Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison

Alan Morrison is a Brighton-based poet and editor of The Recusant, and Militant Thistles.

White Phosphorus
Thursday, 07 December 2023 00:00

White Phosphorus

Published in Poetry

White Phosphorus

A Ghazal for Gaza written on 5th November 2023

All Hallows’ Eve 2023, tenth anniversary
Of my mother’s passing from Huntington’s Disease;

Outside the half-curtained living room window
Excited laughter of children doing trick or treat—

Over 2,000 miles away, screams in the dark
Of Gazan night, pitch black but for sparkly

Blossoms of white phosphorus tinselling down,
Fluorescent flowers of destruction—deadly

Firework display pre-empting this fifth
Of November 2023… Gaza will be

A burial ground of rubble, its grey-limbed children
Pulled out from under it, ashen ghosts grown in debris…

This Nakba broadcast live to traumatised Westerners,
Nerves numbed by jump scares. Gaza under siege.

Gaza under rubble. Gaza an open grave, an open wound.
But from that rubble blooms indomitable solidarity—

Protests & marches swell in numbers each weekend,
Hundreds of thousands chanting “ceasefire now”, “free, free

Palestine”, “in our thousands, in our millions, we
Are all Palestinians”—in our iPhone open prisons

That pretend to protect us, but only contain us,
Doomscrolling in apocalypse dependency

Unputdownable attempts at coming to terms
With a graphically unacceptable telepathy,

& gruesomely gaslighting hegemonies—
But our suffering is nothing on Gazan agonies

That slow burn through to the bone, scald the soul,
Scar lives forever with obliterating bouquets,

Silver tentacles of giant jellyfish streaking in the sky
Streaming down stinging tendrils lethally, illegally…

Remember, remember, this fifth of November
White phosphorus fireworks stream down on Gaza.

“Salty Terms” to Deter Asylum Seekers
Sunday, 22 October 2023 14:56

“Salty Terms” to Deter Asylum Seekers

Published in Poetry

“Salty Terms” to Deter Asylum Seekers

(An extended villanelle or 'villanelle-vague')

“If they don’t like barges then they should f*** off back to France”
                     —Lee Anderson MP, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party

“Lee Anderson expresses the righteous indignation of the British people. Yes, he does it in salty terms”
                    —Alex Chalk MP, Justice secretary

Conservatives ride crests of wavering votes,
Divide & rule the waves over coercible
Tabloid-fed electors, booming STOP THE BOATS.

Few tears for refugees who can’t stay afloat
Or who are deported as undesirables—
Conservatives ride crests of wavering votes;

But tributes brim over when the Titan implodes
As billionaire hubris turns a submersible
Into a timebomb—there are sobs for certain boats.

Jenrick gives ‘reception centres’ a few thick coats
To cover up too-welcoming cartoon murals—
Conservatives ride crests of wavering votes;

Traumatised children tasked to take bitter note
That Britain’s the place to re-burst their bubbles
Buoyed by tabloids booming STOP THE BOATS.

They fled war & torture but now must cope
With mouthfuls of red rags dripped on by Whitehall—
Conservatives ride crests of wavering votes.

Unaccompanied minors going missing in smoke;
‘Gammon’ vigilantes storming “migrant hotels”
Buoyed by tabloids booming STOP THE BOATS.

“Fuck off back to France” or board Bibby Stockholm’s
Bacterial lab of xenophobic microbials—
Conservatives ride crests of wavering votes;

Language as “salty” as seawater that chokes
Refugees’ lungs—toxic rhetoric makes coral
& skeletons for Davy Jones’ Locker. STOP. BOATS.

Crossing the Rubicon of bloodred tropes,
English-channelling Nigel Farage & Enoch Powell—
Slavering Braverman craves wavering votes;

“Luxury beliefs” like compassion & hope
Spouted from “ivory towers” by liberals,
Blown out of the water of thought.  STOP THE BOATS.

Bash “lefty lawyers” as unpatriotic Woke,
Spike public discourse & puncture inflatables—
Conservatives ride crests of wavering votes;
just to shout STOP THE BOATS.

Republican Lupi
Friday, 05 May 2023 20:01

Republican Lupi

Published in Poetry

Alan Morrison introduces his republican poetry collection Wolves Come Grovelling published by Culture Matters in time for the Coronation.

One of the poems towards the end of Wolves Come Grovelling, ‘Grasp the Nettle’, attempts to do as its title suggests by grappling with the thorny issue of monarchy and democracy, subjecthood and citizenship, reminding us that England was once, albeit briefly (1650-1660), a republic without a king but instead a Commoner, Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector.

That decade in the middle of the 17th century seems to have been airbrushed out from our royalty-dominated history. But republicanism has remained, among a significant minority, as an enduring dream of generations who have dared to imagine a true democratic society with no hereditary head of state and whose sovereignty is properly represented by Parliament, and implicitly in the People.

‘Grasp the Nettle’ picks up on the mystical symbolisms currently being reasserted in the ritual, choreography and rhetoric surrounding the Coronation of Charles Windsor, some of which disturbingly echoes the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, once fatefully invoked by Charles Stuart and which in part triggered the English Civil War, or what Marxist historians term the English Revolution (which led inexorably to the trial and execution of that monarch):

Charles Stuart invoked Divine Right of Kings
To his detriment, & lost his kingdom—
Charles Windsor summons this shadow doctrine
Of anointment by God, or its symbolism:

For his Coronation: a consecration
With chrism oil made from olives pressed in
Jerusalem spiced with neroli, rose, jasmine,
Orange blossom, amber & benzoin.

We must perhaps pinch ourselves to remember that this is 2023, and not 1623 (or thereabouts: Charles I was coronated in 1625). The monarchic institution should demonstrate a little humility in the 21st century but instead seems to be doubling down on its hubris.

Days before the Coronation, many of us across the country have been flabbergasted at a royal request that we join in unison with a ‘Homage of the People’: a pledging of allegiance to the new monarch and his heirs and successors to be said out loud, or chorused (almost like a royalist travestying of the clapping and pot-banging we were encouraged to participate in during the early days of the pandemic). This has never been done before, and certainly should not be done now—such a crypto-feudal ‘request’ is utterly anachronistic, anti-democratic, and insulting to all of us.

It seems even before Charles is crowned king, his evident take on kingship seems about as privileged, entitled and absolute as is possible in a so-called ‘parliamentary monarchy’ (though with all its royalist sycophancy most of Parliament might well be perfectly happy with it), rather than the emphasis—as was constantly assured us during the long reign of his late mother—being on ‘public service’. For surely, in the spirit of ‘public service’, Charles should have instead invoked a ‘Homage to the People’: his swearing of allegiance to his ‘subjects’ who after all subsidise his supreme privilege (through the obscenely inflated Sovereign Grant) and are, absurdly, paying for his Coronation, through taxes.

All this combined with last-minute missives sent to anti-monarchist groups to warn of severe prison sentences should any public protests—such as Republic’s planned ‘Not My King’ demonstration by the statue of Charles I—be seen to disrupt the pomp and ceremony of the Coronation and its Union Jack-draped pageantry. [Stop Press 7/5/23: In spite of Met reassurances given to Republic that their protest could go ahead, the police pounced on them before they'd even had a chance to get started, packed up piles of yellow Not My King placards, along with Republic CEO Graham Smith, and packed them off in a police van to custody for the day].  

It seems then that the mask of monarchy is slipping rapidly in spite of Charles Windsor having previously been anticipated as a more modernising and progressive sovereign. But is ever more deference and subservience for a hereditarily entitled, unelected head of state really a tenable settlement even for backward-looking post-Brexit Britain?

Wolves Come Grovelling, then, is my republican response in poetry to the Coronation. The collection also contains poems on other subjects, such as Brexit, the proroguing of Parliament, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and other vicissitudes of recent years. But the overarching theme is one of republican resilience and defiance at the start of our second Carolean Age.

The Wolves of the title are the wolves of poverty as paraphrased from a speech by David Lloyd George made in 1909 at the triumph of his hugely progressive People’s Budget:

I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty… will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.

The Grovelling we Wolves are expected to do is, well, demonstrably, symbolised in that very ‘Homage’ of blind allegiance that we have been ‘requested’ to observe, and which makes my title poem something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since I composed it last year during the Jubilee when it appeared in the Morning Star, before any of us were expecting to hear the title ‘Charles III’. I have since updated it:

Wolves Come Grovelling (Again)

Out of the forests of towns & hovelling,
Wolves of poverty, howl out in worship,
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

Forget soaring bills & the cost of living
For one weekend, spaff on wolf-fellowship,
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling.

His crowned head, minted on our pound sterling
& postage stamps, shadows our hardship—
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

Grab the bank holiday, string out the bunting,
You’re Subjects of strung-along citizenship—
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling;

It’s all just so much Cat-Rat-&-Lovelling
Of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha & kingship—
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.

Mark the Coronation by volunteering
Community penance/unpaid stewardship—
Out of the forests of towns & hovelling,
Bow to your Wolf-king, wolves come grovelling.



 Video by Vanessa Sadri

Wolves Come Grovelling, by Alan Morrison, 60 pps, ISBN 978-1-912710-57-7, available for £10 incl. p&p.

In solidarity with journalist and Just Stop Oil protestor, Jan Goodey
Sunday, 15 January 2023 22:49

In solidarity with journalist and Just Stop Oil protestor, Jan Goodey

Published in Cultural Commentary

I’ve known journalist and lecturer Jan Goodey for many years and was shocked and saddened to learn he had been sentenced last November to a six-month jail term for taking part in one of the Just Stop Oil protests. Jan is a decent man, unassuming and thoughtful, but he is—demonstrably—passionate about environmental issues and the damage that's being done to our planet, as are many of us. It tells us everything about the moral bankruptcy of Tory Britain where idealistic activists are criminalised and temporarily removed from society when they are no threat to anyone.

