Review by George Jackson
‘The city carves its maps into us’ writes Erik Anderson in The Poetics of Trespass, his book about the impositions of urban planning on our day-to-day travels. We work, commute and hurry down particular corridors, becoming divorced from the land over which we move and from each other: the people we rely upon in order to go about our routines. Do you, as you head on a night out, spare a thought for the tube driver? What about their partner and children?
There are some people, though, who reject this commonly-lead way of life altogether, and they make up the cast of Paul Hawkins’ Place Waste Dissent (Influx Press). The collection focuses on the activists and squatters that ran the M11 link road protests of the early-to-mid 1990s: people who refused to let the city carve its maps into their lives, or the lives of those set to be displaced by the construction of the new road.
The government and Greater London Council had planned for decades to build the M11 through Leyton in East London, but the project wasn’t green-lit until 1990. It would ‘cut a corridor/right into the heart of the east end of London.’ Hundreds of properties were compulsorily purchased, but several residents, who had in some cases lived in their homes all their lives, refused to sell or move out. With many houses lying empty, the protestors, including author Paul Hawkins, moved in.
Place Waste Dissent begins with the story of Dorothy Watson who was born in Leyton and had, incredibly, lived on the same road for ninety years. Understandably, she was one of those who did not want to move.
mother brought me into the world
on her back upstairs on 32 Claremont Road
a bracing stroll from the wilds of Epping Forest;
pagan Green Man mythology
She survived the Zeppelin bombs of WW1 that hit Leyton High Road ‘in the cubbyhole/under the sagging stairs,’ recited ‘plays,/usually Shakespeare/at the new Church Road library’ and lost a partner ‘George/A hurricane pilot… over the channel’ in WW2. She was the ‘Queen of Claremont Street’, and called the activists ‘the grandchildren she never had.’ Hawkins’ text makes Dorothy’s humanity clear and familiar, beginning by placing a high value on her memories. Later, these are crushingly juxtaposed with the brutal reality of the encroaching urban development, where Dorothy opens
her front door
to riot police
look up to see a sky full of cherry pickers
fucking shame on you
Place Waste Dissent is poetry, collage, artist’s book, historical document, political tract. It draws a straight line of folk art from the ‘green man’ of pagan mythology to the DIY zine culture that it emerges from. The book-as-object tells you that it’s different the moment you see it, with heavy black edged pages, thick to cope with the weight of ink poured into each sheet. Strips of cut-out text are pasted over photographs of the protest. The result is an absolute mass of information coming at you.
The book shows us chained protesters cut apart by police, tells us the story of local girl Flea – utterly let down by her family and society – , describes coppers, addicts, anarchists, sheriffs, and artists with words that flicker over photographs closely or surreally associated with them.
Place Waste Dissent functions as a narrative but the volume and layout of information on the page deliberately expresses confusion as much as reason. There are no marching paragraphs of logical prose. Poems blur into one, rarely having clear demarcations between them. Reading the collection is like passing through a dream.
The collection is against poetic conservatism, obviously, but it makes an effort to break-open received certainties in general. Hawkins self-consciously set-out to write poetry of the twenty-first century rather than, as he memorably puts it in the introduction, be ‘stuck in a time warp surfing the chemtrail of conservative mainstream poetry traditions.’ But however avant-garde Hawkins’ text is at face value, the poetry is deceptively coherent and musical considering the extent to which words are scattered across the page. Sly, quiet rhyme often links phrases together: ‘crews’ and ‘you’ in the above quote, for example.
If Hawkins is attempting to construct something beautiful with Place Waste Dissent, and some would say that the amount of dirt, addiction, and pain contained within suggests otherwise, then that beauty is structured less around lyricism as it is structured around empathy. The homeless, addicted and ill (although, of course, not the Police) are valued upon its pages. Importantly though, the poet is suspicious of construction processes of any sort.
Hawkins refusal to be tied down artistically mirrors the means by which he struggles against the city imposing its patterns upon him. He notes that he has moved every eleven months of his adult life. House ownership was not for him. The book opens with a quote from Rousseau: ‘the fruits of the land are for all, the land belongs to nobody.’
On principle then, the book is dissenting, and if you agree with its principles then it is hard to find fault with it: Hawkins does not position himself as an author figure who is above the action, governing it. The filtration system between the world outside and what ends up on the pages of the book seems to sift out relatively little. It is arguable that the book would benefit from more authorial control, but Hawkins’ cut-up collage creative process does trouble the line between writing poetry, reporting events and chance. The world is big and difficult, he suggests, and too often we make assumptions about what is right.
Place Waste Dissent is a valuable, experimental, unique contribution to contemporary British poetry. It serves to illustrate that every life and experience is valuable, and to impel us to resist anything that encroaches.
George Jackson grew up in rural Leicestershire and now lives in London. He works at the Southbank Centre in the Poetry Library and is an assistant poetry editor at Ambit. He also hosts the magazine’s new podcast.