London Grip Poetry Review – Graham Buchan

Poetry review – THE PLEASURE OF FIRING BACK: Janice Dempsey considers the two contrasting halves of Graham Buchan’s new collection

The Pleasure of Firing Back 
Graham Buchan
Lapwing Press 2022
ISBN: 978-1-7397938-3-8
56pp   £10   (£4 for PDF)

Graham Buchan’s collection The Pleasure of Firing Back falls into two parts. The first is a sustained exposé of the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man in times of war and under totalitarian regimes. The second is a medley: love poems with a sardonic twist; sideswipes at democracy’s more tasteless manifestations in the West’s media; and a sarcastic observation of human civilisation’s reckless destruction of other species.

The collection is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father, who ‘died too soon’, and the first poem, ‘Father’, is a bitter acknowledgement of the pain of loss and Buchan’s sense that ‘the Universe is not intelligent’. In the second poem, ‘Pints’, Buchan sets out his stall for the rest of the first twenty-five poems: most give voices to defeated men who ‘fall silent with the weight of their lives.’ Victims and perpetrators of violence, invaders and the invaded, the oppressed and their oppressors, are laid out before us with chilling empathy, clarity and conviction. Here are scenarios from the French revolution (‘Blood and Heads’); from the Second World War (‘Imbros’), from conflicts in south-East Asia, Iraq, Ukraine (‘Wheat’; ‘Number’), from the Nazi holocaust (‘Drancy’; ‘Nicole Weil’) and from repressive totalitarian règimes including the Stalinist era in Russia. Some poems are written to be interpreted as universal, others are set in a specific time and place. The last poem in the first half of the collection is the most overtly political: ‘The Stories That Don’t Get Told’ plots the life of a man born in Krakow who lived to the age of 98, after a life of repression, imprisonment and neglect and is one of the many individual lives whose stories are not documented. The refrain in this prose poem is ‘The details are sketchy’.

Perhaps because of their powerful historical subject matter, the first twenty-five poems in this collection carry a real punch for me. Buchan has clearly researched, out of a passionate interest and a strong sense of disgust, the violence and inhumanity of twentieth-century wars and authoritarian rulers. He takes a close-up view of the places and incidents on which he focuses, by presenting testimonies from individuals who are caught up in the relentless action of an oppressor.

In ‘Drancy’, for example, ‘Max’ is being transported through France in a cattle truck bound for Drancy, the French internment camp run by the French police, and later the SS, which converted in 1942 from a new local community into a prison for holding Jews destined for extermination in Auschwitz. Surrounded by ‘crying children/ and the desperate screams of women…’

On the journey Max wondered if,
 through the slats of the truck, 
he might catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. 
He had never seen the Eiffel Tower.

Arriving in Drancy (not having glimpsed the Eiffel Tower) he finds himself reluctantly aware of

…a constant cacophany of cries and weeping,
Urine and excrement puddled the floor.
Barefoot children, bitten by rats.

Max’s thoughts on the nightmare journey have been of the atoms, so fixed and strong, of the Eiffel Tower, of the atoms of the train itself, and the rails, that, ‘relentlessly parallel, so fixed and strong, went East./ Parallel lines, to a vanishing point.’

I found this portrait of Max and the implacable train one of the most moving poems in the collection.

A more brutal exposition of the way that human minds can compartmentalise their thinking in order to deal with the experience of atrocities against their own kind is found in a sequence of prose poems about a government employee whose job is torture and whose passion is the music of Beethoven. We enter his mind as he goes about the daily business of inflicting pain on the prisoners, whom he calls ‘ants’ (perhaps a shortened form of ‘antagonists’ or perhaps simply to dehumanise them in his mind) as efficiently as he can. This makes painful reading: explicit descriptions of torture alternate with the torturer’s knowledgeable and appreciative thoughts on Beethoven’s music. The effect is chilling: Beethoven is almost made complicit with the day’s work in which, for example, ‘Ant number three is whimpering a lot and is becoming delirious. We used the sanding disc on sections of his back. We might lose him.’