The judge said that Jan’s conduct—climbing up onto a gantry over a motorway to hang a banner—was "not acceptable in a peaceful and democratic society". But isn’t protest supposed to be a core component of a “democratic society”?

The huge irony here is that our “democratic society” only ever came about precisely because of protest. Our very universal suffrage was achieved through the protests and sacrifices of radicals such as the Levellers, Diggers, Chartists and Suffragettes—all were persecuted and criminalised in their times, but all have long since been historically vindicated as democratic pioneers. I believe in time Jan will also be vindicated, and, I suspect, a lot sooner than his precursors.

Jan undertook a radical act of protest, it was inescapably disruptive, that’s part of the point of protest, but it was peaceful, and did no actual harm to anyone. With our prisons overspilling and in appalling condition, how can it be justified either morally or practically to sentence peaceful protestors to serve jail terms? A key sign of a society that has lost its way morally is when compassionate idealists are criminalised by its legal system.

Below is a poem composed in support of Jan—it is based on the villanelle verse form which repeats the first and third lines of the first verse alternately for each third line of the subsequent four verses and the closing two lines of the four-lined final sixth verse, but here I’ve varied the third lines throughout, so this is a semi-villanelle, or what I will term a ‘villanelle-vague’.

Jan on a Gantry

In solidarity with Jan Goodey, first protestor to be convicted for
'causing a public nuisance' under the draconian 
Police, Crime,
Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act – sentenced to six months in
HMP Belmarsh for climbing a gantry over the M24 to hang a

No place in a peaceful democracy
For peaceful protest, disruptive dissent
& Jan hanging a banner on a gantry.

Radical demurring, recusancy,
Outspokenness, complaint, argument:
No place in a peaceful democracy,

Certainly not a busy motorway—
Where cars career in daily sacrament—
Brought to a standstill by a bannered gantry;

Just as, historically, Winstanley,
John Lilburne, Robin Hood, Samuel Bamford,
Had no place in peaceful democracy,

Nor Levellers, Diggers, Chartists, tree-
Hugging green men, Suffragettes, rent-
Strikers, Unions, & Jan on a gantry

(Just who scooped the protest from Protestant?)—

Heroes of our hard-won rights & liberties
Without whom we’d have no enfranchisement
Nor, in fact, meaningful democracy,
But banners urging OBEY from gantries.

Alan Morrison

A Blakean Radical: R.I.P. Niall McDevitt, poet  22 February 1967-29 September 2022
Tuesday, 11 October 2022 21:44

A Blakean Radical: R.I.P. Niall McDevitt, poet 22 February 1967-29 September 2022

Published in Poetry

Almost incomprehensibly, radical poet, psychogeographer, poetry historian, activist, visionary and devout Blakean, Niall McDevitt, passed away on Thursday 29 September 2022 at just 55 years of age.

I had the privilege to have met Niall on several occasions over the years, I always invited him to read at any book launches or readings I did in London, a city whose rich literary and artistic history he came to be an expert on and something of a psychical curator through his legendary literary walks. Niall was also an indefatigable campaigner for the preservation of literary sites, including the Rimbaud/Verlaine House at 8 Royal College Street, and the Bunhill Fields graves of Blake and Daniel Defoe.

A self-described flaneur, anarchist, and republican, Niall was unafraid of ruffling feathered nests and throwing down gauntlets before establishments of all kinds. His poetry was richly figurative, deeply polemical; it had Symbolist aspects, and often incorporated pidgin, portmanteaus (‘luxembourgeois’, one of my favourites) and linguistic experimentation reminiscent of such diverse poets as Arthur Rimbaud, DH Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, ee cummings, and Allen Ginsberg.

Niall managed in his poetry to merge the historical and contemporary in an almost mystical, shamanic alchemy. This mystical aspect was Niall's own particular Blakean spark, his having been a lifelong admirer, champion and, one might almost say, poet-apostle of Blake, grasping the immanence and sempiternal qualities of his timeless poetry.

There was something mediumistic about how Niall spoke and wrote about Blake, almost as if he actually, somehow, knew him personally, or at least on a spiritual plane. When I mentioned to him in an email of my move from Brighton to Bognor Regis in 2016, he wrote 'you'll be nearer to Blake now', referring to Blake’s Cottage in nearby Felpham. That was the setting of my penultimate encounter with Niall for his talk and reading during the 2018 Blakefest.

Where I felt a commonality was in our serendipitous dovetailing on themes such as the impecuniousness of poetic occupation and unemployment—his poems ‘Ode to the Dole’ and ‘George Orwell Is Following Me’ (which he performed to the accompaniment of his drum) were staples of his repertoire. Our approaches were very different, but our sentiments chimed. There were sometimes vocabular crossovers in our verses—terms like ‘thaumaturge’, ‘colportage’, ‘grimoire’, ‘tetragrammaton’, ‘euergetism'—almost like poetic telepathies.

Niall’s self-described ‘anti-Tory poetry collection’ and testament to the early austerity years, Porterloo (International Times, 2012), was a satirical masterwork, which I reviewed in detail in 2014 in a three-part monograph on The Recusant titled ‘Illusion & Austerity’. I made sure to include Niall in all three Caparison anti-austerity anthologies: Emergency Verse (2011), The Robin Hood Book (2012) and The Brown Envelope Book (2021). I recall, too, after wrapping up the launch of Emergency Verse at the National Poetry Library in early 2011, Niall spontaneously presenting me with a Blake print in recognition for having put the anthology together.

The last time I saw Niall was at Bognor Blakefest in 2019—it was fairly fleeting, as on most other occasions, an affectionate half-hug or light part on one another's shoulders, and polite exchange of words. A softly spoken Irishman, there was something unassuming about him when one spoke to him up close, which seemed in contrast to his always impressive performance persona.

Niall was a poet who really did live poetry, not only through his prolific readings and performances, but also through the posthumous poetries of those he most admired and championed: Blake, Swedenborg, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Swinburne, W.B. Yeats, David Gascoyne, John Ashbery. Niall was also a champion of close poet-compatriots Heathcote Williams, Michael Horovitz, and Jeremy Reed.

It’s heartening to reflect on the wide and diverse dissemination of Niall’s poetry through numerous imprints and auspices: Waterloo Press (for his debut collection b/w), the aforementioned International Times, the avant garde New River Press (Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage) and Ragged Lion Press (Free Poetry Series #1. Albion), the prestigious Blackwell’s Poetry series (No. 1), articles and poems in the Morning Star, The London Magazine, and many other journals, even History Today (a fascinating scholarly piece on Blake and Thomas Paine), and his engrossing blogsite Poetopography. In many ways dissemination via pamphlet was fitting for Niall’s spirit of colportage, as well as suiting his innate anti-establishment and anarchist sensibilities.

Niall had a prodigious track record of radio appearances, video documentaries (a significant archive on Youtube), and street theatre—having performed alongside such luminaries as Ken Campbell, Michael Horovitz, Iain Sinclair and Yoko Ono. Had the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia (1977-80)—of which his late associate Heathcote Williams had been Ambassador—retained its sovereignty into Niall’s time in London, he would undoubtedly have been its poet laureate.

There were aspects of the poète maudit to Niall but his gregarious Muse kept him at the centre of a community of poets, writers and artists. Niall's trademark chalk-striped suits always seemed a sartorially ironic anti-complement to his demonstrable bohemianism but then they were often combined with gold-coloured trainers.

An irreplaceable presence in contemporary literary culture, Niall’s spirit will live on through his exceptional poetry, his prodigious contribution to a countercultural poetry narrative, and in the certainty that there will be many of us who will wish to ensure his legacy is kept alive just as he helped keep alive the posthumous reputations of so many past poets and writers.

Niall is survived by his mother Frances, his brother Roddy, his sister Yvonne, his partner Julie, and her son Heathcote.

Alan Morrison

Niall McDevitt’s new and final collection, London Nation, is now available from New River Press (

This obituary has previously appeared on The Recusant, and in the Morning Star 11 Oct 2022.




The Proletarianization Of The Bourgeoisie

By Niall McDevitt

Regularly, in the newspeak of the class-ridden state,
we’re informed of an all-encompassing sociological theory:
‘The Bourgeoisification of the Proletariat’
i.e. how the galley-slaves these days are happy as Larry,
weighed down with swag, Marx-free, nay, at long last
‘indistinguishable’ from their middle-class betters
and how all we have to worry about’s the underclass
of crims, sluts, schizos, beggars, junkies, poets etc.

Yet all I see’s the proletarianization of the bourgeois,
media-brainwashed and work-programmed boot-licks
into computer games, suntans, tracksuits, soap operas,
office parties with strippergrams, cakes like chocolate dicks.
Codes of etiquette are those of the ‘tough’ not the ‘toff’
and stats show they increasingly resort to violence:
headbutting, glassing, biting people’s earlobes off.
They too are being successfully schooled in the new science.


