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