Chris Edgoose reviews WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER: poems for a disUNITED KINGDOM edited by Michael Stewart, Steve Ely and Kayleigh Campbell (Grist, 2022)
The UK has been crying out for an anthology of angry, polemical, what-the-hell-is-going-on verse for some time and the editors of WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER: poems for a disUNITED KINGDOM should be congratulated for taking on the challenge.
In the introduction they make a distinction between the “protest politics” of Trouble, Grist’s 2019 short story anthology, and the “broader ‘state-of-the-nation’ focus” of this one, and it is true that their adjectives ‘public’ and ‘political’ might be more appropriate for many of the poems here. But as the title suggests, neither public nor political imply balanced or objective.
The claim in the original call for submissions, quoted in the introduction, that the editorial team were “not looking for any particular type of politics” doesn’t ring quite true given the “apocalyptic” context they set up in the same call: “The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland is a post-imperial state that has failed to adapt to its reduced role and status in the world and with the history and legacy of empire. The fault lines of national and regional identity, and of class, race and gender continue to be significant obstacles to the development of a meaningful sense of unity … The national rupture precipitated and exposed by Brexit has thrown our divisions into stark relief: on one side triumphalism, hostility, gloating and a will to dominate; on the other, hopelessness, sadness and only fragmented protest and resistance.”
As powerfully expressed and true as this may be, the editors were never going to receive submissions from either conservatives or Conservatives, and presumably they didn’t want them.
The truth is this is a brilliantly biased anthology of left-spectrum, politically aware and motivated poems, which in some cases could be classified as poetry of protest but would almost all fall under the umbrella of a poetry of dissatisfaction. It is not an anthology that attempts to reassure us everything will be okay nor offers anodyne words of hope. Quite the opposite in fact; as John Newsham says in one of the stand-out pieces, ‘It’: “What lies ahead may cause upset”.
As poetry of dissatisfaction, it is a wild ride. Including works by unknown poets alongside established names (i.e. poets that we have already been told are good, so we don’t need to work it out for ourselves) is an appropriately democratic approach. And some of those whose bios indicate they are just starting out stand up very well beside their better-known contemporaries. Not all of them do, in my opinion, but I imagine the poems I consider weaker would be held up as the best of the bunch by another reviewer. An aim of an anthology like this is surely to contain poetry likely to appeal to the widest range of people possible so that it’s message might carry far and wide. There is something here for everyone (except perhaps Conservatives).
This is a brilliantly biased anthology of left-spectrum, politically aware and motivated poems
The editors make the claim that the poems demonstrate “originality, boldness and flair alongside subtlety and insight”, and I wouldn’t quibble with that — the poems do demonstrate these things, although in unequal measure. It is perhaps the level of subtlety employed that divides the poems which feel more openly ‘of protest’ from those which don’t. For many of the poems, there is an urgency at play to which subtlety would be an unwarranted luxury at best and a barrier at worst.
The requirements of protest poetry are that it moves, girds, goads, inspires, angers, and teaches where necessary, not that it takes its readers down philosophical rabbit holes and dazzles the student with the lightness of its allusive touch. Steve Ely’s livid prose poem ‘Commissioners of Sewers’ exemplifies the straight-talking, no-punches-pulled nature of more than one poem, and he pre-empts any impulse to judge on technical aspects of versification as opposed to the message of the content. He begins:
This poem describes how the Crown, aided and abetted by sundry Lords, courtiers and adventurers, used prerogative power and the state’s monopoly of violence to drain and enclose the fenland commons, extort, expropriate & expel the commoners, and auction off the Commonwealth to privy investors [ … ]
And he proceeds with two pages of determinedly un-poetic prose, finishing with “The poem is over. There will be a test”. Feeling duly admonished, I went straight to Wikipedia to learn more about The Enclosures and the draining of the Fens, and several books on the subject are now winging their way to me. Presumably this kind of reaction counts as a ‘win’ for Ely’s work as a piece of protest poetry.
But there are other poems here that more quietly notice, and report to us what they have noticed, allowing us to draw what we will from their observations: Safia Khan with her lonely recently-arrived immigrant in ‘Fresh off the Boat’; Gerry Cambridge with a fraught relationship between neighbours from different sides of the Protestant / Catholic divide in ‘The Green and the Blue’; Suna Afshan in the language of a family isolated from one another and conversing across half the world by video call.
For many of the poems, there is an urgency at play to which subtlety would be an unwarranted luxury at best and a barrier at worst
There are laughs too — albeit bitter ones — in the deliberate lack of subtlety in Alberto Fernandez Carbajal’s ‘Brexshitland’, for example. Carbajal picks up with great skill respective pronunciation difficulties in both English and Spanish with the comment “They … / try to roll their r’s without falling on their / arse”, and he arranges the typography of his poem to reveal, if we read down the left-hand side, “Spanish / arse / Leave / Great Britain / She’s / shit”. It made me laugh anyway.
There are also some real surprises in the anthology. MacGillivray’s ‘Reversible, Halts’ takes us into the imagined, the mythical and symbolic, where a make-believe poet who lives on a make-believe Hebridean island and who believes he is a demon, leaves us fragments of his thought-world, his “enormously flawed” “amnesiac system” through which he hopes to gain redemption by “forgetting himself”. Unlike most of the poems in the anthology, this one requires some digging into if its relevance to the question of a disunited kingdom is to be revealed. Briefly, my reading is that MacGillivray’s poet represents the national body politic and his surreal-seeming inner life is symbolic of a national consciousness struggling to deal with what it is, or what it has become. ‘Reversible, Halts’ is an intriguing and oddly beautiful addition to the anthology.