George Orwell Is Following Me

By Niall McDevitt

in the moon under water 
he’s slumped at my table with a bargain bitter
heavily disguised as a member of the proletariat

george orwell is invigilating my existence
in the bleak streets and bombsites
I feel the force of his eyes
from where he stands tall thin intent as a surveillance camera

george orwell is insidious and ubiquitous
in one of the bookshops of obfuscation
he was stocktaking on a metallic ladder
false moustache (over his own tory anarchist moustache)

orwell is always busy on the next bowl
of the public urinals
sniffing his piss-steam with scientific disgust
and debating the merits of the henry millers

the most remarkable people turn out to be orwells
I threw a couple of twopenny coins
to an old etonian in a cardboard box
who said: ‘what do you do in this shithole with five pence?’

at night when I’ve made it to my safehouse
again the whirring of lenses
and he’s standing over my bed with a birch
keeping me awake (i.e. protecting me from sleep)

george orwell is following me 
in the wetherspoons boozer
he’s slumped at my table with a bargain bitter
heavily disguised as a member of the underclass
Both poems are from Niall's debut poetry collection b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010). 
'Borrowed Rainbows' and 'Tobacco Wrappers': two new poems by Alan Morrison
Monday, 10 October 2022 19:34

'Borrowed Rainbows' and 'Tobacco Wrappers': two new poems by Alan Morrison

Published in Poetry

Borrowed Rainbows

For Niall McDevitt (above), poet and republican
22/02/1967 - 29/09/2022

The day Elizabeth Windsor passed
A double rainbow was visible
Arcing over Buckingham Palace—
Supposedly a benevolent omen
Of transformation, fresh beginnings,
Good things—Royal mourners
Gasped at such celestial symbolism
For the late Queen's heavenly ascent
To flights of angels singing her to her rest,
& down here, a smooth succession
Of a new King & a third Carolean
Age—but it all depends on points
Of view, personal hopes & opinions,
As to how the double rainbow
Could be symbolic: to a growing
Number it symbolised more the budding
Promise of monarchy's enduring end
& the sleepy hope of a ripe republic...

But now is not the time to speak
Of republics—to do so is tantamount
To traitorousness, sedition, & other
Unspeakable transgressions; one
Republican protestor is one too
Many—a placard reading ABOLISH
THE MONARCHY elicits arrest;
Another protestor cornered & warned
By bobbies not to write anything on
His blank placard, hardly a placard,
Just one square empty space of card
But in propinquity to Buckingham
Palace, enough proof of treason in
The book of Babian of the Yard,
Sufficient grounds for a bruising,
Swift prosecution & sentencing—so
Christopher Robin goes down with Alice...

A double rainbow bruising over
Buckingham Palace minutes before
Elizabeth Windsor passed
Was miraculously symbolic
& enough to mint a new taboo...

May flights of angels sing her to...

Rainbow O Rainborowe O borrowed
Rainbows O borrowed tomorrows O

Now is not the time to be a republican,
Now is not the time to speak of a republic,
Now is only time to join the queue...


Tobacco wrappers

& spectacle
tradition's anointed mystique
none can fight its
spiritual fists
divine right's
unquestioning monarchists

could we replace it
with whispered republics
in tobacco wrappers

handed clappers
bowing & scraping
endlessly queueing
to bow & curtsy
& cross themselves
at the catafalque
as if at a holy
or paying respects
to a departed saint
divine being

not citizens
but subjects

so we defer
& defer
& defer
the future
put the past first
history on catch up
perpetual repeat

time is ripe
for pipes & plots
& micro-republics
discreetly sealed
in tobacco wrappers

Friday, 19 August 2022 09:30


Published in Poetry


by Alan Morrison, with image by Martin Gollan

Let the bodies pile high!
Let the bottles pile high!
Now Boris hobbles off
With his Golden goodbye—

He's off to get his biog
On Shakespeare ghost-written
By Noggin the Nog,
Old Hamlet, & a kitten...

Let the bodies pile high!
Let the bottles pile high!
I'll be leaving soon
With my head held high

& so he will have to
As he wades neck-deep
Through the excrement
Of his legacy—

So he sloshes from office
To eye-watering offers
For after-dinner speeches,
& six-figure columns,

His hotly tipped memoirs
Already commanding
Advances of a million—
It seems remembering

Can be Boris's thing
If the price is right—otherwise
He forgets, or misremembers,
Or believes his own lies

Or has others believe them:
His fibs over Brexit,
& levelling up—
Porkies from the greased piglet;

O Boris's future
Is Golden for sure—
For his whole life's been Golden:
Raised for sinecure,

Through Eton, & Balliol,
& Bullingdon Club–-
Born with a runcible
Spoon in his gob—

Insubordinate, yobbish,
Boisterous, snobbish,
Blond mop of sophism,
Bluster & boosterism,

Kingpin of cronyism,
Sexism, narcissism,
Tsar of casual racism—
Letterbox & watermelon

Trumpety-trumps into orbit
To pen his political obit
(Though he's already planning
A comeback before going),

Hyperbolic cherrypick,
Pecksniffian panegyric—
Peter Piper Picked a Peck
Of Pickled Pepper lyric...

O the future is Golden for Boris,
But not, alas, poor Yorick—
That is, the scoured skull of Us:
His used-up soft-soaped put upon pot-&-pan-
banging hand-clapping bowl-scraping Public...

Jubilee Bunting
Sunday, 05 June 2022 22:18

Jubilee Bunting

Published in Poetry

Jubilee Bunting

by Alan Morrison

No more hoarding tissues, toilet paper, wipes,
Now the nation's bingeing on jubilee bunting,
Festoons of little triangles, red, blue, white,
Or streams of miniature Union Jacks hatching
Out on every street, like riotous blooms,
Or giant Jacks hanging as banners haranguing
From every angle, draped butcher's aprons
Bruised and bloodied hectoring from dowdy
Charity shop windows, and angry England flags
Still arguing with the wind, gammon-red crosses
On milk-white grounding—post-pandemic
In the midst of economic meltdown
All must stop to worship our Sovereign's
Longevity, for the umpteenth time, though this
Is the first time any English Monarch
Has reigned long enough to celebrate
Their Platinum Jubilee—and who more
Appropriate to be prime minister at this
Patriotic time than ebullient buffoon
Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, blond John Bullingdon,
Blimpish champion of imperial measurements,
Rambunctious stumbler booed as he stoops
Into St Paul's for the service in honour
Of the absent Queen, his distant cousin—
She'll never retire, and he'll never resign,
And we Plebs will never be granted a plebiscite
On whether to abolish the Monarchy
But we wobbly blancmanges would most probably
Vote to keep it anyway—so we Subjects,
The invertebrate, servile, deferential Public,
Celebrate that which politically castrates us,
And never God help us become a Republic
Because choicest historians always reminds us
What a damned embarrassment Cromwellians were
In all their un-English austereness and hatred
Of Christmas, those pudding-cropped Puritans,
That warty Protector and his contumely—
Better to stick to crown, throne and sceptre,
The ermined Devil we know, the Purple Line,
Keep stringing out the bunting, buns and tea
For obsessional processionals, silver, pearl, ruby,
Golden, diamond, platinum, blancmange and jelly,
For each ever more incomprehensible jubilee...

Chip Shop & Battlefield - An Obituary of Socialist Poet and Mental Health Activist David Kessel (10th April 1947 – 8th March 2022)
Sunday, 10 April 2022 15:06

Chip Shop & Battlefield - An Obituary of Socialist Poet and Mental Health Activist David Kessel (10th April 1947 – 8th March 2022)

Published in Poetry

It is with deep sadness that I write of the death of lifelong poet, mental health activist, and dear friend, David Kessel, who passed away on 8th March, aged 74. 

I feel privileged to have known David, a deeply compassionate man, and greatly gifted poet, whose sheer humility was an example to us all in the poetry community. David was much loved, as was evidenced in a 2012 anthology of poems, Ravaged Wonderful Earth – A Collection for David Kessel, produced by Outsider Poets and Friends of East End Loonies (F.E.E.L.), two groups of which David was a prominent and—up until this time—active member. Indeed, he had penned a number of radical and thought-provoking pocket polemics on mental health and psychiatry which he used to distribute as small leaflets, often inserted in the folds of his spidery handwritten letters. These often read like speculative manifestoes.

The paranoid schizophrenia from which David suffered all his adult life, and for which he was heavily medicated (his speech became increasingly slurred as a result), never dimmed his empathic humanitarianism nor his ruminative mind which often expressed itself in aphorism. One that springs to mind is ‘Schizophrenia could be a diabetes of the mind’. David also strongly identified with the poets of both world wars, because he was a poet pitted in his own psychical war; for these reasons, and in terms of his poetic style, David most closely recalled Ivor Gurney. For example, David’s ‘Listening to the soft rain on the leaves/ I hear the decency and realism/ of friends’ humour’ has a similar cadence and comradely sentiment as Gurney’s ‘Who for his hours of life had chattered through/ Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent’.

But David also had similarities with Isaac Rosenberg: while Rosenberg was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant who settled in London’s East End, David was the grandson of a tailor of German-Jewish ancestry (‘kessel’ is German for ‘kettle’) who emigrated from South Africa to North London. By bizarre contrast his distaff grandfather had been a ‘Blackshirt’ and poet. Indeed, David was open to the possibility that such a stark clash of ancestral qualities could have played some part in his schizophrenia. This poses an intriguing genetic theory on the illness, and David was ever the self-analyst (as in his essay The Utopianism of the Schizophrenic). His mother, an Irish Catholic and Communist, presumably had some influence on David’s politics and poetics.

