Tag Archives: Featured Poetry

On Performing Sean Bonney’s Poetry

When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat
It will bring out the best in you.
It is as simple as music or drunken speech.
There will be flashes of obsolete light.
You will notice the weather only when it starts to die.

Sean Bonney, Happiness, Poems After Rimbaud (London: Unkant Publishing), 2011, p. 37

I read these lines to an audience that had gathered at the Flapper in Birmingham to see the bands 40 Watt Sun, Rumour Cubes and Sun Wolf. I had been invited on tour with Rumour Cubes as my poetry features on some of their songs: 1871, Letters to Palestine (rewritten on the tour) Research and Destroy (poetry written just before the tour) and The Gove Curve.

It was our first gig and I was due on stage for the second song of the set. As I came onto the stage ready to introduce and perform The Gove Curve, Adam Stark (guitarist) said he needed more time to restring his guitar. Shortly after restringing he dropped his guitar, broke another string and needed more time. During all this there was silence.

I was closest to the mic so I decided to fill that silence with Bonney’s poem.  As I finished the first line I heard a sharp collective gasp. I continued to read. At its end there was no applause, no sound. Terry Murphy (viola) asked me nervously if I had memorised another verse. I hadn’t. After another 30 seconds Annie Rew Shaw (guest pianist for Rumour Cubes and solo artist) started playing a melody and we performed a version of Letters To Palestine.

I was  shaken by the whole experience. I remember asking Joe (bassist) for a hug. Having heard Sean read this poem many times, having performed the poem myself when introducing the post-punk band Left Leg, and after being really fired up for the whole performance I just wasn’t ready for their silence. At the end of other songs I performed with Rumour Cubes that night I felt that applause was muted, and that there was a palpable sense of hate, or at least disapproval, emanating from the crowd. These feelings were compounded by my concerns that I had ruined Rumour Cubes’ first gig of the tour. I’m writing about this now because I think this performance taught me a few things about Bonney’s poem.

Five lessons from Birmingham:

  1. No Tories in the street were harmed in the making of the poem. Any Tories in the audience were also left unharmed. Whatever judgement there is to be made about the rhetorics of violence used in the poem, the person performing it to a hostile crowd is the one left in a vulnerable position.
  2. The poem is as much about measurement as violence. The degree of hostility expressed by the audience towards the poem and its speaker is the distance between the audience and the possibility of their revolution.
  3. In the performance ‘the weather’ is the room and the people in it. As the final word of the poem dies away, you are left in a room with the people you’ve spoken to. You know something about them that you didn’t before. The violence in the poem is in them. Note the ambiguity of the word ‘it’ in the last line. It’s uncertain whether ‘it’ refers to the ‘weather’, the ‘light’ or the ‘Tory’.
  4. When I performed the poem I accidentally exchanged the first word of the poem ‘when’ for the word ‘if’, thereby softening the poem by making its violent imperatives conditional on crossing paths with a Tory. Beginning with the word ‘when’,  the poem is saying its violence is inevitable: its just a matter of time. What possible discerning feature would allow you to identify the Tory on the street so that you can cut their throat anyway? Reading Bonney’s poem then judging their reaction might be a good place to start.
  5. The word ‘throat’ is important to the meaning of the poem. Cutting the throat is an attack on language as much as it is an attack on the body. By identifying the throat as the site to be attacked  the interrelationship between the body, its politics and its language is also identified. When the audience gasped and fell into silence at the first line of the poem they physically acknowledged this to be true.

The poem singles out ‘a Tory’ for throat cutting, but this isolated violence  has to been seen in the context of the violence committed by the state. People taking their own life after being informed of cuts to their benefits (BBC), while the Government issues ‘more than 3,000 export licences for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which  are on its own official list for human rights abuses’ (The Independent), are just two examples. How can this be tolerated when a poem which simply invokes violence cannot? I’ve always taken the poem to be highly moral even in its deviation from conventional definitions of morality.

 

Letters To Palestine

 

Postscript Two

I’ve been meaning to write
To you again
Need to spell out a few things
I regret these letters
Their false starts
Cut out my tongue
It starts
I’m sorry I wrote you
This letter
I deplore its forged nostalgia
Its staged retreat
Its black logic
Its entire lack of yelping dogs
Last year when the roofs
Were knocked in Gaza
Inside the letter
Moved hands of mowed up grass
Tonight my prisoner kissed
The ground of their cell
Tonight in Aida Camp
That glowing stone
Its starlings and its shrikes
In the presence of friends
In their bodies
In their seams of loving scars
You have two minutes to leave your life
Get out of your house
So I give you tonight
And every single other night
To say, Free Palestine
Against the occupying army
Against their petty checkpoints
Their poems of racist laws
Say, Free Palestine
Against their wall
That field of profit
Their webs of ordered silk
Their humiliations, prisons
Their slow control of faucet’s
Poisoned water
As in 70% of your body
And then with what remains
Of your flesh say
Free Palestine
Against the tourist, the thief
In a hail of stones
In a certain hail of peace
In endurance
In boycott
In Oslo
Say, Free Palestine
And these are your only words
Free Palestine
At Arizona’s border
Inside David Cameron’s hemlock soul
In Balfour’s bleeding ear
In the ventricular halls of England’s colonial heart
Say Free Palestine
It ends in music
Yes, it ends in frozen coins of blissful glass
Say Free Palestine
It starts in your mouth
It ends in the streets
Say Free Free Palestine
Say its been good writing to you
Say it clear as hell
And then say it again
Free Free Palestine
Go on I know these words are in you.

 

I wrote this poem for a performance with Rumour Cubes at Bar Bloc Glasgow (11 March, 2015). It responds to the first version of ‘Letters To Palestine’, which was recorded with the band three years ago. In the new version ‘Letters To Palestine’ was followed by ‘Postscript Two’, which was performed over a pulse of clanging sound.

As well as performing the new version of the song in Glasgow, the song was also performed in Newcastle and London. No recording of the full version exists. ‘Letters To Palestine’ is part of the much longer Living In project.

1871

Go straight to the digital companion project to 1871: These Cuts Cut Too Many To Name (requires flash), or read on for the full story of the poem. 

“We’ve got a song for you”, they said, as I walked into the studio on Curtain Road, and after the obligatory buzz of pedals being powered and the occasional hit of a snare, they played it: the form was fast and fragmented with gaps left for poetry.

‘As the law peals from the far edge of a glove darkly at night how everything turns/ In and to the white snow/ Turns’

Here’s the back story: Rumour Cubes, a band I’ve been working with since 2010, had been booked to play a gig on 18 March 2011 at an Arts Uncut event at the Bull and Gate (Kentish town).

That date, eighteenth of March, sound familiar? It did to me. The gig coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune. The show, not the Commune, featured comedians like Josie Long and speakers like Steve Hart, Regional Secretary of Unite the Union. It wanted to open up the anti-cuts movement to a wider audience and Rumour Cubes were going to help.

Continue reading 1871