Rhapsody In The Street

A Magazine Curated By onboards Grace Wales Bonner for its 22nd issue, featuring archival and newly commissioned works that respond to the tradition of Black poetry, literature and portrait photography of the 20th century

Anthony Barboza. (1972) Self Portrait Kamoinge

Grace Wales Bonner is a polymath of sorts. After launching the eponymous fashion label Wales Bonner in 2014, the British-Jamaican designer has been actively addressing topics of identity, politics, sexuality and race through a merging of luxury and critical design – that which is informed by research and a hybrid both of European and Afro-Atlantic culture. Her graduate collection Afrique, which debuted in 2014 with a cast of Black male models, received the L’Oréal Professional Talent Award; the AW15 collection Ebonics proceeded and, the same year, she was awarded Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards. It wasn’t long until she was awarded the LVMH Prize of $300,000 for Young Fashion Designers, which was given just after Grace’s SS17 show Ezekiel, featuring a collection of structural works draped in beading and history, drawing inspiration from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Her work often signifies mythology and cultural narratives, and has, since the dawning of her label, continuously challenged expressions of beauty and identity – her recent SS22 collection named Volta Jazz being the latest example.

And now, Grace is wearing a slightly different hat. She was asked to curate the 22nd issue of A Magazine Curated By, entitled Rhapsody In The Street and displaying an academic and visual survey of Grace’s research spanning 200 pages. The Paris-based magazine explores a different fashion designer with each issue, and with this one, Grace responds to the tradition of Black poetry, literature and portrait photography from the 20th century. Within, you’ll find archival work and historical ephemera coupled with newly commissioned essays, poems, paintings and photography from the likes of Ming Smith, Zoë Ghertner, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Tyler Michell, the latter of whom has captured Wales Bonner’s AW17 collection Ezekiel. It’s a tome to cherish and hold, thought of as a reference point for conversations surrounding topics such as Jamaican dancehall and the Kamoinge photographic group in Harlem, with published archives from previously unseen Ghanaian film photography and poetry by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye to name a few. Grace tells me more about the issue below.

Harley Weir. (2015) Wales Bonner Spring Summer 2015 Ebonics

Curated as a “response to the tradition of Black poetry, literature and portrait photography of the 20th century,” what does this mean exactly? How are you responding to these art forms?

Rhapsody in the Street explores Black style as a lineage and quality of beauty recorded in history by portraiture. I see the issue as a chorus: a hybridity of different voices speaking as one, and an exploration of the archive as a process of recording collective memories.

Talk me through your research process – where did you source your content, who did you seek to include?

I wanted to create a rhythmic and intellectual space underlined with a magical spirit. Starting points for research were Amiri Baraka’s In Our Terribleness and Roy DeCarava & Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. Both publications explored a mixture of photography and poetry which I wanted to respond to in this issue. 

Zoë Ghertner. (2021) Selena Forrest wears Wales Bonner, Black Sunlight (Autumn Winter 2021) . Adidas x Wales Bonner (Autumn Winter 2021)

Can you pick out a couple of favourite moments from the magazine to look out for? 

I feel honoured to be able to have included Greg Tate’s reflections on Kamoinge, the photographic group from Harlem, in the magazine. A self portrait by Anthony Barboza, a former member of Kamoinge, is featured on the cover of the magazine. 

How do you hope your audience will respond to the magazine? What stories are you hoping to share?

Rhapsody in the Street is an opportunity to experience, honour and revel in a lineage of beauty that unravels and reveals itself over time. With this, I open the door to new possibilities and the continuous unfolding of our story.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya. (2021) Mirror Study for Grace (0X5A4149)

Ming Smith. (2021) Self-Portrait in Wales Bonner, Black Sunlight (Autumn Winter 2021)

Ming Smith. (ca.1977) Acid Rain – White Socks (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) by Marvin Gaye, Soul Purrfection Version)

Steven Traylor. (2021) Damian Marley wears Wales Bonner (Autumn Winter 2020) Lovers Rock Judah Two-Toned Tailored Jacket

Cover, A Magazine Curated By Grace Wales Bonner

A Portable Paradise

Roger Robinson reflects on his TS Eliot prize-winning poetry collection

Photography Jack Orton

Tom Bolger: How does ‘paradise’ appear in your book?

Roger Robinson: It morphs. Paradise became hope when thinking about my prematurely born child; it was the idea of people coming to paradise and finding hell in Grenfell; it was grappling with where paradise was for the Windrush elders who were sent back. I was born in London, raised in Trinidad, but came back to the UK to put down roots – could I create paradise here? Can a text be a portable paradise? Can it give hope? All of these strands from my life coalesced, and the book wrote me as much as I wrote it.

