The Long Goodbye: Refrains and Variations in ‘Little Piece of Harm’ | Chris JonesPosted: April 9, 2021
Back in the early 2000s I was commissioned to write a performance piece for Signposts, Sheffield’s one-time Literature Development Agency. I created a sequence of poems for two voices entitled ‘Beyond the City’. One character is a widower who is marking the anniversary of the death of his wife by returning to favoured Peak District haunts; the other speaker is a young woman (Jenny) who, after coming to terms with a failed relationship, is about to leave Sheffield to teach English abroad. The parallel narratives take place over a twenty-four hour period: we follow the two individuals as they negotiate the city and its outer edges on foot, by car, bus and aeroplane. The poem ends with Jenny peering out of an aircraft’s window as the city disappears from view.
On reflection, I can see that my current project, Little Piece of Harm, draws on a number of tropes from ‘Beyond the City’, giving the current project impetus, structure and focus. How far I repeat myself as a writer is something that preoccupies me, not wanting to live in a creative cul-de-sac – but I understand I have a ‘trove’ of themes that I knowingly keep dipping into. In the short term, this clustering of motifs acts as a positive organising principle: after all, poetry books hang together better if they are threaded through with recurring or overlapping ideas and images. The worry for any poet is if you keep writing the same kind of poem, or repeat the same mannerisms and verbal tics in work over and over again.
Little Piece of Harm takes place over the course of an afternoon, evening and into the morning of the next day. In the first half of the sequence, Pete, the narrator, traipses along roads and over fields partly in reaction to the town centre being in lockdown. He then gets a taxi back toward the industrial, eastern quarter of Sheffield. Consequently, Pete walks back into the city centre and catches a bus home just after dawn. All along, our narrator meets people who have things to say about the pivotal event of the day: the shooting of a policeman. In between talking to these citizens, he has time to reflect on the fact his wife has moved back home to Toronto taking Finn, their son, with her.
I have often written about men who are troubled by their circumstances, usually because they have lost or forfeited loving relationships. In ‘Beyond the City’ Joseph is mourning the loss of his wife. In the prison poems I wrote after spending a year as a writer-in-residence at HMP Nottingham, men often reflect on the absence of women or consider ways they can connect with partners who are ‘over the wall’. In another narrative-driven poem, ‘Every Time We Met’, the main character, Ed, reestablishes contact with Greg, an old associate, so he can see Leigh again (Greg’s wife) who he had a longstanding affair with. This lack of companionship is a theme that undeniably percolates through my work. I attribute this focus to putting different kinds of masculinity under pressure, exploring its vulnerabilities, and I think I use the absence of a partner as a wider interrogation of the idea of ‘home’ too. I’ve focused for many years on notions of what constitutes the idea of home for a wide range of people. In Little Piece of Harm this equation is further complicated by the fact that Pete is missing his wife and son. One of the things I ask myself in this sequence, which I haven’t done before at length in a fictional form, is what it means to be a parent, or perhaps more fundamentally, what it means to be a good parent and citizen.
Sheffield is a central character in both ‘Beyond the City’ and Little Piece of Harm. I know this is something I keep returning to, the city’s environs. It is a creative itch that I’ve been scratching for over twenty years now. I was asked recently about Little Piece of Harm leaning on particular Sheffield references (place names in particular) and the role of the local/parochial in poetry. Part of my reply focused on the concept of believability and that I needed some level of specificity to help me conjure the world I was writing about. I also said how much I admired the work of the Yorkshire poet Stanley Cook, who explored less fashionable areas of Sheffield (and South Yorkshire) in a range of his poems from the second half of the twentieth century.
I was particularly pleased that, although they are not mentioned by name, I stitch two rivers into the fabric of this new sequence: the Rivelin, and the Don. The Rivelin rolls into Sheffield from the west of the city; the Don flows southwards toward the centre of town, then bends eastwards toward the flatlands of East Yorkshire. Pete and Niamh cross the Rivelin when they pass over ‘Hollins Bridge’ in the poem ‘Someone Else’s Child’. Pete follows the Don (via the Five Weirs Walk) back into the city when he gets dropped off by the taxi driver near Meadowhall shopping centre later on in the work. For what it’s worth, I could trace Pete’s entire journey over the afternoon and evening of the narrative if you gave me an OS map of the city. That kind of specificity helped me write the pieces. More importantly, one of the reasons why I return to and focus on particular locales in Sheffield is that the majority of the characters are tied or bound to the city by deeply ingrained memories. The sequence oscillates between the here and now (about eighteen hours of time in present tense) and memories that tail back years. The city is a palimpsest that provides texture and depth to individuals’ comprehension of place, and to the overall narrative of their lives. My characters’ ‘views’ are configured, metaphorically speaking, by the patterns of house lights across the hillside, and the street lamps that thread the midnight plain.
I’ve written extensively about the Don before in the sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ (2005). I said I would never write about prison again after writing a long poem called ‘Sentences’ about a poet and his relationship with a drug dealer on remand, but in ‘The Window’s Dam’ George talks about his experiences of teaching a particularly infamous con painting when he was just out of college. I think, in practical terms, I drew on whatever I could to write this extended sequence – narratives I had considered before in other contexts and settings, and new material, new preoccupations. If I was to trawl the deep waters of influence, thinking about what shaped my choices and designs here, I would have to say that the image of the lone figure criss-crossing the city must derive, in part, from a very old fixation on Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s perpetual motion machine. Mixed in with this must be the impact that Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Immram’ had on me when I first read it as a teenage boy: his piece employs the vocabulary and motifs of hard-boiled detective fiction to depict a quest narrative. This was one of the first poems I read that made me consider how contemporary poetry could be playful with form, diction and narrative.
As much as I would like to show you my clean ‘workings out’, the various answers to questions about influence and causation are scrunched up on my desk or crumpled in the waste-paper basket. I suppose what I hope for is that in revisiting themes and ideas I can tap into creative variations rather than circle toward blunt repetition. ‘Beyond the City’ is in so many ways a different creature from Little Piece of Harm, but it is also a trial run for my latest sequence of poems, with just a seventeen-year gap in between. Now that this project has been put to bed, I’m going to move on and write something completely fresh, contrasting, brand new – or, perhaps more realistically, something new and familiar to me at the same time.
Images by Emma Bolland.