The Commons, Sean Bonney’s poetry and ‘the tradition of the oppressed’

September 12, 2013

Few books of poetry can have had a recommendation like this

‘Hi, my name is John, I am 14 years old and hate the Tories, and this book exploded my political consciousness, now a brick through a window is never enough, I want to reawaken the dead.’

Sean Bonney - The Commons Cover Web

A promotional paragraph on the publisher’s webpage reads thus

The work was originally subtitled “A Narrative / Diagram of the Class Struggle”, wherein voices from contemporary uprisings blend into the Paris Commune, into October 1917, into the execution of Charles 1, and on into superstitions, fantasies of crazed fairies and supernatural bandits //// all clambering up from their hidden places in history, getting ready to storm the Cities of the Rich //// to the bourgeois eye they may look like zombies, to us they are sparrows, cuckoos, pirates & sirens //// the cracked melodies of ancient folk songs, cracking the windows of Piccadilly //// or, as a contemporary Greek proverb has it, “smashing up the present because they come from the future”.

It looks pretty visceral stuff, if after Rimbaud: A Foodstamp for the Palace is anything to go by.

In Bonney’s invocation of spirits of the past – crazed fairies, sparrows, cuckoos, pirates and sirens – I see shades of Walter Benjamin’s ‘unredeemed dead’:

The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.

‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, p. 245-246.

As someone who is still fairly unfamiliar with his work, it seems to me that Sean Bonney has taken on the poetic mantle of Benjamin’s materialist historian, with the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past, in the conviction that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. ‘And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’ (Benjamin, ‘Theses’, p. 247). An incitement, I think, to read further…

And here’s an essay on Sean Bonney on Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake):






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