Editorial by Dai George

For some reason, I’ve been thinking lately about an ornament in my childhood home. It looks like a flower trapped inside a star, with eight orange and blue petals intersecting the perimeter of an eight-point ceramic tile. My parents bought it in Assisi, on a visit to the hometown of St Francis, and inside the flower, where the seeds should be, is an inscription of St Francis’s motto, ‘Pax et Bonum’. Peace and Goodness – a benediction, a hope, a Sisyphean quest or provocation. When I was younger, this object brought a flash of Umbrian colour and high theology to the socially committed, nonconformist backdrop of family life. Visitors would pass it in the hallway, on their way upstairs to the toilet. They’d give it a puzzled, appreciative glance as they zipped up their coats at the end of the night, forgetting that their jolly, liberal-minded hosts, my parents, could be Christians.

Perhaps it’s this valedictory aspect that’s got me thinking about it again. This is my tenth and final issue as Reviews Editor of Poetry London. The four years I’ve been in post have felt like far longer, in large part no doubt because two of them have straddled a global pandemic. The poetry world is different now, in many ways for the better, in some for worse. Perhaps there’ll be time to take stock properly soon.

I’m in the hallway, then, zipping up my coat – but it’s not just the need to say farewells that brings ‘Pax et Bonum’ to mind. This job makes you attuned to the vibrations of words. It makes you think closely about how words interact; the histories they bring with them, the harms they can inflict – that, or the joy, freedom and wisdom that the right combination of words can embody. What resonance might ‘Pax et Bonum’ have, considered not just spiritually but as poetry? For one thing (duh), it’s Latin, and while that was certainly a lingua franca for St Francis, I should admit that the appeal of the phrase depends at one level, for me, on how it estranges and elevates the meanings of my mother tongue. ‘Peace and Goodness’: not so much a benediction, in English, as an empty hippy cliché, a notch or two above ‘Peace and Love’. ‘Peace out, man’: no benediction at all, nowadays, but a sarcastic sign-off, a means of shutting down a discussion that has become too heated or dysfunctional to continue.

All of which raises the question: what’s so great about peace in the first place? (Or, to lift a line from Elvis Costello, what’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? But maybe the answer to that one’s obvious.) On marches, in tweets, in the common language of social justice movements, we’re used to hearing the slogan ‘No justice, no peace’ – a reminder, if one were needed, that peace must never degrade into a sop, a panacea, or an obstacle dangled in the way of progress. And then there are the specific, Latin nuances of ‘Pax’; its inescapable echo of ‘Pax Romana’, that mother of all euphemisms, describing no peace at all but rather the logic of imperial conquest and consolidation. They create a desert and call it peace.

So it seems I’ve got my work cut out sticking up for that souvenir in my parents’ hallway – a ceramic tile, six inches across, whose three words vibrate on a special frequency in my mind. I should be clear, then, that any lasting value I find in it is synonymous with my faith in a better, worthwhile definition of peace. For ‘Pax et Bonum’ to be viable, peace can’t be the absence of contestation, but rather the active, difficult work of reparation and atonement. By the same token, peace can’t be a luxury, a contingent outcome to be welcomed only when other demands have been met, but rather an ongoing, essential process.

These are the heavier burdens of language that poetry makes us aware of. But I hope that this art form will continue to expand the range of imaginative freedoms and possibilities that we enjoy as well. ‘There are pleasures so ordinary that we barely notice them,’ writes Carl Phillips in the first line of ‘The Closing Hour’, one of two Phillips poems we’re proud to publish in this issue to mark the occasion of his first major British volume, Then the War. ‘The Closing Hour’ ends with lines that would make the hairs stand on end at any time, but can’t help moving me to tears right now: ‘I regret almost nothing. I come / in peace A lost beast A crown of feathergrass A matching wreath’. Alongside poems, this issue boasts a beautiful freewheeling interview between Phillips and Dante Micheaux, which explores the longitudes and latitudes of Phillips’s poetry across the years.

At the end of these four years, I think about poetry differently than I did beforehand. I write poetry differently. I try to live, act and work differently. That learning has not always come easily, but it’s every person’s responsibility to be open to it, especially at a time of change and challenge in the world. I leave the job in full confidence that the learning will continue, and that Poetry London will be a vital part of it.

An example, before this descends into platitude. In November, at the height of the COP26 summit, Poetry London hosted an evening of ecopoetry in partnership with the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre. Our readers that night were Khairani Barokka, Maria Sledmere and Zakia Carpenter-Hall, three contributors to the PL reviews section I’ve been proud to publish, and three excellent poets to boot. In my introduction, I spoke about how their work ‘makes a vital contribution to our understanding of humanity, nature, politics and the environment’ – a simple enough statement, or so I thought, until I listened to the discussion that ensued unpacking that very concept of ‘nature’, which our three panellists agreed amounts to a false and damaging binary. Just like that, the word vibrated differently in my mind, now with a clang rather than a simple bell-like ring. I won’t use it so blithely in future, and I believe my thinking about ecology will be clearer, and stronger, as a result.

Nicole Jashapara interrogates a similar binary understanding of nature as a ‘luscious, green and sensory escape’, in a trenchant article about the limits of ecopoetry, one among four deep, intelligent reviews published in this issue. The debate about ecopoetry has been a key critical subplot of my tenure, and so it will continue, of course, for as long as the climate remains a source of threat and injustice. I hope that poetry and criticism will continue to recalibrate our understanding of this grave crisis – indeed, that it will contribute to the broader, planetary work of reparation and atonement so vital to our collective survival – even as I heed Jashapara’s warning that imaginative engagement alone won’t deliver the outcomes we need.

A final plug before I peace out. One of the great pleasures of this issue has been working on our other feature interview, a conversation between Julia Copus and Selima Hill. The words ‘unique’ and ‘exclusive’ are bandied about too often to puff content, but they really do apply in this case. Copus and Hill have corresponded by snail mail for years, and here we get to eavesdrop on a particular exchange of letters conducted across the spring of 2021. Hill seldom talks in public about her work, and certainly not in such illuminating depth as she does here, on subjects ranging from the influence of visual art, puzzles and neurodivergence on her poetry, to that maddening category of the ‘surreal’. On the latter theme, she points out: ‘Poodles and bluebells, say, just go together, for me, like two notes in music; they fall into place. But why should that mean anything to someone else, with their own personal experiences of poodles and bluebells?’

And doesn’t that say it all? Enjoy the riches that PL101 has in store for you, and thanks for reading across the last ten issues. Here’s to the next ten, and many more.

Pax et Bonum. Poodles and bluebells.