Stephen Sawyer’s remarkable first collection is a book about politics – public dreams, private desires and common fears. From a Merseyside housing estate in the 1960s via Pinochet and Thatcher to the floods in Sheffield in 2007, these poems trace the sutures of power and resistance on the body and under the skin through the mediations of love, death, class, art and oppression. They raise questions about identity and belonging in a time of rapid structural and technological change, and celebrate the creativity and courage of individual and collective responses. There Will Be No Miracles Here is a book of passion and humour about people who live at the sharp edge.
Cover image: Jez Coulson
Author photo: Melanie Ormesher
I I’m walking with friends between acoustic tent and main stage, in lush fields, where the Battle of Orgreave took place. Remember who’s drawing warships at the back of the class while the ‘A’ kids learn maths; cast as the turnspit ‘jailer’ of Antonio, wearing sackcloth in the service of Shylock; a metallic silver-painted sword for a part without a word. You could confuse Zulu drum – beats of truncheons on shields with the echo of speakers in these fields: a Sex Pistols tribute band, scissor-kicking in drainpipe black, a bearded man in a red t-shirt: Keep Calm and Read Marx. II Sitting with miners in Beighton Welfare waiting for the picket call then hands are braced against van roofs as we hurtle in convoy across barrens like a mace-dented breastplate under a faint rind of moon. A light floats to the surface – blinks, a string-vested man sings at a frosted bathroom window: I left my heart in San Francisco. Kiveton Park our destination, where a gas explosion kills nine men, miners build the listed baths and the pit yard sings to the village over the diverted tannoy: San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me … Goodnight Sweetie … at 58, Nettleham Road… Goodnight Sweetie A nacreous arc bisects our route, down to third, a bandaged tree, second, Laundry Works, missing letters & Sons, Butchers Entrance, time out of joint, back up to third – and a backward glance: child ghosts, a grim reaper, painted on boarded up windows; a cooker lit by its own irony on forecourt ruins and we’re flying again in the lung-dust darkness. The colliery’s beaming eyes clock you like a head wound, frame versions of winding towers, and pit baths, silhouette coppers with dogs, patrolling the grounds like hired guns from out of town. Kettled and pushing back, a flask flying: a single scorpion shadow in the marsh window light of a colliery bus as it crosses the line. III This is a reconstruction: A cattle baron refused the free run of ploughed land, hires a gunfighter as mean as a scabbard with eyes to clear the homesteaders off. A beleaguered farmer slogs through the wagon-rutted mud, reaches the saloon porch where the assassin, Frank Wilson, smile drawn tight as a vultures talons, closes the angle on higher ground. One Arthur Scargill There’s only one Arthur Scargill A shirtless kid leaps over flowers in neighbourhood gardens, mounted police galloping full-tilt tearing them up, behead the sun. IV People I haven’t seen since the strike greeting me on the battle site where the miners fought to stop the flow of coal in and out of the now absent coking plants. Compere, Attila-the-Stockbroker rises above a failed microphone, leaps off-stage into the crowd to bray and snort his narrative poem of class lore home. A man, naked from the waist up, lying face down and left for dead. A woman sitting in a deck chair picking up a stitch. V Women of the communal kitchen insist I eat a free dinner though I’m not a miner on strike. Mums, Dads and kids, playing with tennis ball and dustbin lid on summer evenings. You know she sold her wedding ring to pay the lecky bill? Can you hear the pit yard sing: Ol’ Man River? Pensioners legless on elderflower falling over sequestered pews along the candlelit terraces at the anti-Princess Di festivities. Can you hear the pit yard sing? And did those feet in ancient times… Three hours baby-sitting for a sack of beetroot. Eight pints of homebrew for fixing an engine. Sheer weight of numbers beating off bailiffs. Can you hear the pit yard sing: The miners united, will never be defeated? VI I return to myself as the feet of this kid, the hands of that kid, others who are myself, running for the ball in a shell suit of fog. A bear chases the Avon Lady. Wanna buy a chamois leather? The Avon Lady chases a bear. Laughter in the cage ascending at 25 feet per second, stomachs leaping as the sun sets fire to the tongues of those who harvest the hard fruit of the deep earth, inseparable from saltpetre, water, and forebears, who are themselves. Can you hear the pit yard sing? We’re sold, solid as a rock. That way of hanging out, power of the untamed thought between chimney pots, chinks of curtain light, bits of motor bike, a mother’s valium lips, thinking without banister rails. A first love, a mirage’s sister, receding as I approach her Bacall-glam eyes, and braced front teeth, who always got a speaking part. Her mind I knew like the Sea of Tranquillity, tried to find one Sunday, amidst verandas of blue hydrangeas; the absences of abstract sculptures, a Pekinese cradled in arms, garden walls of slab-cut lumber; a union jack; the Spion kop chanting of a train, calling me back, calling me back. VII Pears and carnation milk for tea Harry Secombe’s flaccid grin on Songs of Praise but my dad said he could sing – Love is a Many-Splendored Thing – streets you enter your life in, meet Shane, the kid who loves the eponymous western, starring Alan Ladd; goes to his surface job at the colliery in his Stetson hat with spurs strapped on his boots – shepherded and supported by the miners. Tea breaks, you find him perfecting his quick draw, six-gun hanging from his holster, girlfriend with flask and snap. A foreman told to address the problem suggests ‘the lass’ take herself off – Cook for yah man at ’ome. Shane centres his balance, draws on his irons, squeezes the trigger, releasing the hammer on a roll of percussion caps: Git yah hands off a ma’ woman – a perfect Missouri drawl. VIII Children release balloons in front of the main stage. All the time of light and a hiss of anger remain in the green apple I bite into. Pit-boot flush in stirrup-cup, Shane hoists himself up. A sparrow hawk circles the listed baths. His woman holding and held, swinging aboard to laughter and applause of admin and canteen. I canter on my heart.
‘Steve Sawyer's poems want to get the world and what he knows of it onto the page and across to his reader: this compulsively readable book shows exactly how successful he is. Laureate of a northern city, custodian of its recent but all-too-quickly disappearing past, he is also the engineer of unlikely romance and a speculator on the possibilities of art and imagination.’
‘Steve Sawyer’s poems have a prism-like quality in that they bend and separate the braided threads of history and memory into their constituent, illuminating colours. Through this parsing of detail, and the transforming qualities of his art, Sawyer’s poetry stands out as being both deeply imaginative and committed, wide-reaching, humane .’
‘These poems surge and swell so each one feels like travelling. A splendid collection, full of fascinating strangers and tender observation, lit with humour and joy of language.’
‘a passionate, authentic and exquisitely executed portrait of changing landscapes and borderlines.’