Our Death, Sean Bonney, Commune Editions, 110pp, £13 (paperback)
In memory of Sean Bonney 1969-2019
Sean Bonney died in Berlin last November at the age of fifty, a couple of months after the publication of Our Death. The collection is a follow-up to his well-received Letters against the Firmament, described by Bonney, in an interview with BOMB magazine, as ‘open letters to the poetry community about the political situation in Britain’. Our Death expands on these epistolary poems: loose translations of the Greek poet Katerina Gogou appear alongside other revelatory material in both prose and verse form. The tone is bleak, drenched in premonitions of death, yet utterly gripping.
Bonney was born in Brighton and grew up outside of Hull. In his lifetime, he published seven collections of poetry alongside numerous pamphlets. His output contains, in the words of Willian Rowe, ‘some of the most vital writing in the language today’. Bonney spent the last four years of his life in Germany working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Free University of Berlin. His work on Our Death began before he moved, but Berlin is where most of the collection was written, the city often present in the background of its poems, through street names and neighbourhoods.
A militant leftist, Bonney’s politics paint a colourful target for his poetic fury. His voice remains an important one in an age, ahead of an emerging generation of refreshingly politicised poets, when few confronted the immediate threats – of rising income inequality, climate change, racist policymaking, ideological trashing of the public sector, or the corporate canoodling of the Conservative government – directly in poetry, unfettered by convention or stylistic distractions. His satirical barbs skewer the elite, the political class, and their instruments of oppression. ‘Our hatred of the rich is entirely justified’, he snarls in ‘In Fever’.
Throughout the collection, Bonney carefully curates his influences: a pantheon of artists, primarily poets, almost all of whom died young. Glamorous figures like Pasolini, Baudelaire and Anita Berber haunt the pages of Our Death like ghosts, drifting alongside less well-known, similarly tragic, poets and artists. The title poem is a particularly glorious, Baudelairean prose-poem, in which the speaker contemplates a dead man on the street:
You walked past a man lying face down on the pavement. A sackful of blood and brain 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 centre of our earth.
Writing of ‘Our Death’ rather than ‘His Death’, Bonney’s title ties the speaker and the reader to the dead man. The dead man is someone the speaker can see, however it is ‘your mouth . . . filled with rain’ (my emphasis), as though the fate is shared by the reader’s. It is as if the two figures swap places, the rain falling into the dead man’s mouth. The ‘missing half of his skull’, whose ownership is now in flux, ‘is the sky,’ too. This creates the mesmerising, reciprocal image of the sky raining into itself, since the cavity in the skull – another a kind of ‘mouth . . . filled with rain’ – reflects the sky above it, like a well full of water. Both a literal and metaphorical reflection on death, Bonney’s movement from the passerby to the stillness of the dead man, from the physical to the metaphysical realm, telescoping the metaphor from the sky to the centre of the earth, is redolent of much of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen. The poem continues:
In three hours time you will walk down six flights of stairs and cross the street and pass him again and no there will be noone there. No body. Not a trace of blood or drool.
The dead man is an apparition, a phantom. Perhaps the poem shows Bonney looking into the future and glimpsing his own death. Perhaps not. And yet his grim take on the flaneur is immediately if subtly political in its subversion of agency: Who owns the human body? Who owns the sky? What happens if the ownership switches? Whatever the dead man signifies, ‘Our Death’ is an eerily compelling piece of writing, heavily influenced by the crepuscular charm of Baudelaire and his precursor, the true inventor of the modern prose-poem, Aloysius Bertrand.
The prose-poem is the dominant form in Our Death and Bonney revels in the freedom it allows, navigating between autobiographical details, quotes from his pantheon and philosophical flights, always with a great sense of urgency. Despite his propensity to wear his influences on his sleeve, Bonney’s prose-poetry does not feel derivative; there is always distinct personality in his work. Furthermore, as he explains in the BOMB magazine interview: ‘I’m a small part of that tradition. I’m from Lautréamont and Artaud and all of these French people. You know what I mean?’ Bonney means he is writing from inside the tradition. It is a tradition which befits him.
