One of the privileges of my job, as Director of The Reader Organisation, is that I get to see literature doing its thing in places where it really needs to be, and that’s always a powerful experience.
The canteen of Mersey Care NHS Trust’s medium-secure Scott Clinic isn’t your run-of-the-mill venue for a literary reading, and neither is the deep electro-static hum of the massive soft drink vending machine the usual backdrop to a reading by US Army veteran and award-winning poet, Brian Turner. The very calm, very kind staff member who had shepherded us through the double entrance and locked our phones in the security lockers, given us a briefing and escorted us to the toilets, didn’t think it could be turned off, but she had set out a table with tea and coffee for us all, and as a dozen or so men and a half a dozen women arranged their institutional chairs in a rough circle on Wednesday 2 May, I found myself once more shaken by the power of what I have to call love, as it translates itself into professional care – a transformation I have often witnessed in difficult situations, where ‘care’ is hard to give, and sometimes calls up all that is giving in a human. In the hardest places, I have witnessed this and it always feels like a miracle, as well as simply what is required.
As well as what there was in the room of this quality, Brian Turner had brought his own with him, in truckloads.
He was like a guy sitting next to you in a pub, at a football match. An ordinary guy, in his green sweater, like a man in the queue in a hardware shop, with none of the glamour of Great Artist draped across his broad shoulders. He was simply a man, human among humans, and from the moment he entered the room, shaking hands, willing to listen as much as to read, in conversation more than in performance. Yet how powerful the poems as he read them, in this place where very little speaks of ‘poetry’, and the very curtains, decent as they are, shriek ‘institution’.
To begin, and why not start with this, Brian reads a poem (sorry, can’t quote it as I am writing without the books beside me) about paradise, and what is left when paradise is ( he gestures heavenwards) all up there. Here we sit, in the leavings. I am conscious that there is not much of paradise in this room. Everyone listens intently, some with engaged concentrated expressions while others, behind wall-faces, seem to listen in private, or perhaps not to listen at all. One man appears not to respond in any way. But the jumpy guy beside me talking nonstop under his breath increasingly listens, moving, tapping, containing his energy, asks lots of questions in the quietest voice, and Brian has hearing loss, and there is a lot of repeating for reasons on both damaged sides. One women leans forward,connecting, but modest too, sorry for taking up time, and asks the biggest, most real questions I’ve heard in a poetry reading. ‘What do you believe is left if Paradise is taken up there?’
Brian recites, thrumming the still air with one musical hand, a man playing the universal air, The Hurt Locker. ‘Nothing but hurt left here./Nothing but bullets and pain/and the bled-out slumping/and all the fucks and goddamns/and Jesus Christs of the wounded./Nothing left here but the hurt.’
The vending machine seems silenced. We are together. He is talking to us of our our terrible experiences as well as his own. We all know it. The jumpy guy sitting to my left, the guy who can’t stop talking, stops talking. We listen together. ‘Believe it when you see it./Believe it when a twelve-year-old/rolls a grenade into the room.’
‘Open the hurt locker and learn/how rough men come hunting for souls.’
During the last poem, along one line I cannot now recall, the man across the circle from Brian, who has remained impassive throughout, is moved. A half smile flows like a fast shadow of light across his face. You could miss it easily. But some thing happened.
Thanks to all concerned
See Brian reading here