by Sean Bonney
Commune Editions 2019 Oakland, CA.
Please forgive us if we here in Merica learned about British poet Sean Bonney too late: He died in 2019, and Our Death is the first and only book of his published, posthumously, on this side of the Pond. Bonney comes out of the spoken word tradition and radical left politics, and although he was a lecturer at the university level, he would have been at home at the Nuyorican in New York City or the Green Mill in Chicago. All of his poetry is angry, and some of it brutal, like in "one royal car one screaming mob":
"freedom." yeh. tell me about it.
I think you mean the holes in my shoes.
but, you know, I
get to do what I want all the time
whereas you, you get all these duties, yeh
that whatever-it-is you call fucking
you bonus your job
that fish sauce you tell yourself you're eating
when really you know you're eating shit
yes, I walk around on your roofs
in my fucked up boots
whenever I want
no, not like Mary Poppins, no
demons of the cities either
you kind of don't know what I'm talking about
certain frequencies you don't get, no
I'm not jealous of you
freedom, yeh, these holes in my shoes....
you see they're special they'll never wear out
as I boot your face in over and over, as
yes as I smash it. three nails in your forehead.
special receivers in your bougie head.
Bonney tends not to use titles in these poems, but this one does a great job of already placing us in the streets, in or part of that 'mob,' protesting someone from a royal family, something you'd never hear about on the BBC. The title is also a key that the speaker of the poem isn't Bonney. The word 'mob' is never used by a group itself. Bonney seems to be the outsider, looking on, or in, though he's at least somewhat sympathetic—like newspapers, poetry collections reveal their biases in how much ink is devoted to a certain topic.
Most of the poems in Our Death are prose, many in the style of John Ashbury, if Ashbury dropped f-bombs and came from the lower-class—technically grammatically-correct sentences that don't quite proceed linearly, but rather take readers, and their minds, un-logically off in some unexpected direction, so that at the end we're not sure where we are, except not where we started. Take for example this excerpt from "On Bomb Scares":
It was a bullet replaced all history. Couldn't recognize ourselves in it—all of its dates compressed to a phalanx of immaterial noise. And then we ignited, were permanently stained. We had always guessed it would be cities that would fall, but how wrong we were, transformed in our sleep to an alphabet rearranged as a disc of cranial time. Letters were allocated. Calendars and surgery. Vowels and black clouds. Several royal bastards. They wail and screech in the lower part of the city.
We're far from Ashbury's finger sandwiches here. I'm not sure there's a definite meaning to this poem, even if there seems to be an accusation of blame at the end, towards the royal bastards, which reads like Bonney thinks all royals are bastards, maybe not literally (though in a system where bloodlines are of the utmost importance, 'bastard' is probably the worst insult you could call a royal) but in the sense that all royalty behaves awfully. Still, I feel that "phalanx of immaterial noise," now especially as I write this over the Christmas holidays, surrounded by bad music every time I step out in public.
A mini-manifesto titled (in the Table of Contents, at least) "all poetry that does not" from his first full book, Blade Switch Control Unit (2005), which I read at the same time as Our Death, helps make sense of Bonney's Anarchist-Ashbury style:
All poetry that does not testify to an awareness of the radical falsity of the established forms (of life) is faulty. Understand prosody via black bloc tactics.* No-one has yet spoken a language which is not the language of those who establish, enforce, and benefit from the facts. Language is conservative. Its conservatism issues (a) from its utilitarian purpose, (b) from the fact that the memory of a person, like that of humankind, is short.
