ZION (2)

I have written a short lyric poem ‘Zion’ as a riposte to a tendency within British poetry to fetishise Zion. Two 21st century poetry volumes will suffice to illustrate my point: Geoffrey Hill’s The Orchards of Syon and Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion.

Both of these books contain the fetish-word in their titles, and throughout their poems. It is a refrain in which the keyword grows more magical with repetition. Arguably Hill’s ‘Syon’ should not be targeted as it is not the same as the word ‘Zion’. Well actually, it’s just an Anglicisation of the Latin ‘Sion’. The writer Thomas L. Jeffers explains that The Orchards of Syon is “a title having less to do with Syon Park, the London home of the Duke of Northumberland and famous for its 18th-century gardens, than with a visionary place named for the Mount Zion that overlooks Jerusalem”. In Hill it seems like British-Israelism, but he is too complex a poet to be pinned down to simplicities. Is his Anglicised Zion a badge for Anglo-Zionism? The poet Mark Wilson claims that Hill “has absolutely no respect for present day Zionism and has actually attacked it in two recent Daybook sequences: ‘Odi Barbare’ and ‘Liber Illustrium Virorum’.”

Hill imaginatively merges two places – Goldengrove (from Hopkins) and Syon – as idyll. Goldengrove is perhaps the English countryside of Hill’s childhood; Syon perhaps the spiritual aspiration of his adulthood. Syon is where Hill wants to be, but this is in a 2002 book widely seen as offering readers a poetic consolatio after the world-changing events of 9/11. There is little doubt that Hill is right-leaning, physically aligned with such British institutions as the Monarchy, the Church of England, Oxford University etc. Here for me is the most odious passage Hill has ever written:

Syon! Syon! that which sustains us and is
not the politics of envy, nor solidarnosc,
a hard-won knowledge of what wears us down.

Syon is not Fern Hill; it is grown-up, a place where the political right is rampant and the left is banished. Hill blatantly rejects left-wing politics i.e. solidarnosc, dismissing it as ‘the politics of envy’. Syon, on the other hand, is ‘that which sustains us’, and is defined as the very opposite of this undesirable left. Who is the ‘us’? There is grammatical ambiguity. Is Syon the ‘hard-won knowledge of what wears us down’, or is it not? That Syon is the opposite of solidarnosc – solidarity – and the Polish Labour movement that breached the Iron Curtain, seems damning, even self-contradictory. The thing is, even if Hill is not the curmudgeonly champion of British hierarchy we know him to be, and does not harbour Zionist views, his use of ‘Syon’ as mantra is still questionable. If he is anti-Zionist, it is more questionable, though perhaps he has developed his position since publishing the book 13 years ago. ‘Syon’ lacks the innocence its author sees in it, is some kind of subliminal advertising, some kind of approval. That said, I am an admirer of much of Hill’s work including some of the poems in this volume. I understand why he transposes the yearnings of the Jewish exiles in Babylon for their homeland into his own – perhaps exiled in America, or in internal exile – yearnings for an English equivalent, and appreciate how his change of spelling is sonically less harsh, and modifies his meaning.

The same problem applies to Kei Miller’s volume, but in a different way. ‘Zion’ and its Anglicised variants is a huge concept and means different things to different people. I very much enjoyed The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, even though I’m not mad about cartography as a metaphor, and have problems with the use of the word ‘Zion’. Miller is drawing on the Rastafarian cosmology of Zion as “a utopian place of unity, peace and freedom as opposed to Babylon, the oppressing and exploiting system of the materialistic modern world and a place of evil” (Wikipedia). Miller’s book is as much a heartfelt cry for a better world as Hill’s, and there is no way I would infer any literal Zionism intended or suggested in his utterance.

I should add that I myself do not contest Israel’s right to exist, and am more generally a deeply philosemitic person. Also, I am prone to fetishising the closely related word of ‘Jerusalem’. (One of the many meanings of the Hebrew usage of Zion is ‘Jerusalem’). I therefore understand the urge to have a name for a mystical place of total human liberation. Miller’s Zion is imagined in the following passage:

…You find your feet at last straying off the marl roads,
the bauxite roads, the slaving roads
and the marooning roads, and you would be
turning now onto the singing roads
and the sweeting roads that lift you up
to such a place as cannot be held on maps or charts,
a place that does not keep still at the end of paths.
Know this, that lions who trod don’t worry
bout reaching Zion. In time
is Zion that reach to the lions.

