A Cavalcade of Waynes

Wayne Holloway-Smith, Alarum

Bloodaxe, 80pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781780373300

reviewed by Erik Kennedy

Some books of poems contain a part that overwhelms the whole, like an apple in a bowl of berries. In Wayne Holloway-Smith’s full-length debut, Alarum, that part is the 12-page meditation on class, brutality, and guilt entitled ‘Some Violence’. Although there is a political dimension to the violence of the title, Holloway-Smith does not report or catalogue it, as someone like James Fenton or Carolyn Forché might. And although the violence is local – domestic – Holloway-Smith does not usually suffer or buckle under it, as in much poetry of testimony. No, the challenging part of ‘Some Violence’ is that Holloway-Smith is often the perpetrator of the violence. Some of it seems justified, and some of it is self-directed (and worthy of sympathy), but some of it is wanton, senseless, or animated by the dark spectre of the mob psyche. The question that Holloway-Smith poses to himself and to the reader is: can I still be trusted after I’ve told people what I’ve done?

In The Question of Lay Analysis, Sigmund Freud wrote about the Catholic sacrament of Confession: ‘In Confession the sinner tells what he knows; in analysis the neurotic has to tell more.’ In ‘Some Violence’ Holloway-Smith is apparently motivated to reveal more than he knows by reading the events of his life through the lens of theory. The opening section, ‘Hi’, alerts us to the central facts of this life:

Tony Lewin
was the first boy to really let me know I was a human
he wore
a high-top in the early 90s
he wore
seldom any school uniform At our failing school
his right knee to the front of my thigh
was a person I loved entering the room
then leaving again without saying Hi

The ‘failing school’ signals young Wayne and his (male) peers’ low place in society. In fact, it is possible that Holloway-Smith barely knew he ‘was a human’ due to the environment of this school. It is through bodily encounters that he learns that he really exists, like Samuel Johnson dismissing immaterialism by kicking a stone and saying, ‘I refute it thus.’

The dead-leg-dealing ‘right knee’ recurs in ‘Some Violence’ as a leitmotif, a shorthand expression for the network of violence in which we are all implicated. In another section called ‘Hi’, Holloway-Smith even posits that the world communicates in a ‘language of right knees’. (‘There are so many things to run / and hurt yourself against,’ he writes in an earlier poem called ‘Doo-wop’.) He is a speaker of this language. In other sections of the poem, he kicks a (dead?) pigeon into the air like Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier; he watches rapt as ‘three teenage gods’ ‘kick the fuck out of’ a ‘small, eastern European’ rickshaw driver; he laughs as another small man, a hot dog cart owner, is humiliated and ruined by a rival trader, ‘his whole manliness shrunk / to the size of each sausage-shaped piece of meat / a shit ton of bread rolls in front of us kids in the street’; he retaliates against a thuggish neighbour who punched his father by tagging his wall, and threatens another boy with the same can of spray paint, forcing him to do ‘knuckle press-ups until he cries’.

A lesser poet would be fumbling for the scripted apology here, reading semi-convincing words of remorse from the teleprompter, and moving on regretful but reformed. But it’s here where Holloway-Smith reaches for the unusual exculpatory tool of . . . class analysis.

Two sections about YouTube videos draw parallels between the poet’s marginal position in early life and two beings victimised for entertainment by their ‘betters’. In the first, the viral rap battle between real-life teacher and student duo Mark Grist and Blizzard is shown up as the class violence that it undoubtedly is. Merciless slaggings like Grist’s ‘You will never amount to something, and I’m here to raise a grievance. / Biggup everyone whose parents have property in Manchester. Mate, that’s not a fucking achievement’ are translated by Holloway-Smith to mean: ‘Let me introduce you to the value inside the language of my particular group: I am better than you.’ (I am reminded of the speaker in Kayo Chingonyi’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’ who complains that Eminem is seen as ‘a poet’, whereas he is ‘just another brother who could rhyme.’) In the second, a bull in a bull ring with its horns set alight is a stand-in for Holloway-Smith as the toreador ‘helps it to understand itself with pit-sand thrown in its eyes.’

Holloway-Smith’s real magic trick is pulled off in the last two sections. First, football hooligans, the stereotypical working-class threat and another proxy for the poet, are imagined to be performance artists, ‘unfunded and enacting their own erasure.’ And how do they enact their own erasure? Why, by getting themselves arrested, of course! He sings to the cops, ‘O knights of the state, beat down upon them, take them away so I don’t have to look!’ The final act of violence is a bit of Green Street-meets-Pierre-Bourdieu, as the hooligan that is Holloway-Smith annihilates himself with education and acculturation. It is pointed out to him at a dinner that having earned a ‘PhD / on representations of working-class masculinity’, he has ‘by writing / of socio-symbolic violence within dominant discursive values / employed the socio-symbolic violence within dominant discursive values / to effectively murder’ his own working-class self. With this incandescent punchline, Holloway-Smith elevates his story from a sordid farce set in Swindon to one of the great tragic jokes, an epic of hapless self-ruin. It is a jest from the gods, like the story of Oedipus, or like Anthony Scaramucci destroying his life to work for Donald Trump only to get sacked within ten days.

Seen from this perspective – basically, that the greatest tragedy is getting what you want – what should have been a triumph of personal transcendence becomes yet another loss, the cruellest one yet. Holloway-Smith begins by committing violence against members of his class, moves on to committing violence against his class as a whole, and in the end only hurts himself (well, and all his other victims). His confessions would be nauseating without this framework, and the framework would be thin gruel without the vivid confessions. Holloway-Smith gets the balance just right and winds up creating a new kind of soul-baring analytic confessionalism. This is poetry that is at once didactic (in the best sense) and radically uncertain – it alerts readers to dangers and (hopefully) steers them away from them, but towards what? Maybe this is a question that Holloway-Smith will address in the years to come.

Holloway-Smith may realise that his sometimes flat cadences are better served by a structure that is essentially argumentative rather than lyrical, because most of the rest of the best poems in Alarum are matter-of-fact poems of mourning, loss, and fear: ‘So Many Different Ways to Talk About the Same Thing’, ‘There is absolutely no way to make this real life interesting’, ‘I hope this will explain everything:’, ‘Sympathy for Toast’, and the wrenching ‘Short’. The notable exception is the gloriously goofy ‘Some Waynes’, in which a series of selves and pseudo-selves march across the page in their assorted ways but with, oddly, one purpose in mind:

a cavalcade of Waynes fucking each other up in a Geoff Hattersley poem – in a pub, in Barnsley; Purple Wayne; Wayne’s World Wayne; Wayne ‘Sleng Teng’ Smith; A-Wayne in a Manger; all of them have stopped what they’re doing, all of them divided in two rows and facing each other, all of them, arms raised, they are linking fingers, all of them: an architrave through which I celebrate, marching like I am the bridegroom, grinning like I am the bride

It is almost as if he is finally ready to be happy with himself.