Poetry is Hell

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.

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I am made

I am made of magnetic masks, smiles, surprise, sunrise, light in flighty eyes, flint, glinting winks, mouths, teeth, clouds, thieves.

I am made of blood and stone and rusty nails and blue light refracted in water and smashed iPhones and laughter and eyes and forests.

I am made of fuck that and hiya and after you and what a load of crap and what do you think and what did you say and yes please and see ya.

I am made of Paz and Eliot and Michaux and Breton and Mansour and Pizarnik and Harsent and Blake and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and Plath.

I am made of Schoenberg and Saariaho and Slipknot and Sex Pistols and Stravinsky and Sciarrino and Slayer and System of a Down and Scriabin.

I am made of nothing and something and odd things and lost things and broken things and imagined things and silly things and vision things.

I am made of putty flesh and dubious liquids and hardness and slop and jellies and tautness and silk and dead leaves and mists.

I am made of unremarkable and weird and nice and psychotic and autistic and fun and supportive and boring and complicated and forgettable.

I am made of devour and gulp and search and stumble and make and unmake and fuck and sleep and listen and whisper and forget and remember.

I am made of falling down and swimming through and walking in and staying away and flying by and sitting out and jumping over.

I am made of adversely and perversely and happily and luckily and drearily and stupidly and hopefully and morbidly and tenderly and slowly.

I am made of check shirts and slouch beanies and stiff ties and slick suits and no hair and NIN t-shirts and smart shoes and nakedness.

I am made of glitches and mirages and tricks of the light and illusions and delusions and confusions and contusions and lightless nights.

I am made of burning furniture, car headlights, riot police, scarred spaces, the sea, horror movies, vampire cats, mirrors, mannequins, mud.

I am made of typed words, scrawled words, spoken words, words set in stone, quicksand words, made-up words, anticipated words, worm words.

I am made of tittered tweets and loose threads and botched posts and larval poems and egg texts and hopeless monsters buried in rows.

I am made of Photoshopped punk surrealism and stuttering feeds and scratches on the black screen and junk poetry.

I am made of @echovirus12 and @chimeragroup0 and @badbadpoet and Russian doll avatars and a snowman and a smeared blue skull.

I am made of a little boy setting fire to a tree and a man with a goatee lighting a cigarette and a clean-shaven man putting a log on a fire.

I am made of mannequins and Mr Punch and Jack Ketch and Eve and Max and a sleeping man and the Bird King and Medusa and a nameless narrator.

I am made of dirt, dust, diseases, dystopias, dynasties, disasters, dressing rooms, dishes, despots, diptychs, districts, debts.

I am made of he, she, it, they, us, we, no one, someone, anyone, anyway, anywhere, any, many, money, honey, humble dumbness, numb fun.

I am made of mad cast-offs and sad glades and fast frosts and fronds and fins and moons and moans and makeup and waking up.

I am made of eye a maid of eyes not afraid of my my my not afraid of waves silent at night silent on the shore before I was made.

In my day…

In my day, you could buy a polythene bag of cigarette butts for 5p. And everyone had a proper haircut.

In my day, plumbers gave free vasectomies whilst reciting patriotic poems. And all the buses were red.

In my day, there was always more than enough sex to go round, with plenty left for seconds. And England was the only country.

In my day, you had to wear rubber pants. No one complained. It kept the doctor away. And it never rained, except on bank holidays.

In my day, sofas were encased in iron. Not like these horrid modern fabric covers. And everyone knew how to twerk.

In my day, we all loved a good war. The kids played genocide in the streets. You could wander around naked and no one complained.

In my day, everyone had a commemorative Sex Pistols mug. Tea never tasted better. You could throw your dog out the window if you wanted.

In my day, the public bogs were palaces. You could get your ears waxed whenever you liked. And nobody farted or said, “Fuck.”

In my day, everyone read Borges. None of that Harry Potter. The grass cut itself. Houses grew on trees.

In my day, you were allowed to nuke people who looked at you funny. We all respected the shopkeepers. And the flu hadn’t been invented.

In my day, you could get Spotify on the wireless for two bob a week. And energy saving lightbulbs were so bright, your face burned.

In my day, babies were delivered to your door. They only cried in the afternoons. They were good as gold. Cats smelt of vanilla.

In my day, a man’s erection was strong enough to lift a car. Criminals were grateful when we flogged them. Curtains were fireproof.

