A Review of:
O the Windows of the Bookshop Must be Broken:
Collected Poems of David Kessel
Survivors Press 2006
By David Amery, May 2006
It is poignant that the publication of this book by Survivors Poetry, the UK organisation to promote the work of “survivors” of the mental health system, should coincide with the loss of their English Arts Council funding. If ever a book shows the value of the survivor voice and the importance of the survivor movement, this is it. As a long-term sufferer from mental illness, poverty and the politics of exclusion, David Kessel is an outsider who has been ignored by established publishers and magazines.
However David Kessel’s poems do not require any special consideration or condescension. They have an extraordinary strength and beauty of their own. Although they reflect the stark reality of his life – “half-dead through schizophrenia and fags” – they transform it into something powerful and expressive. A frequent image is that of song, songs of harsh beauty, songs of resilience, wild animal cries:
…this aching dark terrible singing across a small plot at dusk…
It is this kind of primal expression that the poetry itself seeks to claim, as a last desperate resort against the extremity of a harsh existence.
David was brought up in Hampstead, London, son of a surgeon who was also a party Communist. He studied medicine and become a doctor in Poplar, East London but after a few years of practice he suffered the major breakdown that would end his career and break up his marriage. For the remainder of his life he has lived alone, experiencing a succession of breakdowns, hospital admissions and lonely Council flats across East London. There are poems set in the countryside, but it is in the poor estates of London that his poetry is most at home. This is partly political; he has retained his passionate socialism though he turned against his father’s party. But you sense he feels at home here also because the bleakness of life accords with his own inner mood. A memorable poem begins:
We build our own slums. The wind
through the slums blows on the highest
hills. We are all slowly dying
of cold and loneliness, no fags,
no fruit juice, and neighbours with veg stew
and cups of tea.
This is solidarity of the most elemental kind and rare in its fellow-feeling for the outcast and the desperate:
…It seems we’ve come this far quite alone
and our suffering has burnt our insides out.
It is a world David himself knows intimately, from the inside, and at a heavy personal cost.
More recent poems convey all the same political and emotional inten
sity but in terms that are more condensed, more stripped down:
A sufi song, as ruthful as the rain.
Shit jobs for shit wages, the cockney’s curse.
On their faces, a ravaged wonderful earth.
This last phrase sums up the force of his original and distinctive voice, at the same time both ravaged and wonderful. It is the voice of a “survivor”, and it offers hope that the survivor movement itself can survive the current setback.
O the Windows of the Bookshop Must be Broken: Collected Poems of David Kessel; cost £8; available from Survivors Press: Studio 11, Bickerton House, 25-27 Bickerton Rd, London N19 5JY, UK; www.survivorspoetry.com.