When it comes to testing the poetic space squeezed between Tom Raworth and Jeremy Prynne, Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland must be ranked amongst the most adept, not to say amongst the most interesting. In negotiating that terrain, they don't exactly shy away from exposing their individual styles, defined not only by their limitations but what the contours of their work allows. This they do from different perspectives, addressing, for one, the political world at a personal level, and, for the other, the personal world at a political level, yet without sacrificing anything so obvious as poetic content.
Insistently, even obsessively, political, Sean Bonney, on the basis of this superb collection, seems to move within the crevices of a public language, on the inside of the outside, while discoursing on the immediate, particularly when it comes tocivil insurrection, present and past. To do this he references poetic responses (Baraka, Henderson, Sanchez, etc.) and music (Cecil Taylor, Coltrane, etc.) accompanying the black uprisings of the 1960s, but also back to the likes of Rimbaud. Written with a sense of urgency, these poems respond to recent British history, whether the riots in the recent past, the police shooting of Mark Duggan, or the corruptions of the current Tory government, whether David Cameron ("The songs of heaven, the secrets of history, the kidnap and murder of David Cameron. Steal away.), George Osborne ("his little mouth moving at unpleasant angles") and Iain Duncan Smith ("that talking claw"). Though here Bonney's preferred mode is the mock-letter, his poetics delineated not so much by stanza, line and image but by paragraph and page.
"Memories. It was like we were a blister on the law. Inmates.
Fancy-dress jacobins. Jesters. And yes. Every since 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..."
(Bonney, Letter Against Ritual)
Not that he neglects the more customary form. Taken together, it all goes to further his inquiry, which he clarifies at the start: "the possibility of a poetry that only the enemy could understand." Though concentrating his anarchist ax on the likes of Teresa May ("remember Teresa May, that guillotine/Unemployed families were slaughtered/remember Teresa driving through London in crackling human Tar/about legal channels, hot pink and petrol flare"), he lets no-one off the hook, not least New Labour.
"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
(Bonney, Set One, The Commons)
Of course, Bonney isn't so gauche as to make false claims about political poetry changing the world. Rather, he seeks "an absolute distribution of the senses." Revising Rimbaud as revolutionary, his Season In Hell writing in tandem with the Paris Commune, and "I is an other" a call to collectivity, not to mention ammunition when confronting neo-liberal austerity: "Poetry is stupid, but then again, stupidity is not the absence of intellectual ability but rather the scar of its mutilation." In an era of corruption and criminality, Bonney demands the right to make essential poetic statements, filled with not only rage but humour.
The more mid-Atlantic Keston Sutherland, no less political, takes a different route in his articulation of a politics not dissimilar to Bonney's. More responder than proclaimer, Sutherland, unlike Bonney, prefers deploying a private language to express public concerns, working on the outside of the inside, shifting between the personal and the political. Yet his work, such as when addressing the war on terror, contains images from the world of porn, fast food and haute cuisine. While his odes to white goods convey the world in metallic form, implying that commodity fetishism might just be another form of torture, and torture remains the most blatant expression of the free market.
"This is the honest account of the passion of Ali Whoever, read it
deep in the words, general Vampire, fashioning from this trance
in metal colours an idiot life to blank, taking the time that
declines to rhyme in synchrony with yours conscious forever
of limits and where in the end they lie, general jurisprudent,
the limits to meaning and power, and as innumerable stresses rise
in a pyramid of lyric ash and flame, keep your eyes out."
Sutherland, Stress Position
Sutherland opts for articulating his concerns in the form of verbal onslaughts, semi-torturing the reader with their unrelenting linguistic fury. Sometimes pornographic, brutal, manic, demanding, manic, even lyrical and often humourous, he prefers to focus on the body as it intersects with the machine. The result is a series of poetic interventions more often than not scatological, but constituting a potent weapon never more than a linguistic cluster away from the abyss. However, it's his Odes to TL61P- the product ordering code for an obsolete Hotpoint washer-dryer- that represent Sutherland at this most effective, if only because it was the first work by Sutherland I happened to come across.
"Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer..."
"obviously they read books in hell:
they are passionate and scared,
intersected at bitter angles /
the British anarchist movement
its scales and documents
splintered under a false full moon"
Bonney, Set One
"In 1983, over 13,000 workers' compensation claims
to Erato I stutter this bloodless anathema
a veto on forklifts' trussed talons in face scrub
tossed out of the world
of which you were actively sick,
waxing anaemic, brandishing fire-hose,
social with anxiety but actually sick."
Sutherland, The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts
Together these two poets represent opposite sides of a poetic coin, whose value is non-negotiable, but legal tender when it comes to poetry as an extreme sport, whose currency demands redistribution, one according to need rather than means, the other according to the weight of the word. While Sutherland might cloak the plainly political in the clothing of aesthetic sensibility, if not distance, beneath that cloak lurks a dagger of lethal shape and sharpness. Bonney, on the other hand, feigns dispensing with the cloak, though never completely abandons that apparel.
"Our money is where your mouth is, clammy as that
strict blip of successive exit holes, into the light over
which is dubbed the light in filth-blistered orthognathic 2D flying
elf neon crossbar 261. To buy it if you see
what we mean is to see by it: nothing matters more
any time, just kick back / any time, in moccasins..."
Sutherland, Roger Ailes
"I've been getting up early every morning, opening the curtains and
going back to bed. There have been rumours of anti-unemployed
hit squads going around, and I don't want some fucker with a
payslip lobbing things through my window. Especially not when when
I'm asleep. Though I don't expect to be able to fool them for long -
my recent research involves an intense study of certain individual
notes played on Cecil Taylor's 1966 album Unit Structures..."
Bonney, Letter On Work and Harmony
Whether by appearance, linguistic material and juxtaposition, line of attack or implication, these poems have their roots not only in the Cambridge school but in the debates from some six decades back in the publication The British Intelligencer, which briefly appeared in the mid to late 1960s, centred around the likes of Crozier, Peter Riley, Prynne, John James, etc.. Discussions that, amongst other matters, focused on the fact that aesthetics are invariably as political as they are verbal. To their credit, Bonney and Sutherland update the parameters of that discourse, taking it to its most use-oriented point. While dealing with current use and abuse, whether eulogizing a machine or destroying a decaying body politic, both tend towards the justified block, rhythmic in the extreme, influenced by music, as the body moves through a thick mire of repressive politics. This is how such murkiness will be negotiated. Their differing line breaks, even when inhabiting familiar territory, become, in that context, irrelevant, because the impact is so sharp, so similar and so engaging, at least to anyone who might still content that aesthetics (the poem) and ethics (the politics) are, or should be, one and the same.
For a detailed history and discussion of the extremely important if short-lived British Intelligencer, see Alex Latter's Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer, published by Bloomsbury, and Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer, ed by Reitha Pattison and Luke Roberts, published by Mountain. The latter is an anthology of BI prose, while the former is more a historical analysis of the publication.