Book Review: Songs from our dark times
Tuesday 31st March 2015
WRITING in his Danish exile in the late 1930s, the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht famously posed the question: “In the dark times/Will there also be singing?” His answer was: “Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times” and the latest releases from radical publisher Smokestack Books are very much about our own dark era.
Clare Saponia’s The Oranges of Revolution (£7.95) examines the relationships between events such as the Arab spring and the riots in England in 2011, from cause to consequence, aspiration to betrayal, defeat to renewed hopes for social justice.
In Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Libya and the Ukraine, our rulers pick and choose their favourites, colour-coding the “good” revolutions and demonising those whom they cannot control as “terrorists”:
“They’d like you to believe/this is just another simple lesson/in altruism. But then again/they’d like you to believe/a lot of things… they/don’t need the paltry opinions/of their bumbling war cabinets./They prefer to head for the forests,/crouch down around the campfire/chanting spells, telling bedtime tales/of heroics and barbarics and how/they saved democracy.”
Martin Hayes has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and control room supervisor. His first full-length book When We Were Almost Like Men (£7.95) explores the world of work today, specifically the modern courier industry, and it’s a guide to a kind of hell that is fascinating, depressing, hopeless and hilarious. Here’s his take on the prospect of another week at work:
“we have tried to drink our way through it/we have tried smoking and injecting our way through it/we have tried running away from it/and we have tried running towards it… but nothing ever seems to do it as good/as the night when you’ve just finished your 60-hour week/controlling job/and go back to your flat with a bag of wine under your arm/only to crack open a few/sitting at your open window/staring dumb-eyed into the sun-setting-sky/trying not to let yourself dribble from the corners of your mouth/at the taste of such freedom/and the knowledge that you owe everybody in the world/absolutely/nothing.”
Sheree Mack was born in 1971 in Bradford to a Trinidadian father and a Geordie mother of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry.
Her second collection Laventille (£7.95) tells the forgotten story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago when, for 45 days, an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government.
The book is a “shrine of remembrances” for the ordinary people behind the headlines and the hidden history of the revolution. These poems lament, rage and mourn. But they also celebrate the flames that burn in the hearts of a people still living in slavery’s dark shadow:
“Gun shots pierce the heat/stagnant over Woodford Square./The street seeps red./Feelings flood red./His coffin clothed in red./With berets perched on Afros,/thousands strong we march./We were betrayed./ Black man in power does not/signify Black Power.”
Jo Colley’s Bones of Birds (£7.95) is about flying and falling, about the earth and the sky. Zeppelins and birds, transported lovers, angels and witches fill the skies of Colley’s imagination and at the heart of the collection is a beautiful sequence about Soviet female fighter-pilots like Lydia Litvyak (1922-1943):
“I was so young: I didn’t know/what it was to be afraid. Lying/on my back in summer grass,/long before the war clouds gathered./the sky called me: my element,/more bird than girl./The nazis came, darkened the sun/like a flock of crows. I made myself eagle,/clenched my tender heart into a fist… Our days were short/but we made them long: each night/ended in song, our girls’ voices/offered to the stars.”
Steve Ely’s Englaland (£8.95) is a worthy follow-up to his Forward-nominated Oswald’s Book of Hours. It’s an extraordinary reimagining of the song composed by Egil Skallagrimsson for the English and their king after the battle of Brunanburh in AD 937. It’s a book about Yorkshire miners, pit-village bird-nesters, ageing prize-fighters, flying pickets and singing yellowhammers. And it’s an elegy for working-class England:
“In less than half a lifetime, almost everything’s/gone, the stranded poor picking bargain-bin/bric-a-brac on Oxfam, fast-food streets./Each man indoors before his screen, not knowing/his neighbour. The monied commute to work/and malls. Their suburbs could be anywhere./Politicians in thrall to globalised capital,/peddling cynical yes-we-can dreams… Who are we? And how do we want to live?”
Goran Simic, born in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1952, was a major literary figure in the former Yugoslavia and was caught in the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
New and Selected Sorrows (£7.95) draws on some of Simic’s earlier collections, together with a long new sequence Wind in the Straight-jacket.
It is a book about passports and borders, rats and wolves, soldiers and ghosts. Narrated by “an ordinary man with ears of ordinary silk,” it is a record of the realities — and the unrealities — of life in the Balkans:
“I have seen the face of sorrow. It is the face of/the Sarajevo wind leafing through newspapers/glued to the street by a puddle of blood as I/pass with a loaf of bread under my arm./As I run across the bridge, full water canisters/in hand, it is the face of the river carrying the/corpse of a woman… the face with/which I wake to watch my neighbour standing/by the window, night after night, staring into/the dark.”
All the books can be purchased from smokestack-books.co.uk.