Your opening poems focus on Grenfell. Beyond the terrible loss of life, what did it represent?

That people were devalued, underrepresented and not given an equality of opportunity. Many of us live happy lives, but Grenfell came along and showed that for some, there is no value put on their safety or general wellbeing. Why are certain people devalued in society? It’s not simply a race issue, it’s class, sociology. I drew attention to it because I thought the media was doing a hopeless job; they weren’t getting anything down that I could empathise with. Just the facts, that would inevitably get lost in the news cycle that turns and turns. I thought their lives were worth remembering.

Can poetry help process trauma?

You can rewire people’s emotions through the senses. That’s the power of poetry, as well as other art forms. When I see a Mark Rothko painting, I am literally different for seeing it. Witnessing the collisions of blood and light, spirituality, artistry, depression; there’s so much in so little. That rewiring is in me; I’m altered by it. That’s the importance of art – it’s the possibility to change someone and for them to practice that humanity with others.

How did it feel to win the TS Eliot and Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize? 

Really good! I’m into the idea of creative citizenship and would like to fill out the idea of what a poet is, what they can be in society. Poetry should not be people failing to solve a riddle and thinking they’re stupid. The poet used to be an important part of the community: These orators would stand up and be counted. If you look back at Latin America, they were busy creating revolutions, helping people get fed.

What care does poetry have to take when working with real life?

When things truly happened, you have to honour the moment. My mum always said that before something is a thought, it’s a spirit. If you move in a spirit of honouring the best of the person or event you’re writing about, then hopefully it will come out true.

In ‘Citizen III’ you write that “areas become ends”, suggesting some young people have little to hold on to beyond their postcode. How can we fix this alienation and fatality?

We still struggle to see capitalism as the driving force for oppression. Nobody wants to tackle how wealth, land and housing is distributed, or how generations get stuck on repeat. Society can flourish in most spaces, but to take the example of living in a tower block, the very nature of a mother being at the top of the block while her child plays at the bottom in a prescribed area – that physical distance in surveillance is a simple thing that can lead to social problems. Small details can make a massive difference, and we can begin by providing living conditions for people that don’t set them up to fail. My book looks at the context of somebody running away as a slave and the context of people being killed in tower blocks. These are not separate stories. When people say communities are “acting out”, you’re never given the context, because they’re trying to criminalise the act. I wanted to give context to resistance and the devaluation of black bodies.

Your poem ‘Beware’ (“When police place knees/ at your throat, you may not live/ to tell of choking”) has only gained more urgency. Why have we seen global protests during lockdown?

COVID-19 is a collective trauma, but one that disproportionately affects minorities. Black men are dying at three times the rate of white people. Then we had the entire global arena looking at George Floyd’s death with terrible clarity – a metaphor for how we’re perceived in the world. People had time to sit still, assess their lives and build a collective voice. With all that trauma, past and present, things will explode. I have a lot of hope in millennials though: They’re politicised, serious about diversity of thought and employ unapologetic change quickly.

You’ve written that “Your strength lies in the very humanity of the questions that your poem asks of the reader.” What are some questions we need to wrestle with?

Here’s one everyone should think about: If you don’t worry about your son being attacked by the police, that he will be safe coming home, or you can clearly see him living past 22, then you have some privilege. Are you willing to lend some, and do some heavy lifting for those that don’t?

Photography Jack Orton

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson is published by Peepal Tree Press

This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Ars Poetica

Associate Professor Elizabeth A.I. Powell shares a poem on purity and control

My first real speech rose scented

                off of a cake of soap,

molecule congealing in my salivary gland

          that held the mellifluous

obscenity I spoke, the words my mother found

          horrid, disrespectful, utterances I loved

                       and let loose, becoming bubbles

          floating out my mouth

in punishment, the lather bubbling up

          my nasty sentiments:

                       how I loved the world so hard I hated it.

Things either clean or dirty,

           smelled lovely or nasty,

my mother tried to make me say it nicely. I couldn’t.

           The lavender tallow, glycerin atoms ascended

from my lips into silencing

           my words to God,

                               which then smelled of Yardley’s,

           Lavandula Angustifolia, disappearing until now.

I try to make it pretty. She never said

                  cleanliness was next to Godliness,

           she didn’t believe that. She just liked the scent

of lavender and submission,

           hated the words “fuck” and “suck” and “no”.

