O the Windows of the Bookshop Must be Broken: Collected Poems of David Kessel
Survivors Press 2006
It is poignant that the publication of this book by Survivors' Poetry , the national organisation to promote the work of “survivors” of the mental health system, should coincide with the loss of their Arts Council funding. If ever a book shows the value of the survivor voice and the importance of the survivor movement, this is it. As a longtime sufferer from mental illness, poverty and the politics of exclusion, David Kessel is an outsider who has been unfairly ignored by established publishers and magazines.
However David Kessel's poems do not require any special consideration or condescension. They have an extraordinary strength and beauty of their own, and convey his very individual vision with great immediacy and force. Although they reflect the stark reality of his life – half-dead through schizophrenia and fags – they transform it into something powerful and expressive. A frequent image is that of song, songs of harsh beauty, songs of resilience, wild animal cries:
…this aching dark terrible singing across a small plot at dusk…
It is this kind of primal expression that the poetry itself seeks to claim, as a last desperate resort against the extremity of a harsh existence. Such expressionism may be unfashionable, a sophisticated coolness being more admired in established circles, but to David Kessel's poetry “sophistication” is almost as great an enemy as fascism.
David was brought up in Hampstead, son of a distinguished surgeon who was also a party Communist. A photo of David as a child – which is on the cover of this book - shows a sad and vulnerable face and he was still at school when he suffered his first breakdown. He recovered to study medicine and become a GP in Poplar, where he married and had a son. After a few years of practice he suffered the major breakdown that would end his career and break up his marriage. For the remainder of his life he has lived alone, experiencing a succession of breakdowns, hospital admissions and lonely Council flats across East London. Throughout all this he has kept writing, and has been a familiar presence at local writers groups and readings in the East End over many years.
The poetry published here goes back to the early 1970s. An early poem Glass is Dynamite which is set in Hampstead, reflects David's early revolutionary idealism. But it is with his move to East London and his breakdown that he finds his true voice, something darker and deeper. There are poems set in the countryside, in Brighton and Ireland, but it is in the poor estates of London that he is most at home. This is partly political; he retained his passionate socialism though he turned against his father's party, and his own heroes are more home-grown - the Diggers, Robert Tressel, the cockney working-class. But you sense he feels at home here also because the bleakness of life accords with his own inner mood. A memorable poem begins:
We build our own slums. The wind
through the slums blows on the highest
hills. We are all slowly dying
of cold and loneliness, no fags,
no fruit juice, and neighbours with veg stew
and cups of tea. We live with uncertainty,
our giros and our dreams.
This is solidarity of the most elemental kind and rare in its fellow-feeling for the outcast and the desperate:
…It seems we've come this far quite alone and our suffering has burnt our insides out.
It is a world David himself knows intimately, from the inside, and at a heavy personal cost.
From the mid 70s on, schizophrenia has been the dark undertow of his life and his poetry. David does not romanticise his illness – on the contrary it is a constant trauma – but nor does he seek to contain it or rationalise it away. It is a presence in the poems as real as the poverty of London streets, and it offers a direct and disturbing challenge. Included in the book is a short essay by David on his condition, which he describes as a form of “vicarious suffering” even as a kind of “mystical interpretation of the universe”, which opens up the sufferer to experiences beyond those which are merely present. So for example: “a post 1945 experience in a soldier's child may include the introjection of the experiences of the extermination camps”. This idea is not developed but it throws light on one of David's common themes, that of the re-emergence in his own experience of 20th Century War horrors.
One of the most powerful of David's poems – My Inheritance – sets moments from his own childhood against flashes of 2nd World War horror:
A song of myself
as bleak as Treblinka
A sweetheart's kisses
with the blood of a Jewish child
With nothing to explain or justify this, it comes close to the rawness of madness itself. The juxtaposition is simply untenable by any of our standard tools of analysis – analogy, metaphor, or representation. But the poetry goes beyond this – beyond representation. It becomes its own creation, it expresses its own music.
At its best David's poetry is so exposed that it becomes like a field where thoughts and feelings cross, unconstrained by the authority of some controlling higher self. One poem I particularly admire – A Mug of Black Coffee – set in a Brighton café, has all these qualities. Its first line A listless fury in my right foot bypasses instantly the usual filters of self in presenting us with a free-floating sensation. From this point on we are neither inside the poet's head not outside it. The poem has become a plane that cuts across both, where the world, that includes all of me, simply is:
A greasy bacon butty in June hail
and the fervour of dogs fornicating in the park.
Anger at love that disturbs the malicious street
leaping in the gutter with petrol and stubbed fags.
The rusty smell of the sea and misogynists' guilt
in a laden heart, where the split ego flows over curious shingles.
More recent poems convey all the same political and emotional intensity but in terms that are more stripped down:
A sufi song, as ruthful as the rain.
Shit jobs for shit wages, the cockney's curse.
On their faces, a ravaged wonderful earth.
This last phrase sums up the force of his original and distinctive voice, at the same time both ravaged and wonderful. It is the voice of a “survivor”, and it offers hope that the survivor movement itself can survive the current setback.
O the Windows of the Bookshop Must be Broken: Collected Poems of David Kessel costs £8 and is available from Survivors Press, Studio 11, Bickerton House, 25-27 Bickerton Rd, London N19 5JY.