Tuesday, 31 January 2017



The Cavalry

As the early results curdle, I text my father three words - This Is Bad. Like thousands of others, I’ve spent the last year volunteering and working to elect Hillary Clinton. The long fight. The good fight. The first fight I’ve truly thrown myself into, again and again. Election Night finds me in southern Virginia, a ramshackle campaign office held together by duct tape, off-white cracked paint, and five other community organizers. Growing up, the evening news was my family’s sacred time. Six years old, I watch a Palestinian child dive behind wreckage as gunfire crackles. Peter Jennings’ lullaby voice informs us that the child is unaccounted for. My father responds to my text with two words - I know.

            Hour ago a packed office, trusty volunteers using an auto-dialer to rapid fire call as many inconsistent voters as we can. After polls close in Virginia, volunteers shuffle out. Well-wishes. Hugs. These aren’t my volunteers. My volunteer team is two hours to the east, forty plus strong. Knocking on doors, making calls, driving mini-sedans down dirt roads and into ditches. I love them, unconditionally. Contact and register voters, recruit more volunteers so they can contact and register yet more voters. That’s the job.

Before 2016 I had never knocked a door, registered a voter, or cold-called registered democrats. The vast majority of my volunteer team could say the same. On Election Night they text me, celebrating our work and urging me to get some rest. We are a support system.  In twenty four hours our network of activists becomes a network of grievers. “This fucking table,” a co-worker says. To his left sits a card table covered in call sheets, pamphlets, spreadsheets. Florida is called. He paces to the back room. Three minutes later he strolls to the table, slamming it end over end. Paper flies like confetti. He bends down, calmly propping up the table and returns each item to its proper place one by one.

            We absorb the news differently. For a few hours we have the luxury of making calls to the west coast states, absentmindedly dialling numbers as we crack jokes and reminisce. Then we wait. Two co-workers cuddle on the couch, long past the point of caring about subtlety. When the numbers start to tilt CNN reports that the youth vote is disastrous. “Well,” I say. “They fucked us. Like they always do.” A co-worker not even twenty screams back “This is not on us! Fuck you!” We embrace in the backroom, wordlessly apologizing. Her eyes well. “I don’t want to be crazy again. I can’t. My healthcare.” I hold her best I can, my arms feeling entirely inadequate. “Me too.”

            2010 was a big year for me. I graduated college. I moved abroad. I accidentally overdosed twice. Severe depression, self-harm, a titch of anorexia thrown in for good measure. Any serious depressive learns how to paper over their cracks. Inventing convoluted cover stories to hide that they can’t or won’t stand up and say “I am wounded, this hole cannot heal, I am tapped out.” When I mustered up the courage to seek treatment I called up every health provider in California. Some pitied me. Some laughed at me. Every single one rejected me. Pre-existing condition, they said. I fell backwards. Years later, I steel up the courage to dial a number to seek treatment.  Now that the Affordable Care Act has kicked in, the first provider sets me up with an affordable plan within ten minutes. A month later I am properly diagnosed as Type 2 Bipolar, mood stabilizers granting me normalcy again.


I was always a liberal. President Obama made me a Democrat.

The morning after Election Night I wake up, roll over in bed and immediately post a picture of my medication on social media. “Pry These from My Cold Dead Hands,” I write. We imagine political campaigns as a viper’s nests of careerists, striving to accrue power with political voodoo. And while there are strivers and movers and fake smiles, each and every campaign staffer has a story like mine. A Muslim best friend bullied. A 9/11 Firefighter’s lungs slowly torn to ash. A girl unaware she’s undocumented until she applies for college financial aid.  I entered the Hillary Clinton campaign office a cynic. I leave it an optimist.

I spent Election Night quietly pacing, mumbling a single word over and over again. Brexit. Brexit. Fuckin’ Brexit. I spent two years in England. I was not a fan. But in June, my father finds me in front of the TV, watching Britain’s results roll in city by city. I sob. This is it, I remember thinking. Trump’s blueprint. Resentment over reality. The Culture Wars are done and buried. This is different. This is intoxicating. The mythical unicorn of The White Working Class striking again. Never doubt the capacity of people to fall in line. A shame they did not fall in our line.

I do not blame those that voted for Trump. I do not even blame those that enthusiastically cheered him on, their own wrecking ball through the establishment. They did exactly what I expected them to. My mistake was expecting that our voters would show up. That in the face of such raw hatred they would rally. They did not. We did not. I talked to disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters, who grew up without the fires of the George W Bush administration. For me, Obama’s presidency was life changing. For them, they wondered why their life had not changed enough. They did not reach out to us, and we did not know how to reach out to them.