Imagine, however, if you were to ask a Palestinain intellectual what s/he thinks of an English poet or a Jamaican poet using Zion as a talismanic word for the place of human perfectibility. After informing you that ‘Sahyun’ is a wadi a mile from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, you would probably be told that Zion is the ‘Babylon’ of the Palestinians; it is where death comes from, airstrikes, tanks, quads, soldiers, security walls, observation points, exorbitant taxes, punitive regulations etc. The ‘lions of Zion’ is a popular idea for Zionists also, as in the ‘Lion of Judah’, but showcases its powerful predatory nature.

I am not Palestinian. What I believe about the word ‘Zion’ is that it is a degraded word, a degraded concept, so deeply sullied by the military imperialism of the Israeli government, that it may never recover. There is no exact verbal equivalent of ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli policy, which is why the word ‘apartheid’ is now so frequently used. The actual word to describe it is ‘Zionism’, which began as a movement to create a nation state for the Jewish people, but has ended up as a movement to wage a colonial settler-state war against the Palestinian people. Therefore the word ‘Zion’ has become synonymous with the word ‘apartheid’. It’s impossible to hear it in any context without a feeling of distaste. It is its own death-knell.

My poem ‘Zion’ is based on the actual topography of Jerusalem which I visited in 2014. That Zion is an ever-expanding concept can be seen in how it can refer to the Holy of Holies, to Solomon’s Temple, to Temple Mount, to Mount Moriah, and to Jerusalem itself. But the geography of Jerusalem also includes Mount Zion which is just outside the Old City walls. Its terrain boasts such landmarks as King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle (site of the Last Supper) and the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery, where many English are buried. They died in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem. It is a symbol of the Anglo-Zionism which is a major belief-system of such British leaders as Blair and Cameron. It being a hill means that I can use the word ‘hill’ with a double meaning, a passing nod to Sir Geoffrey.

‘Zion’ has been published in the groundbreaking political and artistic magazine STRIKE! in the March-April 2015 edition, with a photograph by Max Reeves, to coincide with the Israeli election in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party defeated the opposition Zionist Union.

To contemplate how a word can become dirty, think of the word ‘cleansing’.


Niall McDevitt

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Porterloo is a unique book in the history of poetry in English.

Irish poet Niall McDevitt has seen through the English tradition of ‘courtly poetry’ and demonstrated how a self-respecting poetry need have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The collection is an epic response to the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010 – albeit hamstrung by coalition – and the shock of not only observing how Conservatism treats human beings but of suffering it first hand. (As an immigrant who experienced unemployment and who has since ‘graduated’ to self-employment, McDevitt was among the lower echelons of the 99% whom the Tory whip was lashing.)

Other pursuits were abandoned. McDevitt began writing a new type of poetry to counteract the sheer psychic harassment he was being subjected to by Con-Dem rhetoric and legislation.

After attending a reading by the veteran Afro-American poet Amiri Baraka and particularly enjoying the sequence of political haiku called ‘Lowcoup’, McDevitt wrote a lengthy 30-page sequence of anti-Conservative haiku which he called ‘Fucku’, satirising the daily minutiae of Tory powerplay with the assistance of the invaluable Facebook page NOBODY LIKES A TORY.

The first subject he found to give a bigger canvas to was the imprisonment of Charlie Gilmour in 2010 for swinging from the Cenotaph flag. Sentenced to 16 months, Gilmour was being vilified in the Daily Mail and deluged with hatemail from its readers. As an antidote to this hatemail, McDevitt wrote an epistle, ‘Letter to Charlie Gilmour (aka ‘The Cenotaph Yob’)’, a poem in four sections which catches the mood of the 2010 riots but also meditates on one of the darkest episodes from English history i.e. the public hangings at Tyburn.

A later poem was a self-questioning celebration of the 2010 storming of the Tory H.Q. at Millbank by students protesting the hike in tuition fees. McDevitt is honest enough to examine his feelings of jubilation at hearing the news and and ask if they are unworthy. The poem was first published in the Spring edition of the radical new magazine STRIKE!

Porterloo’s title is a multuiple pun on portaloo/Waterloo/Peterloo and which alludes to the disgraced ex-Tory councillor and Tesco heiress Shirley Porter. Though her reputation was destroyed by her behaviour as leader of Westminster Council, the Conservatives continue to behave in exactly the same way, having learnt nothing from her notorious decline and fall. Once again, social cleansing and gerrymandering are the order of the day. The ‘porterloo’ imagery is sustained through the volume, from the portaloos of Tent City to the discovery of a dead Conservative in a portaloo at Glastonbury.

