David Herd, ‘Walk Song’ (Shearsman, 2022) : Stephen Watts, ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ (Monitor Books & Prototype, 2022)
Reviewed by Simon Collings
In 2015 David Herd set up the Refugee Tales initiative to draw attention to the plight of migrants subject to indefinite detention in the UK. The project campaigns for the abolition of these practices. Two key aspects of its work are telling migrants’ individual stories, and organising walks to make migrants publicly visible in a context where the state seeks to hide them from view. Established writers are paired either with migrants or with people working with migrants, like solicitors and interpreters, and the writers tell their stories. Four books of Refugee Tales have been published so far, all co-edited by Herd.
The walking and the narrating of stories takes its inspiration from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the migrants’ stories having titles like ‘The Stowaway’s Tale’, ‘The Advocate’s Tale’. It’s an exercise which consciously roots itself in ancient traditions of companionship and hospitality. With the current government threatening to increase the number of detention centres in the UK, and ‘off-shoring’ to Rwanda still being pursued, the campaign is as much needed now as it has ever been.
Walk Song, Herd’s new poetry collection, is closely related to the Refugee Tales project. The opening section of the book first appeared as the prologue to Refugee Tales l, and other sections were also previously published in the Refugee Tales series. But this is not a book of retellings of others’ stories. It’s about the initiative itself, an evocation of a collective imagining of a different kind of future, one which rejects ‘the terms / Of a debate that criminalizes / Human movement’. This re-imagining involves challenging the narratives of officialdom and, through listening to the tales of others, creating a language ‘That opens politics / Establishes belonging / Where a person dwells.’
The book consists of four long poems with short poems, like interludes, between. References to Chaucer weave through the opening poem, titled ‘Prologue’, with quotations from the start of The Canterbury Tales. We’re remined that Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled to Europe and beyond to ‘straunge strondes’, in search of cures ‘Whan that they were seeke’. They travelled freely. Present-day asylum seekers, in contrast, face arbitrary arrest, violence, exclusion. Chaucer wrote ‘To make his English sweete,’ Herd says, and he proposes that we need our language ‘made sweet again’, rather than ‘Rendered hostile by act of law’.
Chaucer says of his travellers: ‘tender to Canterbury they wende’. Herd in his Prologue plays on the etymologically related words ‘tender’ and ‘attend’ and their multiple meanings – including to hold, to listen, to wait. The walkers and story tellers of the Refugee Tales project wended their way through the Weald of Kent in 2015, stopping at night to tell stories to local audiences. A voice starts up, Herd writes:
And then the language
Perced to the roote. (p.15)
Physically occupying the landscape and reclaiming bodily space, not just cultural space, is a key theme in Walk Song. The second long poem of the book, ‘Songs from the language of a declaration’, includes repeated references to ‘geography’, ‘landscape’, ‘the ground beneath us’ (this poem is dated August 2019). In the course of the walk, people developed a camaraderie:
And whereas nobody
It was happening
As deep they went
Into the morning
To the fact
That everybody present
Individual words and phrases are repeated throughout the ten numbered sections of ‘Songs from the language’. Terms like ‘whereas’, ‘as well as’, ‘witness’ introduce a note of formality, as in the legal formulations of a ‘declaration’. Several passages warn of how the placing of asylum seekers outside the normal legal framework threatens our democracy. Section 6 says:
That this is actually
Within the burden
Of each state
Who is denied
The law (p.36)
Subject to the law but without any rights under it, migrants are vulnerable to abuse. The violence of official language and the process of pushing back against it are topics often returned to in the poem. Section 7 consists of three stanzas, each ending with ‘They did not pass’, a phrase echoing the Republican slogan No pasarán from the Spanish Civil War. The final stanza ends:
And as we heard you breathe
You brought the language
The way it broke
Taught us how to name
As it gathered
With you among us
As we stood
They did not pass. (p.39)
The elliptical style of the poetry here, and in Walk Song generally, is integral to the poet’s reclaiming of language, a refusal of simplistic, linear arguments, choosing instead a richer complexity of utterance.
A more personal focus enters with the third major poem, ‘Still Spring’, dated April 2020. A landscape of trees and birds, and the brief flowering of a magnolia, provide the backdrop to a series of encounters with an individual or individuals caught in the asylum system and traumatised by what they have lived through. Section VII reads:
When I put my arms around you
I can feel your body weight
I know, in your heaviness,
You have travelled this far
I can see it in your eyes
You have been
After my children
You care (p.55)
The final long poem, titled ‘Walk Song’ and dated June 2019, revisits the themes explored in the previous sequences. The poem starts with people gathering and then walking, ‘occupying ground’, ‘establishing a discourse’:
Drawing the language
To a bearing
We might sustain (p.77-78)
Those walking, ‘laid out evenly / Against the landscape’ form a kind of syntax, figures in the landscape, seeking to ‘figure out’:
A network of prepositions
That one day
Might stand before the law
In the entirety of what he knows
To the magnitude of his condition. (P.83)
These are thoughtful, tender meditations on how, through reclaiming language, we might resist autocracy and the violation of people’s rights.