It is too easy for me to be brought low by bitterness. We spent a year telling America that the building was on fire. Liberals bickered about the color of the fire truck or the size of the hose. And now that the fires burn bright, those same folks stand up and have the courage to say that they are against fire?

The toughest day since Election Night was last Saturday. Privately, former campaign staffers were debating whether to attend the Women’s March. Some argued that there was no time for dissent or despair, that we needed to welcome each and every new voice. Others argued that those same voices abandoned us in November, when the chips were down. That wound too raw, too congealed to even begin triage. I thought about all those democrats who railed on facebook about the tyranny of a possible Trump presidency but could not be bothered to volunteer. “I help in my own way.” “I have a dinner party.” “This is all the free time I have.” but then I thought about all of those who stepped up and stood with me. The volunteer who texted me that he had to miss a phone bank shift because his wife was in labor. Who came in the Saturday before the election clad in sweatpants and a smile. His new-born daughter was six days old.

            So I marched. I drove to North Hollywood and parked over a mile away from the metro station, a sea of pink hats and protest signs already in formation. I wear my Clinton-Kaine shirt because I am stubborn and grieving (and it’s also a comfy shirt).  A middle aged woman with a “Pussys have power” button hugs me on the train. She tells me that she’s so happy to see young people involved, that her daughter is also “super” involved. When I ask how, she tells me that her daughter attended four marches since the election! I ball my fists, nails digging deep.


I stood in a crowd hundreds of thousands strong. The cavalry had arrived. Standing against hate and bigotry. Failing to stand for the first female president. Because emails. Because Benghazi. Because Bernie. Because they didn’t know why but they just couldn’t trust her (Hint: she lacks a penis). Despite that, I am swept up in the pageantry. My organizer mind wonders where the clipboards are. The rest of my mind is humbled by the display of solidarity. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be okay. The crowd roars THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. I roar back. A friend next to me takes off his sunglasses to wipe off tears. We hug. We embrace. We stand together.

And then the crowd breaks out into a chant of WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS. My legs shake. Hillary’s message, the literal phrase she championed, echoed by so many of those that slagged her name for the past year. Nationwide, the same voters that let her down. That sat on the side-lines. That refused to volunteer when asked. That had Better Things to Do. Her words on their lips. This feels like a violation. Walking back to my car, I pop into a Walgreens and find a bathroom. I sob, deep heavy chest wracking sobs. Someone asks me how they can help. I tell them to get a goddamn time machine.

            Eight years ago we had the gall to elect a black president. Now we would pay the price.

            And then, the cavalry really did arrive. My Dad, not one generally given to sentiment, watches the news and tells me we will be okay. I ask why. “Because when I grew up they were sending my friends home in body bags and shooting our leaders. We will be okay.” A politically dormant friend mentions she’s making five calls a day to congressional leaders. Her husband looks up dates and times of town hall meetings for the republican congressman who represents his hometown. Another friend attends a community event held at a mosque and meets her local congresswoman. Someone asks me how they can help. I tell them how.

            Election Night. The results are official. Donald Trump will be our President. My President. My 21 year old college intern sends me the electoral map of Virginia. He’s circled in yellow our county, a blue blip in the southern Virginia sea of red. He’s pledged to be an organizer in the governor’s race, fighting for progressive causes. I know he’ll be better at this than I ever was.  After a late night call, we lock up the office and a few of us stay together. We drink cheap beer in a cheap motel.

            A co-worker leans back in his chair, the stress of tonight laced in his face. He laughs until his sides hurt. “On the plus side,” he says. “In a messed up way, I now know what I want to do with my life.” We clink half-drank PBR cans.

            Let’s go to work.

STEVEN TIMBERMAN is a graduate of KINGSTON UNIVERSITY, UK, and a writer based in America.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017


Inaugural Occasional Poem: The White House
Casting Couch Is Visited By Zeus as Golden Rain



I thought I saw a smoke screen or a cloud
descend through spears that rallied at the sky,
and railed against the theme -
four years beneath a shroud-
until I woke to see that, in my eye,
I could not emancipate the dream 
from shackles chained to starlight -
a strident stalker wading through the night,
an endless specter searching for a theme....



