Mar 10 2023
Poetry review – JOURNEYS ACROSS BREATH: Paul McDonald hopes that this collection of earlier poems by Stephen Watts will get the attention it deserves
Stephen Watts was born in Hammersmith in 1952, and, apart from a few important years working as a shepherd on North Uist, he has lived and worked in London, gradually building a reputation as a treasured bard of the East End. Now in his early 70s, Watts is a highly respected poet, performer, editor, and translator: he’s won prizes in the National Poetry Competition, published numerous collections, and has been translated into several languages. He is also a tireless champion of other poets, particularly non-English speakers: his credits as a translator are considerable, with co-translations of Ziba Karbassi, Adnan al-Sayegh, A. N. Stencl, Meta Kušar, among others. His ongoing Bibliography of Modern Poetry in English Translation is an heroic undertaking too – 40 years in the making, it’s now said to be approaching 2000 pages. He’s clearly an important figure, but despite his achievements, it’s hard to feel that Watts has the profile he deserves. Until fairly recently it’s been a struggle to find his books, and when they appear they rarely get much attention from reviewers. So it’s a delight to see Journeys Across Breath – the first of two volumes collecting Watts’ writing.
We get a strong sense of Watts’ need to tell stories in one of his best known shorter poems, “Song for Mickie the Brickie”. It’s about an individual blighted as much by guilt as weakness, and opens:
Mickie I met down Watney Street and he whistled me across. ‘How are you’ he said – and of course really meant ‘have you a little to spare for some drink’ – but could not bear to ask.
We feel the force of Watts’ desire to convey Mickie’s story, and the importance of soliciting our attention and understanding. The poem insists on the validity of lives beyond our own, and the act of acknowledging them – listening to other people’s stories – becomes a moral imperative. The closing lines capture Watts’ philosophy beautifully: ‘But how can you know anyone’s story when every day you walk by without stopping’ –
Those are the best words, but they’re hardest to bear. To me he says: ‘Always – always – stop me – always – come across’. And what is the point of centuries of conversation if no-one’s ever there to hear.
While the best words are the ‘hardest to hear’, they crave attention, and listening comes with a responsibility to respond. Watts’ interest in others extends beyond curiosity to a felt human connection, and part of his project as a poet is to celebrate and reinforce those connections. There’s a powerful sense of cross-cultural awareness in his work too: with an English father and a mother of Swiss-Italian descent, his own heritage is mixed, underpinning an ongoing interest in the languages and creative energies of other cultures. This is partly what Gareth Evans means when, in his “Afterword” to the collection, he calls Watts’ poetry both ‘intensely local’ and ‘utterly international’: while he often writes very specifically about place, there’s always a sense in which Watts has the whole planet for company.
Watts is particularly at home in the long poem form, and this volume includes some of his most important, including the linked poems “Mountain Language” and “Journey Across Breath”, inspired by the migration of his grandfather from the Italian Alps to the UK. However, one of my personal favourites is the stunning piece about the death of his mother, “My Mother, Her Tongue”, which again features many of his key themes: language, identity, memory, place, and the interplay between these things. It opens:
When the body leaves the body with such suddenness, such speed, when there is no time to draw a face, to say a word, to hold a voice in memory – where are you gone?
There are several answers to the final question, but in one sense the sentiments are Whitmanesque, and Watts sometimes sounds like the transcendentalist speaker of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, as in the following stanza:
When your ashes were scattered you became those flowers, you became these trees, you became those birds that fling their songs across torn webs of sky leaping from goblets of light
We think of Whitman’s closing lines, ‘If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles’, his body having become the Earth. Importantly, however, Watts’ mother also survives in her language, particularly in the distinctive character of her dialect: the ‘mother-tongue’ inherited from her own ancestors. The poem closes:
And I write this poem to celebrate you: words white as jasmine, a sutra for when the body’s padding-left the soul, a song to be sung for the life-line of the mother-tongue
The mother-tongue is a ‘life-line’ in death, offering continuity between generations. The phrase ‘white as jasmine’ is among several repeated throughout the poem, contributing to its delightful musical quality: though he writes principally in free verse, Watts, again like Whitman, has a wonderful sense of rhythm and timing that gives his longer pieces integration and rhetorical force. For me, “My Mother, Her Tongue” is a stunning poem which stands alongside the likes of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” as one of the greatest poems about the death of a parent.
There is a sense of connection in Watts’ poetry, then, and an interest in things that pervade cultures and unite us across space and time. We constantly see the present through the lens of the past in his work: our past experiences, and our individual and shared heritage shape and bind us. Unsurprisingly, sentiments of this kind feature in his poems about migration, one of the best known being “Birds of East London” where birds are viewed from the twenty-first storey of an East End tower block. The question throughout is whether the vision of the birds is real or ‘just a dream of life?’ This becomes a refrain in the poem, and he fails to offer an answer, but if it is a dream then it’s one that unites humanity, both with the natural world, and with the past. We see this in the reference to his Ukrainian neighbour on the lower floor who ‘keeps racing pigeons on his balcony’:
When you live on the twenty-first floor and the old Ukrainian man twelve floors down keeps racing pigeons on his balcony – Popa he is called and he sings lullabies in the sunlit pub on Cable Street the pub that is not yet shut down – and his pigeons fly in wide arcs, in circles from his balcony, but they cannot return him to the village near Lv’ov (shhh shh: This is his mother hugging him close shielding his eyes, clasping him to her body lest he moan or whimper when the partisans piss in The bushes she’s hiding him in as they pass through the burnt village: shhh … shh)
While the pigeons cannot literally return him to the past, they clearly link him to it, certainly in terms of memory; and surely we are meant to see the lullabies Popa sings ‘on Cable Street’ as echoing the soothing noises his mother made when shielding him from the partisans, not to mention the soothing coos of the pigeons he keeps as an old man. The birds also return the speaker to his own memories of birds ‘flying / between the mountain and the sea – in / the gap between sight and nothing / right there above your head – / on those far islands of / mica schist’. Ultimately the poem seems to want to efface the boundaries between dream and reality, past and present, implying the pointlessness and ‘stupidity of ever drawing / boundaries’. It’s a wonderful statement of interconnectedness, and another stand-out poem in a beautiful book.
There’s a warm heart beating in this collection, and Prototype have done poetry a huge service by publishing it.