Bruno Cooke reviews Please Do Not Touch by Casey Bailey (Burning Eye, 2021)
The first thing to say about Bailey’s poems – these are the first I’ve read – are that they often need to be read twice. Of course, it’s not uncommon that a poem rewards a second or third reading. But to need reading twice is different. They are dense. They require concentration, sometimes more than a particular set of circumstances allow. I struggled to read them on the train, for example, or when I hadn’t slept well. Perhaps, in general, too few poems require absolute concentration. Not capitulating to our collective descent towards instant gratification is, by and large, probably a good thing. But at the same time, readers often benefit from having something to hang their hat on – literally, a hook. The most obvious type of hook is a story: some kind of change, movement or shift that readers live through within a poem. Of course, poems don’t have to tell stories. Many don’t. My point is, the poems in Please Do Not Touch sometimes require a level of attention and emotional investment that makes them hard to access.
But, as is often the case, you get out what you put in. Partly this has to do with the tips of icebergs. One feels with many of Casey’s poems that they are supported, that the 90% is there. The legwork, or bummock, lurks beneath the surface. The action in ‘31.08.05’, for example, takes place in an ambulance. The protagonist is listening to a paramedic talk “out of the ceiling / light” about a previous callout, someone “who dropped / dead on arrival”. She says “his body must’ve / thought he had made it to safety.” An internal voice chimes in: “‘She wouldn’t say that if you were dying.’” It is a simple scenario, well sketched. There is enough detail to paint a picture, yet not so much that it is descriptive or expositional. The tip contains enough clues to decipher the rest. The poem continues:
My voice, this time. Rationalising my own
mortality is a delicate thread to cling to,
but what do you do? Let go? Lean into
rapid pulse; blink for just a moment too long.
Sometimes, however, the sketch is too thin, and after a third or even a fourth reading, one finds the poem’s door stubbornly locked. There are times where the groundwork of the poem doesn’t quite feel supportive or robust enough to sustain a solid dig. The presence of a reader causes it to sink further below the surface, or fade away. ‘Curfew Breakers’, for example, begins with the words: “There is a lesson / so / basic / the details are / enforcing a curfew”. Boldly figurative, and thought-provoking as a self-contained phrase, but the poem itself loses momentum, gets tangled in the seriousness of its language – a knot of its own making.
The series of fifteen poems ‘Tomorrow, Yesterday, Today’ straddles the whole spectrum. It’s a nod in the direction of the sonnet redoublé or heroic crown of sonnets, with all fourteen first lines used in the fifteenth poem, in order, but without the last line of each poem doubling up as the first line of the next. Some of its constituent poems – they are really not sonnets – wear their gravitas well, and manage to weave tidy, well constructed aphorisms into complete and satisfying wholes. ‘1’ chases the sentence, “The difference between broken promises / and miscarried promises is intention” with the following:
Green leaves cleaved from trees by young hands,
fallen before fall. Evergreen was not the plan
And so on. There is also profundity to be found in ‘Same / Energy’, two complementary poems on a double-page spread, structured around the same three lines. For some reason I was disappointed when I read, in the Notes at the end, that its shape was borrowed from a poem by Toby Campion, UK Poetry Slam Champion 2017. But its merit comes as much from its form as from the unabashedness with which it asserts its philosophy. The following three lines occur in both ‘Same’ and ‘Energy’, with stanzas of equal lengths separating them.
Power’s not a body; it’s an outfit.
Nothing more precious than perception.
Judgement based on standing, more than standards.
They sound clichéd; the wordplay is blunt. But actually I’m not sure they are. Maybe you have to read it in situ – maybe it’s just me. There’s something strident about the way Bailey kicks home an argument. What I mean to say is, he philosophises and backs it up with decent poetry, and when he does, it works. His maxims don’t feel out of place. The sixth poem in the sequence poses the question, ‘Who speaks to the dead, carries them, / cares for them beyond their expiry date?’ His answer (below) packs punch. He’s a poet with an activist’s bent and he knows how to deliver a point.
[…] So much of history
is a celebration in the future by those
who paid for the present, for its opulence,
for the walls that kept poverty away,
knowing that its existence here can be
separated from us when the story is told.
(from ‘6’ / ‘Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today’)
It sounds conversational. This is not a ‘poetic’ lexicon, per se. Poets use words like ‘heft’ and ‘palimpsest’. No, not really, but it is a point worth making: for the most part, Bailey uses normal, working words. Perhaps this is to be expected. He’s an assistant head teacher with a focus on, by his own description, ‘the areas of education and educational leadership that relate to addressing barriers to students having access to, or engaging with the curriculum’. Put simply, he makes education more accessible, so it’s unsurprising that his poetry is, at least in terms of its vocabulary, inclusive.
There’s something strident about the way Bailey kicks home an argument. What I mean to say is, he philosophises and backs it up with decent poetry, and when he does, it works
Elsewhere, he talks about “scraped / knees from your BMX days”, “hardo bread” (a sweetened white loaf found in West Indian shops and, presumably, the West Indies), black Air Max 95s versus white Air Force 1s (these are classic trainers, about which much has been written), and the Gs on someone’s Gucci bag not looking right. He situates his vignettes in places like Kedleston Hall, or by the “fountain at Witley Court”. These are real life histories, naturalist snapshots that, usually, communicate a combination of regret and anguish. He also knows how to extend a metaphor. Continuing on from ‘Green leaves cleaved’:
How his brothers grow brown and withered
in his absence, hoping only the claws of gravity
will grasp them, lest they be snatched too soon.
