Slaves Who Wrestle to Be Free

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


When Rami proposed an issue on poetry and urbanisation, there was a pause. Not an entirely apprehensive pause – but one that betrayed, perhaps, a certain weariness, as though malls and motorways might be too familiar, the alienation and angst of city life too well trodden for new discoveries.

Rami has lived in Tokyo and Sao Paulo and she made a documentary about popular poetry in Mozambique, which offered her an opportunity to spend three months in Maputo – so she is more than familiar with the myriad possibilities and pitfalls of concrete conurbations and their reflection in verse.

‘Industrial decline?’ Patrice asked.

‘And growth,’ Rami said.

‘Exploitation of city-dwellers?’ Dimitri suggested.

‘Opportunities too,’ Rami said.

‘I’m from a small town,’ Kim said, ‘picket fences and such. Cities were about freedom, or at least the idea of freedom. Our urban myths began at the Greyhound station.’

‘Whitman?’ Patrice suggested tentatively. ‘Celebrations of cities becoming cities – New York especially?’

Patrice travelled East after graduation and landed in Tokyo when a degree from the Sorbonne opened multiple doors (he was pals with Mishima for a while), so, I was surprised at this bee-line to the Atlantic coast rather than somewhere in Asia.

‘Migration,’ Dimitri said, ‘the city as a place of opportunity.’

‘It has relevance, certainly,’ Rami said.

I’ve noticed that, when Rami begins a discussion, she stands to one side to see how it will develop.

‘Patrice, you live in Hongkong,’ I said.

‘Past its heyday,’ he replied, rather quickly, ‘All the way down from here.’

‘There’s a whole school of poetry about urban decline,’ I said.

We seemed to be floating into unfamiliar waters – which, of course, is generally not a bad thing.

‘I’m from a city in the north,’ Patrice said – unexpectedly: he rarely speaks about France. ‘Haven’t been there for forty years. I’m told it’s nicer now. Wasn’t when I grew up.’

‘Which city,’ Dimitri asked.

‘Roubaix, next to Lille.’

‘I’ve been in Roubaix!’ Dimitri said. ‘With a bunch of literary types from my side of the continent – we ran a workshop for schoolkids, part of a cultural exchange. Some terrific architecture – fabulous textile mills. It was like landing in another world!’

‘When I grew up the factories were still sputtering,’ Patrice said, ‘and there was no place for poetry.’ A note of melancholy for the briefest moment pointed to an aspect of Patrice’s personality I hadn’t seen before.

We had poetry in our factories,’ Dimitri said, with a jovial and more familiar relish for absurdity. ‘The workers were encouraged to attend lunch-time readings – celebrating the achievements of the regime for the most part. I will leave you to judge whether the experience was one of mass appreciation!’

Our urban poets were genuinely popular?’ Kim said. ‘They still are.’

‘And we are speaking of . . ?’ I may have allowed a certain scepticism to bubble to the surface.

‘Blues,’ Kim said, ‘and all the things that came from it.’

‘What about you, Albus?’ Rami asked.

‘I’m with Patrice,’ I said, ‘exiled from another century, but there are lines that conjure up the city I remember. We could allude to them in our urban poetry edition.’

‘And they are?’ Dimitri asked, ever to the point.

Out of this ugliness may come,’ I began, without hesitation

some day so beautiful a flower

            that men will wonder at that hour

remembering smoke and flowerless slum

            and ask

                        glimpsing the agony

            of the slaves who wrestle to be free

‘But why were all the poets dumb?’

‘That’s it!’ Patrice said with an emphasis just short of vehemence. ‘That’s my town!’

‘Mine too,’ I said.

‘They weren’t dumb,’ Rami said. ‘And they aren’t dumb. We have a great deal of ground to cover. Our different cities have multiple voices.’

‘Including,’ Kim added gently, ‘our cities from long ago, Patrice.’

‘Distant worlds,’ Patrice said. His tone had become more thoughtful. ‘Slaves who wrestle to be free.’