I first met David when I was at Survivors’ Poetry in 2004 working as mentoring coordinator and editor of the Survivors’ imprint and magazine. He was sat outside the Diorama Arts Centre rolling a cigarette with liquorice papers, his gentle brown eyes gazing from under a beanie hat atop a stooped frame in crumpled wax jacket, immediately disarming. While sifting through books sent in for review, I’d come upon his hefty chapbook, The Ivy – Collected Poems 1970-1994 (Aldgate Press, 1989), with its inside quotes from Edith Södergran and Christopher Caudwell and introduction by Arthur Clegg with its emphasis on David as a ‘poet of compassion’. That he certainly was. I was immediately taken by his work—lyrical, elegiac, visionary, but also gritty, angry, visceral and sometimes shocking—and strongly identified with its themes of poverty, socialism and mental suffering, as well as its literary references (Lilburne, Winstanley, Emily Brontë, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert ‘Tressel’ (sic), Keith Douglas, Drummond Allison) often cropping up in poem titles, and quotes (Wilfred Owen: ‘Poetry is a savage war’ – as well as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim: ‘In the destructive element immerse’), so much of which chimed with my own sympathies. I felt I’d not only found a poet more than deserving of being published through the Survivors’ Press imprint, but also, on a personal level, a poet-soulmate. Suffice it to say, David’s poetry has had more influence on my own than any other poet I have known personally. Whenever, over the years, I’ve visited London to do poetry readings, I always invited David to read alongside me; I regarded him as a spiritual fixture to any events I was involved with. He’d also invited me to read on occasions, once, memorably, at Toynbee Hall for a celebration of the legacy of the International Brigades. But when I last launched a book in London, at Housmans Bookshop, Kings Cross, in 2017, David had sadly been too ill to get to it.

What I most admired about David’s poetry was its aphorismic quality, its eye and ear for the striking line or phrase, too many to quote (though one of my favourites is: ‘I fear this mountain I must climb/ More than I fear fascism in a loved-one’s eyes’), and that’s from a fairly modest output of around 70 or so poems—but in these senses David’s oeuvre is an archetypal testament to quality over quantity: he wrote what he felt had to be written, no more, no less, though inescapably his illness and heavy medicating took their toll on his productivity (as they did on his physical health), as it had other schizophrenic poets before him, such as Nicholas Lafitte, and David’s friend Howard Mingham (1952-84), whom he’d first met at Ken Worpole’s Centreprise Hackney Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970s, and whose poems, devotedly kept for years by David, we published through my small imprint Caparison, which included Forewords from both David and Ken.

David was an indefatigable champion of Howard’s work, to an almost apostolic extent. (Howard had died at just 32 apparently after having fallen from the top of a tower block in the Cambridge Heath Road area of East London). David believed implicitly that Howard was one of the most important poets of the twentieth century and would often rank his name alongside the likes of Charles Sorley, Drummond Allison, Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas. Regarding Douglas, I’ll never forget when David showed me a spine-cracked edition of his Collected Poems, replete with brittle mauve-and-nicotined dust-jacket, intricately inscribed with cramped notes framing each poem, when I visited him at his sheltered accommodation in Whitechapel. I also have enduring memories of David ruminating over vegetable curry in one of the many loud and bustling Bengali restaurants he habitually frequented. In his later years he was re-sheltered at Sue Starkey House in Stepney.

I wrote at length on David’s poetry in a critical piece, ‘Storming Heaven in a Book’, which served as Foreword to his Collected Poems – O the Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken, which I selected, edited and designed, and which became a Survivors’ Poetry bestseller; I can remember at its launch at The Poetry Café in 2006, following David’s recitations—which he howled from his soul and whole being—how almost everyone present queued up to buy their signed copies of the book. That striking title was my choice from a phrase in one of David’s poems but I recall it took me some time to convince him to go with it as he felt it sounded incendiary, though the concept was peaceful enough: to free the books and let them spill into the streets. A selection from this volume was later published in a bilingual German-English volume, Außenseitergedichte (Verlag Edition AV, 2007).

Most of the poems he wrote since publication of his Collected I have over the years published on The Recusant. I have kept all the correspondence he sent me over eighteen years. One of my most treasured possessions is a tattered white and teal first edition of George Thomson’s pamphlet Marxism and Poetry that David gave me some years ago (hugely generous in spirit, he had a tendency to give away books to friends). David’s bibliography stretches back to the late Seventies, some of his poems having previously appeared in some ground breaking anthologies of radical socialist poetry: Bricklight – Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (Pluto Press, 1980),Where There's Smoke (Hackney Writers’ Workshop, 1983), Outsider Poems, Under the Asylum Tree and Orphans of Albion (both Survivors’ Press). Some of David’s poems were also put to music by the EMFEB Symphony Orchestra in Owen Bourne’s score Hackney Chambers.

I have known very few people in my life who have truly deserved the epithets ‘poet’ and ‘socialist’: David was the embodiment, in all the best senses, of both those noble things.

Some poems by David Kessel

David lived in the East End of London his entire adult life, and many of his poems reference places in that district, such as the following:

New Cross
For John Van

We build our own slums. The wind
through the slums blows on the highest
hills. We are all slowly dying
of cold and loneliness, no fags,
no fruit juice, and neighbours with veg stew
and cups of tea. We live with uncertainty,
our giros and our dreams. Yet our aggression
is our frustrated love. In a billion painful
ways we make the little things of love;
a dustman’s sweat, a cleaner’s arthritis,
a streetlight’s mined electricity,
a carpet-layer’s emphysema,
a desperate clerk’s angina,
a mate’s slow moaned caresses.


Some of David’s poems, as with his short essays or leaflets, read a little like a series of slightly dislocated thoughts or images, or they can be a series of declamatory statements, or a manifesto:

Poetry and Poverty
A Declaration

Poetry as witness.
All poetry is a poetry of hunger for the particular rather than the general.
The purpose of poetry is to create hope in desperate circumstances.
The poetry of the common people has been driven underground since 1660.

Poetry and otherness; the otherness of the common people.
When we cease to share, our language becomes a cipher,
the language of the despatch box and the popular press.
Towards a new lyricism we need to rediscover a deciduous
language, that of Gerrard Winstanley and Emily Brontë.

Cockney poetry is underground poetry expressed in Rock music;
downbeat, dissonant, demotic; e.g. The Clash, The Jam, The Free.
Celebration of the ordinary.
Nature of the city.
Metaphysics of poverty.
There can be no cockney power without cockney poetry.


Living his life in the East End of London, the ‘cockney’ identity was something David often referenced in his work. As a leitmotif (recurring phrase or theme), ‘cockney’ has other associations: the great Romantic poet John Keats was from a cockney background and, indeed, the term had been used as a snub of his largely self-taught poetry by a notoriously snooty critic in a Tory-supporting literary journal of his time.

In Memory of Jude

You could still marvel at the blackbird singing
above the dusk college square with sombre bells
ringing beneath May sycamores.
At bookshops bleeding with mankind and the firmament.
Fancy youths with death in their hearts
pass up and down the seductive streets
and behind thick walls make words deadly
with expectation and fear, drunk with themselves.
Only in the cold churches they struggle
to win some divine life.
The desperate vagrant is more solid:
he remembers, as yourself, the rich flinty earth,
cuckoo calling, smell of wheat in rain on a down.
Your death’s carved in stone in library windows.
Your tears angry, soulful music in a pub
by the bus-station. Beneath a bus
your sweetheart wrestles with uncertainty,
spanner in hand, her poems in her pocket.
You are the busman, bright-eyed, eager to know
your mother’s dark land. Your children’s children
may enter this city with nothing but strong
boots, good bread and hope to destroy
and create a strange people’s history.

Oxford, 1982

This poem addresses the eponymous working-class stonemason and amateur scholar of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Jude moves to Oxford (called Christminster in the novel) in an attempt to get accepted at its university to study the Classics but is rejected purely because of his social station.

Mike Mosley

There is a conspiracy against the social democracy of the British common people

Grey, calloused, forgotten at fifty,
he has given his all; his wiry heart,
his skilled locked fingers, his
chipped backbone, his broken welding
language, for this choking fag,
this dark blinding pint,
this scouring Irish lament.

Scorned, down for a bundle in bird,
forsaken by wives and the DHSS,
shy of nothing ’cept himself,
to this bare room, phlegm and loneliness
between stubborn slums and useless sirens.

Driven by fury to this back ward,
wasted, ulcered, unforgiving.

I start from here to make anew
the happiness of children playing
beneath heeding enduring gulls
in a wooded tempered land.

February 1991

It’s not clear who Mike Mosley is but I assume it was someone David knew. Whoever he is, or was, this is a sharply descriptive poem-portrait, a detailed sketch in words, which renders its subject not simply visible but almost tangible.

 Kessel cover copy

O The Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken
David Kessel – Collected Poems 1970-2006
Survivors’ Press, 2006
Edited and introduced by Alan Morrison
Cover design by Alan Morrison

Other resources:

 David Kessel

David Kessel was born at Central Middlesex Hospital, Harlesden, London, on 10th April 1947. He suffered a breakdown at 17 prior to medical school where he spent the next six years untreated. With diplomas from the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians, he went on to practise as a GP in East London until his second breakdown put a halt to his medical career with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. David subsequently spent his entire adult life battling his debilitating and harrowing condition whilst simultaneously writing and publishing beautiful and sublime poetry, and intermittent essays. He became a much-loved and admired stalwart and active member of many London-based radical arts community organisations including Hackney Writers, Outsider Poets, the Jewish Socialist Group, News from Nowhere, F.E.E.L., and Survivors’ Poetry. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten by all who knew and loved him. David is survived by a son, a grandson, brother and nephew.

A shorter version of this obituary previously appeared in the Morning Star.