But then I saw sun's gilded feet retreat - 
high-heeled hopes broken by the darkness,
love that lies alone on mirrored splinters,
shattered by the monuments of defeat,
that thrust into the eyes the vile success 
of tyrants who elect to be successors -
their statutory statutes on the plaques -
marble mountains moved on others' backs -
destroyers in the mantles of the victors....



He heard his daughter's son would bring him death,
though prophecies are dead - the prophets mute -
the grander grandeur - puppet on a pulpit-
the bloviating toxins on his breath
the wind that withers trees and dries the roots,
that topples the foundations of the spirit,
the ignorance that feeds on fear and doubt,
that puts the fire of liberty ever out,
and leaves us desolate and destitute.... 



This caused the Don to build a golden cage,
and lock his daughter there until forever. 
The father of no country - of no child -
the bearer of the void - this lightless age -
who hides his terror in his gilded tower - 
to torture and torment those he defiled
by lies that fed the truth of their desire
to hold their leader highest of the higher,
the feral alpha calling to the wild.



The daughter lay sequestered in the tower,
imprisoned in a dungeon with no window.
The tyrant feared the oracles of karma, 
and as he held the absolutes of power, 
he knew that his today would come tomorrow -
that death would be a sorry melodrama -
his name would ever desecrate the dust
that drowns the articles of blinded trust - 
the tides of time that brought us this enigma...



He struts in his new clothes before the mirror
that slims him in the image of himself -
his hair the color of the coming sun.
He wears it like the falsified demeanor 
of pimps who preen to flash their worthless wealth,
who act as if the answer and the one.
So self-absorbed, delirious with power,
he seeks to steal the mother from the father,
or be the father of his daughter's son....



He could not drown - leaden in the water -
nor touch a drink to demonize his soul.
He feels his bloated beauty does not change -
but stoops to snort an energizing powder,  
his fingernail dipped in a crystal bowl,
a morbid mind the dopamine deranges,
that stimulates the power of abuse,
so that he thinks himself the mighty Zeus,
that he will come disguised as Golden Rain.



He paints the tainted sunlight on his face,
plucks his brows and bellows like a bull.
He looks again into his lying mirror,
but can not see the truth of his disgrace -
that he must grope to find a fingerful,
that he can't stand erect without a popper,
however beauty sizzles in his child -
the image of himself that he defiled
and locked inside a dungeon in his tower.



He looks outside his window at the clouds,
bends upon his knees and bows his head.
The sanctuary of his inner demons 
is draped in curtains made of funeral shrouds.
The promises he pilfered for the dead
he offered in the rantings of his sermons,
the lies that told the truth of his deceit,
the deadly hatred of the feigned elite,
who look upon their lessers as their vermin.



Now our tears have shed the Golden Rain,
and he has liquified into the chamber 
where he can rape and pillage and destroy - 
and like a madman - utterly insane -
he showers his gifts upon his sleeping daughter, 
and leaves his seed to scatter and deploy
the legions of the army of amorals,
the vengeance of the gross deplorables,
who never knew the simple joy of joy.



And as this would befit a grand occasion,
I offer this entertainment to the Ball,
and join the singers singing their bright songs,
knowing that we face pure disillusion,
that what we saw before was not at all  
the truth that has amassed in these dark throngs,
the hatred now that's branded on the sleeves,
the golden calf in which the crowd believes - 
here neither love nor joy nor hope belongs....

January 20, 2017

Sunday, 22 January 2017




I hesitate to call this a review - it isn't - it's an appreciation, and a comment. I should say that I think Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry is one of the best books of British poetry you are likely to read in 2017; and that it seems to me to be at once better, and slightly less good, than its predecessor, Berry's feted debut, Dear Boy, whose title similarly played on various meanings. I once was Berry's "poetry tutor" - for several key years in the now-famed MAIDA VALE GROUP I ran through the POETRY SCHOOL - other members included Liz Berry, Helen Mort and Phil Brown. I recall seeing almost all the poems in Dear Boy in early stages.

I have seen none from this new manuscript, though I predicted, even urged it to appear, in my several reviews/essays on Dear Boy, where I said (also in private conversation) that Berry needed to write about her mother's death.  It seemed to me that what was best in Berry's poetry was primarily not yet on show - that her surreal, pained, remarkable sense of humour bordered on expressionism, and hinted at hinterlands of anguish and psychic drama the rather tricksy poems on BDSM (mostly using techniques learned from Luke Kennard's toolkit) could hardly bear.