But ‘Tomorrow, Yesterday, Today’ doesn’t always strike gold with its profound projections, or its extended metaphors. ‘4’ personifies death, and gives her a face: “She has blown lives from / the tops of cabinets’ – so far, so comprehensible – but its head loses sight of its tail; she has also “watched them / become impossible to see, breathed / them in, exhaled ponderousness / so that it may land on the shoulders / of survivors”. Unlike the example given above, and unlike ‘5’, which bundles the death of a child into an allegory of a “fox lying dead, middle of the road” at which we ‘don’t blink’, ‘4’ assumes the strength of its central metaphor will account for the elusiveness of its language.
In ‘7’, we have 14 lines each beginning with the word, ‘like’, as in, “Like war in the name of peace, not pieces”, “like wind across faces” or “Like waterfalls”. (Note: lists of similes are a pet peeve, for me.) Our task as readers is to pin down what is like all of these things, but what if we can’t? Its saving grace is that it is part of a whole, rather than a self-contained piece, but it struck me more as a collection of ideas than something written for a reader. One last structural gripe, while we’re here. In ‘When Your Brother Died’, Bailey takes aim at someone who has returned, apparently after being thrown out, to claim an inheritance following the death of their brother. The brother’s wealth – “Grecian taste, oriental magnificence” – is “stolen”. The poem has history, foundation; the anger is real and justified. But the last seven of its 12 lines contain seven questions. Except for the final sentence, they are seven questions. Perhaps the content justifies the form. The narrator’s frustration is understandable, their questions plausible. For me, however, the repetition of a particular phrasal pattern, as with the likes above, shows a lack of formal originality, and ends up grating.
Who taught you to take so well, which marauder
unlocked your potential to unlock, relock
annex, asseverate? Own? Did he know?
Had he seen boomerangs before? When he threw
you, could he foresee your return as vulture
His future as carrion? How proud he’d be.
(from ‘When Your Brother Died’)
Prose is a strong suit for Bailey. Sparseness is less likely to get the better of him, as in ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’, the narrator of which addresses a friend who has recently died. At their funeral, the narrator is angered by “the boys who / took today for a fashion parade and stand far back on the path / now, terrified of mud on their Pradas”; their anger is “piping and indiscriminate”. The poem feels like a release: of emotions, of words, and from the constraints of traditional poetic structure. With more time to tell around the story, to fill in the gaps that stanzas leave, Bailey matches content to form. And there are others in the collection that do the same.
Bailey has a knack for delivering thought-provoking axioms that, in many poetic contexts, would appear contrived or untowardly gravid. But, by planting them in the way he does, he pushes them home
Form is conspicuous in Please Do Not Touch. Whether it be deliberate non-sonnets, two poems facing each other and following the same pattern, or the sort of call and response present in ‘Swear Down’, ‘If I Speak’ and ‘31.08.05’, Bailey is not weighed down by formal convention. Which, I have to say, made me want so much more from his triptych of ‘Angela Davis Said More’ poems. Bailey and Davis, an American civil rights activist and scholar, are connected by the names of their home cities. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama; he is the Birmingham poet laureate for 2020-2022. There are three ‘Angela Davis Said More’ poems in the collection. They are erasure poems, taken from three of Davis’ 2019 essays (Bailey credits them in the Notes). Much of the power of an erasure poem (or blackout poem) comes from the presence of its erased part. The form saw a boom in 2017, in the wake of president Donald Trump’s inauguration. Examples have used the United States Declaration of Independence or letters about slaveholding as source material (see the work of Tracy K Smith), or used the form itself as a metaphor for the erasure of Indigenous peoples from history (see Jordan Abel). Key to these is the presence of the source material. Bailey’s literal erasure of the erased text, however, removes the source material. One therefore reads them as non-erasure poems while wondering why on earth all the words have been spaced out in the way they are.
What I really wanted – what I scribbled in my own notes at the time – was to be able to combine the three by overlaying them, for them to be interactive, and for the resulting aggregate to somehow subvert or challenge the meanings of its constituent parts. That would certainly be bold (and difficult to write), and it’s a credit to the poet that I entertained it as a possibility. Nevertheless, they didn’t quite deliver.
He is not like your bedbound nana.
He is old like royal palaces, surrounded
by tower blocks who have youth
but little more. There is no point in learning
his story to share his legacy.
When you are gone, he will tell it
for himself. You will not feature.
The old man has seen things
that we haven’t. He will see things
that we will not.
(from ‘The Old Man’)
If it feels, reading this, that I found it hard to grapple with this collection, that’s about right. It’s tough going and it takes time to sink in. Bailey has a knack for delivering thought-provoking axioms that, in many poetic contexts, would appear contrived or untowardly gravid. But, by planting them in the way he does, he pushes them home. He is a narrator with the heart of an activist; one feels that the driving force behind the collection is his sense of injustice, as well as his willingness to generate solidarity. The tragedies he narrates – many of the poems revolve around such issues as premature death, ghettoisation, income inequality, youth violence and racial injustice – are close to home, are those of his community, are his. To translate them, Bailey musters more voices than one. Sometimes hard-knuckled, sometimes sad, often angry and occasionally hopeful. Many of the poems in Please Do Not Touch are brutal, and pull no punches. Sometimes, several in succession feel like punches to the gut. This may well be the point, but those that deliver most are the poems that strike a balance between frank, hard-hitting reality and a tenderness and delicacy befitting its victims.
Bruno Cooke is a postgraduate student studying global journalism with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, The Focus and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium. Bruno Cooke’s website is at onurbicycle.com. He has written four plays and one novel, Reveries – buy Reveries by Bruno Cooke on Amazon – and currently lives in Sheffield with his partner and their cat Kylo Rennington Spa (the Purred).