“A Voice Coming From Then” Jeremy Dixon (Arachne Press) – book review

Jeremy Dixon A Voice Coming from Then book cover

Jeremy Dixon’s “A Voice Coming From Then” has a content warning for suicide because these are poems set both around the time of a suicide attempt and afterwards, proving survival is possible. This isn’t a forcefully, fake upbeat, ‘let’s search for the silver lining’ collection though, but a recording of the effects of bullying and how to move from victim to survivor despite “a consultant child psychiatrist’s letter to a hospital doctor dated 20 June 1979 which I first read forty years later” where the psychiatrist asks why Jeremy “is prepared to go/ back to the school” and writes, “[this] is puzzling”. Not sure why the psychiatrist is puzzled, did he really expect the victim to move to another school as if the shame was his, rather than stay on when the bullies should have been removed? There is humour though: the Victorian demon Spring-heeled Jack makes appearances albeit with a black wit. The teenaged Jeremy seems scared and confused, but it actually a lot stronger than he credits himself. The source of the bullying is revealed in “Sunday School” where,

“we are taught to hate Judas
because he kissed Jesus

betraying him for
short-term financial gain

we must also despise Judas
for the sin of self-murder

swinging from Cercis siliquastrum
the white flowers

turning red with blood
and shame”

Two things are a source of same: same-sex attraction and suicide. Although homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales (where the book is based) in 1967, the age of consent remained at 21 for such an act. In 1979, the Home Office Advisory Committee’s report recommended reducing the age of consent to 18 but it wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was reduced to 16, bringing it in line with the hetrosexual age of consent. Therefore, the teenager in these poems is the recipient of the confusing information that a beautiful act is also an illegal one. The bullying that resulted potentially had serious consequences. Jeremy waited for his father to drive his mother, a nurse, to her night-shift before attempting to take his life. Vomiting saved him, he was found and taken to hospital and finds himself next to a biker who was involved in a road traffic collision in “the recidivist”

“you dream of motorbikes
and decapitations

when you awake
their cubicle is empty

and you didn’t dare ask
and you still don’t know”

The narrator addresses himself in the second person. This could be shock or a way of processing it. What follows is a series of poems looking at the situation from different viewpoints, including his sister’s, a teacher’s in “form tutor”, the italics mean the text is a direct quote from the source,

“Jeremy is
a helpful and

co-operative pupil
am I wrong

in thinking
that he has felt

considerable pressure
this year”

The bland formality of a school report which avoids committing anything controversial to paper. By avoiding naming the problem, fixing it becomes impossible. Jeremy makes it clear he asked permission before “mother”, (again the italics are a direct quote),

“all the doctors
and nurses

were vile
I’m sure

they blamed us
as if

I didn’t feel
guilty enough.”

The attitudes of medical staff can compromise care and recovery. Attitudes then were very much about blaming the suicidal for wasting resources by taking them away from more ‘deserving’ cases. Although that’s a slippery slope: is someone who plays a tough contact sport to blame for their injuries, how about a domestic violence victim coerced into a car with a drunk spouse? When the focus is on the patient, parents and carers can get pushed out or blamed, even though in this case, there was no suggestion the parents were at fault. It was the homophobic bullying at school.

The book focuses towards recovery and acceptance. The bullying may have stopped, but it still haunts. In “ode to Bronski Beat in an elevator”,

“but I’m petrified

someone can tell
I won’t return their gaze

running
crying

I am taunting myself
making silent promises

I will not
be able to keep

praying the next floor
is where they get off

and when the doors ping
I finally look up

watch them strut
the fluorescent corridors

mouthing to each other
that word I cannot say”

The fear of further bullying, the fear of homophobia reduces his world and leaves him struggling to trust, not helped when strangers prove his fears correct.

The title poem is set after a road traffic collision when the poet was taken to hospital with his mother who was also in the car,

“the closest I have been
to dying again

still upset the next morning
I answer the landline

hello son it’s granddad
I was worried about you both

except granddad died
two decades ago and

it’s not granddad
but my uncle

although he said those precise words
and his voice was exactly the same”

The episode is a trigger. It seems cruel that as someone struggles back on their feet and towards acceptance, a voice can trigger the shame and devastation someone has tried so hard to recover from.

The almost-last poem, “blister packs”, is shaped like a paracetamol tablet and ends,

“fighting for space between the Vim and Domestos
there are more paracetamol tablets in my kitchen
than I ever robbed from my mother’s that night
than I have ever allowed myself to own since
I consider them my isolation companions
all they ask is one kiss without foil
we are a test they whisper a test”

The packets of paracetamol are a reassurance, a source of pain-relief, but also a test against repeating that night in 1979.

“A Voice Coming From Then” is a collection of poems about resilience. Jeremy Dixon doesn’t shy away from difficult or taboo subjects but handles them with sensitivity and tenderness. He explores identity, the effects of homophobic bullying, the impact of suicide with the aim of starting conversations about acceptance and inclusion. The subject matter may be grim, but this is not a grim read. Moments of humour shine through. Ultimately, it’s about survival.

“A Voice Coming From Then” is available from Arachne Press.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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