Porterloo thus becomes a codeword for the latest class war to be unleashed by the Tories, their first in the 21st century. In the climax to the first section of the book – called “P” – McDevitt imagines the precarious situation in which millions of people find themselves as ‘waiting to be flushed down the Porterloo’

Other poems lament social cleansing in Elephant and Castle and Camden Town, as well as the persecution of Julian Assange by William Hague and the British authorities,

Some of the satire is a Jarryesque gob-in-the-face of the British establishment. ‘Sonnet to a Monarchist’ criticises a poet who has fallen under the spell of Prince Charles. ‘Let Us Celebrate Dickens’ concisely shows up the hollowness and hypocrisy of the Dickens celebrations in 2012. ‘Thatcherism’ scourges the ‘militant mediocrity’ of Tories throughout the ages while celebrating the fact that ‘there is no such thing as mrs. t******r’.

The book is also distinguished by having a preface from the illustrious author-anarchist Heathcote Williams on the theme of ‘Insurgent Poetry’.

In contrast to the menacing ‘blue meanie’ parade of Conservatives that feature in the book, there is a bohemian backdrop of culture heroes such as Heathcote Williams, Amiri Baraka, Naomi Klein, David Graeber, Jeremy Reed, and Allen Ginsberg. The 20th Century English poet David Gascoyne is re-appraised in an essay in the appendix. What McDevitt has been taught by Gascoyne is that there is a ‘third way’ in poetry. One doesn’t have to choose between the solipsism of personal expression or the agitprop of political expression, a single poem can serve both needs.

Porterloo is personal-political poetry at its wittiest and McDevitt’s trademark shape-shifting is in evidence in the ceaseless formal experimentaion of the cycle. The art is primary, despite the political urgency.

The book covers a very important period in modern history which includes the year of the English riots and the year of the Occupy movement, but takes a long view. It will be capable of cautioning the future.

Poet Jeremy Reed has hailed Porterloo as ‘a brilliant explosive book… the best politically weaponised poetry ever’.

Porterloo is published by International Times with illustrations by Mike Lesser.
The book has been critically acclaimed in The Wolf, The Recusant, Stride, The Morning Star and was hailed as book of the year by poet AJ Dehany.




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Abu Dis with dome1

the 63 bus circles round the hills of Jerusalem and down the valleys of Jerusalem, along geometry-defying escarpments, through gold sands and red rocks, screening walls of death on its windows, shunting ridge to ridge of a desert conurbation, to a township divided from itself

the wall that guillotines Abu Dis is made up of thin tall rectangular slabs of concrete, each with a cyclops eye at the top, blind spyholes surveying nihilism, colourless but for an international babel of graffiti, a blue Che, an Irish tricolour

the wall is elephantine in its greyness and magnitude, serpentine in its curving constriction of the land

the blue Che says it all, and across the road from his messianically sad visage is a grassless football pitch, wildly nettled and playerless, its surface made of sun-dried mudballs; alongside Che, also blue, a ‘LET ME SEE THE SEA’ and two impressive jellyfish
trailing ribbons, as if to sting the barricade

burning abu dis2

black earth, black wall, flaming tyres and sledgehammers, an atmosphere of tear-gas

shadows of human beings scale illegal heights

the area is acquainted with death, beyond the black wall is Al-Eizariya, (i.e. the place of Lazarus), better known as Bethany, cave of the stench

Palestine Parliament3

the would-have-been Palestinian Parliament would-have-been in Abu Dis,
would-have-been where an independent Palestine would-have-been governed from, would-have-been centrally situated in this East Jerusalem idyll, would-have-been emblazoned with the Eagle of Saladin, would-have-been would-have-been but isn’t,
built to be dis-used, conditionally perfect

instead there is a wall dividing farmers from their farmlands, students from their university, neighbours from their neighbours, Jerusalemites from their Jerusalem

Abu Dis ghetto4

Ahmed offers me a fist, his hand oily from garage work, and shows me to the bus-stop beyond the lifeless campus

at Abu Dis checkpoint, Arab passengers show A4 permits and I.D.s, I show my passport, the bus enters a tunnel and ascends to Mount Scopus, it’s winter, the sun is gone

Niall McDevitt

(Photos courtesy of Electronic Intifada)

N.B. Abu Dis is twinned with Camden Town. The website for the Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA) can be found here: http://www.camdenabudis.net

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Clayton Eshleman: THE WHOLE ART

The Whole Art Clayton Eshleman The Whole Art is a book of essays homaging the work of the American poet/essayist/translator/editor Clayton Eshleman.

It is brilliantly edited by Stuart Kendall and superbly produced by Black Widow Press.

