Thursday, 21 November 2019
Sean Bonney, 1969-2019
Photo by Sophie Robinson
I can't believe I'm writing this in the past tense.
Sean was one of those people to whom almost anyone you could name had a personal and close and shared and unique relationship, a totally rare gift for acting as if hierarchies didn’t exist, an absolute generosity, a brilliant fucking mind and heart. Sitting up all night in the flat that he and Frances Kruk shared just down the road from the William Morris museum, chain-smoking, chain-drinking, Dylan Coltrane and Ayler, Nina Simone and Exuma blaring out the stereo (almost as if they were all blaring out at once), books spread all over the kitchen tabletop; reading each other poems, talking, talking, talking, totally and passionately and sceptically believing in poetry and its absolute vital importance and how it can and does change lives; at readings, stumbling the streets, clocking the fakers; on marches, at Millbank, in Parliament Square, screaming out the government; Sean chanting "Tories Tories you can't stop us, we will raise the dead" through a megaphone; Sean’s blog, poems appearing like fresh marvels every other day; Sean, one of those presences that should always be there and it always seems like they will.
And then he isn’t. Sean is our friend -- Sean was our friend, how can it be possible that we have to say it like that, that we have to correct ourselves, to change the tense as if he'd slipped into a fucking history book. He was, now he isn't. But that's silly, of course he is. For years, I don’t think a day has gone by when a line or more of Sean’s poetry doesn’t come into my head and match whatever’s going on in the fucked-up, 'so-called world' we’re all living in: match it, not as despair, acceptance or passivity, but like a slice of truth, a vial of acid thrown in the face of the enemy, a brick through a window, a fist in the air, a diagnostic razor blade. Oh sure you can say that this work became bleak at times, particularly in the poems collected in Ghosts and Our Death; for how fucking bleak our times; but Sean was a dialectical thinker and he was always aware of those pitfalls of total negativity and he faced them head on, with head held high, that trademark scowl he used to call out the bullshit, looking it in his eyes and calling it what it was.
Sean loved life, he loved looking at things and noticing things and discovering things, you would walk with him and he would point at them in wonder and appreciation or in horror and disgust, no sense was shut off in compassion and reaction and absolute commitment. This is something that should be stressed above all in Sean’s work and in his life – the fierce collective joy of its resistant energies of refusal, defiance and class warfare: ‘anger is an energy’, ‘my hatred of the rich is non-judgmental’.
Poets are stronger than the world, they tell us how to go out in it and to survive. Poets are weaker than the world, they're better than it and they don't always survive it. But their poems still survive the world, survive in the world, help us left behind to survive it. 'We are not completely defenceless. We have not yet been consumed in fire.'
Sean’s work for me and for many others was always the barometer, the seismograph, that which anticipated and predicted and commented on, better than any live-stream, any glitzy feed, the political realities we were facing in the UK and, internationalist to the absolute core, elsewhere, always manifesting an immense solidarity across not only space but time, the ensemble of the dead, the discarded, the ruined, the apparently obliterated. You would read the new poems, you would go to a reading, and you would say, did he really just say that, 'when you meet a Tory in the street, cut his throat / It will bring out the best in you', Sean wrote our slogans but he also knew that poetry takes us to another dimension than that of the slogan of the moment, he knew about the dialectical relation between history and memory and individual and collective and loss and survival and life and death.
In his poem from the summer of 2016, ‘From Deep Darkness’, Sean writes, ‘The ghost dimension I leave to my dearest friends’, and thinking of his penultimate book, Ghosts, and of the times when he would point out a ghost he’d seen but no one else had, but you could believe it was there, and the ghost ensemble of friends and comrades known and unknown, named and unnamed, that saturated the collective I of his work, thinking how Sean helped to build an entry-point into that rich and wonderful dimension that is one of the places that poetry lives, one of the homes that it builds in conditions of homelessness and abysmal unmooring, thinking of all that, and knowing that now that Sean is a ghost we can still visit him, still be visited by him, in the “Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find”, we also know that Sean was right when he wrote, ‘Our word for Death is not their word for Death.’
Read his fucking poems. Read them inside, read them out loud.
Sean Bonney lives.