The following was written just days before Sean's tragic death.
"The last song has run out we buried it and died. Now we are turning blue.
I think we are in a hospital but it is really a bar. Lets call it the felon ward.
There is no hell there is only the law. Behind every border the law."
Can a poem be an incendiary device? There are those- poets and politically minded readers of poetry- who might answer in the affirmative. Though the thought that a poem can be so dangerous, that capable of blowing apart the culture, much less one's concept of the poem, seems, in an era of crypto-fascism, corporate greed and surplus offerings, to have currency only amongst those on the margins. After all, it's as dangerous to preach what you practise as it is to practise what you preach. And it so often results in a multitude of wounds, whether state or self inflicted. Perhaps it is as it has always been. One need only consider Rimbaud, or poetry written during the height of the black power movement. Given this era and conditions we've inherited or created, it shouldn't be surprising that there are still those who still carry that torch, pursuing a poetry whose language, imagery and content come together to reshape one's perception of the world, not on some superficial level, but down deep where real change is possible.
Sean Bonney is one of those who, for some time, has been intent on embracing this fiery tradition. Accordingly, there are few whose poetry is as incendiary. This was the case with his previous volume, Letters Against the Firmament, and even more so in his recent collection Our Death. I can't think of many whose work demands that readers question to such an extent their relationship to poetry and the state of the culture in general. In Our Death Bonney takes the reader on a journey through the wreckage of present day neo-liberal, from Poundland to Deutschland, and does so from the perspective of those on the margins, as potential outsiders and resisters. Though the poems are as angry as they are dark, they also have a celebratory ring to them, if only because they insist that resistance is possible; likewise the construction of a language and form of attack that facilitates a way of defending oneself, linguistically as well as literally. Which makes these poems very much of their time and yet out of time, part of a lineage that includes not only the likes of Rimbaud but Baraka, Artaud as well Pasolini, ranters from William Prynne to Valerie Solanas, not leaving out one of Bonney's favourites, the Greek anarchist poet/actor/activist Katerina Gogou, whose poems are liberally translated or interpreted- perhaps there is little difference between the two in the area of this particular poetry- by Bonney in this collection. Or spoken directly to the late poet. Likewise, these however angry and dark, manage to be exquisitely lyrical, while never failing to cut close to the bone.
The exemplary poet Keston Sutherland, himself practising a radical form of subterfuge, describes Bonney's poetry as one of hatred, but I would think the better term would be rage. A rage garnered from being in the world, and seeing how it is organized. That has to be a hard road to travel. And partly explains the tone and condition of these poems, seemingly written late at night, fuelled by drugs and cigarettes, alcohol, composed after wandering across urban boulevards, back alleys and dank streets. Or after watching any number of unpunished crimes committed by cops, corporate sleaze bags and political con-men. All things that can easily make anyone pursue dark thoughts, drugs, alcohol or suicide. But there is also a strength in these poems that manages to turn the darkness inside-out. Which makes them ideal artifacts for the barricades and front line, perfect for fending off the state, whether vocalized on the street, in run down cafes or airless basements.
Not that these are easy poems. They bear the mark of too many scars to make for facile, or even pleasant reading. Add to that Bonney's reluctance to incorporate the customary compromising gestures regarding his work or politics, not when it comes to the powers that be. At the same time, Bonney purposely avoids the overtly populist, be it in terms of content or form. These are compact and linguistically dense poems, as intriguingly personal as they are intense, hitting the reader from a variety of angles. They are, indeed, rants of the highest order. "A rant is a haunt," writes Bonney, and indeed these poems read as though they are haunted by both the future and the past. Inspirational and international in scope, historical in nature, embedded apologetically in the present, right in keeping with a geographical gregariousness one might expect from a Brit living in self-imposed exile in Berlin. If some of the poems make for hard reading, it's because they carry cut so deeply. Sure, it's hyperbole to call a poem an incendiary device, but, in Bonney's hands, it's an apt description. That being the case, no close reader can possibly escape these explosive poems unscathed.
RIP, Sean Bonney...