The idea behind Void Voices came from nowhere. It was the last day of June, and I was on holiday near Dartmouth. I had been enjoying the unusually hot weather (a heat wave that was to last several weeks), lazy hours spent looking at the sea, leisurely evening meals… This earthly paradise, untainted by considerations of work or responsibility, somehow gave rise, suddenly and without preamble, to a vision of Hell that superimposed itself on the prospect of a peaceful harbour. I saw burning masts, wracked shadows, a dirty bandage across the sky. The last time inspiration had struck so violently was during another holiday in 2012, when two sentences happened into my mind:
The Bird King is mad again. He caws through empty midnight streets, moulting tar-black feathers.
I tweeted the words I had chanced upon through @echovirus, a Twitter collective, and thus began a long run of tweets about the Bird King, culminating in the construction of feverish poems and an illustrated book called The Madness of the Bird King. The Bird King rapidly came to dominate an evolving personal mythology, and he has even appeared in writing projects that aren’t about him at all.
So when, in June this year, Void Voices started germinating in my imagination, I knew I had to go with it, let it have its way. All I had to do was listen and record. As I’m typing this, I realise how preposterous and precious this sounds, but that was the way it happened.
The concept behind Void Voices is simple. It is a reimagining of Dante’s Inferno. A version of me (the equivalent to the Pilgrim) is the protagonist. I am led through Hell not by the spirit of Virgil (Dante’s literary hero), but by the reanimated corpse of T S Eliot (mine). Populated with monsters and characters from the Greek and Latin epics, as well as many of his contemporaries, Dante’s Hell was shaped not so much by theology as by his reading and satirical imagination. He misses no opportunities to mock and gloat over his enemies, as they languish in the Hell of his words, the Hell-poem. Void Voices is no different; the poem draws upon diverse source materials to explore the Hell inside (mind) and outside (world). The voices I recorded came from both places, if it is possible to distinguish them.
I have admired T S Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land since my teens. Every time I return to it, it is a different poem. Its meanings have changed as I have grown into adulthood and parenthood. It challenges me now no less than it did when I was 17. A big part of the poem’s magnetic pull on my attention over the years is its accessibility. Despite being heavily allusive and containing passages in other languages, The Waste Land comprises images and situations of extraordinary vividness and immediacy. Furthermore, Eliot avoids the solemn monotony of some of the writing produced under the banner of modernism or the avant-garde by employing different voices. High-flown literary passages contrast starkly with the debased and demotic. The poem never settles into a safe, rigid style, and Eliot is unafraid to include material that, at the time at least (1922), didn’t belong in poetry.
So, in allowing Eliot to be my guide to the underworld, I revised The Inferno through the lens of The Waste Land. It felt natural to draw on heterogeneous materials. I used and doctored whatever was to hand: news stories, adverts, tweets, tiny fragments of Artaud, Bataille, Mansour, lines from The Waste Land. The Inferno is there too, now in a truncated tercet from Henry Longfellow’s sonorous translation, now in a transcription of Google Translate’s mutilated attempt at rendering Dante’s Italian in modern English. And because barely a moment of my waking life passes without an earworm interfering with (or shaping) my thoughts, I included fragments of song lyrics, most of them from artists I admire. Appropriately, Adam Ant, David Bowie and Marilyn Manson crop up several times in the poem; to varying degrees all three are rock chameleons, adopting personas, changing who they are from album to album, changing faces, changing voices. In Void Voices, David Bowie’s Major Tom became an avatar of Thomas Stearns Eliot, a new mask for my guide:
The descent into Hell is the descent into the poem, and a descent into nightmare. However, while much of my previous work explored dream states and phantasmagorias, engaging only tangentially with reality, I knew from the start that Void Voices would look out as well as in. The rise of the far right in Europe and America is a catastrophic development that it would be insane to ignore. How can we make art and poetry that does not address a force that threatens, ultimately, to silence both? Over the past couple of years, the Bird King has morphed in my writing from a grotesque figure of surrealist whimsy into a caricature of the fascist dictator. A long prose poem from 2016 entitled Drowning in Neat Rows presents the Bird King as a hybrid of Hitler, Trump and Manson’s Antichrist Superstar:
The prose poem ended up as part of Void Voices, as did a piece I wrote a couple of days after the result of the 2016 EU referendum:
The voices of Brexit and the alt-right assail us every day. Like the maddening chatter of advertising, they’re ubiquitous. What can we do about it? What can we do about these and the other voices, the infinite, tedious variety of voices that shout at us and whisper to us from our smartphones, telling us to buy products and ideas and denouncing us when we ask questions or disagree? Is individuality even possible when we constantly, unconsciously absorb so many voices, when the hackneyed formulations we’ve read so often on social media become our default mode of speaking?
At moments of crisis, the voices are so overwhelming that part of me blacks out, erases the words, leaving a dirty residue, a smudge in my memory. I have had fainting fits since I was a child, and the black-out is a key symbol in my writing. At times, the black-out represents censorship (a conscious suppression of language); at others, it embodies the involuntary act of passing out.
Dante’s Pilgrim passes out too from time to time, for example at the end of the third canto of The Inferno:
The land of tears gave forth a blast of wind,
And fulminated a vermilion light,
Which overmastered in me every sense,
And as a man whom sleep hath seized I fell.
Each of the 34 parts of Void Voices corresponds with a canto of Dante’s epic. I had originally numbered them, but a few weeks after completion of the first draft I decided to provide the reader with a less linear experience by removing the numbers and replacing them with monochrome pictures, each of which would be a brief blackout or gateway between one part and the next. When constructing the pictures, I drew on a limited range of motifs (for example, insects, mannequins and statues), playing freely with them, but always linking them in some way (usually obliquely) with the words that followed. The sequence of pictures provides an alternative narrative to the poem, a voice that speaks through dream images. The gateway to part one of the poem features the lion that, in The Inferno, represents pride:
The Inferno ends with the Pilgrim leaving Hell and facing the prospect of the next phase of his spiritual journey, Purgatory. Void Voices, meanwhile, offers no such hope of progress or redemption, ending with a variation on the poem’s opening lines; we never find our way out of the forest. Thus, the final picture of the cycle is a glitchy variation on the first:
Finally, a word of thanks. Writer and artist ReVerse Butcher (creator of the magnificent On the Rod) provided detailed feedback on the first 13 parts of Void Voices when I was in the throes of writing. Her comments and questions encouraged, stimulated and challenged me, and I have no doubt that Void Voices is the better for her input. I must also thank Paul Hawkins of Hesterglock Press, whose warmth, enthusiasm and flexibility helped make Void Voices what it is.
Void Voices is available from Hesterglock Press here.