Nick Moss began writing these Koestler Award-winning poems at the beginning of a two-year prison sentence. Swear Down is a bluntly eloquent account of violent men and a violent system, the death-in-life purgatory of lifers and suicides, hauntings, jail-pale ghosts and skeleton choirs on the landings. With a bit of help from Kafka, Sarkozy, Chris Grayling and William Burroughs, these poems explore the brutal hierarchies of life Inside and Out – Liverpool in the 1980s, London in 1990s, Hillsborough, the New Cross Fire, Grenfell. It’s a book about a moment’s regret, a lifetime of anger and the ‘rose-tinted plexiglass of the SERCO bus to Belmarsh’. Above all, Swear Down is a study of language and poetry – the words we use to describe ourselves and the words we use when we don’t want to say anything. As Moss argues: ‘if we keep shouting, eventually we’ll hear each other…’
Author photo: Stephanie O'Brien
It doesn’t quite rate with Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but it catches in the throat that the Serco bus to Belmarsh has rose-tinted plexiglass on its windows.
It’s a week since Peter went home, feels like a life ago. It happens all the time, one day here, in all our lives. the next day gone. Time up or shipped out. Either way another voice just echoing now on the wing. We slip in and out of each other’s lives, walk the landings, revenants carrying our souls in plastic sacks. We haunt each other for a while, then flash away, like shadows do when the sun hits the yard. Yesterday we talked behind a metal door of all the fears of home, of life; of kids not seen for 10 plus years; adrenaline kicks and white lines crossed and snorted; anticipation of cold beers and family curses Now you’re out again, hoping for notoriety, but knowing you just face shame. Carrying our souls in plastic sacks, we haunt each other for a while, then flash away like shadows do when the sun hits the yard Jail-pale ghosts. No more real to each other here than we are to our lives at home.
They’re burning the books in the library to ensure compliance with PSI 30/2013 The heating’s been off for 2 weeks now. We pile up extra bedding, shiver as our balls shrink. The science of Good Order and Discipline freeze the mind and the ass will follow. If it gets any colder on the wing, we’ll start burning the books here ourselves, warmed by the flames, watching daytime tv. In full compliance with PSI 30/2013.
My Nigerian cell mate just debated the interpretation of a verse from Deuteronomy with the Muslim convert next door. A kid from New Cross on a GBH charge tells me about the fantasy novel he’s written in rhyming verse. The pool table scrum is raucous with debate. Are peace and justice objects of prayer or spoils of war? The spur is a cross between theological college and philosophy class. Nietzsche or Christ? Resurrection or revolution? A couple of us to the side sharing a battered James Connolly biography. We’re banged up on basic three to a cell can’t shit in private. Racaille.
‘Guilt is always beyond doubt.’ Franz Kafa, In the Penal Colony (1919) Staff shortages so more bang-up nothing to do but watch daytime tv A voiceover tells us that people like us are greedy sticky fingered drug-addicted meter-rigging. A sub-class of shoplifters, even though what’s stolen is mostly nappies and formula. A man in an expensive blue suit shouts cheered on by his studio audience. He tells us we are ‘useless take no responsibility blame everybody else. We should be on our knees apologising, begging, but we make no effort have it easy. It’s all about us.’ The audience applauds. On set a kid with acne and a crack habit weeps. Suitably degraded, we wait for unlock And the lunchtime queue. This is called rehabilitation.
after Lorna Goodison’s ‘Town Drunk Recites Omar Khayyam’ Hair matted, he sways in the road, asking for a likkle change from the cars at traffic lights. Catch him on a good day he’ll tell you he played sax in Gregory Isaacs’ UK backing band, says Ayler died ‘cause his music scared the white man. Says he used to play like Sonny Rollins but had to pawn his sax for his longtime love. Crack. Sooner give me a poor man with a little knowledge than a rich man with an army. I read mad-avid all the time when I was a kid, but still ran in and out of backdoors, splashed in downpours, screamed at the tv, sang along to Dekker and Presley, craved ice cream and curry goat. Give me the drunkalready over the sober fool, the drunkalready singing ‘If I had the keys to the world I’d give you everything.’
We no longer trade bodies for rum, no longer hold fathers and daughters and mothers and sons as middle passage cargo, leg-ironed in filth. Now fathers and daughters and mothers and sons come in fishing boats and dinghies, cling to fake life belts and false hopes of human rights from those who deem them vermin. And others come from Kracow, Timisoara and Sofia, to sleep in parks, under bridges, rotting barges, 6 to a room. Scarring their hands and lungs and livers like Dubliners and Kingstonians generations before. An exodus impelled by abjection to thralldom in warehouses, building sites and homes. True citizens of nowhere. We build your basements your dream kitchens, wake from sleeping under church pews, to mend railways patch your roofing in the rain. Fuck your borders Fuck your walls Fuck your lines in blood and sand Learning slow to sing again in Polish and in Xasa in English in Swahili and Kituba whispering ‘we have been naught, we shall be all.’
‘What I admire so much about these poems is how they play with different forms of language: the life force of song against the thud of institution-speak; the voice of a friend against the bravado of fear. These poems are active: they haunt, remember, regret and push for understanding. They name and shame and take responsibility. They laugh- sometimes from the belly, sometimes bitterly. They’re full of love.’
‘A blistering debut collection that takes you deep inside the UK prison system. Tender, lyrical, incisive, and hard hitting.’