The Republic of Poetry: a review of Smokestack Lightning
Tuesday, 08 February 2022 22:09

The Republic of Poetry: a review of Smokestack Lightning

Published in Poetry


Alan Morrison reviews Smokestack Lightning, edited and introduced by Andy Croft, Smokestack Books, 350 pps.

Smokestack Lightning is an anthology comprising excerpts from 199 titles published by Andy Croft’s Smokestack Books since 2004, a thumping 350 paged testament to the vitality and variety of socialist poetics, contemporary and historical, British and international. This is a formidable anthology, bringing together within the same covers radical voices of the past, present and, one might even say, future.

I must from the outset flag up that as a three time Smokestack author there are excerpts from each of my titles included herein, but it is no revelation to anyone who has read my poetry criticism over the years on The Recusant that I have long been a champion of this press, trying my best to keep up with at least a fraction of its prolific output; and my many reasons for doing so should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into this devastatingly strong gathering of varied and vital talents.  

Andy Croft’s Introduction is a compendious manifesto and recapitulates Smokestack’s core mission:

Smokestack Books was established in 2004 in protest at the dullness, narrowness and triviality of so much of the contemporary British poetry scene. Smokestack’s declared aim has always been to keep open a space for what is left of the radical poetic tradition in the twenty-first century…

…all these poets may be said to inhabit a shared seriousness, and a common preparedness to write about the circumstances in which they found themselves. 

There are many different – and sometimes competing – intellectual and political loyalties represented in these pages. But all these poets may be described as politai or citizens of the Republic of Poetry.

A ‘Republic of Poetry’ is an apt phrase to represent the metaphorical space this publication and its citizen voices inhabit, not only poets but also verse-activists—witnesses to and protagonists of major events—of their times and ours. A chronological arrangement gives the anthology some serendipitous juxtapositions which constantly surprise in stylistic and tonal contrasts.

Heinrich Heine’s ‘Caput 1’ (Germany: A Winter’s Tale, tr. John Goodby, 2005) shows why the German Romantic poet is so highly regarded for his lyricism:

It was in the glum month of November,
with days growing overcast,
and the wind tearing leaves from the trees,
when I left for Germany at last…

My song’s pure epithalamium –
better, newer! – and in my soul,
stars of the most exalted
consecration are ascending –

Andy Willoughby’s wonderfully titled ‘Out of Work with Crows’ (Tough,2004) is strikingly alliterative: ‘Hands red from sanded swarfega,/ Counting the stolen hours and wages’. David Craig’s ‘Robin’s Escape’ (The Fourth Quarter, 2005) has some arresting images:

He would not see their dandelions
In their toothed and rampant sprouting,
He would not see the linens
Stitched to the tapestry of the hawthorns.
The black cowl of the abbess loomed in the doorway
Like a hollow tree…

Equally beguiling iambic lyricism from the late Sebastian Barker in ‘What the Statue Saw’ (The Erotics of God, 2005):

I woke in a whirlwind, sweating in bed,
             senseless in safety, rubbing my eyes.
The future’s a rainbow over the dead
             clothing the statues posthumously wise.

Tom Wintringham, Marxist poet and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, is represented by his sharply descriptive poem ‘International Brigades’ (We’re Going On! The Collected Poems of Tom Wintringham, 2006), which bears comparison with Ivor Gurney and Drummond Allison:

Men are so tired, running fingers down football tables
Or the ticker-tape, or standing still,
Unemployed, hating street-corners, unable
– Earth–damned, famine-forced, worn grey with worklessness –
To remember man hood and marching, a song or a parable...
While the free men of Europe
Pile into Madrid.

This is a heart-stirring encomium to a transnational moral crusade, which seems almost quixotic in today’s climate of Brexit and xenophobia:

Forming today the third of the brigades, equipping Italians,
Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, Jugo-Slavs, Greeks,
- The names mean languages only: these are Europeans –
The staff, corduroy-trousered…

Jacques Gaucheron’s ‘Legend of the International Brigades’ (When the Metro is Free: Contemporary French counter-cultural poetry, tr. Alan Dent, 2007) takes a more declamatory lyrical tone:

O far-sighted Brigades
Come to bar the way to the spectre of war
To take on the sowers of discord
And if possible
To put out once and for all the torches of evil

Michael Povey’s ‘Weaving History’ (Sedgemoor, 2006: first of numerous Smokestack titles depicting historical conflicts of sociopolitical import) is an evocative period piece set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion:

Sick of weaving, perhaps, to keep a clothier rich:
Devout men, fearing a Papist king force-feeding them
Wine and wafer: village men, eager for pike-thrust:
The chance to cut a lace-wrapped throat…

Ellen Pethean’s dialect poem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ (Wall, 2007) recounts her working-class father taking her to a library when she was a girl: ‘He said Hen – Libraries are there fer all and readin is free.’ Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ ‘Cover-up’ (Tell It Like It Might Be, 2008) is a short striking lyric meditation on the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and Picasso’s groundbreaking depiction: ‘Draw the curtains over Guernica./ On no account remember screaming horses,/ let alone the howling mouths of children’.

Arnold Rattenbury, who worked alongside other notables including Randall Swingler and Jack Lindsay on the communist arts monthly Our Time, is represented by the lyric ‘Calendar Song’ (Various Forms of Speech, 2008), which reads like a fusion of Edward Thomas, W.H. Auden, Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas:

The apples I ate in Bedfordshire
             mocked me with red from Alamein
and yellow from sand and the sun that’s there
             and green from the wounds in Englishmen.

The leaves that tumbled on Somerset
             like parachutists from a war
brushed down my khaki battle-suit
             shaming my millions everywhere.

The big bare trees in St. James’s Park
             stretched out their arms like camouflage
and ducks came down like Sunderlands
             and kids pushed off in a landing barge.

The death of Edward Thomas is paid tribute at the beginning of Hugh Underhill’s ‘At Arras’ (Found Wanting, 2008); its final stanza depicts a poet who survived the trenches only to spend the rest of his life in the No-Man’s-Land of extreme mental illness: ‘the heartsick voice of Ivor Gurney –/ he who imagined voices and had/ every right to his sickness’. Michael Shepler’s starkly imagistic ‘Berlin, 1930’ (Dark Room Elegies, 2009) has an ominousness:

Forest of iron & lights.

The sputtering bulbs of electric stars
Flare & dim, casting a livid glow
On faces Kollwitz might have painted.

At windwracked stands headlines snarl
In Deutsch. Each word,
Rough. Black. Bestial.

& no eyes lit toward the velvet sky
Of tinselled heaven. & none hear
The creak of the cheap wings of
The poor lifting aloft;
Fresh from a pawnshop…

Gustavo Pereira’s ‘End of history’ (The Arrival of the Orchestra, tr. Michael Boňcza, 2010) forecasts that under late stage capitalism there will be ‘dresses and jewellery but not the transparency of waters/ metaphors but not poetry’. Andy Jordan’s ‘The General Election’ captures the aphorismic sensibility of his Bonehead’s Utopia (2011), it closes on the haunting: ‘And so my friend waits in the prison of his skin, marvelling/ at democracy; at what it protects, and from who’. ‘Can I say something else?’ is a two-liner from Victoria Bean’s Caught (2011) which says so much so briefly: ‘He says I wish to say a few things./ The judge says it’s usually unwise.’ Elliptical lyricism in Chris Kinsey’s ‘Flight Practice’ (Swarf, 2011):

What’s held in ignites –

Free-falling in burning fuselage

breath expires

roars fade.

A blackbird’s already singing all-clear
loud and liquid from the hazels.

Paul Summers has a penchant for working-class self-assertion in the face of middle-class condescension, as in ‘north’ (Union; New and Selected Poems, 2011):

we are more than sharply contrasting photographs
of massive ships and staithes for coal, more than
crackling films where grimy faced workers are
dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys, more
than foul mouthed men in smoky clubs or well-built
women in a wash-day chorus. we are more than
lessons in post-industrial sociology…

John Gibbens’ ‘The hill’ (Orpheus Ascending, 2012) is a charming pastoral lyric, which closes bookishly:

Against the reconvening rooks
homing below by ones and twos
to croak and wheel out one more time
before the night, tattered volumes

settling into their library,
the owl has loosed her seldom cry
over our heads, a pale banner
shaking from the kingdom coming.

Victor Jara’s poem of political witness, ‘Chile Stadium’ (His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara, tr. Joan Jara, ed. Martín Espada, 2012), makes for powerful and difficult reading, especially since Jara was tortured and murdered at the age of 40 in 1973 under Pinochet’s fascist regime:

The other four wanted
to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed look of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!

To them, blood equals medals,
Slaughter is an act of heroism.

Similarly disturbing is Martín Espada’s ‘Federico’s Ghost’ (The Meaning of the Shovel, 2014), which depicts fruit-pickers in an unspecified Latin country being sprayed with pesticides as they work whereafter they ‘thrashed like dark birds/ in a glistening white net’—this is a malicious conscious act of the pilot who is last seen ‘watching a fine gauze of poison/ drift over the brown bodies’. Pauline Plummer employs rhyming iambic pentameter effectively to convey the enervation of human worker-consumers in the West (From Here to Timbuktu, 2012):

We seem somewhat exhausted and time–poor.
We obey the gods of work and earning cash
But now we want to go where life is raw
And take a little risk, be slightly rash,
Drink palm wine and maybe smoke some hash.

We’ll see how people live at slower speeds
And question our exaggerated needs...

Kate Fox’s ‘Heirloom’ (Fox Populi, 2013) is a touching, colourfully colloquial poem about her Bradford-raised father:

‘Blood’s thicker than custom,’ he adds
in the Smiths Arms,
his hat, his Embassy Number One, his pint
subtly defying the country club gin swiggers
who’d called him a jumped-up council school nothing.

