Better than Paradise

Will Holloway’s long-awaited first collection Better than Paradise is a book about science, history and art, about cockroaches, giant turtles and frogs in knickers. It is a meditation on the disaster movie of History – from Gilgamesh and Donald Trump via Mao Zedong's little-known stint on the Northern club circuit, to extraordinary rendition, imperial wars of intervention and lines of homeless refugees. Better than Paradise is an epic re-imagining of exotic landscapes and ominous histories shot through with wit and anger, a powerful, politically engaged and playful account of our ‘whole green world, irrational and sweet’.

Cover image: Goya, El Coloso (Museo Nacional del Prado , Madrid)

Author photo: Heather Barnett

Sample Poems

5.4 Million

because I had the World Service on at 2 a.m.
because I wondered what other enormities I’d missed
because I’d had time to get to page 17 of the paper
because the train was delayed by signal failure at Arnos Grove

because the soldiers took the crops and the village had nothing
because Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a weapon of war
because the children were in the accident at the coltan mine
because none of these people were there on their gap year

because there’s a speck of Congo soil in every pocket in London
because two presidents were shot down in one plane crash
because America’s creature wasted the country but saved the uranium
because Belgium divided and ruled by dividing hands from forearms

because the computer shop paid the electronics company
who paid the mining firm, who paid the armed faction
because of niobium, tantalum, copper, cadmium and manganese
because the entire periodic table is under threat

because indifference is an equal opportunities employer
because of coltan’s capacity to store electric charge
because if this doesn’t shock me, I’ve lost the capacity
and because in the darkness my laptop’s screen
is shining like a lampshade

that’s why there are five point four million dead people in this
poem.

Victory to the Human League

I’m an environmentalist,
I like to see nature triumph
but not underneath my fridge.

I’m a vegan,
I don’t like to hurt animals
except animals that try to eat my vegan food.

A cockroach is not an individual,
it’s a message saying: your life has failed,
you live in infested squalor,
in a humid slum, a burnt-out derrie,
it’s come to this: the insect house,
your dreams have led you only to Roach Motel
the roaches check in but they never check out 
and all your exes will weep for what you have become because
a cockroach is not an individual,
it’s the vanguard of an invading army from No. 76.

A routine patrol in the bathroom cupboard
engaged six unlawful combatants at twenty two hundred hours,
chemical weapons were deployed,
there were no survivors
but still they come.

My transformation is more Heinlein than Kafka,
I am like the Starship Troopers who cannot fight the swarm
without developing a carapace and a totalitarian hive mind.
We become the very arthropods that we oppose

so I have enlisted the help of a superpower whose chemical weapons
are immeasurably superior to my own –
I have formed a Human League with Islington Council

against the appalling efficiency of those antennae;
against the unnerving precision of the placing of their feet;
against the loathsome alertness of their posture,
the back sloping upwards, head high
like a gundog sniffing the wetland prospect;
against the prudent skitter and the cautious re-emergence
from the skirting as perhaps their apparent intelligence
emerges from the unswerving application of simple rules:
eat, walk, flee the bathroom light,
hold still when shadows are moving.

Just as the random drift of molecules is enough
to allow a poison gas to fill a room,
so a four-rule algorithm is enough
to allow a simple lucifuge to defeat
all the enlightenment of consciousness.
They are the shit-nibbling enemies of thought
whose implacable mindlessness is more terrifying
than any plan.

In the coal forests they were fierce, the size of rats,
but their lungless bodies were slow to take in oxygen.
Giant dragonflies clattered through the air like brass toys
but our ancestors had the gift of sudden movement,
the amphibious splash into the swamp,
the sinuous dart of backbone while stupid lobster
was still struggling to turn round.
So we were better at being our size but down there
on the centimetre level
there are microclimates beneath the bathmat
where the Palaeozoic never ended.

They can slide through holes so small
that the world is transparent, porous.
They no more notice the legal boundaries of my tenancy
than a migrating swallow notices
the hard borders of the European Union.

They are gathering beside the boiler.
They have discovered the hole in the grouting around the outflow.
They have reconnoitred the crumbs in the grill pan.
They know when I sleep and when I go out.
There is someone else here.
This is an old enmity.
We are not alone.

This 2017 and No Other

The other me, or rather mes,
in other worlds are dining out
with their astounding parallel universe girlfriend.
I might’ve studied, moved to Boston
to wear a shirt like a lumberjack,
married the one I got away from.

It was a vote that seemed to asking:
Do you like what you’re getting?
Obviously we said No and now we find
that the Godzilla administration’s fiery breath is
certainly a refreshing approach to urban planning.

As soon as our feet weren’t hands
we stood up on them and migrated
right out of the Olduvai Gorge.

It’s called social housing because it’s very social
that the neighbours are on fire too.

Alternatively: the new arrivals have fled
southwards across the sea from civil war
and drizzle to the reception centre
outside El Fayum. They have lost their identity
documents but are adamant that they were blue.

