Raw & Urgent

The Privilege of Rain - Time Among the Sherwood Outlaws, David Swann (Waterloo Press)

Waterloo Press, based in Hove, have been around for a few years now, and are acquiring a reputation for publishing a range of poetry books which include the local and the international. Although not everything they put out hits my pleasure spot the quality of the material is usually high and these are beautifully produced paperback editions with dust-jackets and well-designed covers, incorporating vibrant artwork with well laid-out, easy-to-read pages.

You wouldn't want to call it a genre exactly, but since the publication of Ken Smith's Inside Time in 1989 there has been a lot of literature - poetry and prose - dealing with the subject of prisons and life inside these institutions. David Swann's brilliant debut collection, The Privilege of Rain - Times Among the Sherwood Outlaws - deals impressively with the issues based on his experience at HMP Nottingham Prison, where he worked for a year as a Writer in Residence. Swann's life experiences prior to this position seem to have been varied - he appears to have worked as a teacher, also as a reporter in the last days of hot metal, and as a toilet cleaner at a 'legendary' nightclub in Amsterdam - and probably proved extremely useful in this new role where he was neither guardian nor inmate. What's so impressive about this collection,

apart from the quality of the writing, which is both easy to read and sophisticated, is the way that Swann questions his own motives while also giving the reader insight into the experience of life on the inside. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn from this book, no answers, either of the 'bleeding heart' variety or the 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' solution, yet there is hard compassion in evidence here as well as an investigation into the dark recesses of the self. This is a book which is often painfully honest when dealing with issues which may be insoluble yet it's also a very human book which has the advantage of having been written by a very talented writer.

The book is split into three sections - Seed, Sap and Stump. The latter seems to incorporate a lot of material which is to do with recollection and of events which happen after the residency has finished but which are in some way related to Swann's experiences during his period of employment in the prison. Poems are interspersed with prose pieces and this format works very successfully throughout the collection. 'The Unsaid' is one such prose piece and relates the story of Swann's unexpected meeting with an ex-prisoner - a lifer - while on his way to work in a town in another part of the country some unspecified time later. As Swann has just been writing about a recurring nightmare he'd been having, relating to his prison residency, you're never entirely sure whether this meeting was real or imagined but I like to think that it actually happened. I'm working here on the basis that there is a strong element of autobiography in the details of this writing, a tricky area but I'm taking this risk because the whole project otherwise seems flawed. The ex-prisoner, after an awkward introduction, offers him his mobile phone number which 'triggers off' a flood of thought which includes the author's having recently experienced the death of a young girl by a hit and run driver. The piece finishes as Swann /the protagonist takes the man's number but refuses to give his number in return then questions whether he has done the right thing on his train journey to work where:

                         a young lad talked excitedly about knives through
     all the stations between East Worthing and Barnham.
from 'The Unsaid')
The self-questioning involved in this sequence is intense and introspective yet it also asks big questions and this collection is filled with such moments. This is brilliant writing but its aim, if there is one, is hardly to do with aesthetics, or if it is we are left with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps the power of this work includes an element of 'thrill', which may just be a tad voyeuristic. Despite having suggested this I think there is a humane sense of the need to understand at the heart of this book, even where understanding involves dealing with paradox and confusion, which probably makes 'the truth' in its entirety unknowable.

There's a wide range of formal devices in this collection - leaving aside the prose, which is itself peppered with poetry and poetry's techniques - including a couple of villanelles, ballads and the odd sonnet, mixed with a more free-verse style which creates a degree of tension between the literary and a more in-your-face directness which feels appropriate to the subject matter. 'Prison ballad of the prison ballad', for example, has echoes of Oscar Wilde:

     The night, and shame, fell slow and vast
     And pinned him to his bunk
     Till he was alone in that dark place
     Where the desperate scream for junk
from 'Prison ballad of the prison ballad')

While this haiku shows his skill with condensed form:

     A long afternoon,
     watching the wind in the high trees.
     Maybe she won't come.
from 'Prison visit')

There are other poems which combine a formalist approach with an ironic appreciation of the form/content relationship but never in a manner which entirely slips over into showmanship - these poems are well-crafted and appropriate while being direct and often shocking, combining, at times a degree of entertainment with a focussed intensity which disturbs:

     Words have slipped
     their moorings, gone solo.
     All week, he labours over
     a story about a killing
     then reads it to a shocked visitor,
     forgetting the facts,
     thinking only of craft.
     'The way words escape.
     How proud you get.'
     How they roam the place.

You could argue, I suppose, that by projecting this 'attitude' into the voice of a persona (if, in fact, that is what he
is doing!) - a prisoner in his writing class - the writer is over-sophisticating the old argument between 'art' and 'reality', but while he is clearly commenting on his own thoughts about these issues he is surely also making a wider point about the relationship between what is 'real' and what is 'fiction'. You can read this short poem on different levels but it still has something to say about the human predicament.

Which is what I'd say about this splendid collection in its entirety. I only found it a difficult read, at times, because of the unanswerable questions it kept asking - about the nature of criminality, of the prison system, of what induces a person to seek a job in a prison, as a warder or a writing tutor, for example. This writing is clear but not over-showy, effective but also very readable and often entertaining, despite its casting a brief light on an experience most of us will never have, fortunately so, I'd say. It also has a lot to say, incidentally, about the state of our society but it's hardly fair to expect answers from a book of poems. An impressive volume. Highly recommended.

     Steve Spence 2012