This torturer is not a lone monster in the system: ‘Tomorrow afternoon I interview six hopefuls to fill the place Reynolds left when he got sick.’ (The use of the English language name significantly brings this scenario home to Western readers.)

As the sequence progresses, we see the torturer preparing for an employer-sponsored vacation at the seaside with his family, with thoughts typical of any hard-worked civil servant. And ruminating on his favourite composer, he remembers ‘some sort of music professor’ whom Reynolds had suggested breaking with sleep deprivation: ‘Drive the bugger mad with his favourite Beethoven symphony. But I overruled him. For one thing, I didn’t want to spoil my own enjoyment…’

It’s essential to compartmentalise work and pleasure.

He has the ambition of the family man providing for his wife and children: his brutality is driven by his need to extract a high rate of confessions and information. A psychopath rather than a sadist, he comments on Beethoven’s late quartets: ‘They are only “spiritual” if you are “spiritual” yourself, and if you are “spiritual” you are soft in the head.’

In the second half of the collection Buchan addresses the evil of the banal, to coin another phrase. In these mostly short poems, he holds up the triviality and venality of much of what we call civilisation: primetime television, the noise with which we surround ourselves, a cannibalistic view of sex; a minimalist protest against drug abuse (seventeen lineated repetitions of the word ‘selfish’ under the title ‘Addict’.)

There’s a portrait of wealthy ‘Howard and Miriam’ whose private assertions of their attitudes — to sex, cheese and war (‘War sharpens the intellect’, says Howard)—lead up to their final years on cruises where they ‘loved the landscapes; they didn’t like the people.’

There’s black humour, disillusion, and surreal imagery in the poems, particularly in the second half. There are nods to climate change and species extinction (‘Estuary House’, ‘Toot Toot, Beep-Beep’; ‘Vaquita’).

In the last few poems there’s an awareness of mortality which may be autobiographical—’My Drugs’ lists in mildly humorous rhyming verse the medication that enables the narrator to keep his body alive. He also nails the colours of this collection to the mast in ‘I’ve Told My Poems’:

Go, poems, and take no prisoners
shoot on sight,
cut the cables 
in television palaces
eat newspapers and digest them in acid

Go, poems
face down religion,
and blind your enemies
with magnificence.

‘Glimmer’, the final poem, finishes by suggesting a spark of hope after the ‘experiments’ of ‘the century of psychosis’: ‘Responsibility and imagination have located the gene for ideology, and have crushed it in the crucible, // Ah…, kindness.’

Apart from this glimmer of light, there are two positive poems about music: ‘On A Wet Night’, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and ‘The Presence Of Music’, in which the last stanzas read:

We can imagine: Handel’s music
filling space below clouds, 
the population dancing, carried along
on a wave of exultation,
their brains burning with joy,
their energy delaying the chasm of chaos

Do some planets 
have atmospheres filled with music?

Considering the collection as a whole, I found myself questioning the wisdom of juxtaposing these two halves in one collection, even after studying the poems intently to look for the rationale for doing so. My doubts rest not on the philosophy animating both halves, which is not inconsistent with an overarching view of humanity on a path to its own destruction, but on a difference in gravitas and energy between the two sections.

I found that, for me, all the most memorable images and lines are in the first twenty-five poems. Consider: ‘the men fall silent under the weight of their lives’(‘Pints’); ‘The dull expectation declines to silence’ (‘Stadium’); ‘The train hissed and whistled, shrugged and clanked’(‘Drancy’); ‘He remembered fondly,/ how trees liked to hold hands under the soil’ (‘Memoir Of An Optimist’); ‘Death is hidden in clocks./ Clocks, like sleep, contain the idea of death’ (‘Music’).

The repetitions that characterise so many of the poems in the second half of the book were for me—forgive the tautology—too repetitious, however aptly they reflect the songs, advertising slogans and dumbed down style of the popular media. Buchan also uses repetition in the poems of the first half, but to greater poetic effect, combined with narrative and imaginative imagery that keeps the poems fluid and interesting.

This is a collection that ‘does what it says on the tin’ — The Pleasure of Firing Back is evident in Graham Buchan’s astringent –and at times blackly humorous – writing. His father would, I am sure, be honoured by the dedication to his memory.