Europe is a wasteland in Will Stone’s third collection The Sleepwalkers. The poet portrays the continent as ‘What’s left of burned out stars’ in these short poems that read well individually and better as a whole. Whether the setting is London’s Chinatown, a medieval monastic complex in provincial France, or a firebombed Dresden, the tone is bleak and melancholic. Respite cannot be found in religion (‘Each face wants to turn heavenwards/but each mourner looks across or down’), academia (‘At the lectern another rustled up/waxwork begins his speech’) or even art (‘The artist has left a dark cloth/draped over the unfinished canvas).
The symptoms of such debasement are myriad; the urban is murky and dark like in early Eliot or Baudelaire (who lends two epigraphs), environmental disasters menace civilisation (‘storm waves are below the last house/tireless, itching for the cornerstone’), and the dystopia of contemporary technology haunts the text with ‘surveillance under surveillance’, ‘the old town disappearing/globalised, googled, glazed,’ as ‘screens flicker on a billion eyes.’
Fundamentally it is a blindness to the lessons of history that dooms the European Sleepwalkers, ‘we who weave miraculously through/the smoking straw piles of the past’. Stone thus sets the most relentless of his poems during the Second World War, often in concentration camps; he frames the self-destruction of today with the darkest time in Europe’s past. For this sequence (the second of three sections), concise endnotes make historical context accessible, but the raw power of Stone’s images (‘roars and flames/taut chains and glistening ropes, yelling/of passing men, terror, sweat and stampede’) requires no explanation.
It is in his images that Stone shows his greatest poetic skill; he moves masterfully between the pastoral and the urban, the ancient and the modern, the religious and the profane. The effectiveness of the images remains constant throughout, and it is this effortless versatility that prevents the grim reality of the poetry’s subject matter from desensitising the reader to its darkness over the course of the collection.
Stone introduces his second section with an epigraph by Castellion: ‘Posterity will not be able to understand that we had to fall back into the same darkness after having known the light…’ and in fact Europe is regressing in The Sleepwalkers. The nostalgia of the final poem ‘Departure of the Loved Ones’ epitomises this fall. Here, the speaker’s ‘blessed’ parents leave to board a flight, testifying the disappearance of the innocent, paradoxical ‘new born elderly children’ into modern darkness: ‘I watch them recede in a chaos/of technology and systems, of guards/and glass and people who do not know.’
Although the poet relishes in romantic descriptions of death, destruction and decay, he betrays genuine despair for the loss of innocence. Whether in a lament for the lonely, univisited graves of Second World War airmen, or in a harrowing memorial to a child who died after just seventeen days of life, it is the figures who do not deserve their fate that seek to wake The Sleepwalkers. Looking up at the heights from whence the European civilisation has fallen only deepens the plunge to the emotional lows of the poems. ‘For Europe, our beautiful bone yard/the last ship of culture rich centuries/has passed on.’ While Will Stone cannot deny ‘The certainty of another century of darkness’, the century that he yearns for is a brighter one altogether, and this tension makes The Sleepwalkers a compelling collection.
By Ludo Cinelli