Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Poem as an Incendiary Device: Our Death by Sean Bonney

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...

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

All the Crimes Fit to Print: Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide by Barry Forshaw

Readers of Crime Time and various broadsheets will already know that Barry Forshaw is pretty much the go-to person when it comes to all things fictionally criminal. Not to mention that he has long been a prime mover when it comes to promoting a range of crime fiction in the UK. His two volume Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction remains a landmark publication, indispensable to anyone interested in the history of the genre. Likewise his handful of other titles, their subjects ranging from Nordic Noir to Italian Cinema. With a keen editorial eye, his reviews are customarily pithy and invariably on the money. His latest contribution, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide might be described as a condensed version of his Encyclopaedia, only cheaper and easier to negotiate. In fact, given its pocketable size and format, it is as comprehensive a reference book and guide to what is purchasable that one is likely to find. 

That is, given the economics of publishing, at least as suggested by the book’s evocative cover, depicting, on the one hand, a well-trodden pulp fiction trope and, on the other, a reminder of crime fiction’s past and how it has changed over the years- becoming more acceptable, literary, blatant, marketable and diverse. These days crime fiction is more profitable than ever. In fact, it’s been at least sixty years since the term pulp fiction could be used to describe even a portion of the genre. This is reflected in the market place itself where, in the intervening decades, the price of a typical paperback has gone from the 2’6 of those orange Penguin crime novels, to 30p for the green Penguins, up to the present when a typical crime paperback costs in excess of £15. To say nothing about the price original pulp paperback crime novels in decent condition. It’s definitely a seller’s market, with crime fiction on display in all parts of the world, and with every country having their own crime writers with their own particular spin on the genre. In his forward, Ian Rankin claims Forshaw’s book “covers crime fiction from every part of the world.”  Well, almost, but the book is undeniably, and perhaps understandably, UK/US-centric, with a nod  to Europe, particularly Scandi-Noir, not withstanding the token Chinese or Latin American writer thrown in for good measure. 

Which shouldn’t be surprising. Adding even more writers, from a greater range of countries to the mix would have only made Forshaw’s book all the bulkier and considerably less easy to negotiate. As for the chapters themselves, they are general enough to include just about any crime novel one can think of, regardless of place, but, at the same time, specific enough to highlight the genre’s touchstones: from the origins of the genre to its Golden Age; from Hardboiled/Pulp fiction to private eyes and cops; from professionals (lawyers, doctors, forensics) to amateur investigators; from  psychological narratives to psychopaths, criminal protagonists and organised crime; from crime and society to espionage; from domestic noir to cosy crime and blockbusters; and from comic crime to historical and foreign crime. Interspersed within which are boxed-in entries on selected topics and authors, from Agatha Christie and to Raymond Chandler, from radio crime fiction to film noir. Each section contains a plethora of books along with Forshaw’s precise and concise comments and synopsises. The book concludes with a series of appendixes, the first of which consists of the author’s favourite Scandinavian and political thrillers. That’s followed by two outside critics, J. Kingston Pierce and Craig Sisteron, who list the authors that, in their opinion, should have been included in Forshaw’s book. It’s not only a nice democratic gesture on the part of the author, but it’s also a fitting way to end what a book that is bound to be at least partly subjective.

Because anyone conversant with the genre will have their own list of omissions and perhaps quibbles with the text. For me, I would have liked Forshaw to have included the likes of Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jerome Charyn, Ross Thomas, K.C. Constantine, Dorothy B. Hughes, Paul Cain, Andrew Coburn, Leigh Brackett, Peter Temple, Bill James, James Curtis, Arthur La Bern, Robert Westerby, Cameron McCabe, Horace McCoy, Gil Brewer, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Brown, Buzz  Bezzerides, Samuel Fuller, Joe Gores, Lionel White, Harry Whittington, Jim Nisbet, Scott Phillips, Kent Anderson, Stephen Greenleaf, John Franklin Bardin, Dolores Hitchens, Frederic Dard, Tonino Benacquista, Thierry Jonquet, Boris Vian/Vernon Sullivan,  Pieke Biermann,  Massimo Carlotto, Patricia Melo, Ricardo Piglia, Claudia Pineiro, Leonard Padua, Paco Ignacio Taino, and Santiago Gamboa. And, to make it truly international, what about those Tamil pulp writers published by Blaft, or the wonderful Nigerian railway station books, collected in Life Turns Man Up and Down, published by Pantheon? Come to think of it, why not a section on small presses which, free from the economic constraints of corporate publishing, are publishing some of today’s most interesting and edgy crime novels. Or a page on books that address the subject of crime fiction itself? But, then, all of this might have been outside Forshaw’s remit, much less his word count. Because, in the end, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide is what it is, a useful and nearly comprehensive study that deserves a place in the library of all serious readers of crime fiction. 

(This article will also be appearing in Crime Time)