His, the smoggy Bradford
of Titus Salt and hot factory furnaces.
Mine, the sandblasted city
of David Hockney and hot aloo saags.

Mark Robinson’s ‘The Dunno Elegies IX – Teesport, Redcar’ (How I Learned to Sing, 2013) is a plangent elegy to Northern industrial decline and urban decay:

All the power that once was here changed.
Iron made a place appear overnight,
now it is rusting the water ochre.
Ore in these dark hills, a dance in the pipe-work.

The covert pastoral of Gerda Stevenson’s ‘Eden’ from If This Were Real (2013) starts out idyllically (‘cabbage white butterflies/ flickered down the lane’) but then has a faintly disturbing tonal switch at its close:

Heels and stick
click down the path,
fingernail flames rip
through leaves: ‘Get out!
Get out of my garden,
you dirty, dirty girls!’

The impassioned, prayer-like ‘In Memory of Claudia Jones’ from Footprints (2013) exemplifies Peter Blackman’s oratorical oeuvre. Richard Skinner’s ‘izba’ (the light user scheme, 2013) is an aphorismic lyric: ‘She was catching crayfish with her son when he finally understood/ that the afterlife is what we leave in others’. Rob Hindle’s ‘At the cemetry’ from his Spanish Civil War-themed collection Yoke and Arrows (2014) depicts deaths by fascist firing squads with devastating poetic precision:

When they shot Alejandro and his brother Ramón
they were looking at each other and seeing in each
the different faces of fear, one gnurled and dark,
an olive stump, one smooth and still as the moon.
When they fell, their eyes shone exactly the same.

Seminal German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’s Song’ (Mother Courage and her children, 2014) is ingeniously rendered in Scots dialect by translator Tom Leonard. An excerpt from the book-length poem on the sacrifices of the Greek Resistance, Romiosini (tr. Bill Berg, 2014), by “the great poet of the Greek left” Yiannis Ritsos, has a fairytale quality:

The troop passed by here with the flags stuck to their bodies,
with hard-bitten obstinacy between their teeth like an unripe wild pear,
with sand of the moon in their boots,
and coal-dust of the night stuck in their nostrils and ears.

…and when they danced in the square,
ceilings trembled inside the houses and glassware tinkled on the shelves.

In ‘Aphrodite on the New Economic Measures’ (Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis, ed. Dinos Siotis, tr. Angelos Sakkis, 2014) Kyriakos Charalambidis interweaves Greek mythology with punishing contemporary Troika-imposed austerity:

As for my subsidiary concerns
and the real estate portfolio
those are included in the new package
that Fate already has submitted at Olympus…

As you can see, gentlemen,
I am about to be unemployed, I’ll become
Aphrodite of Burdens, of the Rocks,
of Rationalization and Conservatism.

István Vas’s ‘The Colours that Day’ (Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust, tr. and ed. Thomas Ország-Land, 2014) gives disturbing first hand insight into 1940s Nazi-gripped Hungary in which, as the title suggests, colour is used to convey emotions, anxieties and symbolisms:

The soldier is tanned and blond, his car and tunic green.
His silken hound is brown and bright and cheerful.
Bound from Paris to Moscow, stranded here,
he regards our streets with mild but blatant loathing…

From the parting car, the hound still holds
our friendly guide in keen, Teutonic gaze.
The sun breaks through. Its yellow rays ignite
the identifying Yellow Stars Jews must display.

Ian Duhig’s ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (Digressions, 2014) is a dextrous and unobtrusively alliterative poem with arresting Eliotic imageries:

Vagrants’ graves stir by the Poorhouse
as midnight prayers to the God of Hosts
wind around the obelisk in Market Place,
a Cleopatra’s needle for bone-lace ghosts…

His khaki threads on the obelisk’s bobbin
could unwind now by candlelight to tell
the miles from his child’s bed to Babylon,
feet to Ozymandias, inches to the Skell.

Prolific Anglo-Australian poet, novelist and historian Jack Lindsay’s ‘Christmas Eve 1952’ (Who are the English? Selected Poems 1935–81, 2014) juxtaposes biblical imagery with modern day urban privations:

And still the new life cries in darkness, still
The masters hoard their sweated pence,
And then the abject terrors strike again
To massacre the innocents.

The dawn moves ever westward, flowing past
The lines of the dividing maps.
It slides through every window of man, and wakes
The heart upon whose pane it taps.

In vain are bolts and bars against this light,
The cry of life renewed
Breaks the old stones, and men uniting stand
Against all Herod’s brood.

Goran Simić’s ‘What I saw’ (New and Selected Sorrows, 2015) is defiantly humorous and ironic in its depiction of corpses in a war zone:

I saw that human feet shrink two sizes when a
person dies. On the streets of Sarajevo you could
see so many shoes in pools of blood. Every time
I went out I tied my shoelaces so tight my feet
turned blue…

…it would be a shame if they carried
me to a mortuary and found dirty underclothes
on me. Better to go to a blue sky with blue feet
than with no shoes.

Clare Saponia’s ‘On a roll’ (The Oranges of Revolution, 2015) is a deft sample of her aphorismic polemical style. John Tait’s ‘Big Meeting’ (Barearse Boy, 2015) is a wry vignette on the mid-Eighties Miners’ Strike:

Packed into the hall with red lodge banner
loud jabbering voices of angry conversations, confusion,
screeching chairs, men in black donkey jackets
with orange back panels
smoke drifting and clinging in yellow, grey and brown clouds
we’d seen the scabs bussed into the pit
with mesh on the windows like Belfast
then the union man with large sideburns
brylcreemed hair and crumpled white shirt
tucked unevenly into a baggy suit
stands at the front with arms raised…

‘January Twilight’ (Talking to the Dead, 2015) is typical of the late Gordon Hodgeon’s beautifully sculpted lyricism:

Sun wants off
quitting this grey, raggedy,
old overcoat, the garden…

I retreat under my blanket,
again read Lawrence’s
impassioned plea,
a new spring

Larry Beckett’s book-length poem Paul Bunyan (2015) is a muscularly musical, rumbustious epic work with hints of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Hart Crane:

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones…

Amir Darwish’s ‘Sorry!’, subtitled ‘An apology from Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) to humanity’ (Don’t Forget the Couscous, 2015), is a powerful protesting riposte to Islamophobia:

Sorry for the guitar that was played by Moriscosin Spain
To ease their pain when they were kicked out of their homes.
Sorry for the hookah as you sip on its lips
And gaze into the moon hearing the Arabian Nay…
Sorry for painting Grenada white to evade social hierarchy.
Sorry for the stories in The Arabian Nights…

Bob Beagrie’s Anglo-Saxon dialect verse from Leásungspell (2016), represented by the poem ‘Hwenne Otha’, demonstrates strikingly—along with Steve Ely’s Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englaland (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017)—how Smokestack isn’t afraid to publish philologically challenging work.

There’s a breathtaking excerpt from Andy Willoughby’s superlative book-length Between Stations (2016):

industrialists funded temperance and Methodist churches
on our expanding ferric frontier to keep the workers sober,
washed and so called civilised for the rigours of the daily grind.
Hungry Irish held onto Catholicism to suffer beautifully in,
left redemption urges in the weave and weft of my words,
left echoes of a rapidly ageing moral world in my time line…

‘Chet Baker in Bologna’ represents Bernard Saint’s excellent time-shifting Marcus Aurelius-themed satirical Roma (2016). Roque Dalton’s witty ‘On Headaches’ (Looking for Trouble: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, tr. Michal Boñcza, 2016) speaks of the ‘historical’ ‘headache of communists’ but that ultimately ‘Communism will be … / an aspirin the size of the sun’.

Ruth Valentine’s ‘The Undertaker’s Song’ (Downpour, 2010) commemorates the Indian ‘garment workers’ who were crushed in a dilapidated building in which they laboured. Valerio Magrelli’s ‘Child Labour’ translated by Jamie McKendrick (The Long White Thread of Words: Poems for John Berger, 2016) coins the wonderful phrase ‘sun of utterance’ for the sound of an impoverished child reading aloud ‘writhing letters’ for the first time.

The experimental Belgian avant-garde poet Paul van Ostaijen is represented by the ‘Zeppelin’ page of his typographically groundbreaking book-length concrete poem Occupied City (tr. David Colmer). ‘Galgalla’ is one of the many narrative-stitched lyrical poems from Michael Crowley’s historically fascinating First Fleet (2016). Nancy Charley’s almost Hughesian-Plathian ‘Ancient Miners’ (Little Blue Hut, 2017), with its clever pun on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is particularly effective in juxtaposing miners with crows or cormorants:

Black as the coal which mined their lives,
Black as the dust which lined their lungs,
Black as the night which filled their days,
Black plumage, legs, feet, beaks and eyes.

Scruffily clad in workaday rags
but iridescent as sea glitter.
Restless, they scan the estuary
for barges carrying Black wealth…

Condemned to caw when once they choired,
haunted by caged and cavernous dreams:
floods of faces, bared gleaming teeth,
laid out props, bleak Black screams.

Steve Ely’s ‘Down by the River with Paul and Clara’ (Incendium Amoris, 2017) begins with a beautiful quatrain buoyant with assonance and consonance:

Dripping June. Under Clara’s umbrella,
lit by sou’wester and bright yellow raincoat,
unbuttoned in boudoir of wilting bluebells
and engorged rhododendrons.