In my day, glass slippers were fitted as standard. Everyone was entitled to a prince. They sold off the broken ones to Taiwan.

In my day, a man could hold his breath for five weeks, if he wanted. TVs were made of platinum and elbow grease.

In my day, you could take your kids to an execution and no one minded. People had manners and didn’t show their teeth, ever.

In my day, most people were Olympic-standard swimmers. You couldn’t move for bald men in Speedos. And gravy was as thick as mud.

In my day, you could get drunk on a teaspoon of shandy. Carrots were 100% carrot. None of them additives. And burglars tidied up after themselves.

In my day, everyone was taught to sight read music at school. We had composers coming out of our ears. Silence didn’t exist.

In my day, it snowed to order on Christmas Day. The presents were so big, it took four people to lift them. We all played Monopoly in the woods.

In my day, 1+1 could equal any number you wanted. There was a magical kingdom in every wardrobe. And dreams were more realistic.

In my day, the central heating was so good, you could cook a chicken with it. We were all used to the heat. If our eyes melted, we just laughed.

In my day, you were allowed to kidnap anyone you wanted, as long as your ransom note didn’t have any bad grammar in it.

In my day, we all wore Andrei Tarkovsky t-shirts on Sundays. No one thought anything of it. And nosey neighbours minded their own business.

In my day, mirrors showed you the future. We often danced in the streets all night. You were allowed the broken clocks for free.

In my day, chocolate was made from blood and was much better for you. Gobstoppers lasted forever. We all slept standing up, like real men.

You are lost in my timeline

For George Szirtes and Mauricio Montiel Figueiras

You are lost in my timeline. Tweets stretch in all directions. They are all made of glass and sand and they all look the same.

You are lost in my timeline. Tweets make atonal music. Trees look like your face, magnified, scarred. A pond in a clearing drowns the light.

You are lost in my timeline. The mannequins dismantle your cerebral cortex. As night falls, your reptilian brain clicks and whirrs.

You are lost in my timeline. The curfew begins soon and you’re starting to panic. Black water collects in your eyes.

You are lost in my timeline. You’ve inhaled the spores. Canker poems bloom in your blood. A decapitated statue sinks behind you.

You are lost in my timeline. Your skin is hot silk. The underworld fills with saints. Oranges and lemons. The interview trails off.

You are lost in my timeline. The walls vibrate with voices. Shouting, singing, sighing. Sarcasm and orgasms. Please mind the gap.

You are lost in my timeline. The current takes you one way, then another. Sudden faces flounder. The obscene sea licks you.

You are lost in my timeline. All the world’s a stage. The curtains are lips. You part them and your senses depart. Nothing nothing nothing.

You are lost in my timeline. The desire for intimacy has wrecked your plans. The market stalls sell only fakes and the butcher is blubber.

You are lost in my timeline. Guerrilla kisses hunker down in offices. The sirens’ song can’t be translated into any language.

You are lost in my timeline. The meat you ate has turned to clay in your stomach. Your intestines are God’s hands.

You are lost in my timeline. Please show your ticket at the entrance to the Museum of Sex Toys. Ignore the crying accountants.

You are lost in my timeline. You’re no Theseus. To go forward, turn to tweet 24,731. To go back, turn to tweet 29,303.

You are lost in my timeline. The signposts are all gibberish and the policemen communicate only in GIFs. The clock is not ticking.

You are lost in my timeline. Dead ends are made of ham, sweat, plastic and teeth. Junctions are mirages. Abandon all rope.

You are lost in my timeline. A layer of tracing paper covers everything. You try to draw along the outer edges, but your pencil breaks.

You are lost in my timeline. Selfies laugh at you. Accounts you follow point at you and smirk. You realise you’re naked.

You are lost in my timeline. You’ve fallen through the mirror. Your funny twin is setting fire to the curtains. A yawn, a turning page.

You are lost in my timeline. Your face melts slowly. Words stop referring to things; they accumulate in your pockets, like stones.

You are lost in my timeline. Words weigh you down. You drag your carcass across waste grounds. The clowns lie in wait.

You are lost in my timeline. Ones are zeros and zeros are ones. Every fact has an equal and opposite fiction. The news is old.

You are lost in my timeline. Every door you open brings you back to where you were, which could be anywhere or nowhere.

You are lost in my timeline. The skulls pile up. Furious labour attends every victory. The flags are red and black.