I find it almost impossible to separate Our Death from Bonney’s death, not only because of their proximity – or because of the title of the collection – but due to the hallucinogenic, morbid imagery of the poems. ‘George Trakl’s Psalm’ begins:
It is a light gone out forever.
It is a bar that’s never opened never closed.
It is a vineyard it is a black hole it is a mouth full of spiders.
It is an abandoned room, sprayed with burning milk.
The maniacs have died. It is an undiscovered island
It is the sun as it is in nightmares. Here they are smashing the drums.
Here they are starting a war.
The opening line appears to toy with The Smiths’ classic ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’, casting Morrissey’s alleged subject matter, the lustre of James Dean’s eyes, into darkness. What follows, whether of black holes or abandoned rooms, reeks of death.
It should come as no surprise, then, in a poem so consumed with mortality, that the narrator, like the dead man in ‘Our Death’, is also an apparition. In ‘George Trakl’s Psalm’, the poem is ‘spoken by the ghost of Anita Berbe’ (Bonney drops the r from Berber). The title character is Georg Trakl (Bonney adds an e to George), an Austrian poet, who, like Berber, also died from addiction in his late twenties, overdosing on cocaine at the age of 27. Trakl’s presence is tangible in the poem; his poetry, like Bonney’s, is filled with darkness, introspection and violence. Herbert Lindenberger holds Trakl in high regard within the German canon: ‘the cosmic range, and the haunting music of Trakl’s poetry now mark him, with Rilke, as perhaps the last great representative of what could be called the sublime tradition in German.’
Despite their similarities as poets, Bonney’s emulation of Trakl and the German sublime is not as successful as his emulation of the prose-poetry of ‘all of these French people’. Bonney inverts the sublime tradition, replacing its promise of something more with the promise of oblivion, ‘a light gone out forever’. This, on occasion, causes Bonney to miss the target, robbing sublimity of its transcendence. Whereas Trakl’s poetry features a great stillness, there is a clarity to the imagery which Bonney’s poem lacks. ‘George Trakl’s Psalm’ moves quickly from image to image, and is effective in creating a kind of pandemonium, but falls short of Trakl’s acuteness, his cutting, silent violence. Bonney’s verse poems are good, however the best moments in Our Death come in the form of the prose-poem, which best fits his fury; it is where he shines.
Our Death is a visceral, masochistic journey into self-imposed purgatory. The poetry springs, we infer, from an extreme, unstable state of emotional tension. It is aggressive and uncompromising. Our Death is a collection which will likely grow in importance over the coming years, not only because of its quality, but because it mirrors the modern world uniquely, in a way the majority of poetry collections published today have not.
Bonney is one of Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Likely a reluctant one, in ‘Approximations of the Solar Enemy’, he writes: ‘Yeh, I was reading him this morning, Shelley, 5 o’clock or something. “Poets,” he writes, are the “are the mirrors” that reflect those “gigantic shadows.” Quite a job description.’ Perhaps the responsibility Shelley placed on the poet proved too much for Bonney. Nevertheless, his moral condemnation of the excesses of capitalism and the post-Thatcher right solidify his distinctive contribution to contemporary poetics. His instructions on how to strike back are clear and concise, returning to ‘In Fever’: ‘The fascists who murdered Pasolini are now the owners of the world. Do not mourn of forgive. Shriek one time. Shatter glass’.
Despite the pervasive bleakness of Our Death, Bonney ends on a note of hope, with a quote from labour organiser and radical activist Lucy Parsons:
You are not absolutely defenceless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known to show murderers and tyrants the danger line, beyond which they may not venture with impunity, cannot be wrested from you
The light has not gone out. The fire that Bonney kicked up is burning still.
Long may it burn.
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