‘Cable Street’ is just one of a book’s worth of strikingly lyrical political poems from Ian Parks’ Citizens (2017—another of my favourite Smokestack covers: A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stone by AW Bayes):

And this, my friend, is Cable Street.
Not much to look at I confess.

But this is where we took a final smoke
before we went to beat the Blackshirts down;
and this is where we drank a tepid pint
before we went to stop them in their tracks…

S.J. Litherland’s ‘Looking Glass Street’ (Composition in White, 2017) is a striking aphorismic depiction of Zurich’s political and artistic avant-garde anticipating the imminent Russian revolution:

Across the street at No 6 close by, the Bolsheviks
deepened their plans & Lenin at his desk was at work,

accompanied by our siren songs, the purposeless
fundamental world of laughter, beauty and atoms.

We burnt our boats in a bonfire of the vanities,
no rules allowed. Our ridiculous hats, our quixotic gestures,

lived on the same street, on the Spiegelgasse.
We opened a gallery & Lenin moved under cover

in his closed train to St Petersburg, the revolution
bursting the banks of the Neva; he was never so free,

nothing was accomplished and nothing marred,
our songs were in his back pocket like bombs.

Aptly it’s followed by an excerpt from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s epic work Lenin (tr. Dorian Rottenberg, 2017), first published in 1924, the year of Lenin’s death—this excerpt is particularly fascinating as it anticipates the posthumous marmorealization of the inaugural Soviet head of state:

I fear
these eulogies line upon line like a boy
fears falsehood and delusion.
They’ll rig up an aura round any head:…
I abhor it,
that such a halo
should hide
Lenin’s real, huge,
human forehead.
I’m anxious lest rituals,
and processions,
the honeyed incense
of homage and publicity
Lenin’s essential
I shudder…
lest Lenin
be falsified
by tinsel beauty…

Phina Shinebourne’s ‘Flag’ (Pike in a Carp Pond, 2017) commemorates a communist mother:

…tucked in the attic
with her fur coat, assorted gloves,
and posters of Rosa Luxemburg
snuggled in the folds of a red flag.
(Always ready for the demonstration,
she’d say)…
as my fingers roll out the wrinkled flag.

Francis Combes’ ‘The Usefulness of Poetry’ (If the Symptoms Persist, tr. Alan Dent, 2018) makes a profound point, I excerpt it in full:

A young beggar seen in the metro
had written these words
on a piece of cardboard hung round his neck;

‘As the burning forest
shouts towards the river’s water
I appeal to you:
Please give me
something to eat.’

And it seems
People were giving.
(Which would tend to point to
the usefulness of poetry
in our societies.)

Combes’ aphorismic lyricism would seem a template for Michael Rosen’s succinct polemical pieces, as in his ‘For Jeremy Corbyn’ (Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, 2017), which mocks the ancient Establishment’s notions of socialism’s outdatedness. Peter Raynard’s ‘Scholarship boys’ (Precarious, 2018) makes its polemical point in an amusing way:

Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis
spouting opportunity
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.

Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.

By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way round.

Replete with a striking Kes-like cover image later used for the now ubiquitous Shuggie Bain, Stephen Sawyer’s wonderfully titled There Will Be No Miracles Here (2018) is an outstanding collection of poems on a working-class upbringing in a Northern mining town, here represented by ‘The Iron Woman’:

Waiting for the phone to ring in the Miner’s Welfare –
the men told last moment of the night’s mass-picket:
pressed against the roof as we swerved past haulage yards,
treatment plants, the anthracite air leaking darkness…

Orchestras, chapel choirs, dance nights at the Greystones.
Her husband’s lungs ripping themselves inside-out
on summer nights. Elvis in the Closed Shop taproom…

Sawyer’s memories of his activist mother are beautifully wrought:

…She’s as live to me as the guilt
I feel for trying to escape – not the people – the mining life,
through the promise-lie of education, to stumble upon myself
in a stranger on Collegiate Crescent, speaking a language
that wasn’t my own… She carries me home:

coal and a chicken in our handlebar basket. I carry her
in coffee spoons, sleeplessness, a love of nocturnal beasts
that run against the odds. I see her in the childhood of stars,
a spinal canal of grassed-over spoils, words I mine.

Cycling past the pithead baths the miners built themselves…
…the listed Victorian colliery offices
and clock tower…

This is poetry as social document which in many respects echoes Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. On the subject of Smokestack covers, that of French surrealist poet Louis Aragon’s Les Chambres (tr. John Manson, 2018), the pale greens and blues of Louis Aragon at Else Triolet 1955 by Boris Taslitzky has to be one of my favourites. That bilingual book-length poem is represented here by a luxuriously lyrical, rangy passage:

The mirror which looks at me and grieves
He reads on me the story of the years
This deaf alphabet that a solar time tattoos on the forehead of the ill-natured man
The grey mirror makes my story out alone
In the gnarled secrets of my veins
He would have enough to say having read how the holes grow hollow in my flesh
The grey mirror has a deal of trouble in remembering…
I am only a detail of the room for him only a tear on his face
Heavy heavy tear elongated to fall slowly plumb from the eye as usual

Martin Hayes’ hilarious ‘beano’ from Roar! (2018) is an example of his prolific poem-polemics on the punishing nature of contemporary employment:

the mechanics outdid even themselves
on their latest beano down to Southend
with Scott not even making it there
detained at Loughton services
for pissing in a rubber plant next to the Cashino one armed bandits
and then Craig
falling off the pier as soon as he got there

Hayes rewards us at the end with a killer punchline: ‘nothing though/ that a day out at the seaside/ couldn’t put right’. Political cartoonist Martin Rowson has a line in humorous satirical verse, as exemplified here in ‘Angleterre Profonde’ from the hilariously titled Pastrami Faced Racist and Other Verses (2018):

I dived into Deep England,
Rural as a dying hare,
Where centuries of history
Lurks in a broken chair.
I dived down to Deep England,
Rustic as a lichened tomb
But not for them’s were driven out
And then chained to a loom.
I dived down to Deep England
Owned by classes who won’t budge
But accordingly Arcadian
When flogging bags of fudge.

In Ross Wilson’s witty ‘Ex-Factory Toun’ (Line Drawing, 2018) someone called ‘Boab’ from Kirkcaldy has just watched a Cambridge lecture on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on Youtube and mentions in passing that Smith was from his home town; the poem then paints a contemporary street scene of Kirkcaldy:

Boab had thought a visitor
could be forgiven for thinking
Kirkcaldy was called Toilet.

TO LET signs jutted over
shut shops all around him.
Under one,

the bollard of a beggar
was avoided by a man
on his way to the Jobcentre,

a Jobseeker’s Allowance booklet
stuffed into his back pocket
like an empty wallet;

the image of it clear as old photos
Boab had seen of the town’s
linoleum and linen factories…

Reja-e Busailah’s ‘Remembering After Forty Years in the Wilderness’ (Poems of a Palestnian Boyhood, 2019) is a powerful poem-parable of slaughtered innocents. Similarly powerful, in clean-cut, direct language, is an excerpt from David Cain’s Truth Street: a Hillsborough poem (2019). Peter Donnelly’s ‘Die Traum’ makes an important point about the black hole that is money (Money is a Kind of Poetry, 2019).

The title poem from Deborah Moffatt’s (Eating Thistles, 2019) is as its title suggests a nettly polemic, presumably on Brexit:

We slept on stone, bathed in snow,
made combs from thorns, clothes from nettles…

Maddened by power, powered by madness,
they closed their borders, then turned against their own.

Better to sleep on stone, however hard,
better to eat thistles, though we choke,

better our frozen silence than their fiery rhetoric,
better thorns and nettles than pomp and glory…

Bob Beagrie’s ‘Enemies of the People’ from his English Civil War-themed Civil Insolvencies (2019) is another anti-Brexit poem-polemic which closes on the ironic image of ‘Cnut’s wet socks and the incoming tide’. Ben Thompson’s ‘Litakovo’ (White Tulip, 2019—which has another striking cover image, Paul Klee’s Vor dem Schnee (1929), reminiscent of John Varley Jr.’s for Thought-Forms, A. Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, 1905) memorialises his uncle Frank’s execution as a captured fighter with the Bulgarian partisans in 1944:

Here, no-one comes, no flowers fade,
Time gathers dust over a soldier’s grave,
I stand within the shadows
Knowing you are close
And are as well as I am when I sleep
Knowing no more than you do when I’ll wake.

Soviet poet Alexandr Tvardovsky’s ‘On the highway to Berlin’ (Vasili Tyorkin: a book about a soldier, tr. James Womack, 2020) is a length of verses depicting the Russian ‘liberation’ of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and in some of its stark images it brings to mind Carl Foreman’s gritty 1963 film The Victors:

All along the eternal highway,
ash in clouds like feathers flies.
And the rubble of the cities
smells like burning mattresses.

Jo Colley’s ‘Burgess in Bolshaya Pirogovskaya’ (Sleeper, 2019) is an exquisitely written vignette:

Flatulence follows you to the Moscow flat,
its four square walls.
…throwing up
is normal, part of the order of the day,
although the blood is troubling.

Gone, the boy who ran naked through
Granchester Meadows, swam in the Cam,
compact body pink with privilege. Now
you stagger slant through Gorky Park…

Laura Fusco’s ‘Refugees are survivor’ (Liminal, tr. Caroline Maldonado, 2020) closes on arresting juxtapositions of images:

In the empty courtyard a young pregnant Pakistani stays behind
and a child playing with her hair, pulling it towards him
so as not to fall down,
while the slip of a half-moon
appears between MacDonalds the skyscrapers
and the almond tree.

