Lost City: From Detroit to Birmingham
Ten years ago I came across some haunting photographs of abandonment and ruin in Detroit. These were photos of unpeopled landscapes: schools, libraries, dentists, police stations, factories, theatres and ballrooms, all emptied out, as if some invisible apocalypse had breathed through the city. They were melancholy, beautiful in a ruined kind of way. It was the silence they evoked that got me writing.
I was interested in the absence present in the images – not so much what was there but what wasn’t. Every photograph seemed to be covered in fingerprints: scattered mugshots on the police station floor, the empty dentist chair poised at just the right angle for a person to slide out, the biology dummy on the wooden block in the school science lab. There was no-one to be seen, yet people were tangible by what they had left behind.
In December 2017, I sent six poems to The Emma Press during a submission window for poetry pamphlets. Lost City was chosen as an Emma Press pick. By 2019, I had 20 or so poems to work with. Some of those were strays that I quite liked and hoped to shoehorn in, but Emma’s eagle eye soon weeded them out. A stronger thread and direction emerged.
Emma’s first main edit was a revelation and a release, she asked questions of tone, content, line endings, sense, how pieces were linked, came together, diverged. These gentle but forensic questions opened up new territory, I began to experiment, move away from early drafts, try out new moods, dropped linearity. It was exciting to have an editor committed to the work but willing to push me to make it sharper, bring it more into focus.
‘The Tour Guide takes a Boat Trip’ was in my first draft. Emma asked me to consider a series of points – like, ‘what is the “cold spillage’’?’ and ‘Can you explain the sense here?’. The resultant poem, ’Elephant Tenderness’, that found its way into the finished collection is very different, but it grew from that poking and questioning.
‘The Tour Guide takes a Boat Trip’
‘One is indeed one’s own protector’
Dhammapada, chp XII, v.160
The octopus swam in an unrested sea
where lava spread from the shore’s black sand
way out into cold spillage. Its bruised mantle
was torn, eyes clouded from swell, slope,
wind acting out on high water. My pity was
all the moons as I held it warm against me
in a soft blanket, murmuring love things,
posing questions in the manner of a host.
Two hearts quickened under my palm,
a little blue blood was nothing much.
I knew it would swim again, go in deep
according to its mood, confuse predators
with four movements of colour. In the way
of strange answers it asked me to disappear,
and willingly I became a river of milk
and willingly it drank.
By then, the city was a bruised mantle
Soft with its hurting, colours of all alive things
Turned down low. I took risks. Pushed out to sea
in a dinghy until hills drowned in black cloud.
Slept with men who could repair things,
tethered to their competence by a thread.
Some swam in me and were starfish,
some were elephants without elephant tenderness.
Such smells off them: tucked-up scents of oil, dissolved
stone in the rucks of trousers, necks, like the city
had rained earth. I went back to wrack, weed,
passing plastic, blushed in a red tide,
felt salt rush into hollows through broken skin.
It’s fascinating to me how a poem can be transformed/filleted with the intervention of pertinent questions and some spaciousness in which to experiment.
I’ve been studying Buddhism over the last ten years too. One of its central tenets is that change, from the molecular to the stratospheric, is inevitable. I wanted to explore the notion of impermanence, the rising up and falling away of all things. Impermanence means loss, as well as renewal and hope. The notion fits perfectly into my poetry terrain. I’m interested in loss, in the tenderness and sadness around it how we suffer and heal. How we connect to ourselves, others and the world around us.
As I was writing Lost City, I was aware of a strong feeling of helplessness and revulsion around the damage the Trump administration was wreaking on America and the world. It made me reflect on the narcissism of all toxic political leaders, how their personal agendas and need for adulation cause deep and lasting harm.
I finished the manuscript during the pandemic, when our own cities became ghostly. Birmingham fell silent between the cranes and canals, everyday had the feel of a late Sunday afternoon when tourists and shoppers drift away.
A final poem from the collection:
For those remaining everything is ours.
Windows blown to standing snow, shelves
of books rimed with dust, tower blocks
we could forklift to other cities to begin again.
Closed-off gas in airy rooms, dentist chairs,
careful notes on how to treat the petrified.
All manner of ceramics, cloth, baroque lamps
too heavy to move, spilled mug shots of the lost.
A fancy car is sand-blown on the street;
places of worship are harbourless ships
sprouting green. Parsley kisses you from
its empty stem – push a sanctuary door
to a clock ticking once a century.
Take all the silence you can carry.
Writing the sequence using various voices felt like writing on a big, open canvas which allowed me the opportunity to explore a wide range of emotional states in relation to living with trauma: powerlessness, hate, love, shame, gratitude, disgust, joy – which I simply wouldn’t have been able to summon without recourse to imagined back stories.
Buy Lost City.
[Title image from Flickr Commons, from a book called The Making of Birmingham, by Robert Dent, pub. 1894. Digitised by the British Library.]