The molecule of soap a measure that held the grease in my mouth

           called bad words. To make what I felt evaporate

into the bourgeoisie submission of my stink

           into the parfum and titanium oxide

                   sanitary normalcy

of control.

Chekhov’s First Play

Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an extract from the electric theatre company Dead Centre 

Dead Centre are one of Ireland’s most exciting theatre companies. I first saw their production Lippy at the Young Vic, in London, in 2015 – a truly haunting and original piece of work. Since then artistic directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd have continued to write and direct shows that fearlessly investigate and deconstruct their medium, while always delivering unpredictable and memorable nights in the theatre. Here’s a taste of some of their work: two extracts from a new piece… But for the real deal get yourself to one of their shows.

– Cillian Murphy 

*

As they enter, the audience are each given a set of headphones.

A red curtain.

The Director enters, holding a gun, stands in front of the curtain. He is dressed as himself. He goes to the microphone.

The Director. (whispers) Hello. I’m the director. Thanks for coming to – (out loud, off mic) Oh, you need to put your headphones on in order to hear me. (Back to microphone, whispers) Hello. I’m the director. Are all your headphones working? Let’s do a quick sound check: you should be hearing this in your left ear (they should) and you should be hearing this in your right ear (they should). Our production manager will swap them out if anyone has a faulty set.

Thanks for coming to tonight’s performance of Chekhov’s First Play.

You’re probably wondering why you’re all in headphones. Well, I did a version of this show last year and it went ok, but, talking to people afterwards, it became clear that a lot of people didn’t really get it, they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. And that’s understandable because Chekhov’s first play is really complicated and messy… so I thought I’d set up a director’s commentary to explain what’s going on, what it’s about, and why you should like it. Personally, I always need things explained to me, especially art. I’m the kind of guy who goes to an art gallery and spends all the time reading the writing on the wall next to the paintings. I hardly ever look at the paintings.

And a lot of theatre, too, can feel complicated and inaccessible, especially these old plays, the classics. But they’re worth doing. They tell us so much about the world we live in now, they ask the big questions: who am I? What kind of a society do I want to live in? What do I want?

Chekhov was 19 when he wrote this and, as you’ll see, it’s not a very good play, but it’s hugely ambitious. It’s like all his other plays were in there, waiting to get out, all his ideas. This gun, for example. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the idea ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – it’s the idea that if you have a gun in a play… if you… if there’s a gun then you fire it… erm… actually I’ll explain that later… erm…

So, hopefully this commentary will make things clearer.

Ok, I’ll be offstage so I won’t distract you, I’ll just be a voice in your head. If you’re anything like me you already have a voice in your head anyway, so tonight you’ll have two. Hope it’s not too strange. It can feel a little intimate. Like even though everyone can hear this, it feels like I’m just talking… to you.

Looks at single audience member.

How are you? Comfortable? Make yourself at home. A theatre seat actually is sort of a home. It’s legally your private property for the duration of the performance. I found this out the other day.

Pointing gun at audience member.

That, even if you hadn’t come tonight, I couldn’t re-sell your ticket, as that seat is your private property.

Taking gun away.

And property, of course, is one of Chekhov’s main themes… See, that’s the sort of thing I’ll be doing throughout the commentary, unpacking key themes, making connections… And I know this microphone is very sensitive, so I’m sorry if you can hear me breathing, it’s a bad habit of mine.

Let’s get started.

Goes to leave but then stops

And I recommend keeping the headphones on, but if there are any members of the audience who are comfortable with the classics, feel free to take them off at any point and enjoy the play, as Chekhov intended.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Chekhov’s First Play.

CHEKHOV’S FIRST PLAY

A spotlight appears on a single audience member. The audience member slowly rises from their seat and moves forward on to the stage. They are hearing a different track from everyone else. They are receiving private instructions. They are Platonov.

The sound of the city. Traffic and electricity.

Platonov moves to the table and sits down. 

Everyone looks at him.

Everyone moves over to the table and sits.

Platonov pours shots of vodka for everyone.

They pick up the shot glasses.

One, two, three: everyone drinks.

Music starts.

All dialogue is now pre-recorded. The performers lip-sync their lines. They are losing their voices as they are losing themselves. At once liberated and truncated.

ANNA. How could you make us wait so long? It feels like we’ve been waiting a hundred years. It’s good to see you. Now we can have the fireworks

The demolition ball bursts into flames.

They all dance. It is a choreographed number. Platonov stands front and centre, and is obviously lost.