‘Stories of exile, no doubt,’ Dimitri said, ‘and all that’s left behind.’

I’m looking forward to this issue. More than motorways and malls, clearly.

Words of Wisdom


Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


‘I’m getting a little concerned about the state of the world,’ Dimitri said.

‘Only now?’ Patrice asked. ‘There have been grounds for concern since round about 1914.’

It would be difficult to find two people whose temperament and intellectual method are more different than Dimitri and Patrice.

Dimitri is tall, thin, acerbic and a child of the 1960s who has never quite freed himself from the notion that Jim Morrison might actually have been a half-decent poet.

Patrice is short, round, and anxious, and also a child of the sixties – but he was studying Mao and Marcuse when others were making love not war.

‘It’s got worse since last week,’ Dimitri said, ‘and not just the pandemic – what about the forest fires.’

‘If I may,’ Rami began, in her characteristically courteous way (courtesy not to be confused with timidity), ‘the global state of things isn’t new. In one generation, we’ve experienced war and famine in Africa, and the conflicts have been mostly about who could steal the most.’

‘Very true,’ Kim said, ‘but doesn’t this just highlight the redundancy of art? Poetry isn’t going to put out the forest fires or find a cure for Covid.’

‘I think, perhaps, that’s a problematic line,’ I said. ‘We run a literary magazine.’

‘Two possible responses,’ Patrice said. Patrice has been unusually voluble this week, having gone off-line mid-debate at our last Zoom meeting. ‘The first is that art makes catastrophe more bearable, and the second is that bearing testimony to truth and common sense is especially important in the midst of crisis.’

‘I suppose you have a point, Patrice,’ Dimitri said. ‘The world was already well on the way to hell in a handbasket when Ringo advertised the joys of living in a yellow submarine.’

‘That’s not entirely persuasive,’ Kim said.

‘I think, perhaps, the underlying theme is that great art may be forged in the furnace of misfortune,’ I said. ‘The sixties were bleak as well as swinging – nuclear war being just a hair’s breadth away, and so on.’

True,’ Kim said. ‘Longfellow’s middle years were shattered by the slaughter of the Civil War.’

Kim’s doctoral thesis examined the metrical innovation of late Longfellow. I think everyone should be allowed to trot out their specialist subject from time to time – it makes those years of study seem worthwhile.

‘His response was simple but effective,’ she added, quoting:

Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,

      Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,

Given to redeem the human mind from error,

      There were no need of arsenals or forts:

‘But how was he on forest fires?’ Dimitri asked, rather dryly.

‘Quite sound, as it happens,’ Kim said, quoting again. ‘“He is the greatest artist, then, / Whether of pencil or of pen, / Who follows Nature.” And he commends the one “who sets his willing feet / In Nature’s footprints, light and fleet, /
And follows fearless where she leads”.

‘Nature is fickle sometimes,’ Dimitri persisted.

‘It’s only fickle because humans have misbehaved,’ I said. ‘If I remember correctly, Longfellow was sceptical about “cunning alchemists” who tried to replicate the natural world.’

‘The trick, Dimitri, is to remember that catastrophe has been ever with us,’ Patrice remarked – rather unexpectedly, I thought.

‘And famine is more often than not followed by plenty,’ Rami said.

‘If I can slip in another quote,’ Kim said, perhaps gratified to find that her doctoral subject was unexpectedly topical,

‘Turn, turn, my wheel!  All life is brief;
What now is bud will soon be leaf,
What now is leaf will soon decay . . .’

‘Not exactly encouraging, though, is it?’ Dimitri said, his low spirits resolutely resisting a collective effort to lighten the mood.

‘Well, think of it in a different way,’ Patrice said. ‘When you find yourself in times of trouble . . . you know . . . Let it be.’

‘Oh Yes, indeed, Dimitri, let it be!’ I agreed with a fervor that may have verged on impatience.

‘Perhaps we could have an issue devoted to Longfellow,’ Rami said.

‘Or the Beatles, maybe,’ Dimitri replied, and for the first time his tone seemed almost on the sunny side.

