne, a handful of
     pills and a massive cigar, it was great. ......
There's an interesting note in the Acknowledgements page which talks about the use of 'the cuckoo song', a process in folk music where singers intersperse their own lyrics with snatches of other songs (remembered or misremembered) to create a tapestry or collage in which the 'lyric I' loses its privatised being and becomes a collective commentary. Such 'unacknowledged' quoting is a method which Bonney employs quite a lot, particularly in some of the most impressive poems in
The Commons, which remain, for my money, the most imaginative, lively and integrated (in the sense of the merging of 'poetry and politics') poems in this new collection:

     I bet she did I bet she
     got up & performed his ambitions
     my malevolent shine
     gonna build me a log cabin
     night of the living dead
     jokes about gordon brown
     something called the english democrats
     on fire:
     she would beat them to ashes
     with a ring of teeth
     & roses -
     say cuckoo -
     got up this morning
     performed my alienations
          (from SET ONE
The Commons)

I like the humour in the above, its mix of vocabulary and its quoting, manic yet controlled, intense and intelligent. Keep on doing what you're doing, Sean, it may represent the collective in us but there's plenty of individuality here as well and there's not enough of that in the contemporary scene.

Place Waste Dissent is an inventive mix of photography and text, cut-up and montage, relating to the 'Reclaim the Streets' movement of the early nineties, with
particular reference to 'house clearance' in relation to the remaining parts of Leytonstone that had largely been demolished to make way for the M11. It's a documentation dealing with resistance to the clearance and its effects on the activists and original residents attempting to remain in their homes. This is a 'warts and all' portrayal - no romanticising of the subject here - and the mix of poetry, photographs and a multitude of voices is impressive, moving and assertive, proving that creativity and aesthetics can live alongside political protest without appearing twee or being completely redundant.

One of the key protagonists in this multi-narrative is Ms Dorothy Watson - (1901-2001), born 32 Claremont Road, aka Doorstop Dolly, aka The Queen of the Street:

     hardcore darkness
     all houses knocked-through
     welding gear
     sparking and flashing-up a tower named
     tree houses and netting
     chilling drinking laughing on steel clouds
     the world is upside-out

     In August
     nineteen ninety four
     Dolly opens
     her front door
     to riot police
     demolition crews
     security operatives
     looks up at a sky full of cherry pickers
     fucking shame on you

     Dolly collapses
     and is taken to Whipps Cross hospital
     never to see Claremont Road again

There's an almost throwaway feel to these photos and montages interrupted by texts and poems, a homemade, post-punk aesthetic which is both immediate and documentary-based. Lists are composed from the here and now as in 'breakfast view Leytonstone 2014' - 'L'etoile de Paris / Christofi Wells & co / Expert Bureau (Immigration and Finance Service) / Sheer Elegance / Image (Turkish Barber) / We Buy Gold', while the element of threat and menace is a constant aspect - '
we can use / necessary pain / with / reasonable force', from '(Patsy Braga's is stormed)'.

There's also a sense of collaboration, both in the making of this book, and in its subject of resistance to heavy-handed authority, which combines a collective with an anarchistic outlook. This is social history presented pictorially and in fragmentary texts, outside of the official record and in opposition to it. The Occupy movement is presented in relation to a culture of surveillance and imposed order. It's a neatly produced archive which is challenging and disordered, fragmentary and filled with movement, noise and a variety of street music. Well worth searching out.

Rod Mengham's new collection, Chance of a Storm, is impressive in its mixing of different kinds of language and the way it fuses these languages to create something very strange indeed. If there's a political overview here, it's one which works across history and literature in a somewhat singular fashion though obviously there are 'Cambridge' traditions here, in the sense that Prynne, Wilkinson and Milne could be seen as co- conspirators, if that's a reasonable way of putting it. I'm also thinking of Denise Riley, particularly in some of the more humorous sections, which often come about via the more obvious cultural quoting:


     And the whistle is alive and shrill: the traffic policeman's whistle,
     the stationmaster's whistle, the referee's whistle. But it also has a
     subtle pedigree in the referred whistle: 'Oh whistle and I'll come to
     you', the submissive promise converting into a summons of terror;
     'I'd whistle her off and let her down the wind', the coded restraint,
     the deceptive permission in a signal of release; 'You know how
     to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and
     blow', the mouth as mouthpiece and the whistle as tantalus, erotic
     when absent.
                              (from '

The mix of logic and playfulness here, is unusual, to say the least, and the reader, whose first reaction might be to acknowledge the recognition with a smile - if he or she picks it up, that is - may then react differently to Mengham's linguistic descriptions of what he's up to. I don't have any answers to this but it seems to me to be a novel and stimulating approach which combines precision with a sense of fun and exploration. 

The opening poem, 'After Archilochus', sets the scene in the sense that it suggests the multifarious nature of the material on offer, while retaining a trace of the epic and a strong lyrical element, which features consistently throughout. It combines classical reference with political intrigue - 'or beyond the pale since Zeus / found night in the blue of days  - / made men forever twitchy' and its post-modern tone provides both an element of critique and a re-working of past literary tradition. His environmental displacements - ' but not where the dolphins are / at rest in their mountain hideaway'are both charming and imply a process of montage which is smoothly achieved.

The long sequence 'Paris by Helen', continues to suggest the epic with its resonant pronouncements - ' We have heard the waters rising in the Bay of Naples. / We have seen the founding fathers falling in', undermined by the comic last line, and there's an ever-present process of parading slightly skewed clichˇs to create a sense of narrative that is going nowhere obvious. Yet the title of the piece below suggests a context which inevitably 'informs' your reading of the poem:

     It has all been thought of before
     but nothing in the right place
     and every swerve is fatal
     the park gates are closing for good
               (from 'Assange Militia')

The poem opens with the proposition - 'I have this feeling for poetry / that it will give away my position.' - which can be interpreted in a number of ways and combines humour with a sense of intrigue. These are poems and prose poems that you have to immerse yourself in and go with the flow, even where the writing appears to be 'resisting the reader', so to speak. There's enough humour, formal device and playful writing here to get you through a first reading and you may even be tempted to dip in thereafter. The titles often resonate strangely or/and suggest another blind alley and the mix of logical procedure with crazy intervention is often a source of entertainment. 'Will O' the Wisp' appears to be a strange mixing of genres, centrally concerning Charlie Chaplin's comic satire on totalitarianism,
The Great Dictator -though Mengham seems to be fonder of Buster Keaton - and remains both puzzling and intriguing on a second reading, at least to this reader.

I'm still not sure how good Mengham is but I found the process of reading this poetry stimulating. His contribution to contemporary academic poetry is certainly singular, if not without context, and I'm glad to have made his acquaintance in this book and feel sure that I'll dip in again at some point.

     © Steve Spence 2016