No. 8


Tim Liardet  

Odd Raft

Early in 2001, when I went to teach poetry at the Second largest 
Young Offenders’ Prison in Europe, I had no idea how it would 
change forever my way of seeing. When I first arrived at the prison, 
I was struck by the razor wire: it seemed like the symbol of a brutal
sovereignty. During the induction week, we were taught just how
important the wire was. Behind it lived the turbulent population of six
hundred young men who needed to be approached with extreme
caution. In fact, I became so overwhelmed by how potentially
dangerous the inmates were said to be, and by the range of taboos I
was asked to respect, when I caught my first glimpse of a prisoner in
the adjoining cell of the sick bay, I felt I might be encountering 
a terrible and terrifying species. But the one who sat alone in the 
corner was a freckled boy—every grandmother’s favourite grandson.
          I was hired as part of a compulsory programme of education
administered to the inmates. I encountered a shell-shocked staff; men
and women of various ages who seemed to be there for a vast range 
of reasons; an odd raft of distinctive and compelling people who found
themselves teaching in the prison and couldn’t quite find a means of
getting out. Prisons have a gravitational pull: the teaching staff was as
institutionalised as the prisoners, I felt. I would regularly meet a
colleague leaving a teaching session, drained, white around the gills,
trying to disguise the distress evident in his or her face. Some would
nod their heads sideways. The two Coordinators of the Education
department were unusually vigilant and very supportive, and read the
signs with high emotional intelligence. “Bad session?”
          Once inside the prison, all my preconceptions were to buckle. 
I was employed to teach poetry to young men who didn’t want me to,
and who would actively sabotage every attempt I made, steal the
register, steal my paper clips and pencils and transform them into
primitive weaponry. This job, I quickly understood, was as far
removed from the cosy remit of a writer-in-residence as you could 
get.  I had to confront the violent rebuttal of learning by young men
who had no choice but to attend my sessions. How would poetry,
they’d ask, help them steal a Subaru Impreza? How would poetry in
any way help them to live in the world? Poetry is shite, they said, and
should be kept for those liked it. Of course, human contact was made,
transactions were enacted; I tried to sit among them rather than stand
up the front in a semi-confrontational posture. Apart from anything 
else, this made the teaching easier. Perhaps I managed to establish
something, but no one was interested in poetry. There was a buzzer in
each classroom, ready to summon prison officers if needed. The fact
that I never once resorted to using it became almost a source of pride.
          I am a poet before I am a teacher, however,  and in the year I
taught at this prison—as if a valve had opened—I produced more
poems than ever before in a twelve month period. They articulated a
sort of crash-programme of politicisation. They were frantic scribbles 
in a notebook but, I realised, helped me to manage the refusal I
encountered in each of five classrooms every day. When I attempted 
to turn them into fully grown poems, however, I made many false
starts. How do you attempt to evoke the truths of imprisonment while
simultaneously avoiding a voyeuristic tone? How to do you write about
inmates, even honour them, without appearing to be exploitative and
          Crude as those first efforts were, some had caught something of
the chill of the prison. Attempts to develop them were discouraging,
though. While they acknowledged the sensitivity of approach they did
not come up with solutions. I was keen to excise what I felt were the
mythologies that had grown up around the idea of prison residencies. 
I wanted to dispel the notion that offering poetry to prisoners made a
difference or improved the quality of their lives. In my experience, it
didn’t. Whereas some writers have hoped to open up possibilities for
inmates—rather like certain prison officers who kept bibles in their
desk-drawers—I was more interested in exploring the nature of the
distance that existed between us, mapping it in minute detail.
          Each classroom became a sort of exercise yard. Each 
classroom became the space in which the rituals of disparagement 
were performed. I acclimatised slowly, realising equally slowly—even
reluctantly—I’d alighted upon a serious subject. There was a sense of
being nudged towards the writing of a book I had never planned on
and which, to be honest, I was doubtful I wanted to write. But I did
write it. Those hundred or more ragged poems with which I attempted
to measure the creeping barrage of every day were distilled down to
thirty eight and appear this year as The Blood Choir.

The Blood Choir won an Arts Council England Writer’s Award as a collection-in-progress in 2003, 
was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Summer and 2006 and has just been shortlisted for 
the 2006 TS Eliot Prize.

L O Y’ S   R E T U R N

To be on your back, says Loy, mashed, while the stuccoed
saloon bar lurches up and dreams it floats
or dips into the wave, and the room goes bending and rolling;

to be nose-up in one boot, while the barmaid calls to you
for some unknown reason in French, fucking French.
Nu, this; Vu that. Bonwee or Bonwat, or something

like that. To claw your way up from the floor of the gents
by the taps, says Loy, setting off the hand-drier 
to which you mouth a greeting, then drop back,

and having learned how tricky swimming is 
after seven years and three months, a week,
a day, three hours inside, he says, to wake to find yourself

staring up from under water and holding your breath 
until there’s not a bubble to tell anyone you’re there,
not a fucking bubble, if you’ll pardon the French.

S P A N I E L S   I N  A  F I E L D  O F  K A L E

The two spaniels leaping and flying
like shadow and leaper, like leaper and shadow
sent in wider and wider circles,
the more they leap about, and chase 
each other through the mile-wide depths of choppy kale,
the more they might be mistaken for
an upblown leaf, a lifted edge that balances
its catchment of light briefly like their coats
parting to the skin in the wind=s combs 
which cross the heath like a search-party, extending
the eerie coastline of the prison fence.
The logic of them, flopping and collapsing, flies
out in a northerly direction towards the last outcrops
of Scapa Flow, or keeps going with the rafts
of overushing altocumulus due west
to the land floes of Inishbofin, east to Orford Ness
or south to the lip of the Lizard, where it hovers panting
over the odd ellipsis of Land’s End;
this before it takes the whole flight on rewind,
tracing it phase by phase until the dogs
refind the channel they have trodden flat
in the blowing field where the kale 
springs up again in front of them, untrampled.
The logic of their leaping takes 
the flight again, and then again, as if each flight
is the exercise without which its belly
would drag too close to the ground,
and those tresses in earthbound flight become
a slip-leash, a sort of flowing yoke built around
the features of a little prune face 
and mouthful of yappy snarls.