SASHA stops dancing and looks at her husband. She looks closely, and perhaps suspects he isn’t who he says he is. The others dance, synchronised.

SASHA. Are you ok? You’re acting funny. Come and sit down. Where have you been? You’re always late. You’ll be late to your own funeral. The late Platonov! Do you have a light? Do you even… smoke? I can’t remember. You’re like a stranger to me. Anyway, we can stay for a bit but then can we go? I don’t feel great. You don’t look so good either. Have you changed your hair? No, that’s not it. Have you changed your… face?

The others gradually finish dancing and the evening continues. They have been liberated by Platonov’s arrival and swirl around the stage. We only hear them when they are close to Platonov.

ANNA. Let me get you a drink, Platonov. Or something stronger? Now you’re here we should get a little high, don’t you think. Let our hair down. Be ourselves.

ANNA shivers.

ANNA. Someone googled me.

TRILETSKY. Here, man. Do us a favour? Would you play us that song? You know, the one we used to sing together in college? Christy Moore. The one about the airport.

He puts the guitar in Platonov’s hands.

I love that song. Go!

GLAGOLYEV. (Takes away guitar.) I hate your singing.

TRILETSKY. Irish music is the best in the world! Ireland’s the best country in the world.

GLAGOLYEV. It is and it isn’t.

TRILETSKY. I’ve been to London, and New York, whatever, and Berlin. Barcelona. Paris.

GLAGOLYEV. Great cities.

TRILETSKY. No they’re shite.

GLAGOLYEV. What do you mean?

TRILETSKY gets up on the table. The others throw food at him.

TRILETSKY. Because in one of those cities you can be at a party having the time of your life but you just know that somewhere else on the top floor of some building someone is having a better time, in a better life… you just KNOW that Kanye and Kim

or David Bowie

or Björk

or Marina Abramović

or somebody rich

or Prince

or an actual royal prince

or the fresh prince, Will Smith

or Zadie Smith

or Miranda July

or Anton Chekhov

or Kate Bush

or Kim Noble

or Miley Cyrus

or Billy Ray Cyrus

or P Diddy

or Brangelina

or Kate Moss

or Simon Cowell

or Angela Merkel

or Lena Dunham

or Eric Cantona

or Michelle Obama

or Chris Eubank

or Jay Z

or Dennis Hopper

or Marlon Brando

or Elvis Costello

or Snoop Dogg

or Tyler, the Creator

or Jim Jarmusch

or Jackie Chan

or Salman Rushdie

or Yanis Varoufakis

or Harmony Korine

or Castellucci

or Vladimir Putin

or Will Oldham

or Miet Warlop

or Nicki Minaj

or Thomas Ostermeier

or Michael Myers

or Matthew Barney

or Christopher Brett Bailey

or Tino Sehgal

or Steven Seagal

or Andy Lee

or Simon McBurney

or Justin Bieber

or Kenneth Goldsmith

or Macaulay Culkin

or Anna Wintour

or the fella out of the fuckin’ Arctic Monkeys are out there somewhere, having a better time than you. But here, in Dublin, there’s no such thing as famous people. There’s just us, Platonov. Think about it. What else is there? This might just be the coolest party in the whole country.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Town

Editing issue 25’s Commentary, actor Cillian Murphy selects a photo story on Dublin by Rich Gilligan

“I don’t relish having my photograph taken. Strangely I know a lot of actors who feel the same way… I have worked with Rich Gilligan several times over the last decade, and for him I make an exception. He is a proper artist, one who understands how powerful, emotional and elusive an image can be.”

– Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy: Can you tell me how the project was born?

Rich Gilligan: This body of work came about as part of a collaborative book project, published by The Salvage Press in Dublin in 2018. Jamie Murphy (who designed, typeset and letterpress printed the entire book) approached myself and the poet Anne-marie Ní Churreáin to create fresh bodies of work somehow connected to Dublin. The brief was open to our interpretations and we worked independently until Jamie made sense of our individual narratives and combined the work through the lay- out of the book.

CM: It seems that you were seeking to represent Dublin in detail and texture rather than scale. Would that be accurate?

RG: Yeah, that’s true in a sense. I guess the fact that I grew up in Dublin and that it’s a place I know in great detail means that the work inevitably becomes personal, and, although I no longer call Dublin my home, I still feel a strong connection and familiarity to the city. The challenge with this work was to try to represent the distinct atmosphere and rhythm of the city relative to my own personal experience without the work feeling overly representational or sentimental.

