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24 May 2016 @ 12:04 pm
Review of Werewolf by Steve Ely, pub. Calder Valley Poetry 2016  
This is a 25-poem pamphlet (nicely produced by Calder Valley Poetry) with a definite scheme running beneath it. Though it becomes fairly evident as you read (and there are notes to help where it doesn't), I think an explanation is needed before I review it, because poems that are part of a narrative can't entirely be considered as stand-alones.

The first poem, "Zwillinge", sets up a myth; an Ur-woman bears twins, which are brought up apart in a sort of experiment, one with love and care and the other in neglect and abuse, with the results that might be expected: one grows up idealistic and well-intentioned, the other violent and depraved. Through the rest of the cycle, some poems concentrate on the "good" twin, some on the evil one, while others are more general commentaries on the history and nature of violence in the human condition. In the last poem the twins come together in an enterprise, at least so the notes say, for I don't think anyone could deduce it from the poem; we'll come back to that presently.

The idea of experiments on twins of course has Nazi echoes, but the cycle is careful throughout not to tie its mythology down to any one historical event, and the whole idea of twinhood is more archetypal than that. It is clear that in some sense the twins are always one, representations of the different sides of man's nature, at once reaching for the light and haunted by darkness, animal in nature yet striving with some success for rationality. It's also of course true in a literal sense that children brought up with bad role models and few opportunities are very liable to replicate the faults of those who acted as their parents. In Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, Ernest Pontifex gives up his children for adoption precisely because he fears he will be as bad a parent as his father and grandfather and wants to break the cycle. In more recent times, during the furore over the murdered child Peter Connelly ("Baby P"), who figures in this book, some pundit or other was criticised for saying that had the angelic-looking toddler lived and grown up in that environment, he would have become as violent as the adults who were his role models. This was self-evidently true; indeed these adults themselves were the product of just such homes, but nobody wanted to believe that smiling blond toddlers can turn into monsters (or, rather, that monsters were once blond toddlers capable of being saved).

It will be seen, then, that this poem cycle has some very interesting, thought-provoking ideas at the back of it. And its technique of never tying itself down to events, of assimilating specific events from different times and places in history, serves it well. In "The Death Dealer of Kovno", the Lithuanians who carried out an anti-semitic atrocity in 1941 are likened to a group of schoolchildren who carry out a bullying attack on a classmate in 1978, while in "Inyenzi" the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 is invoked in a poem about how what's sometimes termed the underclass in Britain is regarded by the media and society. It might seem at first that the larger atrocities are being devalued by comparison with the smaller, but this would be to miss the point, which is that the one can lead on to the other. "Inyenzi" means cockroaches, and is one of the terms used to dehumanise the Tutsi and make it easier for their killers to act as they did: they were deliberately turned into the "other". In this context, the language used of our own citizens in the poem is intentionally disturbing, because we see it doing essentially the same thing:
They were repulsive
some grotesquely corpulent
others skeletal on crack;
Special Brew faces shrunk reptilian,
They were toothless and hairless,
pimpled in blackheads and shiny with pus.

they seemed to find each other attractive
and they mated continually and without compunction.
"Inyenzi" is a very powerful poem, one that could stand alone provided the reference in the title is not missed, and uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the language used in certain sections of print and online media. It is also one of the poems that might go to justify the contention in the notes that "the central argument of Werewolf is that state power can relatively easily induce and coerce humans into participating in violence, murder and genocide".

It is certainly the central argument of the "non-twin" poems, ie those that don't deal with the myth of the good and evil twins. I'm not sure, myself, that it is the central theme of the "twin" poems. These seem to me to deal far more with man's intrinsic nature than with his reaction to any political or any other circumstance. The "evil twin" poems, as one would expect, harp on the vein of violence that is inborn in man as in any naturally predatory animal. Both these and the peripheral poems mostly work, like "Inyenzi", by blending instances and peoples from different times and places – in "Spurn", the possibility of a death camp on the Humber estuary is envisaged, with sardonically observed and all too credible results:
In towns and cities, where once was blight,
now were parks and orchards.

Income tax was slashed.

The accounts were audited
and nothing was found amiss.
The ones, like "Fayasil", that do confine themselves to one historical time and place, without this constant cross-referencing, seem to me the less effective for it (though the unspoken reference to Adlestrop in the first line of "Fayasil" was pointed). And this, I think is why some of the "good twin" poems dissatisfy me a bit. The best of them is "Righteous Among the Nations", which does use the technique of cross-cutting between various folk who risk their lives for others. The last sentence, in a poem that celebrates great heroism, is a deliberate volte-face, reminding us that love for those we know can also make us fight the "other":
Greater love hath no man than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends. Strangers,
perhaps, enemies even. Maybe he'll kill for them.

But in at least three of the "good twin" poems, the idealist is confined to one context: he is a teacher. Now, if the main thing causing a child to go wrong is the home in which he's being brought up, there is a limit to what any teacher, however well-intentioned, can do to help, and these poems are indeed bleakly pessimistic, as also is "Every Child Matters", in which our idealist fosters a pair of children, but apparently too late to save them from the effects of the environment they were in before. At best, in these poems, there are tiny, temporary advances which are soon negated – a child learns to say thank you, but a few years later is joining in race riots in borstal: a girl makes some progress in class but then falls pregnant. Possibly we are meant to read the idealist's persistence as hopeful, but it would be just as easy to read this continual tale of disappointment and think, "why bother?"

I doubt if that was the intention, but the possibility is there, and made more likely by the final poem, the only one that doesn't work at all for me. In "Columblane", the note tells us, "the blessed twin's altruism and idealism leads him to join his monstrous brother in a school shooting". I'm glad the note was there, because I would never have guessed from the poem that the idealist twin was even present; there are clearly two people involved, but then there were at Columbine and neither of them was any sort of idealist. The conundrum of idealists who kill is a fascinating one; I have always wondered how doctors, in particular, can end up killing for Hitler or chucking bombs for ISIL, as they sometimes have. But I think he chose the wrong context in which to examine it. All the school shooters I have heard of have been archetypal losers, people who had a grudge against society because they weren't very good at dealing with it; certainly the Columbine shooters and Hamilton would seem to fall into that category. Of course motives are usually mixed, and there are losers who think themselves idealists; Anders Breivik probably thinks of himself as a right-wing hero, whereas to most of us he looks like a Billy No-Mates who never got over his mother's divorce. At all events, this poem doesn't convince me; the vision of suited middle-class men embracing their inner werewolf is bizarrely interesting but I could never see in it the figure of the ineffectual but well-meaning idealist he had built up from the earlier poems.

It's a pity, in a schematic collection like this, that the final poem in the narrative doesn't, for me, succeed in merging the twins as it was presumably meant to do. And I think it's also a pity that it causes the narrative to end on such an unredeemed, bleak note, which could easily be taken to be saying, "men are violent by nature and there's nothing to be done about it". Because there are, of course, idealists who make odds; for every Breivik there is, fortunately, a Nicholas Winton, but the thrust of this narrative seems to show idealists as essentially ineffectual, often hypocritical wafflers. Which no doubt some of them are, but it would be the greatest pity of all if readers reacted to the "good twin" poems with "why bother, then?"

Nevertheless, the poems in this collection which discuss individuals' propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the "other" is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don't think anyone could read "Inyengi" and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or "Spurn" and not wonder "could it happen here?"