You are lost in my timeline. The options diminish rapidly. You’re parched, exhausted. Two buttons remain: TALK and FUCK.

You are lost in my timeline. You came here to find fiction, little poems, grimly amusing vignettes. Instead: smashed glass, maggots, smoke.

You are lost in my timeline. Pictures flicker. The headlights don’t work. Ken and Barbie are horny as hell. We accept Apple Pay.

You are lost in my timeline. You could try on a suit or a dress. You look ridiculous. The mirror mocks you. The mirrors mock you.

You are lost in my timeline. Life is elsewhere. This is a figment, a misrepresentation. But it’s cosy and the food contains zero calories.

You are lost in my timeline. You think you saw someone who looked just like you, but better and nastier.

You are lost in my timeline. Round and round. Or on and on. Or staying still. You’ve barely started.

You are lost in my timeline. Tweets stretch in all directions. They are all made of glass and sand and they all look the same.

Oven Ready

The oven was open and we were invited in. The herons had forgotten their knives. Rainbows were out of the question.

Inside it was red and black and red again. Abandon all hope, etc. The ghost of Nigel Farage sang patriotic songs to the broken weasels.

I tried to ask what time it was but the men in Christmas jumpers ignored me. There was some anxiety over Star Wars spoilers.

When you appeared on the scene you gave everyone a load of sass. We were hasgtag and awks. Piglets and piffle baked in a pie.

The cool people were the worst. They paraded their hideous oiled beards throughout the catacombs. Light and badgers fell from my ears.

Facebook frowned and its pages burned. Some considered this a good sign. Hands up, baby, hands up. Give me your love, give me give me…

So we toured Syria and Palestine and Snapchat and Bake Off. It was very entertaining. We all had theories. I piled mine around me.

We disagreed on most things but agreed on building walls. Those fuckers were wrong about everything and my testicles were bigger than theirs.

I updated my profile so they’d cower in the shadow of my gargantuan testicles. Other hairy apes yelled Make America Great Again.

It was still red and black and red again inside the oven. I checked my timeline. Funnies were happening all over the world. Tweet tweet.

The brighter, better selves we had so carefully constructed on social media turned on us, cut our throats, exposed our ugly meat.

Days lasted seconds. World-changing events came in salvos. I washed my corpse in brine and set it on a beach, so it could look at the sea.

Others arrived, albinos born in the ovens, chattering and squeaking, trying to persuade my corpse to leave. I ate a banana.

Sex was sold thinly sliced. We applied it to our ears, mouths and (most of all) eyes. It made our brains misfire but we were addicted.

Other narcotic commodities included reality TV, salt, sarcasm, death metal, current affairs, Happy Meals and empathy. Traders made a killing.

Celebrities lined up to be seen while you flooded the slums with blood. Dip a finger, make a wish. Monochrome poverty in glossy magazines.

Katie Hopkins tried to trigger Armageddon by writing aggressively about her dislike of tomatoes. Clouds shrugged and drifted on.

These were the worst of times, or so we liked to believe. We wrote emails to our past selves, warning them.

The sea stole up on my corpse when I wasn’t looking and turned it to stone. Waves hissed derisively when I realised what had happened.

The oven was red and black and red again. Did I mention that, or was it you? Your iPhone won’t save you. Selfies erode your face.

Warning: Your dreams save automatically to the cloud. This can cause embarrassment or death when they appear on other devices you own.

The poems

The poem exploded in a shopping centre. No one was hurt, except for an adolescent boy who looked into the white blast and went blind.

—–

He kissed her mouth, her neck, her breasts. She dug her nails into his back. A poem slid over them, pooled in their eyes.

—–

During their game, they broke the mirror hanging darkly in their parents’ bedroom. A poem hissed through the cracks, into their mouths.

—–

She wrote the last sentence of her novel, unaware that a poem was hidden in its tangled heart. The poem throbbed, awaiting the reader.

—–

The banners were red and black. The Bird King’s victory speech shattered all the poems. We collected shards and hid them in our dreams.

—–

You woke to see a poem hanging from the ceiling like a light fitting like a stalactite like a vampire like a noose like a carcass.

—–

We tried everything: disinfectant, weed killer, rat poison, bullets, napalm, nukes. But the poems, breeding like cockroaches, wouldn’t die.

Drowning in neat rows

Wheels grind. The drunken crowd screams. A lever is pulled and the curtains are yanked apart. The Bird King stamps onto the stage.

