William Alderson’s poems in A Moment of Disbelief and May Days unite politics and feeling in a brilliant reclaiming of a fine poetic tradition, finds Dominic Alexander
William Alderson, A Moment of Disbelief: Poems on War, Terrorism and Refugees (Poetry Salzburg 2017), 43pp.
William Alderson, May Days: A Poem for our Times (Chandler Press 2017), 15pp.
"When the planes came
and danced on our village
they stamped our bones to dust,
our voices to silence"
from: A Moment of Disbelief (p.26)
Poetry is generally presented as an inherently non-political form, focused on the private and the interior. The romantic poets of the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are more typically taught in schools as being concerned with their interior feelings for nature, for example, rather than their radical politics. Yet, this separation of politics and emotion is illegitimate, and feeling has its proper place in politics. In fact, poetry is precisely the form which can make whole the shards of our humanity which are shattered by the sinister rationality of war. Anti-war movements have never lacked for powerful prose, but the connections of feeling that poetry can forge, give another crucial dimension to our outrage and our moral refusal of the logic of war.
William Alderson’s poems have exactly this quality of gathering the fragments of feeling, of our unifying humanity, that are systematically banished by mainstream coverage of war and its rationales. The verse mobilises our sense of connection with the victims of our rulers’ instrumental reason. Moreover, there are reflections, building across the poems, and sometimes nestled within the imagery, of the links between the terrible consequences for human life caused by our governments’ bombing campaigns, and our alienation from that damage created by the very media that informs us. The first verse of the poem ‘Telling Stories’ hints at this in its remarkable encapsulation of the experience of viewing war:
Over the emerald city white blobs arc
Through a green sky - explosions edit
A blindness on the screen.
We see now through tinted night-sights
The military vision of places, targets, hardware,
The darkness visible. (p.16)
The theme of the fragmentation of humanity, both bodily and emotionally, is unveiled brilliantly in the first poem, which is titled ‘On The Weeping Woman (by Pablo Picasso)’. The reader only needs a passing familiarity with the painter’s most famous style to grasp the resonances in lines such as this: ‘Curves twisted, dissected, made to lie flat/ Screamed with the violences of spears’ (p.9). The poem is, ostensibly, about the painting’s simple subject, a portrait of a crying woman’s face, but, as the painting begs the question of the cause, so Alderson notes ‘the unheard silences’. Unheard silences seem to rise like a reproach, throughout the collection, to a civilisation that can wreak such devastating harm, while the poet is reduced to ‘Watching shame weave a greater silence/ For our covering’ (‘Spring’, p.11).
Sharing and reading these poems is then a kind of resistance to the elite’s alienated instrumentalism, to a ruling class which is capable, for so many decades now, of trading in such terms as ‘collateral damage’, in order to habituate its population to the constant reality of massive civilian casualties. Thus, a deliberately brittle and bleak poem has one voice saying: ‘“It might be necessary to blow up the street/ to make the city safe”’ (p.36). Yet, nothing is made simple here, and the compromised position within which we find ourselves in these murderous times are fiercely confronted in ‘The Mask’, in particular:
‘Trapped faces turn, their eyes stare out at you;
“Why me, when I have nothing?” and you turn,
Hurt by these images of pain, turn off
The TV, turn to trace unspoken words
Across an empty page. This is the lie.’ (first stanza, p.13)
Significantly, this collection not only takes on the subject of war, but that of refugees also. Once again, a phenomenon that our media reduces to a dehumanised spectacle is brought back to face the interior hopes and fears of a real person:
‘He carried the future,
His father’s farm which promised to be his one day.
The soldiers came and took that away.’ (first stanza of ‘Burdens’, p.37)
It is not simply the congenial political message of these poems that make them so appealing, but the great skill that lies unobtrusively beneath their meanings and impact. The forms draw from the Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century and more modern styles with equal deftness.
There is, for example, nothing remotely of pastiche is Alderson’s magnificent long poem, May Days, which draws inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great political poem, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The obnoxious self-importance and callous contempt of Power, of our ruling class, is subject to a relentless attack that only poetry in this form can accomplish with such verve. Equally, the sense that we are seeing a shifting of mood, and a disintegration of the legitimacy and confidence of the ruling powers, is conveyed with both subtlety and force. This long poem was no burden at all to read, rather the reader is swept along by its controlled passion. It is a remarkable stimulus to appreciate the great possibilities in this kind of writing, of which so little is produced today.
Political poetry has never found much favour within the critical establishment, which tends to sneer at what it can’t otherwise dismiss. Nonetheless, poetry played a vital role in the birth of modern radical struggles, from Shelley and Byron, through to the Chartists in the 1840s, whose newspaper, The Northern Star, was full of the poetry of its working-class readers. Ever since, anti-Establishment politics and poetry have had a strong affinity. William Alderson’s carefully crafted, and deeply felt verse is a fine addition to this long tradition.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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