You can’t blame the Tories for everything.
It’s not Iain Duncan Smith
pisses in the lift on our estate.
Although it is, in a way.

If you were sucked through time,
how would you make a living?
My detailed knowledge of the tax system
is completely useless even in another country.
Who is safe from this kind of temporal vortex de-skilling?
Only barbers and maths teachers.

Back then you could visit the Empire,
massacre colonials and get a tower named after you
that goes on fire and massacres
the colonials’ descendants.

Dreams are real, they’re visions
from moments in other lives
where the background music coincides.
I like disturbing coulda woulda shoulda realities
where Kensington has turned into Aleppo
but I wish they’d stay in the boxed set.

My grandmother needs an English class please.
She is fresh out of tunnel and my people
need a homeland, somewhere we can be in peace
and sell distinctive pastries though, if I’m honest bruv,
Kilburn would not have been our first choice.

Renters used to die in secret of bad boilers
not in a flagrant torch illuminating the whole city.
It could be the emblem on the national flag
of what it’s created: like Year Ten bunking
to organise the volunteer food distributors.

And I ask you today, sisters and brothers,
can anyone amongst us truly say
that they are not migrating
towards or away from a flatulent middle age?
In and out of the inky rock pools of dream?

Far from the Karoo sandstone beds,
ever westwards around the galactic centre?

Poverty is unsightly so they put up a facade
but it was the facade that caught light.

Life has film music, you’re swept along
without noticing: Jeopardy! Gloom! Love!
And a man in a rubber lizard suit
menacing a train set.

And about my other life,
the thing I was going to say,
it escapes me
or me, it.

Taxa

Homo sapiens
named the animals
but Linnaeus named Homo sapiens
and while sorting the world into boxes
within boxes dropped the elephant into his Order Brutae
with anteaters and hippos,
in retrospect not a natural group,
there was no common ancestor without other descendants.

A category is a theory of relatedness
which is a theory about the past,
so abandoned categories are not maps of vanished countries
but of countries never there,
not the Soviet Union but El Dorado.

Anyway, someone removed anteaters
and that left the Order Pachydermata,
though thick skinned mammals are also
in retrospect not a natural group.

And classifications themselves fall into groups
of which the phylogenetic is just one
but all ideas are categories
with instances to which they don’t apply,
instances that are not krill, pedantic or nesting.
If this were not true we’d only need one word:
Chunter Chunter
Chunter Chunter Chunter Chunter,
so all thought is taxonomy,
a Linnaean exercise in
the local government of the plant and animal kingdoms
whose suborders, infraclasses and superfamilies
are the shires, ridings and wapentakes
of a new biological superstate
with deranged Eukaryotic commissioners
bent on classifying and reclassifying
the caramel as a vertebrate,
the spidercrab as a fruit of the sea,
the otter as a great hairy tadpole,
and the future, eventually, as the past.

There are no longer any Quadrumana.
Four-handed Primates are not a natural group
without the addition of the two-handed
Bimana or people.

The Order Raptores, the flesh eating birds?
Sorry, finches and sparrows are miniature hawks
who went vegan for January and never went back.

And there’s no Phylum Schizophyta, a group of microbes
almost but not quite coinstantiate with the Bacteria.

There is a whole zoo of moribund zoology,
of jargon degenerating into gibberish,
Ameridelphians for all American marsupials,
Unguiculates for all mammals with claws,
Thallophytes for algae and fungi,
groves of obsolete botany rotting to mulch;
this is the constant danger for all words,
that their corresponding taxa might be emptied of purpose
and stand revealed as just arbitrary
collections of stuff.

And Linnaeus, who
having invested so much in Latin names
at least had the decency to latinise his own,
floats about in some binomial afterlife,
eternally debating the problem of whether the set
of sets that don’t include themselves
includes itself.
Chunter Chunter, he says,
Chunter Chunter Chunter.

Disaster Movie

(Goya, El Coloso)


You don’t need to see the giant to see the giant,
just project the lines of refugees backwards
and there’s his colossal arse, massively indifferent
to the boy falling from the horse,
the woman in the mud.

But you have to see the painting to see the painting:
the individual daubs like the crests of waves,
the terrible grime on his upper arm,
you project the movement backwards,
you see them being painted.

The colossus is a verb,
he’s almost left the picture,
Goya was too slow,
as humans are when
we injure ourselves in flight,
wagons broken forever,
cities just empty stones.

In the sky a glance at his face
is the only light against the geological dusk.
And if he leaves
he’s still implied by everything else.
You don’t need to see the giant,
he is the cataclysm behind the trees,
behind the clouds.

Reviews

‘Will Holloway is a punchy, funny producer of cascades of words that pull apart the surface of everyday life.’

Michael Rosen

‘His poems are a mind expanding voyage – like a breakneck ride on some kickass dragboat skimming over the torrents of received delusion’

John Cooper Clarke

‘A true original, Will Holloway writes ambitious and precise poetry that interrogates and celebrates our world, striking a perfect balance of humour, erudition and tenderness.’

Sophia Blackwell