Mark Burnhope is also known as a disability campaigner, challenging ableist attitudes as well as the purely medical model of disability, tackled in poems such as “Am I DisAbled” and “A Self-Diagnosis Questionnaire”. His poems are not to be written off as sloganeering. “I Still Recoil at the Smell of Fast Mustard” recalls a true event where a drunk woman pushes a hamburger into his face after a night’s clubbing after saying she didn’t know people like that went clubbing. The poem doesn’t ask for sympathy but shows readers why addressing such attitudes is key.
Unsurprisingly Atos is also a target. Atos are the commercial organisation who won the government’s contract to carry out the Work Capability Assessments, which have been deservedly criticised and found in the High Court to discriminable against people with mental health conditions (although this decision is being appealed). The most controversial aspect has been the discovery that Atos had targets to increase the numbers of people being assessed as “fit for work” and the high level of successful appeals against these assessments. Mark Burnhope also considers the legacy of the Paralympics, in the sequence “Paralympic Lessons: the Atosonnets”, in “Preliminary #3” (the sequence works through preliminary rounds, quarter and semi-finals, etc).
.“ even as you light a candle
for every Atos victim, some children themselves.
Tolerate Coldplay during the closing ceremony,
random cavalry choirs, singing para, para, para…
Lift hymns. Some will try to disable you further
for it. Ignore: finally impairment fills the sky.
With your seated soul-kid, say: He has one leg,
he must be an athlete. Hit the point dead-centre.”
The triumph over adversity stories are uplifting but not much use when every day involves adversity and discrimination. Singling out Coldplay’s “Paradise” might seem nit-picking, but when faced with constant ableism, you do become sensitive to others’ insensitivity. No one would ever say when looking at the crowd in a football or athletics stadium, “he must be a sportsman”. The attitudes are illustrated and questioned but don’t tell readers what to think. “Taxonomical” has been read as part of the disability series, but it can also be read as a break-up poem,
“We labelled aspects of our house
with collective nouns: idle of sofas, gleam
of lamps, sympathy of teaspoons,
as zoologists do.
When she left me, I willed every day
to scuttle back under the gravel, gathered
a grievance of takeout menus,
had a man fling a fold
of furniture into a van
. and move me
to a flat in a town
overrun with one man flats
wherein I released the idles, gleams,
sympathies, grievances, folds – resolved
to call the rest by my own names.”
It’s not a mournful poem though, there’s a resilience in the final line. Mark Burnhope’s scope is far wider than just disability activism. His poems are crafted and those written in traditional or new forms demonstrate an understanding not just of the rules of the form but also the spirit. There’s a series of abnominals, which use the letters of the dedicatee’s name at least once in each stanza in a twenty line long poem beginning and ending by addressing the dedicatee with the title being an anagram of their name. “A Dab-Toothed Grin Virus” is dedicated to naturalist David Attenborough and ends
“That shit hasn’t died. Those trends, traditions,
He set. Our revisionist brings a threat to bathos.
In his bright irreverent demeanour. An adder but
No bite – nearer to god, and other gravid designs.”
David Attenborough was also a pioneer of TV programming – he not only brought wildlife films onto the screen but understood how to use the medium to ensure the wildlife were the stars of the show and creating a model that many wildlife documentaries still follow. The form of the poem follows its sense and creates a picture of its dedicatee. Mark Burnhope writes of wildlife too. There’s a sequence, “fragments from The First Week of the World: the Herpetological Bible”, focusing on the leopard gecko. in “Day Five”
“A crack and a shriek. She flickers away.
Awakened from sleep, she flickers away.
A branch or a leaf, a bat or a bird.
The leopard is meek. She flickers away.
A wind in the brush, a bray in the herd?
A step and a creep. She flickers away.
The gathering guns a thorn in her side.
Unable to weep, she flickers away.
Afghanistan play. Afghanistan hide.
Afghanistan seek. She flickers away.”
It’s recognisably a ghazal, just as the subject is recognisably a gecko. It moves from natural observation to political without altering a beat because it takes advantage of a form where the couplets need not be related but keep a structure of rhyme/repetition.
Mark Burnhope’s poems demonstrate craft and sensibility to their vocabulary, form, rhythms and sound patterns which complement and reinforce their message. He intelligently explores identity, disability and otherness without didacticism and tempers anger with wryness.
By Emma Lee