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Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

In his chapter on Barry MacSweeney in Three Lyric Poets (Northcote House, 2009) William Rowe quoted Maggie O’Sullivan suggesting that Barry MacSweeney’s poetry resounded “with the spit of dissent and the edgy, wounded anger of revolt”. Rowe went on to make a comment that is as true today as it was then:

“It is written against the social amnesia, the ‘spin’, and institutionalized lying that have taken place in the name of modernization: especially against the language that anaesthetizes and makes submission easier.”

With an echo of the mid-Seventeenth Century world of the Ranters and Diggers Rowe’s volume of Collected Poems fizzes within its covers. In ‘start the civil war’ (and note the use of the lower case for the title, a little like keeping one’s hat on in Service or in Parliament) we are given language of muscularity and promise:

“as capital says
abandon all hope
death’s head descending
property & property & property

a horrible gleam
houses lawns cars eyes words children

validation of hate
= courage

revenge morning
against the arrow of time

weeping backwards tears backwards
validation of hate

herald of antigone brother
ayawaska sister

destruction and riot
= maximum intensity

produce
void

against prostitution of time
by Tory corporalities

fascinated by cruel
immortality of money

fascisted by the gleam
of that obedience

enjoy & enjoy & enjoy”

The merging of language which has literary, religious and scientific antecedents pulses with energy. The abandoning of hope which was so completely final in its inscription over the gateway to Dante’s Inferno becomes visually engulfing as the death’s head descends. The clatter of horse’s hoofs brings Tennyson’s ‘Northern Farmer’ into focus:

“Doesn’t thou ’ear my ’erse’s legs, as they canters awaäy?
Proputty, proputty, proputty – that’s what I ’ears ’em saäy.”

And the greed of accumulation is caught in the “horrible gleam” that shifts so smoothly from a shining car outside a house and lawn to the eyes and words of the children who are trapped. The enticing shine leads to an obedience in which unthinking hatred can be converted, by a twist of language’s expectations, to “courage”.
William Rowe contributed an important article on MacSweeney to the Shearsman publication Poetry and Public Language (ed. Tony Lopez & Anthony Caleshu, 2007). Writing about ‘Jury Vet’ he quoted MacSweeney’s introduction to the poem given at a 1982 reading in Goldsmith’s College at which an uncompromisingly clear statement was made:

“I wanted a title that was national and would reflect the way I was feeling at the time which was that life is very much made up of secrecy, betrayal, various codes, passions which can be quite meaningless except in the act of doing them and their result.”

Rowe’s statement which then follows is interesting as a disturbing comment upon modern consumerism and the State:

“The statement could apply equally well to a fashion show, a court of law, and the State, which are the theatres of appearance that the writing engages.”

In a world where cheap cladding bears some responsibility for multiple deaths we have moved language a long way from Spenser’s sense of protection in which a knight could be clad in “mighty arms and silver shield”. We have also moved a long way from the decorous and respectful sense that Puttenham refers to in terms of lamentation where friends show love towards the dead by “cladding the mourners their friendes and servauntes in blacke vestures, of shape dolefull and sad, but also by wofull countenaunces and voyces, and besides by Poeticall mournings in verse.” I find that Will Rowe’s poems speak with a voice more finely-tuned than I have heard for some time:

“the moral and spiritual damage that
comes from this situation is profound.
it is a scar across our collective soul.”

In a world where “we cannot pay you / because you have / as much or more money / coming in than / the law says / you need to live on” one can sense the outrage of what in 1650 would have been Abezier Coppe’s ‘Fiery Flying Roll’:

“Behold, I the eternal God the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller am coming (yea even at the doores) to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleys, and to lay the Mountains low.”

But make no mistake: William Rowe’s poems are not an evangelical return to a long-gone past. After all, as Sean Bonney writes at the end of this powerful collection:

“The catastrophe has already taken place, it’s just that all of its light has yet to reach us. It’s not clear from what or when that light might be coming. A burning city. A barricade. A refugee stumbling out from an already decided future, an insistent and illegible memory of something that happened long before any of us were born. A light that might illuminate the location of the emergency brake. A brake that by now is glowing far too hot to touch.”

Look out for the ghostly face starting to pressure outwards as the ribbon of blood pours down the face of the book’s cover (Aodan McCardle): this is a collection of poems which opens doors and tears down façades. Get a copy from Amazon Books NOW.

Ian Brinton, 23rd June 2017

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