Contributors include James Hillman, Eliot Weinberger, Michael McClure and Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

Having met Clayton Eshleman in London at the Nancy Spero exhibition at the Serpentine, having later interviewed him for The Wolf, having corresponded with him regularly, and having published some of his poems in International Times, I was invited by Stuart Kendall to contribute an essay to the book. It was suggested I write about Eshleman as a political poet, which was a good brief for me. Eshleman’s engagement is one of the things I admire most about his work, as well as his eye for the shamanistic.

My piece is called ‘The Outright Lie”: Clayton Eshleman and the Rules of Engagement. It discusses the problems faced by political poets, with reference to Blake’s America a Prophecy and Robert Duncan’s ‘Up Rising’.

As an old Beat, it was gratifying in the notes on contributors section to see my blurb just below that of Michael McClure, who has contributed a poem of homage called ‘Smile of the Beast’ which is dedicated to Eshleman.


Photo: Julie Goldsmith


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First published in International Times on Dec 21 2013

Heygate Estate c.1973 p8835

Dear James Lingwood and Mike Morris

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to respond to my open letter, which you did on Dec 20, just before news that the Artangel proposal had been turned down by Southwark Council.

Thanks also for the photo you sent by way of explaining the thinking behind the project’s controversial shape. I quote: “Firstly Mike Nelson’s proposal is to build a ziggurat rather than a pyramid. The ziggurat form makes direct reference to the Jespersen system used to construct the Heygate Estate, as can be seen from the attached photograph taken during construction in 1973, as well as other associations.”

Fascinating as this is, I feel it is disingenuous. For starters, a ziggurat is a pyramid. Secondly, the general public would not have thought of it as a ziggurat but as a pyramid. Finally, your own application to Southwark Council twice referred to the artwork as a ‘pyramid’. At no point in the 8-page document was it referred to as a ‘ziggurat’. I quote: “The physical appearance of the structure will be a pyramid.”

The problem with pyramids is their hierarchical and freemasonic connotations. It is well known that much of our urban architecture and engineering is created by people who also happen to be freemasons and that they reflect freemasonic interests in ‘sacred geometry’. Cleopatra’s Needle, for instance, was erected by freemasons; its obelisk form includes the pyramid shape at the apex. Hawksmoor, architect and mason, used obelisks and pyramid forms. It happens all the time in all major cities. The most glaring modern example is the pyramid at the top of 1 Canada Square in Canary Wharf with its glow-in-the-dark ‘Eye’. The Shard is also thought by some to resemble an elongated obelisk-cum-pyramid form.

The practice seems habitual, and the building trade has always been connected with freemasonry, not to mention its many prototypes throughout history.

Some of this architectural engineering is beautiful, but it also a way of colonising space, of subliminally advertising, and ultimately of sending out messages about power and influence, wealth and ownership. To use the demotic, much of this type of building – such as John Soane’s headquarters of the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge – is simply saying ‘Fuck off’.

That in your Artangel logo, the ‘A’ is substituted by a chevron, suggests that you too are interested in sacred geometry.

Artangel_black CMYK_big

The chevron is also suggested in the Paolozzi statue of William Blake’s ‘Newton’ in the courtyard of the British Library – in the form of a compass – which is also seen as a provocatively masonic public artwork. In many cases these masonic symbols are erected with public money. The masons are one of the thriftiest organisations of all. Rather than spending their own money on these projects they prefer to siphon off funding from various governmental-cum-charitable sources.


Thank you also for letting me know that Lend Lease were not sponsoring your project. I wonder who was?

Of course, sacred geometry is a wonderful subject, and not the sole intellectual property of any secret society. But Egyptian kitsch is everywhere. and it arouses suspicion whenever a new edifice goes up. It is a modern cultural meme – Sinclair/Ackroyd/Moore etc. – that such architecture has a malignant effect on its environs. You did not consider this.

I’m personally relieved to hear the project has been turned down. Southwark Council have clearly chickened out of what would have become a cause celebre for art-activists, and an expensive pain-in-the-arse for local government.

I wonder what your project’s ‘educational and learning’ dimension would have been? You say you have no idea of what I meant by ‘aesthetic airbrushing’. Perhaps aesthetic ‘brushing under the carpet’ would have been a better metaphor. There is one story that matters above all others when it comes to Heygate, and that is the dispossession of its ex-residents. The Artangel project was not designed to tell that story and its net effect would have been to divert public attention away from it and onto something else. That might have been its initial attraction to Southwark Council with whom you have had a prolonged conversation about the Heygate Pyramid; but they could clearly feel the tide was turning and that the game was up on their see-through ruse.