Now, Berry has gone away from London, metaphorically, and yet stayed, but gone to UEA for a PhD with two major poetry thinkers/poets - Noel-Tod and Denise Riley.  This new book of Berry's, frankly, is stamped, on every page, with Riley's ideas and advice, regarding language, identity, the body, and the strange. I know because I also did my PhD with her, and also have written about death, identity, the body, Freud etc, for many years. The uncanny thing about reading this book was not that I recognised it as my own, or Riley's, but that it has emerged, as its own style, but with family resemblances. There may be a UEA school of Agamben-Riley poetics.

Of course, Riley is the pre-eminent poetic genius on these isles now, along perhaps with Prynne, Ford, and one or two others. Her last book Say Something Back clearly should have won the TS Eliot prize a few days ago, but was beaten by a book that will be forgotten. Riley's will be read in 200 years. The reason? It proposed new ways of thinking about language and death, mourning and play, in poetry, by taking all models, forms and poetic options as pliable, open to reformulation. It was a harrowing, witty, beautiful and profound master-class in the human, yet aesthetic, consolations of poetry.

Berry's book is exactly the same in that its twin poles are mourning/grief/loss/bereavement and the language problem/how to speak that bedevils all lyric and innovative poets. Simplifying, it is different, in that Riley mourns and writes as the mother-persona, speaking to her dead child. Berry's uncannily mirror-opposite book is written by a child, mourning her dead mother, speaking as best she can, in poems under extreme pressure. Therefore, in some sense, this is the companion, the Other, to Riley's book.*

What Riley did was to make the exorbitant, overwrought mania of Plath turn into a more witty, philosophical introspection, still highly feminist and alert to ideas and feeling, but more ironic; Berry continues the ironies of British poetry, which constrains full throttle emotionalism (usually), in this book, but allows herself to signally break free, time and again, into extremes of expression and symbolism that make Plath look like a polite tea-time. In short, Berry's contribution to this field is to accept both the constraints of Rileyian ironies, and the unlimited expressionism of Plathian self-revelation.

What this means in practice is that Berry's poems are formally contrived - signposted as artifices, constructed platforms for assays into the same theme, over and again, obsessively turned this way and that - worried at endlessly - the fetish being, how to speak about and to my mother who committed suicide when I was 13. The speaker (a persona, but arguably Berry also) is a little victim, but now big, grown up, and, oceanically rising like a wave, to take on the vastness of language, death, poetry and the unconscious. In other words, she is doing the impossible in many voices. So, formally aware, and ironic - but then, astonishingly crude, awkward, shocking, rough-hewn, sharp-edged, blurts, stutters, shouts and yelps of pain, fear, wondering, doubt - horror. Berry's theme has long been that life is a horror show, and yet poems can be funny ways of dealing with that (funny ha ha and funny strange).

Dear Boy was more ha ha, this one is more strange. Depending on whether you think self-expression/lyricism needs to constantly renew and refresh itself, or can simply be tossed aside, you will read this book as a work of extraordinary poetic ability and frankness rarely if ever before seen in British poetry or as self-referential whingeing. I value lyric-modernism, and so welcome this book. Like a necessary nightmare, a session with the analyst that comes too soon, but was booked long ago.

review by Todd Swift
22 January, 2017

*NB: I would daringly interpose, in true Freudian fashion (pace Bloom) that one needs to place my poems, about my dead father and unborn children (from Winter, Winter Tennis and When All My Disappointments Came At Once), into this conversation - since they antedate both these books, and also explore language, Freud, Winnicot, mothers and babies, and death/grief, in almost the same terms.

This is hardly far-fetched: Berry is familiar with my work, having edited some of those poems for me. I often spoke in my tutorials with Berry and others about the advice that A. Alvarez gave me (I had befriended him) - and Alvarez guided my book on death and my father, Winter, Winter Tennis, which takes Plath and language-play as its poles; and we know Berry thanks Alvarez in this new book. And Riley was my tutor when I composed them.  I am not claiming to have inspired these people - they may well have inspired me - they did of course - but the maelstrom or vortex of death/grief and the need to write out of that is endlessly complicating and complex, and can hardly be attributed, as if copyrighted, to any one poet. It is a community of linguistic grief we work out of, a pool of shared tropes, and ideas.

We all speak after, say, Homer, Dante, Donne, Eliot, Plath and Heaney, who may be the preeminent poets to discuss death and the underworld in terms of poetry and poetic speaking, on these subjects.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...