Empire of Dirt, Thomas Stewart

Red Squirrel Press, 2019  £6.00

Poems of pain

I’ve read this pamphlet a number of times since it arrived through my letterbox. Each time I felt I needed to circle again, find the right point of interest. Each time what I returned to was pain. Powerful communications about pain.

One poem especially stayed with me. It’s ‘Conkers’, which starts:

When I smashed the conkers
and laid them out,
when I felt their broken
pieces and gathered them up

It goes on to bind these conkers with vivid pictures of three young people’s suicides. First, ‘the head boy — / red-haired Einstein / most likely to succeed’ who, we’re told, ‘went into the woods / behind the gym’...

Or the boy ‘stopped by a stranger’ from jumping one day. ‘I saw that dangling boy / in literal limbo / and heard the voices / of the other boys / shouting gay boy, faggot’. He went home and found another way. And then the nameless girl:

I couldn’t remember
the name of the girl
that everyone forgot,
that filled herself
with her grandma’s
paracetamol and sat between
the goal posts.

And then the poem returns to those icons of childhood, the conkers. ‘I could smell the conkers / in the feathers of the / pillow, I could hear their / song in my dreams’. Of course it’s not only the conkers’ songs that fill these dreams.

I find this poem so tremendously sad. I can’t forget it.

But if we don’t write about the pain, who remembers? Who notices? Who knows about the ‘real boy’? The one ‘made of roots, / standing in the wind, / in solitude, exposed’.

I think it’s brave, to write about pain. This is from ‘Six Butterflies and a Moth on a Rose Branch’:

I watch your strength
with every beat of your wing,
I watch you steadying yourself
within that frame

Charlotte Gann