After Slumber is an unfinished sequence about the history of civil disorder in the UK between 1979 and 2009 – “thirty years of hurt”, as another of the poems in the sequence has it. I had a notion of writing one poem for each stanza of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, but came to a halt after just 17, leaving all kinds of things hanging – amongst them “anarchy the skeleton” as a heavy-metal mascot in a chariot race, where the “chariot of Pluto” had careened off-course and was descending into Hades like the good ship Event Horizon. I may take it up again at some point.
Each poem in the sequence began with a “seed phrase”, written in ALLCAPS, with other significant words or phrases appearing ALLCAPSed from time to time. “UNDERSTAND LESS” is a paraphrase of then-British-Prime Minister John Major’s assertion that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less” in an interview given three days after the discovery of the body of the toddler Jamie Bulger, who had been murdered by two primary school children. The quotation also appears, paraphrased as “we should condemn more and understand less”, as an epigraph to Irvine Welsh’s The Marabou Stork Nightmares, a strange, surprisingly ambitious book about the linked cycles of colonial and sexual violence.
Once you have the Bulger murder in mind, I think any obscurities in the poem should quickly resolve themselves. Like Welsh’s book, it’s about violence, fantasy, vengefulness and senseless “oppugnancy” as “the truth of power” (note how “voicing the truth of power” modifies “speaking the truth to power”; it’s significant that “anarchist”, throughout the sequence, is freely applied to both Tory free-market ideologues and the window-smashers of the black bloc – the latter with more sympathy than the former, naturally). “Some are left / as ghosts in their own lives” refers most obviously to Bulger’s killers, but also to the loved-ones of the victims of such violence, who from time to time are called upon to appear on television demanding vengeance. It’s always seemed to me indecent to incite grieving people in this way. The claim that both “understanding” and “condemnation” are impostures with respect to the tragedy and horror of the Bulger case is being made quite straightforwardly.
Non-readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may need telling that “CRUCIATUS” is a spell which inflicts agonising pain on an opponent, although Rowling doesn’t actually have her teenage heroes filling their enemies’ bowels with boiling lead. “My appetites are strange / even to me”…