CM: Can you tell me about being an Irish artist living and working in the states, and what that brings to your work?

RG: Living and working in New York, I do find myself tuned into a different frequency. There exists a heightened sense of my Irishness, but also a strange feeling that the place is constantly changing and evolving in your absence.

CM: Ireland seems to be experiencing a very fertile period across the arts: music, literature, visual art… Do you have any insight into what alchemy might be at play in creating this moment?

RG: It’s rare that while a movement is actually happening, people have a chance to pause and acknowledge it. After moving to NYC I found myself almost exclusively listening to Irish music and reading new Irish writers. For a long time I attributed this to some form of nostalgia, but, on reflection, I’ve realised it’s simply because there is so much incredible work consistently coming out of Ireland that it’s almost impossible to keep up. There is something uniquely visceral and confident about these new voices, and that is what stands out most to me. When that fresh confidence is mixed in with raw talent, things get really exciting. I’m not entirely sure what has driven this creative surge, but I like to think it may be one of the few positive forces that often come out of a downturn in the economy; like somehow now we’re witnessing the fruits of the creativity that was happening at such a challenging time.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Room

there was room

for the grand piano

 

and ten fingers

to roam the last

 

day of winter, we

 

sang like meaningless

forks and fries

 

there was room

for dancing, there

 

was room for jars

for dancing and

 

there was room

for lamplight, for

 

you and me

there was room

 

David Ishaya Osu is a Nigerian poet, memoirist, and street photographer. His works have appeared in numerous publications, and are forthcoming in The Griffith Review and The Oxford Review of Books

Ireland(s) 2.0.

Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an essay on Irish political identity from the novelist Lisa McInerney

I mentioned in my introduction to this section a new creative energy at play in Ireland today. Politically things are different. There are many forces at work internally and externally. For all of the country’s recent transformation into a socially liberal state, I am also aware that there are many issues that are not ideal, that are in fact shameful and need addressing. I’m a huge fan of Lisa McInerney’s work – do read her novel The Glorious Heresies, it’s a wonderful book. She has very kindly contributed this essay on the state of our nation, in which she talks a fierce amount of sense.

– Cillian Murphy

*

It’s not going out on a limb to say that we Irish are partial to upheaval. Plantation, partition, famine, migration: We’ve been through so much upheaval that we define ourselves by O’Casey’s “states o’ chassis”. We can cope with chaos. We feel formidable for coping with chaos. Like Father Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle, we like the misery. So on August 6th, when, at the Féile an Phobail leaders’ debate in Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that a united Ireland would mean a “different state” and a “new constitution”, he might have been labouring – or buckling – under the misapprehension that everyone would think this overhaul a woeful prospect altogether.

Reunification will happen only by consensus in the North and in the Republic, but it doesn’t have to be a condition of our forging a new Ireland. As a thundering nationalist, it’s my duty to realise that Ireland is far from perfect, that she might benefit from a spit and a polish, if not a gutting and refitting.

It bothers me that ‘nationalist’ is an ugly word now. As I understood it, growing up bouncing between Galway and Cork in the ’90s, it was the softer form of ‘republican’, meaning that you were passionate about all 32 counties of your country, but not to the point that you’d get lairy over it. It meant self-determination, being smug about our collective soundness, knowing the words to A Nation Once Again, and never giving Le Royaume-Uni douze points in the Eurovision. It didn’t mean building walls or breaking unions or obsessing over flags. It was positive, community driven, rather left-wing.

Recent political trends recommend lexical redefinition. Frowns skitter across pals’ faces if we talk about notorious amadáin Trump, Farage, Orbán, Salvini or Le Pen. What use have we for the word ‘nationalist’ in the age of Brexit and climate change and refugee caravans? There seems to be a fundamental breakdown in terms if the left-wing, inclusive, comforting nationalism we espoused could have anything to do with this far-right screeching. To be united by fear or hate is to not be united at all, and unity is the cornerstone of nationalism, is it not?

This definition is colloquial, of course. When your country is divided, the nationalist goal tends to be the romantic one, and that nationalism can also be used to promote the divide et impera tactic doesn’t make a lick of sense at all.

It’s easy to be romantic about Ireland. Likely this is the case with any underdog country. Ireland has not invaded or enslaved and till very recently had no wealth to speak of, and is, therefore, not grabby about resources. When recent history is characterised by casting off shackles and facing fearlessly the mistakes of the past, it’s even easier. In particular, there were the marriage equality and abortion referendums in 2015 and 2018, each won by a landslide. Of the abortion referendum result, Varadkar said, “I believe today will be remembered as […] the day Ireland stepped out from under the last of our shadows, into the light.”

