Swear Down

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

Sample Poems

The Magic Bus

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.

Hauntings

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.

PSI 30/2013

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.

Racaille

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.

Prison Works

‘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.

A Harlesden Crackhead Speaks of John Coltrane

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.’

Citizens of Nowhere

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.’

Reviews

‘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.’

Miriam Nash

‘A blistering debut collection that takes you deep inside the UK prison system. Tender, lyrical, incisive, and hard hitting.’

Peter Raynard