Stephen Watts’ Twenty-Four Hours is a very different kind of book, though in a sense it is also about the world of the imagination threatened by external forces. The texts which make up the chapbook – ‘poems, prose poems, whatever’ as Watts describes them – were written between 1974 and 1977 but not published until now. There is no obvious narrative thread connecting the various pieces, but they do share a common vocabulary and style so that overall the assemblage does cohere.
The principal source of pleasure in these pieces comes from the many striking images Watts confronts us with:
… standing in the gold
and silver of the thing unmimed, above walls and
cobbles the huge flowers wave in triumph exalting
the mysteries of blue … (p.6)
he saw beaches dusty with age and bright pools, blue
phantoms and frosted trees and early crabs, towers
and outhouses and machine guns … (p.21)
In the notes at the end of the book Watts mentions several poets he was reading at the time, whose ‘words, phrases and even whole lines’ he recognises ‘rising through the strands and clusters of my words’. Rimbaud, whose influence might be seen in the unexpected juxtaposition of images in the passages quoted above, is one of the poets mentioned.
Georg Trakl is another. Several of Watts’ pieces read almost like prose translations of lost Trakl poems. The use of bold colours in Trakl’s poetry finds an echo in Watts’ texts. These lines are from Trakl’s ‘The Sun’, translated by James Wright and Robert Bly:
The fish rises with a red body in the green pond.
Under the arch of heaven
The fisherman travels smoothly in his blue skiff.
‘Red fish’ occur in Watts’ texts on page 7 and page 9. In the text spanning pages 8 and 9 we have ‘the green eyes that guard the lonely pond’. Watts’ reference to ‘the sun sisters eating purple grapes’ on page 16 recalls Trakl’s ‘purple fruits that fell to earth’, and the ‘purple grapes’, pressed by peaceful monks, in his poem ‘Song of The Western Countries’.
Trakl’s poetry tends to be sombre in tone, the spots of colour surrounded by menace. This same mood is present in many of Watts’ texts, as for example in the following passage from the poem which mentions ‘blue deer’:
rings of flesh and dark chambers and jasmine
shagged with frost and he saw people huddled
together in nights of shooting and sudden lights.
he saw stadia of internment and ghetto guards and
horizons of random flaring. he saw torsos growing
upwards like petrified trees and airs gone orange
with blight. (p.20)
‘… i see the world through the eyes of a child.’, Watts says in the text starting on page 6, but this is not a gaze of unalloyed innocence. On page 10 a Rimbaud-like child tells a group of elderly peasants that he is ‘hunted to the heart of the wood of my childhood games by ravenous wolves. my tongue is torn out by a hundred thick white teeth’. The peasants fail to see the child as they lack ‘childish sensibilities’.
Watts spent several years prior to 1977 in northern Scotland, including on the island of North Uist, and some of the texts in Twenty-Four Hours evoke this landscape. There’s a sense of jouissance, of the rapture of encounter with ‘the thing unmimed’ in these pieces. The poem on page 6 mentioned above (‘I see the world’), speaks of ‘far away hills that roll in the short-lovely heat of a spring day, islands where no-one treads black with solitude’. A later, valedictory poem, starting at the bottom of page 24, recalls those islands in the lines ‘to sit for a moment at the open door, to look again at the four islands and the sky coloured amber and saffron, to warm scones on a hastily done up griddle’.
Watts’ views on the role of a poet are reflected in two texts in particular. On page 12 he writes:
… the choice is not made
out of necessity, but the very choice made at all
condemns the journeyman to his soulless wandering.
hyenas bark at the sun. merchants and tramps drink
of the honey that falls from the trees. at the spliced
tongue of silence he prefers to sing, to consume
his myth or be consumed by it. beginning with
the sirens of infinite beauty, the good fantasy and
the pain of awakening, in heaven or in hell, and
ending with the deception of bells, the impossibility
of movement and the pain of recollection, in the
purgatory of this world …
The second text, which begins on page 21, describes a male figure, a kind of prophet who ‘had the keys to the great mysteries and immortal encounters’. he has ‘music in his house, in his hands’ and is able to bring the world ‘to the rhythm of his heartbeat’. Citizens urge him to ‘overcome their fates’, but he will not ‘sacrifice music’. His response to their ‘petitions and assemblages, the endless discussions and marches’ is to ‘make them deaths in fruitful flowering. he took things in his hands and the world was burnt away’.
Watts’ poetry has been relatively difficult to get hold of until quite recently. He’s a fine poet who deserves to be much better known. A collection of his work from 1975 to 2005, Journeys Across Breath, has just been published by Prototype. This includes the text of Twenty-Four Hours. A second collection, including more of Watts’ early work as well as recent poetry, is forthcoming. Watts has published translations of a number of poets from the Middle East, including Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh (Pages from the Biography of an Exile, Arc Publications, 2014) and Syrian poet Golan Haji (A Tree Whose Name I Do Not Know, Midsummer Night’s Press, 2017).