Andrew Jordan completed a writer in residence project over six months at HMP Haslar. Despite the name – Her Majesty’s Prison Haslar – it is not to be called a prison but a holding centre for refugees, where people are detained. It is now a Removal Centre. The inmates have been sent there by civil servants who have decided not to offer asylum. Some of them have been victims of torture and, with patchy English and patchy provision of interpreters, have not always had a full chance to argue their case. All have a story to tell. “Bonehead’s Utopia” imagines that the prisoners have taken over and declared independence, although there is still trouble at the heart of Haslar – its residents are still fenced in, still aware of anti-immigrant feeling elsewhere. In “Litmus Test”, which may be a typical creative writing session,
“They write quietly, heads bowed. Beside me
an Iranian writes in Farsi and I marvel at the beauty –
abstract and precise – of his prose. I have yet to construct
the vivid image in my mind and already
I am silenced. My distress, which I had hidden,
has been found out and stilled. ‘They are criminals –
they should not have come here.’ I have nothing
to forget now, the present tense is empty;
forwards or backwards – I see someone else’s story.
(Now discuss the effect
that literature has had
on your life.)”
The juxtaposition of “someone else’s story” and “discuss the effect that literature has had on your life” is all the more powerful because we know that this is precisely the discussion that has been stifled. The inmates have not been able to discuss their stories or properly justify their applications for asylum. The subtle use of internal rhymes and careful rhythms make this easy to read, although not necessarily an easy read.
In “Riddle: Who am I?” questions are asked without recourse to didacticism or stating the obvious:
“I began as a taste on the air; what might I mean?
You spoke me, but I am not a word.
Breathe on the mirror, I come between
your self and your self. I turn your face grey.
When you laughed in the dark I danced
like a ghost on the air but – neither alive
nor dead – I know of no humour, nor dancing steps.
I am the dew that did not come to rest in the field.
I have changed your world – do you want it back?
Already your sense of self is muffled
as you cross the prison yard to do your duty.”
Like most of the poems in “Bonehead’s Utopia” it is deceptively gentle and yet still chilling. The use of softer, feminine endings on most key words within, complements the sense and adds to the overall impact. It lingers long after the book has been closed. It is powerful without shouting, like an actor who can fill a theatre with their voice without appearing to be straining with effort.
“Bonehead’s Utopia” is an important book that deserves a far wider audience than it will receive.