“Claremont Road” by Paul Hawkins. pub Erbacce Press.
The thirty or so poems in this pamphlet are vignettes of urban life in the 1990s, of grit, pain, love and death, and of resistance and protest. The realism serves up a vivid picture of life on the edge.
The pamphlet is called 'Claremont Road', named, of course, after the main site of the 1990s protests against the building of the M11 link road through north-west London. The story of the resistance is an epic one, lasting, as it did, two years, and acting as an example and inspiration to other road-protests, including the famous one against the Newbury by-pass. But Hawkins' poems don't focus on the politics, or relate in a coherent way what actually happened. They give us lives and experiences, related to the physical site of protest, but focussing on the human.
There are poems for house numbers in Claremont Road: "Number 20: Home for Three Days", "Number 38: Jon Busked Here", "Number 32: Dolly Watson" and some poems about addiction that remind me of Barry MacSweeney's "Book of Demons". Hawkins, however, is more controlled, and it’s this control that gives the poems their power:
eight days and nights of the painbirds -
flapping and feeding and shitting voices into me...
... My head is an electric meat slicer:
the painbirds feed my gut to a circular blade."
(from “Number 18”)
Elsewhere, a more formal technique distances the reader and provides a contrasting objectivity, as in the cut-up poem derived from ninety-year-old Dolly Watson's letters to Paul Hawkins, or in the N+7 constraint used in “At The End Of The Day It’s, in which each noun is replaced by the seventh noun after it in the dictionary:
"A game of two halves
A gander of hallucinations
A gannet of two hamlets..."
in which a sporting cliche is transformed into an oblique comment on the situation faced by the protesters.
One can foresee an argument that the poet is using this well-known protest to add glamour to the poems without fully engaging with political aspects. But, on the contrary, these poems seem to me to be profoundly political. The protest and its political implications are taken as a given, and Hawkins turns his attention to people's lives, the sort of people who may be drawn to the transient nature and natural comradeship of a squatters' community; to those affected by the road-building, such as the then ninety-year old resident Dolly Watson; to people whose lives are damaged by the conditions of late-capitalist society, like Andy English ('the gravity / of your overdose / sucks") or Old Mick ("a fucked-up armed robbery put me away for a decade"). This strategy is highly effective, and avoids the dangers of sloganizing and simplification that a more overtly political approach would have raised.
It's interesting to ask what effect this book would have on someone who wasn't aware that the eponymous Claremont Road was the site of a momentous anti-road protest. I think the book would still work, as there's metaphysical aspect to the poems. Among the hardship and squalor, the street takes on an almost spiritual symbolism. The poem 'Dear Paul' narrates a man’s alcohol dependency:
"I clung to your blue-black frame as you slowly folded in to Claremont Road, the incident tape is still wrapped around us..."
or this, from "Dead Cat Bounce":
"Charlotte buried him,
cold worm food,
in the back garden
of number 18
dug him up,
part of the five
mile cut of the new motorway;"
But I wouldn't make too much of this; it's there in the background, but the poems focus primarily on the here-and-now and the lives of real characters; which they do with great skill, as here, at the end of the poem “Number 48: Bone”:
"Like Johhny Rotten selling butter
they'd both made a few cynical quid from out of the gutter,
their principles very post post-punk stereotypical
or maybe I'm being too overcritical
about my old mate Bone."
which uses rhyme brilliantly, getting both resigned anger and comic effect into the same few lines. The primary narrator of these poems has a convincing voice, as seen in the lines just quoted, and throughout the poems, the dialogue is natural and realistic. The poem “Number 18”, which is a sequence of five letters between “Louise” and the narrator, telling a touching story of love blighted by addiction, is completely believable. The quality of the dialogue in the poems is one reason why, despite the brutality of some of the imagery, and the desperate lives of the poems’ subjects, what comes though is the humanity of these people and a sense of sympathy with them and their plight.
Given the raw nature of these poems, it may seem surprising that the writer deploys a range of formal techniques; oulipean constraints, deftly-deployed rhyme, cut-up and visual spacing. But it's this technical skill, and the unobtrusive way that it's deployed that makes these poems work. What we have is a powerful combination of subject matter (you feel the writer has lived this life) and poetic craft. If Paul Hawkins has written anything else (this is my first encounter with his work) I'll be seeking it out.