In other words, we're all using the language of the oppressor if our poems 'make sense.' Which is not a new idea—L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets in the 80s, in America at least, were ostensibly rebelling against this same idea, though to my mind ended up betraying their middle-class-ness, sounding, at best, clever, and at worst, gibberish. Above all, their 'politics' never manifested, sounding like their poems were written from comfortable academic offices. What I mean is, they would never mention "black bloc tactics" at all, as Bonney does, if perhaps ironically or sarcastically: That asterisk in the poem directs us to a footnote: "Archaic reference, unexplained." Which says a lot of you're at all politically aware (like if you just get your news from NPR)—The black bloc folks are the ones dressed all in black, with baklavas, at protests, who are not above some destruction of corporate property, and other mischief, to shut the system down. In this age of peaceful and playing-nice pink pussy protests, Bonney's reminding us that the corporations, and the politicians they buy off, aren't scared of us, don't even notice us, and certainly don't care about us, unless we scare them, make them notice us, and make them care.
What makes Bonney's poetry 'anarchist' or 'protest', though he does use those words, is not any wisdom or 'revelation' but the settings (for example, in the streets, during protests) and especially the things mentioned, connecting him to another Merican poet, William Carlos Williams, whose admonition "no ideas but in things" is maybe the key to Bonney's poetry. The boot is the idea.
There are no revelations, nor definite political solutions in Bonney's poetry. There is only what he calls "desperation", which he addresses in a prose-poem-letter, "Dear Katarina," to Greek anarchist poet, Katarina Gogou. I'm sure many readers feel a certain desperation in American and European politics. But Bonney argues that our of our sense of desperation is needed, necessary. That from it comes
....a way of pronouncing the language needed to help undermine the fascist tinnitus that all of our sensory networks have become....I'm telling you this because I sense something of this desperation—a desperation I'm determined not to normalize—in your work as well.
I'm not familiar with Gogou's work, Bonney talks about her in a late interview, but she isn't available in English (or not in Merica anyways). In one section of Our Death titled "Cancer: Poems after Katerina Gogou," Bonney writes what he calls "versions" of her poetry, half-translations, or more like translations of her intentions or emotions. They're anyways distinct style-wise from Bonney's other poems, with more repetition and Ann Waldman-style chanting. The title poem becomes a catalogue of fears, desperate ones:
Fearful we'll abandon our history or steal it. Fearful we'll set up borders around that history. Fearful we'll drive up the rents on that history and talk and talk about the old days in meter and rhyme while the pigs close the borders. Fearful we'll be those borders. Fearful we'll confuse those borders with songs and sit inside those songs as if they were the scars on our veins. Fearful our scars will become a lullaby and that we will turn into dogs. Fearful we'll confuse dogs with doves. Fearful of doves and swans, of corpuscles, of medical robes, of silence and smack. Fearful we're doing what they want. What silence wants. We police their borders. They know how it is. Fearful bastards. Fearful of everything. All of us. Fuck it. Do it tomorrow. No escape from the massacre.
The question is, who is the 'we'? The fears start off lower-class and anti-establishment, talking about "the pigs." But then we get a 'we' that polices 'their' borders—who is this but the pigs themselves. The answer is, I think, that it's a listing of the fears of everyone. Again, Bonney isn't the speaker here, but speaking for everyone. Everyone is afraid, and we're all acting and re-acting out of that. In this poem I see a glimmer of, not hope, but basic wisdom, a reminder to not act in fear, even if still angry. You could argue anger comes from fear. Though the kind of anger Bonney is channeling comes from a sense of self-defense: It's ok to get angry at fascists and corrupt politicians and the rich: they're out to kill us. But let us not be afraid of them.
I wrote that we learned about Bonney too late. I think I actually mean just in time. I've been looking for a response to what's happening politically, both in England and here in Merica, wondering how I could/should respond as a poet. And I don't mean pink pussy protests. The answer is not to worry about being profound and having a great message, but placing our poems in the streets, to be in the streets, fighting against the people who are literally killing us (the title is, and about, Our Death). And/or, if we introverted poets can't be front-line protesters, we can place them and their things, like their boots, in our poems.
I would have liked to read more of Bonney, for decades to come. Though compared to Rimbaud, I think he might have become a British Allen Ginsberg. Maybe there will be a posthumous collection of previously uncollected works. A Collected Works would be welcome. Remains to be seen if the street protests of England and Europe Bonney invokes will happen to that extent here in Merica.