The Privilege of Rain tracks the year David Swann spent as Writer in Residence at HMP Nottingham in three parts: “Seed”, “Sap” and “Stump”. The irony of the prison’s setting, on land that once bore part of the wilds of Sherwood Forest, is utilised throughout as myriad themes associated with the prison system are addressed.
Swann describes key events, characters and conversations in passages of eloquently simple prose, and further studies the related ideas and emotions through a very varied collection of poems. His style is perhaps best described in his own words, in “The Privilege of Rain I”:
“… the reader of the poem is the poet. It’s in the reader’s heart where the poem’s action takes place. Don’t crowd your reader. Don’t poke her in the chest.”
His sparse narrative works extremely well, providing ample room for the reader to appreciate the gravity of each well-chosen detail. The poetry is also impressive, with the works ranging from free form to ballads, sonnets, and even haikus. “Said on a Landing” is a beautiful example of Swann’s talent for simple, poignant observation:
All night wondering
about life in the next world.
But where are we now?
Swann’s sympathy for the prisoners is palpable. The inherent potential for voyeurism is combated skilfully as he documents his battle to overcome the desire to trawl the gory details contained within the prison’s records. He addresses his fear of these men with honesty, yet his appreciation of their potential as human beings is also mournfully apparent. In “Joy of the Mountains”:
The con stirs his mug’s black tarn; says ‘By the way,
the name for gassed air is mephitic’ –
and stares at the place where that word will hang
and stale – knowledge going nowhere …
However, a relentless satirical focus on the Robin Hood metaphor does become tiresome. It is so frequently employed in the collection that it provokes conjecture as to what images might have been conjured had the prison been located elsewhere.
Swann writes from various perspectives – his own, those of the prisoners, their wives, the wardens – but the inevitable gulf between the writer and his subjects can make his lines feel strained and trite at times. The words “mate” and “ain’t” jar in some of the poems, nestled as they are amongst his own sophisticated language. The contrast only serves to highlight the effort he must make to fabricate these voices. However, his struggle to relate to his students also forms some of the collection’s most powerful works. In “Soured” he recounts an unsuccessful class, demonstrating a guilty awareness of his own shortcomings:
I’d hoped the sweets might stir memories
useful for writing. And they did. But the class
failed: ‘Our childhood days, we’d prefer
to erase. Those were times to forget, sir.
Throughout The Privilege of Rain, Swann questions the value of his placement. Much like many of the issues raised in the book, this remains tentatively unresolved; one theme running quietly through this collection is the vital impact that engaging with art can have on the soul. In “Craft” he quotes a (real or imagined) prisoner who has found joy in poetry:
‘The way words escape.
How proud you get.’
How they roam the place.
Swann’s collection is a fascinating piece of work, beautifully written and tantalisingly balanced atop the fence between “our” world and “theirs”. The subject matter makes it inherently interesting, but Swann’s delicacy and honesty lend the collection a truly human eye – the perspective of one out of his depth, as many of us might also feel in an alien place. This is a wonderfully unique representation of a life that most of us might, thankfully, never have to experience.