Degna Stone’s new poetry collection Handling Stolen Goods takes us through abandoned structures both literal and figurative. Starting with hazy scenes of hash-inspired states of disconnect, the collection becomes a query into the societal mechanisms that might inspire this disconnect. Indeed, Stones’ own poetic structures which are mostly unrhyming stanzas, are as though to continually remind us of the forms and figures she seems adept at exploring. In ‘Vördur,’ (from the Old Norse to mean ‘guard’) for example, we’re introduced to a wind that ‘makes instruments of half-built tower blocks’ and causes ‘dissonant harmonics’ to ‘carve a path through my brain.’ It’s a desolate image and a chilling connection between the building and the brain but, following this, when we see a boat leaving the shore the image of the city still seems to persist:
‘The city shifts.
We find ourselves
at the ghost of the old shoreline,
where you tell me tales of houses that wander through town,
and statues that walk from overlooked corners to find a home,
where the swans protect us from nykur but not ourselves.’
There’s a suggestion here that pain inflicted by ‘ourselves’ in that second stanza is not necessarily as a result of home but somewhere inflicted close to home. Stone though is a city poet and whilst we might be at sea here, the city and those half-built tower blocks don’t feel all that far away as they move and ‘wander’ to find a home. Perhaps the dynamic of the dissonant harmonics is one that wants to push away at the same time as calling us back.
It’s that sense of abandonment at play and when we’re at the ‘Allotment’ the city looms over us once again. Joining with the almost Dickensian image in ‘Vördur’ of the wandering houses, Stone writes in ‘Allotment’: ‘bassline of the city traffic underscores/the hum of insects and bird chatter/creates song for me and my sister.’ Let’s not escape the lovely juvenility of that image with the ‘hum’ and ‘chatter’ from the birds and insects supported by the colloquial construction of third line. But it isn’t long before the poem reminds us of those ‘dissonant harmonics’:
‘We listen to Mum and Dad pick over
last night’s rows as they tease
out the bindweed creeping over the plot[…]’
Which vowel have you chosen to pronounce ‘rows’ with? There’s an uneasiness to the scene now and the bindweed mingles with the meta-image of the plot so that when, in the next stanza, we’re told that the bindweed is ‘strangling’ this year’s crops, there’s not just something about the city dominating the image but Mum and Dad as well. Perhaps the speaker is implying a sense of neglect as Mum and Dad are too absorbed in their own ‘plots’ or ‘stories’ because following this, the collection seems to take on a global concern with this idea of neglect.
There’s a poem ‘for’ Theresa May in here and in ‘Befriending the Crows’ which tells, in a fabilistic style, of Theresa May trying to befriend a murder of crows to ‘understand something of herself,’ we would perhaps expect indignation to be the presiding emotion. Instead, when we consider it in line with this idea of neglect that’s developing, there’s a parental element injected into the poem and it elevates a strange sense of pity:
[…]Then when they came, or even
if they didn’t, she’d tell them things that were troubling her,
that this journey isn’t worth the shoe leather, and where she’s heading
Feels like hell.’
The old proverb of walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes comes to mind but it’s unclear whose shoes we should be walking in. Indeed, the ‘dissonant harmonics’ from the half-built tower block looks like a project May might have initiated but neglected to finish. When we get to a poem like ‘Mother Country’ then what does somebody like May represent here? The maternal image is writ large in this poem to represent the nation itself and written in memoriam of the British West Indies Regiment, the poem begins with an epigraph from the Manual of Military of Law (1914):
‘Any negro or person of colour, although an alien may voluntarily enlist, and when so enlisted, shall be deemed to be entitled to all the privileges of a natural-born British subject.’
The ironies are apparent before we’ve even started the poem and we assume that the ‘loving mother’ the poem focuses on to whom ‘nurturing did not come easy enough’ is a blatant metaphor for the state. But the boundary between care and cruelty is displayed as a fine one here and like May befriending the crows, the overall feeling is again, not of indignation, but confusion and disbelief:
‘She didn’t know how to give him what he needed,
thought her boy hardier than he turned out to be.
She should have wrapped him up warm,
but she let him shiver, almost catch his death.’
The auxiliary verb ‘should’ reigns here which is perhaps inspired the feeling that those half-built tower blocks in ‘Vördur’ could have been homes. It also implies though, had the boy been raised in a different way that there might have been alternate realities and that he wouldn’t be inscribed with the indelible marks that seem to be upon him now. Neglect however, seems to have been the order of the day.
Any Cop?: Finishing Handling Stolen Goodson this idea of neglect takes me back to those ‘dissonant harmonics’ of the half-built tower blocks. They are the image and symbol that will stay with me, and as they come to the fore again, they hark back to one of the most devastating symbols of neglect in our recent times: Grenfell.