Leo Varadkar should be the perfect Taoiseach for today’s Ireland. Young – our youngest ever, taking office at the age of 38 – openly gay, the son of an immigrant, educated and accomplished, he is also quite right-wing, quite cold, slow to show his hand… a bit of a cute hoor, we’d say. “You all must love him,” I’ve been told, abroad, and it’s sad that I’m compelled to let our admirers down by retorting, “He’s an awful bollocks.” (Now, the Irish will call anyone in a position of authority or influence ‘an awful bollocks’: The parish priest, the bank manager, Bono, Maura from Love Island… I’ve even heard one heathen say it of our patron saint, Michael D Higgins.) It’s a tough task to be fair, for Ireland’s problems are many and no one Taoiseach can be expected to triumph over them all. Any one of those problems could have been the breaking of Leo, if Brexit hadn’t trundled in and driven us to distraction.

Possibly our friends in the UK are sure that it’s only their social problems that are ignored thanks to the rabid elephant in the room, but it’s the same this end. Brexit has profound implications for Ireland’s economy and our fragile peace, and so rightly it takes up our public servants’ attention. Varadkar could be otherwise engaged; his counterparts in the north should be otherwise engaged. Ireland is suffering the same greed-driven housing crisis as many of our European neighbours. As a result of this, and of our underfunded mental health services, homelessness is on the rise. The Republic’s health executive is a bloated, bureaucratic nightmare. The citizens of the six counties of Northern Ireland don’t have access to abortion services, nor do they have the right to marry someone of the same sex. Power-sharing in the North has collapsed. Prejudice is grand so long as the target is a member of the Travelling community. Asylum seekers in the Republic are stifled by the system of direct provision, where the state provides for basic requirements while curtailing access to work and third-level education. “The whole system is designed to remove one of the core human needs – imagination, the ability to dream,” says asylum seeker and LGBTQ+ activist Evgeny Shtorn, who fled persecution in Russia.

Despite, or perhaps because of all of this, political disengagement is common. When nationalism either means ‘frothing bigotry’ or ‘solidly performs Come Out Ye Black and Tans at parties’, it’s easy to disregard the concept of public duty, to absolve yourself of your obligation to act on what’s going wrong. We Irish are susceptible to inaction, not so much because of frothing bigotry, but a little because of Come Out Ye Black and Tans.

Romanticised nationalism, the kind you hear in song, is the kind that comes from enduring life in the shadows. The Irish inferiority complex is the reason for our collective pessimism, suspicion of authority, begrudgery, love of a good lie, capacity for schadenfreude, tolerance for shifty politicians and intolerance for those who develop ideas above their station. These characteristics are symptoms of an illness contracted from occupation, the tyranny of doctrine, generational poverty and inequality, emigration-as-culture, the loss of a language. The Irish – in the North and in the Republic – have a propensity to form an unhealthy relationship with their own state, enabling and enduring in cycles, because the Irish haven’t yet shaken off the suspicion that whinging is all we’re good for. The Irish employ black humour because the Irish are scarred. The Irish laugh because otherwise we’d never stop keening.

So we’re frustrating en masse, but in smaller numbers we’re astounding. So much progress is driven by individuals, community groups and grassroots activism. All over the island, campaigners throw their energies into beautifying their cities, fundraising for mental health services, supporting people living in direct provision, providing for the homeless. And if there’s anything that’ll make you weep into your cup of Barry’s tea, it’s the spontaneous #HomeToVote movement, where Irish citizens living abroad came back to vote in those historic referendums, because they knew their own power, and recognised their duty. Perhaps it’s a case of divide et impera strangely being the right tactic to deal with our inferiority complex. In Ireland nothing ever works how you think it will.