An Enthusiasm for Dada

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Rami is Marianne’s replacement on the committee, but she is not like Marianne – temperamentally, intellectually, or chronologically.

Where Marianne was forthright, Rami is circumspect (though it’s early days, of course). Whereas Marianne is a specialist in the poetry of post-war Europe, Rami studies the literature of colonialism – some of the villains of her intellectual universe are Marianne’s literary lions.

And Rami is twenty years younger than Marianne, which means she is even more years younger than the remaining members of the committee, so – clearly – Rami represents an invigorating generational change.

Our next issue has a segment on Dadaism. Patrice had spoken at some length about how the enfantes terribles of 1920s Paris and Brussels and Berlin were keen in the matter of epater les bourgeois, but didn’t really concern themselves with broader issues of social injustice.

‘If I might interject . . .’ Rami said. She was speaking from Banjul but her internet connection was better than Patrice’s in Hong Kong.

We were discussing Kurt Schwitters’ An Anna Blume, specifically the line that goes Du trägst den Hut auf Deinen Füßen und wanderst auf die Hände, which Dimitri helpfully suggested was an allusion to the wisdom of the irrational, the poem’s subject electing to have a hat on her feet and to move on her hands.

‘The technical execution is . . . primitive,’ Rami said

‘It’s supposed to be primitive,’ Kim said. ‘Undermining the form supports the overall objective of undermining the social and political constructions it describes.’

Rami nodded enthusiastically (enthusiasm is very much part of her persona). ‘I understand that it’s intentional, but it is problematic nonetheless. It’s like removing the trigger from your revolver before you go into a gunfight.’

‘An excellent point!’ Patrice said, picking up some of Rami’s enthusiasm (and responding with appreciation, of course, to an apt and colourful metaphor).

‘Yet the Dadaists, the surrealists, the pataphysicists and so on – all had an enormous influence,’ Kim persisted.

‘The pataphysicists?’ I asked.

‘Ubu Roi,’ Dimitri said. ‘Paris in the 1890s, Alfred Jarry and the proto-surrealists.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘But their range was limited,’ Rami continued (and I detected a touch of metal beneath the velvet). ‘They were writing in the high noon of empire, yet their rebellion was against the shopkeeper at the bottom of the road – not because he stocked spices produced by the labour of children in another continent, but because he wore an old-fashioned tie and didn’t like jazz. They were as complicit in – or, at least, as complacent about – the evils that surrounded them as the people they claimed to despise.’

Patrice – his audio sticking repetitively and rather distractingly – asked, ‘Is there any art of the period that isn’t influenced by prevailing cultural assumptions?’

There was a bit of a hiatus. ‘Patrice, I can’t see you,’ Kim said.

‘Better that way,’ Dimitri quipped.

‘For authentic liberation from immediate social influence, perhaps – in this period – we might usefully turn to someone like Rilke,’ Rami said.

By now, I had recognised the kind of magisterial diffidence that used to be deployed with considerable skill by Marianne.

‘. . . und da triffst du deinen Blick im geelen,’ Rami continued,
‘Amber ihrer runden Augensteine
unerwartet wieder: eingeschlossen
wie ein ausgestorbenes Insekt.

‘Nicely done!’ Dimitri commented, with an enthusiasm that appeared to be catching. ‘From Rilke’s meditation on . . . a cat . . . and how we can see ourselves in other creatures . . . how we are reflected . . . like an ancient, like a prehistoric flying thing, an insect!’

Patrice had gone offline by then.

‘I see your point, Rami,’ Kim said, ‘though Rilke’s political leanings, when he indulged them, tended to veer excessively from left to right.’

‘A product of his place and time then, after all,’ Rami acknowledged.

‘For whom verse was a refuge. Dada and the Refuge of Art – there’s a title for the segment!’ Kim said, suddenly enthusiastic.

The others had gone by the time Patrice came back online.

‘What do you think?’ he asked.

‘It was a bracing discussion. It bodes well for the future.’

