If you remember where you were on the 13 November 2015, you are no doubt thankful that you were not in Paris. Paul Stephenson however, was there; in the weeks following he wrote The Days that Followed Paris: 13 November 2015. The formal voice the poet adopts mimics the content of the work which is so rich in human experience. He suggests that social media may disrupt the authenticity of our understanding of tragedy, and he also poses questions about virtual connections with our fellow human beings.
The marriage of the technical with the personal infuses Stephenson’s writing, which is prosaic in voice and structured in form. A feature of the collection is his mix of traditional forms with more contemporary visual layouts. The emotional “Blindfold” shows all of Stephenson’s creative and journalistic reporting techniques. Firstly, the reporter’s voice comes through in his delivery of short, precise information:
The next Monday. Late
Afternoon. Place de la République.
We acquire the sense of watching a story unfold on the news, distanced and calculated, giving us the basic, necessary details we need to locate it. Then, Stephenson introduces a visual structure to draw attention to what is written in the body of his verse. He represents two cardboard signs which read:
I am a Muslim
and they say
I am a terrorist.
I trust you.
Do you trust me?
If yes, HUG me!
These text boxes sit at the very heart of the poem, centred by the surrounding stanzas. Stephenson highlights the importance of this singular peaceful act following the attacks, using visual cues as well as found content. Yet, such a strategy can be morally questioned if posed as the poet’s own imagining for authenticity is necessary in witness accounts. Thus, for a piece that carries the most charge in the whole collection, authenticity is an issue. Yet, and despite my anxieties, the awareness of the human contact and relation does add emotional charge that is central to Stephenson’s project.
The collection’s powerful poem, “What to Say”, offers reflections on the social media responses to loss with the real experience of tragedy. The narrator’s mental struggle and rushing inner monologue is evoked in the words and phrasing:
Now everybody is saying something.
Somebody asks me to say something.
They ask me if I will write something.
I am not sure, to be honest, what to say.
Rather like a tongue-twister, the constant flow and repetition is overwhelming, delivering exactly what Stephenson wants to convey. This overstimulation is reported in a later stanza:
Meanwhile, I keep listening, watching,
reading, what others have been saying […]
Using enjambment Stephenson shows firstly the narrator’s own spinning thoughts and, secondly, the portrayal of overwhelming media interest which whirlwinded around the event. The repetition of phrases and words evokes the narrator’s shocked inability to describe events and his tendency to foreground his emotional response, sometimes at the expense of documenting.
There is poignancy in Stephenson’s work which comes from how the poet allows us into his personal experiences of, and responses to, that time in Paris. Poetry provides another very direct conduit to the events (and their impact) in ways which surpass responses on social media. There is a dimension of feeling which is transmitted through the physicality of the paper, ink and white space, which is different from the distance we might feel when reading the screen. Stephenson, in combining reported fact with creative sensitivity, gives us back a reality we might otherwise have lost.