By rights, our politicians should be motivated to perform with that individual energy. If the grassroots movements are indicative of national reimagining, Leo’s feared gutting and refitting has already begun. Let’s see Ireland 2.0., Ireland stepping into the light as a nation of doers rather than bitter worriers, of nationalists in good deed as well as romantic thought. Our politicians, north and south, should get on board before the ship leaves the harbour.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Hanyu and the Slide Rule

New poetry from Arpine Konyalian Grenier, taken from her recent manuscript Silk to Maidan Complicit

He taps numbers on the dance floor or ice or

on top the mountain at contested terrain

as we contend with how merciful

long division has been

 

          how tapping stripped it all over time

 

tap tap yak yak having criminalised the swooning

we all craved still but secretly as the slide rule

still breathes in complicit dumpsters

having had a peek at Hanyu

 

                        he’s grinning and in tears

 

he has been on the Silk Road for years now

liquid silk the commentator called it

feel it deal it heal heal

Leopardi had said

 

beware of words like success and failure

the well lived life otherly beguiled

tuck and all the rise to stretch

plead and flag memory

 

          then punch and settle the minuscule hobblers

 

thinking a saying clouds saying pinned inventories

star or starling uploads and seasoned memories

the litany of private parts and wishes

the appraisal of half lives

 

the blink the blur the smudge the grab

the rebellion of tears and waits

a prayer and branches

 

          yell yell they yelled for prairies and stability

 

I could not.

 

Arpine Konyalian Grenier was born and raised in Beirut after the post-Ottoman era induced French rule of the region ended. The Silent G is her next volume forthcoming from Corrupt Press. Recent work has appeared in Journal of Poetic Research, Tammy and Barzakh. She lives and writes in Los Angeles

Excessive, Explosive Enjoyment

Drugs are synonymous with countercultural movements but how have they influenced creativity, and do they still have a place in our artistic landscape today?

Illustration by Tim McDonagh

When we were teenagers in the late 1960s, drugs were new. Not only for us, but for our parents and for the culture. We suburban kids knew that something strange had been going on in London because even the world’s most popular group, the Beatles – who had been respectable and decent but had now got weird with their colourful clothes and unusual hair – had talked about it. The music they made in their great middle period was concerned with tripping and smoking and swallowing stuff that appeared to take your mind into a free, uncontrolled zone where the usual rules didn’t apply, where you might see that which was ordinarily hidden.

This music was about freedom and leaving home and, particularly at that age, freedom meant a lot to us. The boredom and violence of school, and the drudgery which had been planted ahead of us – work, mortgage, debt, childcare – was already heavy. Our future and what was expected of us had been laid down early. It wasn’t thrilling and we weren’t ready for it.

The London suburbs were not as affluent as the American ones. Our area was still wrecked from the war. The food was repulsive; the men wore bowler hats and education was an endless sadism. But The Graduate spoke to us pretty things. As Benjamin Braddock realises in Charles Webb’s lovely novel and Mike Nichols’ film, when he returns home from university his parents’ world looks false. From the kids’ point of view, the way the adults lived seemed crazy. Who would want to fit in with that uncomfortable, John Cheever-like world where everyone should be content and yet was not? Their unhappiness and discomfort was plain, and their pleasures – of alcohol and promiscuity – were half-hidden and guilty.

We were the wrong people in the wrong place. Some people said that art could change the way you saw things. But somnolent Mozart, or Hollywood movies, or Renoir paintings couldn’t make the revolution we craved. Then we heard Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Occasionally we could see the Rolling Stones or the Who on TV. Suddenly we became aware of a dirty obscene noise which violated all decency and which represented a heightened pleasure we hadn’t encountered before. It led to the fatal association: pleasure was insane. Too much of it could make you mad. Like sex, it was excessive. You couldn’t grasp or understand it, but you wanted it, and it could make you dance and want to be creative. Music – not the cinema, television, or the novel – was the most significant cultural form of the day and it changed everything for everyone.

It was sometimes said the country was awash with drugs, but try scoring when you needed something. In the late ’60s mostly we smoked hash, took amphetamines and downers, and dropped LSD, often at school. Baudelaire in his writing on drugs notices an encounter with what he calls ‘the marvellous’, but also with an increase in anxiety and paranoia when taking hashish. He also tells us that one is no longer master of oneself. You lost control. This might be an inspiration in itself. You could see and feel things stoned that you couldn’t know straight. There might be enhanced communication. If you were less cautious and uptight, you might be able to speak and laugh more. If you lost your straight self, you might discover a better one. You might want to live differently. That became the promise.

The fact that drugs were illegal and disapproved of made them doubly exciting. Breaking the parents’ law, or indeed any law, was a big kick in itself: you could believe that by arguing with prohibition you were making the world a little wider.

Writers like Baudelaire, de Nerval, Huxley and, later, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, wrote about drug-taking among the artistic elite. Now, for the first time, drugs were generally available and, like pop, they had even reached the suburbs. And the drugs we began to take in one another’s bedrooms, in the parks and later in the pubs, represented instant pleasure, while everything in the suburbs was deferred. Consumerism was about patience, waiting, slow accumulation and gradual improvement. Capitalism no longer starved the workers, but it starved them of pleasure. We were supposed to work, not make love. We were made aware that happiness, if not pleasure, was always elsewhere.