‘I entirely agree!’ he said.

Countries Parting Ways Like Lovers

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

We have been lost without Marianne. The equilibrium of argument and opinion in our little coterie is askew. We haven’t experienced deadlock or actual ill feeling, but a certain dynamism has departed, and the disagreements that used to drive our decision-making have been replaced by diffidence.

Dimitri, who developed the strongest rapport with Marianne, has proposed a potential replacement, a specialist in colonial literature, who – from her academic perch in Banjul – has sent us a rather entertaining analysis of a poem by John Betjeman. Submitted for publication, it has also served as a sort of job application.

The choice of poem is perhaps a tad eccentric. The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellman in 1922 may not be everyone’s Betjeman cup of tea. It’s about a romantic path not taken: the poet unsparingly observes the wisdom and rightness of a rejection. This might conventionally have been rendered with the utmost melancholy and book-ended with a dying fall – but Betjeman goes at it at a hundred miles an hour.

Oh! The fighting down of passion!

Oh! The century-seeming pain –

Parting in this off-hand fashion

In Dungarvan in the rain.

‘That’s a gnat’s whisker away from doggerel,’ Kim said with uncharacteristic vigour.

The Dungarvan in the rain trope ends each of the five verses, which are dense with closely observed and creatively communicated detail – something our prospective colleague dealt with succinctly in her analysis.

Patrice wasn’t persuaded by her argument that the poem is about Britain and Ireland. The woman’s ‘golden hair’ described in the first stanza appears again at the end, as ‘streaming gold’. Her smile is “slow and sad” and her eyes are ‘slanting blue’.

‘She’s just a woman,’ he said. ‘She isn’t a whole country.’

‘Isn’t that a bit literal, Patrice?’ Dimitri asked. Sometimes Dimitri’s tone is more sarcastic than sardonic.

‘The country and the woman cannot be treated separately,’ Kim said. ‘Betjeman was threatened with assassination when he was posted to Dublin as a British diplomat in the 1940s. He sets the scene in 1922 – which offers a rather sinister context. Consider:

Gusts of Irish rain are sweeping

Round the statue in the square;

Corner boys against the walling

Watch us furtively in vain,

 I completed (no doubt redundantly) the rest of the verse:

 And the Angelus is calling

Through Dungarvan in the rain.

‘It’s a description of two people,’ Kim said, ‘but also a country at a particular stage in its history – immediately after separation from Britain.’

‘Which is the author’s point,’ Dimitri said.

‘She doesn’t make the point in a very rigorous way,’ Patrice sniffed.

‘I think she examines key themes very . . . competently.’ I might have chosen something more fulsome than ‘competently’.

‘Can you tell us more about her?’ Patrice asked.

‘She’s been in prison,’ Dimitri said.

There was across the Zoom-sphere a great silence, until Patrice asked, ‘Prison?’

‘She led a protest,’ Dimitri explained. ‘She got some of her students to follow her from the university down to the centre of town where they picketed the bus station.’

‘The bus station?’

‘The protest was about bus fares.’

And so, we considered the lady from Banjul’s choice of poem in a new light. Perhaps her perspective on a doomed love affair in the very south of the south of Ireland in 1922 was illuminated by experiences different from ours.

‘The metre is all wrong, though,’ Kim said, wrenching the discussion back to the mechanics of verse. ‘Once he sets off from the opening couplet, he simply can’t slow down. It’s a high-speed elegy for lost love – and speed doesn’t mix with heartbreak.’

‘It is the metre of a rainy afternoon,’ I said.

‘In a rainy country,’ Patrice added.

‘It’s about love in a cold climate,’ Dimitri said.

‘And our colleague from Banjul has thoroughly analysed the underlying themes,’ Kim acknowledged. ‘I do disagree with her conclusions, but I’d be happy to take that up with her in person.’

‘As would I,’ Dimitri said.

Patrice seconded.

‘Then, we have a new member of the team,’ I said.

After this, with a sense of considerable contentment, we moved on to other business.