Poetry Centre Stage played host to exciting performances from two of the UK’s leading poets on the Friday of the StAnza festival. Lemn Sissay’s presence filled the auditorium as soon as he appeared on stage; his larger-than-life exuberance creates its own buzz. Effortlessly facing down some caustic remarks from a member of the audience, Sissay embarked on a powerful reading of poems gleaned from his harrowing experience of childhood. Having been given up for fostering by his Ethiopian mother (who came to the UK to study), he was taken into a very religious English family who brought him up until he was twelve at which point he was abandoned by that family and placed in care. His endurance and ultimate triumph over the brutality of that system inform his every action. He was awarded an MBE for his work with children in Care and was appointed as official poet to the 2012 Olympics.
Sissay’s poetry is passionate and compassionate. His reading of “Invisible Kisses” brought urgency to the universal need for love and protection in an often harsh world, “Elephant in the Room” dealing also with that phenomenon but in a humorous way, but reflecting Sissay’s deeply felt project to reveal uncomfortable truths. The performance of “Let there be Peace”, a poem now on permanent display at the University of Huddersfield, tacked war, evoking a situation where “magpies bring back lost property; children, engagement rings, broken things.”
Don Paterson’s charisma is just as vibrant as Sissay’s but in a very different register. Self-deprecating but humorous, his poetry, often in a sharp vernacular, emanates from his Dundee childhood, but it transcends the rough edginess of Dundonian wit and banter often to probe the most profound spiritual questions.
At the StAnza reading, he described his latest collection, 40 Sonnets, as being dominated by “Middle-age crisis poems”. Opening with “Wave”, the poem which takes on the identity of an ocean roller heading shorewards, anticipating its own breaking. As the performance of poem gathered momentum, Paterson portrayed that wave, “power run down by the miles”, and at this point we were lulled into an expectation of a benign seaside. But Paterson had a suprise turn at the end: the wave “hit the beach and swept away the town”.
Paterson expressed concerns about internet trolls, describing the monotonous regularity with which he is criticised by one malevolent individual in particular. In the humorous poem, “My Bad”, the troll’s habitual complaint is embodied in the phrase, “What Paterson fails to realise….”
A major highlight of the performance was the long poem, “The Bathysphere”, where Paterson showed his great ability to transform the mundane. The poem itself begins where the narrator has just purchased an old and damaged example of this early form of undersea exploration vehicle. The imagery is rooted initially in the real world, the narrator imagining himself viewed from above:
From the air I must have looked like a dung-beetle
as I wrestled it, all breathers and reverses,
over the hill and into the ring of rocks
I’d laid the day before as anchorage.
However, after many occasions of sitting in the vehicle without anything happening, he begins to experience weird hallucinations of being underwater, watching ocean wildlife,
Now work was a pure joy. I tuned and attuned
and saw their shapes darken and clarify
and heard the bell fill up with their long song.
But then something even more spectacular happens. The craft appears to be lifted upwards, as if racing toward the water’s surface:
How long the raising took I do not know,
but through the weightless orb there rang a song
so vast and strange I thought my head would burst.
My eardrums did. I was so long past caring[;]
The world is experienced as pure immanence, with all things coming into being. We can only speculate on whether this dazzling experience is imaginary or real but Paterson’s real world StAnza performance was stellar.