Adrian Mitchell's "The Shadow Knows"
Reviewed by Rupert Mallin
I had taken part in a celebration in the use of the arts as a means of comprehensive education at the University of East Anglia, Maxine was returning from an Epping council meeting on regeneration, and Pete and Fiona were hand in hand from Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11”. We sat together on the train back to Lowestoft. Fiona spoke enthusiastically about Moore's film but felt the audience was a bit churchy - a preacher preaching to the converted, as it were. Maxine, razor suited, wears lots of hats. She's an Eco research fellow at the UEA, a regeneration officer, is active in CND, The Green Party and a leading member of “Theatre of War”.Theatre of War have led every demonstration "Against the War" for two years in Britain with their agit-prop theatre. Most notable was their golden George W. Bush statue toppled in Trafalgar Square earlier this year. A great achievement for a small group from the Suffolk market town of Beccles.Off the train, Pete and Fiona went home, the corruption of world leaders thumping in their heads. Maxine and I went for a drink. I so admire this young woman for cutting wires at airbases and undertaking street die-ins in London and Beccles. We argued about agit-prop, saw each others' views, then her boyfriend turned up.Arriving home the poetic hero of my youth had got through my front door before me. Adrian Mitchell. His latest book, “The Shadow Knows: Poems 2000-2004” was quickly lifted from my mat and speedily torn from its package. There, on the cover, a picture from above of the biggest protest march in British political history - the anti-war march of February 15, 2003. It stands as a moving force in politics and British society still. Nothing is resolved. I'm sure I can just make out the top of my head.….Adrian Mitchell was invited by Red Pepper Magazine to be “Shadow Poet Laureate” to the British establishment, given Andrew Motion's support of New Labour and his dull poetry and voice. Mitchell was central to the explosion of a powerful alternative movement in the 1960s - against the Vietnam War, against oppression and injustice globally, and for democracy and freedom from below.
“The Shadow Knows” is full of jewels. Mitchell's voice is sharp and satirical when laying into the British ruling class, their wars and a poetry scene which adorns a Laureate:
Liquid sunshine gushing down
To dance and sparkle on the Crown.
I see the Laureate's work like this:
A long, thin streak of yellow piss.
This ditty sets the mood for half the collection - angry, committed political poems, often in rhyming couplets or structured forms for comic and satirical effect. They are obviously for mouth and ear, rather than the page, but an essential record of Mitchell's velvet oral delivery. Roughly half the poems in the book turn more to friends, friendship, family, love and children as subjects, and, without the need for frontal humour or irony hot enough to cook eggs on, these poems tend to explore the language more informally, like a jazz quartet tentatively breaking from a tune. Surprisingly, as I don't like dogs very much, one of my favourites here is ‘Thanks To My Dog in An Hour Of Pain’. It opens thus:
blankness in my bones
tears like molten lead shoulders down my throat
a dead white pebble
in the left side of my chest an empty fur glove where my heart
should be sitting
the clock strikes and won't stop striking
striking the time of grief
blankness in the bone
It ends with the "deep down toffee eyes" of his dog. Put the sentimentality aside a moment, the poem contrasts quite markedly in its structure with his publicly committed poems. It is fluid as opposed to crafted. Rightly, like many of the poets of his generation - Michael Rosen, Adrian Henri, Jeff Nuttall - Mitchell places his poetry at the centre of society. If poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” this should be so. But like Pete and Fiona out of "Fahrenheit 9/11", who had rejoiced in the film, but were then surprised by the sense of religiosity in the cinema, having one’s beliefs reinforced can leave an aching gap between ‘answers’ and ‘questions’. That is, I worry when poetry and art illustrate reality. In British theatre there are increasing tendencies to create plays as journalism - often political, well made and knowing - like many of these poems. Let me illustrate the essence of my thoughts with Mitchell's poem ‘First Publications’:
My poems were first published
on lavatory walls
down in the Gents
where the girl I loved could never see them
of course I didn't use her name
or sign the poems
Sometimes people smudged my words out
with piss or shit or snot
I didn't mind the piss so much
and the smudged poems
looked sort of streamlined and alive
when their blue letters became
soft streaks across the pockmarked yellow plaster
I would rather engage in the “streamlined and alive” broken poem which is the subject of Mitchell's social commentary than ‘First Publications’ itself. This style of social observation, like a newspaper report, evokes how a poem is interacted with by an audience, but seems to achieve the reverse: as a reader (as audience) I am not party to the lavatory wall poem, before or after its reworking in bodily effluent. Like the girl, we too are locked out of the lavatory and the poem. Yes, Mitchell asks us to consider the relationship between poetry and society, but by dint of his ‘social commentary’ it is what educationalists term a “closed question”. Isn't there also an underlying sentimentality in the poem's closure? In this broken world, we are neither engaged with the “broken” people or in the “broken” poem, just in the thoughtless interaction.In my view, in the British humanitarian pacifist movement there is a kind of sentimentality, which also touches many of these poems. I think this is not only a trait in poems of social commentary but in writing for specific audiences - children, lefties, poetry followers and Guardian readers. I've never quite understood writing poems specifically for children. It seems like another division and diversion which assuages the guilt of adults. Mitchell's demand that none of his poems are ever to be used in an examination is admirable. However, in his book, there is a curious ‘advert’ for Education Otherwise who teach children taken out of state schools by their parents. Here is a sentimental notion of self help when so many disaffected young people have no option but their horrible sink school. It is the same curious sentimentality I find among “Theatre of War”, who am-dram a “die-in” in Beccles Market Place and wonder why passers by are not suddenly ‘awakened’ by this act of reality, of knowledge!However, Adrian Mitchell is a colossus on the British Poetry scene and was the first poet I read - for his rebellion, humanity, wit and ease of style. The master retains many of his powers. Yet, as I grow older, I prefer poems more broken, begging more questions of emotions and intellect (and poems free of pets).
© Rupert Mallin, 2004