I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head. WB Yeats
And what a fire it is in Ben Okri’s head. Luckily for us he’s set it down in this volume of poetry which takes you through the day from the unknown hour to invocation hour and ranges the continents to the very tip of the highest peak. Here is truth that we need to hear and confront in this viral age. First read on Radio 4 broadcast his poem Notre Dame is Telling Us Something . But what ?
“But Notre Dame is telling us something
In its flames and fallen spire.
We’ve been sinking lower,
Been mesmerised by lies,
Instead of rising higher.”
This collection urges us to rise higher whether it’s the poem for Ken Saro Wiwa to the hopes raised by Obama for change. But with the poems ‘ Africa is a reality not seen‘, ’Decolonisation – From Fanon’ , ‘The Insider – After Camus’ or the poem for George Floyd ‘Breathing the Light’ there is a reminder that we have a duty of care to each other and collectively to challenge injustice and oppression .
“bring a clear dream for the world
you who walk this way.bring your light.
bring your wisdom, your fire, your hope.
Bring a new courage, a new fight.”
‘Invocation for the Shrine 4’.
And this fight is taken to many fronts. The poem ‘everest’ was read aloud by Ben Fogle at 8000 metres when he climbed Everest in July 2018. There are poems here which were part of Grace Wells Bonner’s exhibition ‘A Time For New Dreams’ at the Serpentine Gallery in 2019. ‘cosmosis’ was recorded as a song by Tony Allen, Remi Kabaka and Damon Albarn in 2020. A trio of poems were part of a dance drama performed at Edinburgh International Festival at Dance Base in 2019.
For those lost
But the centrepiece and worth the price of admission is the coruscating poem published by the Financial Times on 23rd June 2017 ‘Grenfell Tower, June 2017’. This poem works as testimony for those lost. It works as an indictment on those who let it happen. It works as reminder that the tower still stands and those that survived are still hurting and still to go back to their homes. Still to get the support they need.
“Those who were living now are dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth
If you want to see how the poor die, come see
See the tower and let a world-changing dream flower.”
This chorus is repeated throughout the poem and then each line used as the first line of each of the concluding verses. Here is where the invocation to ‘read slowly’ truly hits home. Recognising this and following this epic the volume concludes with ‘Walk in a Moonlight Wonder’. A welcome respite from the intensity evoked by ‘Grenfell Tower, June 2017’.
She walks in beauty
A welcome respite from the intensity of modern life and a reminder that you can also ‘listen slowly’ is the collaboration between Marianne Faithfull and Warren Ellis ‘she walks in beauty’. This is a sumptuous collection and a remarkable production in so many ways. It was commenced during lockdown so contributions were recorded separately. With half a dozen readings recorded Marianne contracted Covid and spent three weeks in intensive care pulling through thanks to the dedication of NHS workers. This prevented her from her original intention of singing: ‘So we’ll go no more a roving’ as a blues but her voice on this and the cellos of Vincent Segal work. The rendition of ‘Ozymandias’ benefits from this post-covid alteration to her vocals.
In the sleeve notes, French first English second, Marianne tells us that “We did some of it before I got ill and some of it we had to do afterwards. It was terribly hard, especially afterwards, because of all these side effects. I got very ill. I nearly died. They wrote on my notes at the hospital, ‘palliative care only’. Anyway, I didn’t die, thank God. Thank everybody. The doctors said they’d never ever treated anybody with such an intense desire to stay alive. I didn’t know that. I was amazed. I survived, and I’m still recovering, and the poems that we did afterwards are wonderful, because they’re even more vulnerable”.
A golden treasury
This is a spoken word album with background or indeed ambient music. It includes Iphone field recordings by Warren Ellis and when he couldn’t figure out what to do with ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ and ‘ La Belle Dame sans Merci’ he gave it to Brian Eno who heard what Warren couldn’t hear.
Warren played some of the recordings to Nick Cave over the phone and he recorded some piano pieces to accompany the tracks. Mixed by Head at Milborne Port and illustrated with watercolours by Colin Self this is all topped off with sleeve notes where Marianne and Warren comment on each recording. This is an object of beauty and is inspired by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury which Marianne bought when she was 13 or 14. “ …I’ve been thinking about it for so long, this album, it’s been in my head for so long, I think I really knew exactly what I wanted. I just picked the poems I really loved, and I can’t help but say I think I was very lucky. We got it.” She sure did and you should get it too.
Read Slowly; Listen to Beauty
A Fire In My Head – Poems for the Dawn, Ben Okri, Head of Zeus, 2021
She Walks in Beauty – Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis, BMG, 2021