Nicolas Calas’ ‘Spartans 1940’ (Oedipus is Innocent: Selected Poems, ed. & tr. Lena Hoff, 2020) is a sharp piece of lyrical shrapnel:

Lovers of the Fuhrer
Locked up in iron brothels
Air conditioned with fear
We made you gigolos of death
Paris Place Clichy recognises you
And cries

New York 1940

Anna Greki’s ‘July 1962’ (The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems, tr. Cristina Viti & Souheila Haїmiche, 2020), on the Algerian struggle for independence, in which she took part as an active communist resistor, begins beguilingly: ‘It springs up fully grown from its own mouth/ This love strong & vibrant as the scorching air’. Rob Francis’ ‘Burning Tongues’ (Subsidence, 2020) is a bravura slice of Brummagem commenting on the accent and nature of Birmingham people:

We ay from brumajum
weem in the borderless
pits – black be day
red be night. Where baby
rhymes with Rabbie – that old
bard who kept the burn
in his tongue.
That burn connects, it burns
like our old forges burned –
burning trade and toil and song
and burning a brand
that yow know and yow know –
burns like Saxon shamans
who’s embers were stamped
and pissed on by ministers…
in borderless pits, ready,
with Blakean bows, to fight
shot to shot – to burn back
with our vernacular…

Legendary suffragette (to the left of mother Emmeline and sister Christabel) and little-known poet Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘For Half a Year’ (Writ on Cold Slate, 2021—which includes some photographic illustrations) depicts her being sentenced to prison for protests, and in spite of somewhat antiquated language, has a vitality and distinctiveness:

Oft interrupting, now he breaketh forth,
his parchment cheeks distort, his eyes spit hate,
libel on libel hurls, that hired Press scribes
may circulate for gulling simple folk,
masking what lights may glimmer forth to show
their present exploitation and his sins,
by talk of loot, loot, loot, and pillage cruel…

Pankhurst’s indignance of tone and impassioned polemicising is stirring, rhythmically propelled by her accomplished blank verse:

For him, in India, poor ryots toil,
their immemorial Communism crushed,
robbed of their produce and by famine scourged,
dying like flies whilst he exports their grain.

For him, in Britain too, the miner delves;
weavers and spinners follow ceaseless toil,
their wage by far competitors depressed…

Here, in Wealth’s citadel, old wretched dens,
for him each week provide most monstrous dues,
a blighting charge upon their tenant hordes.

This is Shelleyean (see his powerful ‘A Tale of Society as It Is: from Facts, 1811’, for comparison):

For him are children stunted, infants die;
poor mother drudges leave their wailing babes;
herself the exploited maiden cheaply sells,
to snatch youth’s pleasures, else debarred from her;
for bare indeed the pittance he accords,
to such as she who are so swift replaced.

Upon his call to war, go millions forth
prepared to die if he will give them bread.

…to cry a challenge in this Mansion House,
this pompous citadel of wealthy pride,
and make its dock a very sounding board
for the indictment of his festering sins,
that shall go ringing forth throughout the world,
and with it carry all my wit can tell
of that most glorious future, long desired,
when Communism like the morning dawns.

In stark contrast is Chawki Abdelamir’s powerful pared-down lyric, ‘In Baghdad’s National Library’ (Attempts on Death, tr. Alan Dent, 2021):

I read, blind seer
between lines of cinders
I touch the text’s carbon
like a child lightly stroking its father’s head
as death approaches

A chair from an office
skeleton with blackened limbs
gripping a still white

It sorts the index of lost titles
and the major chapters of the fire’s history
in Baghdad’s parchment

I left
In my hand, my pen
a match

Martin Edwards’ ‘Freetown’ (The Out-Islands, 2021) begins with a beautifully judged piece of scene-setting: ‘Nights when the moon was sunk without trace/ the unlit planes would ghost in low over coral/ where the sea teethed and worried the lagoon.’ Martin Rowson’s ‘Banarnia!’ (Plague Songs, 2021) is a satirical verse in limerick form, which occasionally strikes serendipitous rhymes:

Push past those mothy costumes to Banarnia,
Frost glistens on the statues every night!
Intellectual callisthenics
Disguise our lords’ eugenics
As they chomp Arbeit Mach Frei’s Turkish Delight!

(Though perhaps to better fit the meter you could put ‘ermined’ between ‘our’ and ‘lords’’ in the fourth line). Marcos Ana’s ‘My heart is a prison yard’ (Poems from Prison and Life, tr. David Duncombe, 2021) is effective in its leitmotivs (‘But the world is an enclosed yard/ (a yard paced around/ by men without space)’), and its images (‘the blue chatter of the river’). Palestinian Farid Bitar’s ‘Al-Shutat’ (Screaming Olives, ed. Naomi Foyle, 2021) is poem-as-impassioned-plea at its most searingly polemical:

I passed by the ruins of Hebron’s Gate
Where my father’s shop once was…
Why should ghettoes and death camps
Be repeated in Gaza and Jenin?
In Deir Yasin and the Khasin villages of ’47?
Why the Haganah’s ethnic cleansing
On the northern coast of Palestine?…

One day we Palestinians will return
To al-Barweh, Qatamoun,
Deir Yasin, and the Qazaza villages of ’48.
Rachel Corrie will be re-born…

The children will not have to starve in Gaza.

…No more Balfour Declarations!
No more empty UN resolutions!

Mike Crowley’s ‘Reason’ from his excellent English Civil War-themed The Battle of Heptonstall (2021) is a compendious poem:

A king that hath sent his parliament away
like a lord discharging his servants, believing
saints will cook his supper for him. He lays
with a papist plotting, with rebels turning
church into a place of coloured dolls, painted
walls and altar rails, where men kneeling
upon their own minds recite some scroll

by the Archbishop Laud…

High birth and unearned wealth shall fall.
We make our stand hereafter at Heptonstall.

Emma Jones’ ‘In Retrospect’ (The Incident, 2021) is a lyrical polemic against complacent centrism:

back then we’d have added
more clauses to Magna Carta
seen the point of the Peasants’ Revolt

we’d have stood with the Levellers in Burford
linked arms with the martyrs at Peterloo…

we’d have been the only Chartists
in the village…

we’d never have swooned into war
pro patria mori
or sat in the stalls at Olympia
praising the autobahn as we waited for Mosley

or poured over the blacklist
murmuring darkly…

these days
you’ll find us holding the middle ground

the status quo
is basically sound.

Ruth Valentine’s ‘Hostile Environment’ (If You Want Thunder, 2021) juxtaposes the plight of immigrants and refugees in Tory Britain with that of austerity-hit nationals: ‘The informers wait in shaded alleyways./ The soldiers wait tetchily at the border./ I am waiting for my landlord to evict me.’ Anna Robinson’s ‘What is History? Discuss’ (Whatsname Street, 2021) answers itself thus: ‘in the shards of clay pipes on the banks/ of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments’, ‘t’ick as a coddle and mild as milk’ and sometimes ‘a brown-tail moth’. Nick Moss’s ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ (Swear Down, 2021) is a powerful polemical poem on the plight of refugees:

An exodus impelled by abjection
to thralldom in warehouses,
building sites and homes.
True citizens of nowhere.

We build your basements
your dream kitchens,
wake from sleeping under church pews,
to mend railways
patch your roofing in the rain.

Stephen Wade’s ‘In the Library, Saturday’ (Stretch, 2021) deftly tackles contemporary prison life:

Here they come again, a steady trail of men in grey.
They come from grey boxes, wearing grey cotton.
Faces grey with being inside too long, too deep.
Is there anything here to assuage the seeping boredom?

Jim Greenhalf’s ‘VE Day and William Tyndale’ (Dummy! 2021) paints a parochial scene at a time of national celebrations where images and sense-impressions impart much of the polemic:

…dragon’s teeth bunting
celebrates VE, the day of victory.
Regatta-like loops of red, white and blue
in May morning sunshine.
From lamp post to lamp post
their vapour trail goes
along the length of the path of shades
to the chained gates of the United Reformed Church.
Outside its tall doors painted Prussian green,
I am sitting with William Tyndale,
under beeches, between river and railway.
He tells me that faith is the substance of things unseen.
A page-turning breeze sways the bunting
and brings the smell of bread and roses…

Ishaq Imruh Bakari’s ‘The Impossibility of Being Black’ (The Madman in the House, 2021) strikes many chords for the Black Lives Matter movement and the main cause for its timely and vital emergence:

thank you, George Floyd
unrestful-deadness flows abundantly
from the silence seeping
in the wailing solitude of a sorrow song
The gladiator, licks the wounds of his trophy,
sustenance held securely in the last
flutter of a chokehold, the prey speaks
with delicacy and sometimes difficulty…

The contributors’ biographies at the end of the book are the icing on the cake: they provide over thirty more pages of frequently fascinating reading including as they do so many of the past great and good of radical international political poetry.

Smokestack Lightning will take its place in the canon of socialist poetry anthologies alongside The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (ed. Alan Bold, 1970), Bricklight – Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (ed. Chris Searle, Pluto Press, 1980), Where There’s Smoke (Hackney Writers’ Workshop, 1983), Red Sky at Night: An Anthology of British Socialist Poetry (eds Andy Croft & Adrian Mitchell, Five Leaves, 2003), and Culture Matters’ many anthologies, most recently The Brown Envelope Book (2021) and The Cry of the Poor (ed. Fran Lock, 2021).

What makes Smokestack Lightning singular, however, is that its gatherting of excerpts from individual collections serves as a tantalising sampler of 199 portals into further poetries.

Smokestack Lightning is available here.

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