Editorial: Our rubble-strewn hearts

In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart recounts a strange haunting. It concerns one of Nicholas Abraham’s psychoanalytic patients: an amateur geologist and entomologist, who spends his weekend hikes breaking rocks and catching butterflies. Through these pastimes, Abraham explains, ‘he is acting out the fate of his mother’s beloved. The loved one had been denounced by the grandmother (an unspeakable and secret fact) and having been sent to “break rocks” (casser les cailloux = do forced labor), he died in the gas chamber’. Armed with a rock hammer and a can of cyanide, in which the butterflies meet their end, the unwitting patient compulsively repeats the contours of a conflict dating back a generation. Its repressed phantom ‘works like a ventriloquist, like a stranger within the subject’s own mental topography’. Or like a poem, Stewart muses. In an inspired leap, she reads the anecdote for what it reveals about the permeability of self and voice – as a metaphor for our sense that poetry is a form of ‘possession’, which involves ‘being spoken through as well as speaking’.

That story welled up in my mind as I read Sandeep Parmar’s essay for this issue. Breaking midway into a creative exchange with the US-based poet Bhanu Kapil, her essay enacts in its very form the nomadic hybridity it describes. One of the many voices from the past that swims through their dialogue is Homer’s Odyssey, itself a collectively woven song of wandering. It’s easy to forget how that epic’s touching homecoming is accompanied by a bloodbath, as Odysseus slaughters not only the suitors, but also – shockingly, to our eyes – the disloyal maids. Parmar recalls a recurring image in Kapil’s work: her mother’s memory of seeing women’s bodies, ‘their wombs cut from their stomachs, tied to trees along the border of Pakistan and India in 1948’. Parmar asks how poetry might negotiate the intergenerational phantoms of a trauma like Partition, unleashed 70 years ago this year. In a Britain that, by and large, still fails to address its legacy of colonialism, how can poets of colour write a self that resists the ‘violences of both coherence and negation’?

Like Kapil, D S Marriott is a poet who spent his early years in Britain, but has long been resident in the US. In his poems in this issue, Marriott transforms the idea of ‘epic’ as a story told for and about a community, one which often ties its origins to violence: ‘man’s confession an epic / that takes in the whole world, now, but a homecoming, / a reunion, with no one to sing the story or knit its arrival’. In the Grime inflected suite from which these poems come, Marriott’s chanting bard is not a Demodocus, but a Wiley or a Stormzy. ‘Talk to anyone, / violence is no more or less than beauty’: these stunning poems leave us to pore over the moral nuances of that equation.

In her postbag for this year’s Poetry London Competition, our judge Liz Berry noted ‘an awful lot of violence. Is this a sign of the times, I wonder, or something lurking within us that poetry allows us to conjure up and explore?’ Her chosen winner, Richard Scott’s ‘Crocodile’, wades deep into those very waters, flirting with ‘the green violence in the / shallows’. What meaning can poets shape from the brutality of our times? Linda Gregerson’s powerful long poem, ‘Sleeping Bear’, casts an ironical eye over the ‘rubble-strewn hearts’ of liberals with compassion fatigue in the face of breaking-news horrors.

Writing in the shadow of World War II, Wallace Stevens conceived of poetry as ‘a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality’. For Stevens, poetry has ‘something to do with our self-preservation’, since its expression, ‘the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives’. Offering music, insight and sustenance, the poems in this issue do exactly that.

– Sarah Howe, Guest Poetry Editor, Autumn 2017