William Wordsworth, lamenting the deaths of Thomas Chatterton (at 17) and Robert Burns (at 37), wrote in his poem “Resolution and Independence”: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” The English poet Sean Bonney was 50 when he unexpectedly died this past November. He had a longer run of it than Chatterton, Burns, or Keats, but his death inspires a similar aching sense of an immense talent taken away too damned soon. And while despondency and madness appear aplenty in Bonney’s writing, its keynote is pure, hard rage, underpinned by profound theoretical and historical knowledge that is focused by his remarkable verbal gifts into an incandescent blowtorch of protest.
Perhaps, had he been born in another era, Bonney would have been a scholarly avant-gardist. After all, he began a doctoral dissertation on the American postmodern poet Charles Olson, and entered the writing field in workshops led by Bob Cobbing, whose sound, visual, concrete, and performance poems radically challenged British notions of what poetry could be. But Bonney came of age in the Thatcher era, when neoliberalism seemed (as it still seems) hell-bent on destroying all of the structures of mutuality and individual respect that had been established in postwar Britain. The dissertation Bonney eventually wrote was on the African American Marxist poet Amiri Baraka, and Baraka’s example of a fiercely engaged poetics, inflected by free jazz and the blues, would become central to Bonney’s imagination.
Bonney’s early books explore a variety of forms and registers, including prose poetry, collages, visual typewriter poems, and straightforward verse. They’re shot through with references to pop culture, literary texts, and political philosophers, but Bonney always wears his learning lightly: one never gets the sense that he is speaking a language reserved for the initiate. For my money, the most impressive of Bonney’s early books is The Commons (2011), a sequence of 14-line stanzas (an allusion, I take it, to the classic sonnet form) that cross-cuts references to contemporary politics, British Isles folksong, American blues, alchemical arcana, revolutionary 17th-century England, and a great deal more into a harrowing broken-mirror panorama of early 21st-century Britain:
but as I was out walking
with the strange & bitter men
we were / say it / we were
obvious radar dogs / we were
oblivious swarms, cancelled
solvents, polite ones / we were
a confused mass of centuries
seven burning circles / were
electrons / proverbs / molecules
from hand to crackling hand
a fraudulent cosmology
a hole in the ground
I wish london would
like, crack its face / o cuckoo
One can hear the echoes of so many songs here (for instance, “Strange Fruit,” “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” various cuckoo-songs, and a wealth of folksongs that begin, “As I was out walking”) that have become the fragmented soundtrack for the poet’s perambulations through the horrorscape of the contemporary — what William Blake called, in “London,” the “charter’d street[s] / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.”
Bonney too laments the “mind-forg’d manacles” that Blake raged against. But rather than construct a new, liberatory mythology, as Blake did in his dense and bewildering “prophetic” books, Bonney cobbles together a family tree of precursors who can provide him with formal suggestions for his own revolutionary poetics: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Georg Trakl, Diane di Prima, the Greek anarchist actress and poet Katerina Gogou. Central among them is the great French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud, whose most spectacular work was produced during the period around the Paris Commune (March 18–May 28, 1871). In a headnote to Happiness (Poems After Rimbaud) (2011), Bonney proclaims: “It is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital.”
That may be a bit of an overstatement, but his point is clear, as he explains in a “Letter on Poetics”: Rimbaud’s work is “the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of [his] revolutionary moment … The ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses, ok, and the ‘I’ becomes an ‘other’ as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off.”
Bonney’s not implying that the revolution will be accomplished solely through writing poems — he’s all for direct action, protest, riots — but he believes fervently (as have revolutionary poets from the Russian Futurists down through the Black Arts movement) that disruption of the hegemonic social order goes hand in hand with disruption of literary conventions.
Letters Against the Firmament (2015) was Bonney’s most expansive book to date, gathering both previously unpublished work and large swatches of The Commons and Happiness. It also includes, as part of “Corpus Hermeticum: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” one version of perhaps his most famous single poem (also published as “ACAB: A Nursery Rhyme”):
for ‘I love you’ say fuck the police, for
‘the fires of heaven’ say fuck the police, don’t say
‘recruitment’ don’t say ‘trotsky’ say fuck the police…
…don’t say ‘here are the steps I’ve taken to find work’ say fuck the police
don’t say ‘tall skinny latté’ say fuck the police, for
‘the earth’s gravitational pull’ say fuck the police, for
‘make it new’ say fuck the police
There are scores of young Britons who have “for ‘I love you’ say fuck the police” tattoos, but the poem shouldn’t be taken as representative of Bonney’s writing any more than the pub- and frat-favorite “Tubthumping” represents the many records by the genre-subverting anarchist band Chumbawamba; it’s simply a chart-topper. “Fuck the police”’s nihilistic, yet wry, desire to wipe the whole cultural slate clean is just one of Bonney’s many-shaded varieties of anti-capitalist invective.
In his last few years Bonney lived in Berlin, a city haunted like few others by the ghosts of the 20th century. In the poems of Our Death (2019), the poet wanders through a postapocalyptic wasteland, a phastasmagoria of neoliberalism run amok. He acknowledges the city’s history with references to the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, whose body was thrown into Berlin’s Ladwehr Canal after her murder in 1919. In “Our Death,” he walks by a dead man on the sidewalk: “A sackful of blood and brains and distance and imagination and despair. There were several people laughing. Your mouth was filled with rain. You said to yourself, the missing half of his skull is the sky, and somewhere inside it is the center of the earth.” “Paradise is catastrophe,” he writes in “Georg Trakl’s Psalm”:
It is a tourist boat on the Landwehrkanal.
It is the building where I live, it is valium and speed.
Here are the dead refugees, piled up inside the walls.
It is our beautiful rooms. It is our wings stained with shit.
It is the western border. It is what you want it to be. It is England controlled by maggots.
Our Death was Bonney’s first book to be published in the United States, and the poet died soon after its appearance. Reading it now, one has the haunting sense of reading a suicide note, or hearing a voice from beyond the grave. Nowhere is this sense stronger than in “From Deep Darkness,” a kind of last will and testament:
My love I leave to the suicided. My drug habit I leave to cops, let them wither, mutate and die. My hatred I keep close to my heart. My heart I leave to the center of the earth. My grief. Gah. My grief which is the size of the tiny racist island on which I was born, I compress it, I transmute it into something like the wild and collectively inhuman joy of the swifts that circle the city with a frenzy wilder than. Oh whatever …. I leave the look on my face to my enemies. I leave the red spot of Jupiter to the unemployed, I’m sure they know what to do with it. Screw my heart. Resist death by water. By fire and rope also. I am fearful of nothing. I love you all so fucking much.
Bonney was the most Rimbaldian of contemporary poets, truly living the limit-experiences — in drink, drugs, and psychological and economic extremity — that most middle-class denizens of the poetry world only romanticize. His poetry is pure punk. He titles one of the poems of Our Death “We Are the Dead” (borrowing from David Bowie, who in turn borrowed from Orwell’s 1984), and his entire body of work is an explosion of speech, yammering, and song, in the voices of whole classes and generations that the order of things has consigned to a walking death. We shall not see his like again, and we need him more than ever.
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