G O I N G   I N T O  T H E  Y E L L O W 

When it came to Conrad’s map it wasn’t the expanses of red
or the areas of green or of orange or purple,
I was going into the yellow. Dead centre.
The commission was clear—to confront a population 
of sentenced and resentful men (invisibly roped)
who, as they entered, seemed too lumbering huge
for the space they occupied, and to engage them, and teach 
the gentle arts of self-expression, hand to heart, 
biro-end to teeth …  I felt like a man sent to fix, say,
a ten-by-three mile rupture in the side of the Zambezi dam
with a tube of calk, dental floss, a hammer and nails 
and an endless chain of paper bags that filled up and burst;
the thrown-into-the-gap, the heaped, the washed away, 
as quickly dissolving sandbags of woeful words.

T H E   V A U L T S

Down, down, deeper and deeper down, entering
the prison’s underground chamber where fear is a sort
of aloe sapping the tongue, on the brink of zero hour:
every heavy iron gate which has to be unlocked and locked
wails on its hinges, wails for its want of lubrication,
then thud-echoes shut, then thud-echoes shut, 
the last of eight heavy gates behind us thud-echoes shut.
Claustrophobia, no falsifying dream—it is as if
we are welded into the hold, the lid in its seals,
and the chamber itself is about to flood,
to flood: armed with counted pencils, protractors and Donne,
we are sombre when we move up in masks to our places as 
a highpitched intensifying note (become 
intolerable) passes out of human hearing.


Because wasps disregard the razors of the prison fence
when they drift indoors, drawn
by the confusion of odours
boredom remorselessly mixes into one—the allure
of a sticky linctus-bottle, say,
or of bacteria fermenting, patient to form a skin— 
spuds turning ever so slowly into soldier-crabs—this is a happening, 
an event, between the great lapses of concentration.
There is panic, and voices raised, a swarming across the room;
the latest wasp chased down the glass 
by nine, ten, no, fifteen men 
for whom the fence is obstacle
and (to junkets of cheering) swatted, and swatted, and swatted,
until something is finally satisfied, 
beaten to silence, or otherwise put to sleep.

Out of earshot, a voice says: “…because you are the miracle
of engineering sprung beneath your fuselage
of tiger hoops, so sleek, so exquisitely evolved … 
we must hate you; because you fizz between 
the panes and thump about and dream our spaces your kingdom 
we must leave you wrecked
in your entrails—because brindled gold was your birthright
and purpose, a purpose indifferent to us;
because you were too brazen, too beautiful, too perfect.”

T H E   P H Y S I C S   O F   C H I N E S E - W R E S T L I N G

When the gulf widens between them 
these two young men reach out across it, hand to hand: 
the skin of the pulse protests,

the pulse draws back its little egg-head to protest
as if it wants none of this slap 
of male upon male. The force of the collision puts 

such a strain on each wrist it turns into something else:
a question mark in convulsion, 
say, unravelling backwards, a sparrow’s stopwatch

ticking in its ribs, an apprentice reaching back over his head
rather than shift the platform— 
it is a cradle of ligaments, hoist, the scaffolding that

secures the longing to build, stage by stage.
They bid to the master 
builders, and all I know is when another back-of-a-hand 

strains towards the table-top or ceiling these two young men
are forming between them 
a flying buttress, stone for stone, each one of which 

presses against the next to hold the whole building up. 
Or else they are forcing 
skyward, stone by stone, the walls around them to justify 

so wide a roof. Or else, now they are so nearly horizontal, 
the building in an act 
of upward and equal downward pressure,

of verticals meeting on a level plane, as if impartial, 
holds its upright perspective, just.
Before falling down all over again.

O P E R A   O F   Y A W N S 

When their largely unused bodies slump 
at desks, one yawn sets off the next which sets off

the next which sets off the next until there is only 
this miming-time of mouths. And they fall, they fall,

the thirteen of them, into a lazy sort
of composition which, from where I stand, most resembles 

a pastiche of the Last Supper, a company of prisoners
leaning and sprawling into its place—mild  Bartholomew,

James the Younger and Andrew, feeling their prickly scalps;
Judas lunging forward on one elbow, suffering his barber-embargo;

Peter yawning his way through his crop of accusations
while the circuit of the yawn has reached quiet Matthew, 

sad Thaddeus, Simon and the others, our Christ-like Quraishi 
haloed by the light-bulb. From here, for now,

they appear of supernatural size, serving their time
by shifting this way and that, shifting this way and that 

and yawning for the absence of news, a little way off,
as yet, from the garden of the hacked ear.

Or else it might be a mime of men laughing
at some missed, too-long-to-follow and encoded

joke, a miming of the voice-loss aria …
and all they have from which to read the words

is the hooded autocue which drops into their minds
white slide after white slide, a jerked

shuttering of wiped whiteness through which they stare
to the white wall, to ever more widening particles 

of white, without feature or plot, on which only 
great operas of crime can possibly be projected

with huge exaggeration … the eye open, the retina asleep.
And they yawn, and they yawn, and they dredge

the silt for the deepest yawn of all
as if, for every depth they reach, they mouth the highest note

and hold this posture in which they might conserve
a certain sort of power from knowing there is 

air, three inch-thick glass and a safety curtain
between them and the auditorium of the deaf.



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