The West had been growing out of God. Religion was going but hadn’t quite gone, and was yet to be entirely replaced by consumerism. The threat of God’s disapproval was still used as a form of control. Yet as we drifted around in our tie-dyed grandad vests and ripped jeans, hiding from mods and skinheads, we knew that the game of traditional authority was up and that the law we were brought up to respect wasn’t sensible. Drugs were prohibited but worse things were allowed, if not encouraged: genocide, war, racism, inequality, violence. No one would kill their own children, but they were keen to kill other people’s. We didn’t believe the grown-ups, who were not grown-ups after all. The levelling of generations had begun.

Not only that, as the 1970s progressed, capitalism – which required everyone to be anxious and hyper-alert – began to falter. The system was more anarchic, bumpy and unpredictable than politicians made out. It went up and down quickly, and you went with it. The very things that capitalism likes to promise – growth, wealth, increased consumption – couldn’t be delivered. Soon there would be unemployment, social devastation and ‘No future’, as punk recognised. And yet capitalism could never be abandoned. Since the end of socialism, it saw itself as the natural world. The only way forward was to find a place inside it which wasn’t impossible, hence the retreat into spiritualism, yoga, Zen and mindfulness. Or drugs.

‘Drugs’, when they first became generally available in the ’60s, caused such outrage and consternation that we understood that it wasn’t the undoubted damage that they did which was the problem. The drawback wasn’t the possibility of ill-health or addiction but the instant pleasure which drugs provided. Or at least the pleasure that others believed they provided. This was what R D Laing called ‘a mental Shangri-La’ – the longing for something ‘beyond’.

In the 1990s and 2000s, drugs went respectable and mainstream. Ritalin, Prozac and other anti-depressants – substances which fixed adults and children up for work without the agony of self-investigation – became the royal road to efficiency. A subject’s life and the significance of symptoms were replaced by biology and the language of science; chemistry replaced an individual’s history and doctors were substituted for self-authority. We had become machines which dysfunctioned, not individuals with parents and a past that might be worth exploring in talk and art, or subjects wondering why, inexplicably, they were fatigued or exhausted. There were no illuminating questions or slowing down. The important thing was to function, to work, compete and succeed. Drugs, cures and ideas about what a self was had become an arm of capitalism.

Pleasure, the devil’s elixir, a magic substance more valuable than gold, is always a source of anxiety, which is why pleasure is usually located in other people or groups, where it can be thought about, enjoyed and condemned. The dangers of drugs were not the fact they made for disorientation if not madness and addiction, but that they provided too much unearned illicit, or even evil enjoyment. Drugs were an idiot’s euphoria. The story was: if you liked it, or couldn’t make money from it, it couldn’t possibly be good for you.

Of course, after so long, we now know that neither legal nor illegal drugs are it either. For a time, they seemed to promise freedom from the cycle of work and consumption. But rather than representing a point outside – a place of rest, spiritual enlightenment or insight – they became the very thing we thought they might replace. Soon we would see they created as much dissatisfaction as any other cheap fetishised object.

The druggies, from Baudelaire to Kerouac, had learned that the route to paradise wasn’t simple. Though Baudelaire talks of stoned bliss, of calm, of a place where all philosophical questions can be answered, and of a liberating vulgarity, he makes it clear what hard work it is having a good time all the time.

These artists were artists first, and stoners after. The demand for pleasure can become infernal, and another form of authority. And while drugs might make you poetic – filling the gaps in reality – they can render you useless, if not impotent.

No one believes in drugs anymore. At least in art there is movement and thought. Working at something intransigent, one can make and re-make oneself, combining intelligence with intuition. Drugs, when they are effective, abolish ambivalence. But being an artist can never be straightforward. You must cede control and give way to chaos. In art, as in any other form of love, there will be strong feelings of attraction and of abhorrence. Artists may love what they do but they also hate it. Work can become a tyranny and treadmill. It is boring; the material resists; the audience might be uninterested. It can never be an uncomplicated or straightforward pleasure.

Not only can few artists make a realistic assessment of their own work, their state of mind cannot be expected to be serene. There can be no art without anxiety, self-disgust, fear of failure and of success. It is hard and dull labour, and can feel forced. Notice how almost impossible it is to convince an artist how good their work is. But that is the price of the ticket. At least one is going somewhere.

Illustration by Tim McDonagh