—–

The Bird King’s oration is made of knives and envies and stones and pauses. The banners and the sky are red and black.

—–

Catch a falling star, put it in your pocket. There’s a miniature supernova in a locked room. The Bird King’s claws scratch poems.

—–

Men behind glass make notes on our appearance, our social networks, our sex lives. One points at you with a finger that looks like a gun.

—–

The roads are closed. My neighbours starve politely. The Bird King gags on bodies. The police tell jokes about immigrants. Lock your door.

—–

It’s best not to try to record events that may be unreal. Cameras pirouette on their stands, wink at us like whores. I can feel the blood.

—–

This is what you want, this is what you get. Line up and wait for it. A father of four sobs into the pavement.

—–

There is an encore. Booted feet stamp. The android pianist shatters Chopin. Half of the crowd take mournful selfies.

—–

Sunlight on broken glass in the Street of Emojis. A metallic voice invites us to prayer. We shuffle loosely in our skins, ashamed.

—–

Last time we dug up the road, dinosaur fossils leapt into song. Pull the shutters down: the red eyes are watching.

—–

Have you downloaded the update? Try inserting yourself here. We may have to remove your spine. Please hold the iron bar and close your eyes.

—–

The Bird King’s body double calls himself James Knight but that’s just an alias. Most of the stunts are CGI. The manifesto is a bad poem.

—–

They smashed the clocks to free the birds. Journalists were rounded up and drugged. The curtains closed on a factitious scene.

—–

The Bird King bans the past tense. What’s done is done. We write feverishly, trying to keep pace with the galloping now.

—–

We furnish our living spaces with flatpack instructions. No more bulky furniture! We gaze at the idealised, orderly diagrams.

—–

Sometimes our bedrooms collapse and sticky dreams escape from our ears. The Bird King’s agents collect them in huge metal drums.

—–

Empty your pockets. Empty your mouth. Empty your bowels. Empty your head. Empty your books. Empty your houses. Empty your monsters. Empty your bladder. Empty your cupboards. Empty your dishwasher. Empty your bed. Empty your balls. Empty your smartphone. Empty your grave.

—–

The cathedral bells chime five. We think there’s a ruined castle on the hill, but there isn’t. Not even a trick of the light.

——

There are lots of small pieces. They don’t go together. The Bird King assembles them into things that confound the eye, offend the ear.

—–

Soldiers running or explosions or the sun plunging into the horizon. The protestors’ bodies have been hidden in wardrobes and under beds.

—–

The news plays in a loop while we fall down the stairs. A man of 75 ate his neighbour. They’re still watching us from behind glass.

—–

Learning to express ourselves only in GIFs. The androids smack our hands when we slip up. We search mirrors for an escape route.

—–

I read a new translation but the memory of the old translation superimposes itself and the page tears itself up.

—–

Not even writing about the world not even writing about another world not even writing about big themes not even writing about myself.

—–

When feeding the police, throw meat over the fence. Never put your hands through the viewing holes.

—–

The Bird King paints disaster on his viewers’ faces. Cluster bombs make percussive music. This is not the end.

—–

What are you looking at? What are you wearing? What are you doing? What are you saying? Who do you think you are?

—–

The signs say CLOSED. We wait in rows of twelve. The taste of iron is hard to forget. Our nosebleeds are a constant source of embarrassment.

—–

Sit. Pray. Eat. Talk. Forget. Rise. Leave.

—–

And repeat. Drink coffee from the troughs provided. Do not attempt to communicate with each other. Do not sneeze. Do not cough.

—–

We drowned in neat rows. They kept our eyes open. Light diffused in our slow watery dreams. The Bird King sang about lost love.

—–

It was nothing to complain about. The wounds would soon heal. Suburbs burned gold in the autumn afternoon.

—–

We set the fire alarms off so we could have rain indoors. Our enemies hid under their desks, fearful of dissolution.

—–

Time means nothing. Set your watch to whenever you like. Rewind if you missed what I said. Young men wear beards as an ironic comment.

—–

The Bird King builds mazes around our cities. We are free to leave at any time, but will probably get lost and starve to death.

—–

What else do you remember? Tell us in the present tense: it’ll sound more truthful. Don’t leave any sordid detail out.

—–

Most of them will be set on fire in the streets, so remember to stay indoors until morning. There is blood on your collar.

—–

Going back to the start. But it’s not the same when you get there. The light is different. Your mood is different. The crowds have gone.