Your reply was arrogant in that it welcomed further discussion only after the pyramid had been erected, but your timing was unfortunate in that the project was cancelled almost as soon as you’d written to me, literally within office hours. I have not sent this letter to you as an email. I am publishing it online for all interested parties to see, including yourselves. The public should have a say in matters of public art, and in this case it did have a say. If Artangel had listened to the many protestors and withdrawn the proposal, the organisation would have won plaudits. Ambition overrode sensitivity. Artangel has done great things, but the Heygate Pyramid was a bad idea of Spinal Tap proportions and has been deservedly laughed out of town.


Yours sincerely,

Niall McDevitt


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First published in International Times on Dec 17 2013


Dear Artangel

I’ve read with concern about your proposal for a new work of art on the site of Heygate Estate.

It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with art exploring local areas that have gone through such a traumatizing experience as mass eviction.

Heygate, after it had been almost fully emptied, was turned into an imaginative playground by a group called Urban Forest. Where ‘regeneration’ is often a word used by developers as a euphemism for ‘social cleansing’, Urban Forest offered a genuine vista of regeneration by planting trees on the estate and growing food. At one of their many in situ events, I read a poem based on the depopulation of the mansions and the artist Richard Wentworth gave an inspirational talk. Many other artists and intellectuals have been drawn to Heygate. It has become a symbol of the social cleansing that is happening everywhere, a symbol of social injustice.

To object to a work of art must be a carefully considered act, as otherwise one may be allying oneself with a long line of philistines, ignoramuses and spoilsports.

However, to create a work of art – especially a public work of art that is to be associated in the public mind with such an important issue as Heygate – one really has to know what’s at stake.

My objection is twofold: 1) the idea of turning one of the emptied mansion blocks into a pyramid is surely ill-conceived. Not only is the pyramid a symbol of hierarchy, it is also a symbol associated with freemasonry, a secret activity which is widespread among local councils and in many areas of the construction trade. What happened between the poor residents of the Heygate Estate and Southwark Council/Lend Lease was nothing less than a battle. It was a battle decisively won by the council and the developers. Listen to the voice of a former resident whose parents lived in the very block that is to be shape-changed from rectangle to pyramid:

“We were the first people in, at the start of 1974,” John Colfer said. “My father made the home a home, fitted new floors, everything. My parents never planned to leave the estate. So when you’re talking about using those same materials to make a pyramid, you just think: what is there to show that this was a well-loved home? These are our memories being turned into an artwork.”

2) that the proposal might be sponsored by the developer in question, Lend Lease, is also very worrying. Artangel has met objections to the scheme by claiming that it does not wish to take sides, that the work of art will be neutral. The thing is: if the work of art is sponsored by the winning side of the battle – the wealthy powerful side – it cannot be neutral. A Lend Lease sponsored pyramid on the site of Heygate will be a monument not to the former residents of Heygate but to the people who evicted them. Aesthetic airbrushing at best, crass triumphalism at worst. As it happens, the Southwark/Lend Lease deal has been discredited by a leaked council report as one of the most corrupt land deals in living memory: http://betterelephant.org/blog/2013/04/09/report-uncovers-corruption-at-the-elephant/

By a sheer co-incidence, my own imaginatively flighty poem on Heygate from 2012 includes the line: “Did you know the anti-pyramidal city had been built by gypsies riding on Indian elephants?”

I wish to make clear that I have no vendetta against a prestigious arts organization such as Artangel or an outstanding artist such as Mike Nelson. It is the idea that is objectionable. I appeal to the artists and angels behind the proposal to withdraw it.

No one doubts that the project will be artistic, but it is highly unlikely to be angelic. Artangel has not, in this case, given enough thought to the suffering of the victims of social cleansing or to the symbolism of the pyramid.

Yours sincerely,

Niall McDevitt



Photo: Max Reeves

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Originally posted on POETOPOGRAPHY:



Scotland you belong to your painted people, a people that paints itself, a people
that paints its own fates. The pictures on the skin of the ancient arms and torso
of Scotland are pictures of a naked unimaginable wildness coming before
and standing before an unimaginative bureaucracy in a suit.

They picture your interglacial landings and Ice Age axes, your boats of wood and bone, your drystone roundhouses and wheelhouses, your chambered cairns for the dead.

They picture your blue-coloured warriors overspilling the giant walls of Antoninus
and Hadrian – a two-hurdle sprint – to take on Empire.

They picture your Alexanders, Constantines, Duncans, kings that fought against
a succession of overlords who sought to tax, burn, rape and kill you into submission,
an abjectivity without end.

Always from below there have been onslaughts and outrages, incursions and invasions; always from below there have been subterfuges…

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