There are some lovely strands of metaphor, imagery and allusion connecting many of the poems too. One of these, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the repeated use of Shakespearean references. These come in poems’ titles, such as ‘This Realm, This England’ by Rory Waterman, and ‘Happy Breed’ by Gregory Wood, both of which send us back to John of Gaunt’s famous death-bed speech in Richard II, where he predicts the nation’s downfall and concludes: “That England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself”. And Shakespeare rears his head too in the peculiar behaviour of Geraldine Clarkson’s vividly described and surreal animals in ‘Apocalypse (Synopsis)’ which startlingly updates the famous omens of disorder and disaster from Act 2, Scene 4 of Macbeth. We recall “night’s predominance, or the day’s shame” in Clarkson’s “corned-beef skies” from which “A thousand starlings plop like gobs of tar”, and under which “Domestic pets climb rooftops late at night / and yowl”, and “Two-headed babies grizzle at the breast”. This sinister, nightmarish sonnet perfectly evokes a sense of the awful unease that Ross and the old man discuss outside Macbeth’s castle following Duncan’s betrayal and slaughter. What has been betrayed and by whom is the terrible subtext of this great poem. Although widely admired by her fellow poets, Clarkson is one of the UK’s most under-acknowledged major voices and both of her contributions to this anthology are testament to her skills.
Despite what I have said above, a couple of poems here really do seem to transcend all political bias and yet still make a powerful political point. For me, these are the highest points of the anthology. Two stand out particularly.
… a couple of poems here really do seem to transcend all political bias and yet still make a powerful political point
‘It’ by John Newsham is the poem which most thoroughly examines — or at least questions — what this it that we are all supposed to be in together actually is. Newsham’s take on this monstrous group ‘subject’ (national psychosis? historical force? a personification of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ quoted in the introduction?) does not present a neat answer, but instead suggests that whatever it is, it is malicious, cruel, paradoxical and divisive, and none of us escape its Erisian attentions:
It taps the Brexiteer on the shoulder. It tells him he’s thick as shit. It taps the Remainer on the shoulder. It enquires: why do you think you lost? Could you not articulate the arguments that would have demonstrated your superior intellect? It walks away, whistling. It screams select lines from Seigfried Sassoon through the two minutes’ silence. It covers itself in poppies and departs from the cenotaph in a nuclear submarine. It takes the culture warriors. The woke and the anti-woke [ … ]
And so on. It’s a wonderful, uncompromising prose poem which allows no one the comfort of a moral high ground: “It takes me then it takes you. It takes everybody else. All of us who know we’ve seen the light. It leads us to the darkness.”
Another awesomely bleak poem is Bob Beagrie’s ‘Pathogen’, which combines the inescapable and malignant nature of Newsham’s ‘it’ with the imagery of Covid to suggest powerfully that rather than us being in something together, ‘it’ is actually something in us, like a virus, which will finally destroy us. Again, no prisoners are taken.
[ … ] behind a look, beneath a word, within a promise,
travelling in a crowd, forming clusters along chains
of transmission, hitchhiking on breath and bodily fluids,
a stowaway in an attitude, an illegal immigrant riding
the virulent fear of itself gone viral …
[ … ]
blockades breached, the heart besieged, kinship ties
in tatters …
Beagrie’s use of ‘immigrant’ here is dangerous, being so close to the language of viruses, but he is careful to show us that it is the racism faced by immigrants that is part of the real ‘illegal immigrant’ within us, the ‘pathogen’ of intolerance, xenophobia, and whatever else this ‘it’ might be.
He’s right to use potentially dangerous language in poems of this type, and the editors are right to include it, just as they are right to include Aamina Khan’s ‘Yorkshire Cricket’, which examines the deadening — almost dehumanising — effect of habitual racist language as encountered by the British Pakistani community in Yorkshire. Khan’s blending of racist terminology with Yorkshire dialect words is deftly done, powerful and real. It works as a protest poem because it is real, of course. One of the great functions of poetry is that it can hold up dangerous, ugly and hateful language to the light so that we are able to see it more clearly for what it is and understand more about how it shapes us. Both Khan and Beagrie exemplify this useful quality of verse.
WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER does not read as, and I hope it will not turn out to be, a completed project. This should just be the beginning …
Much of the poetry in WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER is necessarily ‘poetry of place’ as much as anything else, and a great deal of it is ‘poetry of northern places’. This is great, the North is under-represented in contemporary UK poetry (or so it feels to me, but I’m a northerner living in the South), and it is also to be expected given that Grist is funded in part by the University of Huddersfield. But it does mean that there is a lack of regional inclusion that slightly undermines the all part of WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER. Of course, the title is ironic anyway, but the irony is intended along the lines of class and power not geography. Poems representing more of the UK geographically would have been nice; and as the editors say themselves in the introduction, the anthology would have been helped by more female poets. But they could only include what was submitted. It sounds as though they had their work cut out in trimming off the many, many submissions that were “hectoring and didactic”, “read like mansplaining Guardian op-eds” and “seemed to be written from the verandas of second homes in Tuscany or Provence” or displayed “the troubling othering and stereotyping of the white working class”. This response says as much about the state of our nation as the poems that made it through, I think, and the editors deserve huge credit for wading through it all.
But as a result, WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER does not read as, and I hope it will not turn out to be, a completed project. This should just be the beginning, and I would love to read anthologies from the Grist team every year for the next ten years. The collected work that came from that extended project would be a genuinely important anthology to mark an age, and should make it onto the National Curriculum so that future generations might benefit from its insights into what the hell was going on in the UK in the 2020s.