How I willed Waterloo’s departures board to cascade into its flipping and clacking, although it was impossible to tell whether that first flip would herald the main event, or whether it was just an anticlimactic tease. The Solari board never told a straight story, leaving passengers rocking on the balls of their feet as times and places arrived in ascending order, rather than sweeping in from a logical left to right. Meaning emerged from chaos, and this perverse method of delivery demanded an intense concentration, but it also gave me an opportunity to savour place names and numbers out of context. There was a certain poetry to the Solari board and, in some ways, I miss its frenetic drama and revelation.
Fittingly, Hannah Silva’s Forms of Protest opens with In the beginning, a poem which works with found material from Genesis chapter one. In Silva’s hands, the Bible’s opening phrase is abstracted to a mantra, a loop of rhythm. Although I have never had the pleasure of seeing Silva perform, the Ed Miliband section of Opposition (above) showcases her use of the loop pedal to form soundscapes, and I could well imagine Silva using this phrase to create the primordial sludge from which language and meaning emerges. There’s a disorientating effect to Silva’s echo chamber: the words sound right, but the frame of reference has been removed. And so Silva’s poem dwells on God’s absence rather than his presence: ‘and the earth // was without / was without // and the earth // and the / and // and the earth was without God.’ In those early days of creation, the Biblical account suggests that God lavished his attention on the Earth. Silva finds little to celebrate on this mortal coil.
This sleight of hand works with devastating effect when the source material is amongst the most familiar in the Western world and so, when Silva trains her sights on British politicians, we – and they – don’t stand a chance. Thank You and Good Bye appropriates the mashup, a form primarily associated with music, and the headline of the final edition of The New of the World collides with Nick Clegg’s 2012 tuition fees apology. As Clegg becomes the spokesperson for the disgraced Sunday paper, Silva’s judicious cutting gains satirical bite: ‘There’s no easy way to say this: / we recorded history and we made history / and for that I am sorry.’ Form and subject matter chime, as both politicians and the press delight in taking words out of context when it suits them. This makes Silva’s revenge all the sweeter. Printed as a poster, it would be easy to imagine this poem achieving a cult status on university campuses throughout the land.
However, the cruel juxtaposition of unfortunate events is like shooting at an open goal, and Silva’s most decisive attack on contemporary British political rhetoric is simply to let us hear it again, only this time savouring its patronising banality. Take this from Opposition,: ‘It’s great to be here in Liverpool / we’re happy about that. / I’ve been in Downing Street / it’s great to be here in Liverpool. / We’re happy about Downing Street / it’s great to be here in Liverpool.’ Through repetition, the forced mateyness of those contractions and colloquialisms howls with insincerity. It doesn’t stop there, and Silva’s loop pedal reduces David Cameron’s 2010 Big Society speech into an abstraction: ‘All that talking All that talking / talking talking talking talking / talking talking talking talking / tktktktktktktktktktktktktktktktk / talking talking talking talking / taking taking taking taking taking.’ As breath-taking as Silva’s performances are, I appreciated being able to spend a little longer with Joycean lines like these. Onstage, the subtle mutation of ‘talking’ into ‘taking’ might get lost, but here the political confidence trick is exposed.
Like Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, or Byron’s epigrams, there’s a righteous anger blazing away in Forms of Protest. However, this should not be allowed to overshadow Silva’s talent as a poet. As I wrote last year in my review of the anthology Adventures in Form, ‘Hanna Silva‘s Hello my friend, [...] makes brilliant use of the sestina, recycling spam email into something relentless and inescapable: “I am contacting you with something urgent, / you have always been a good friend. / I need to inform you of the following: / It is important that we remain connected. / It is important that we don’t avoid the subject. / Please switch on your TV and watch the news”‘. Forms of Protest is an exciting, enraged debut: you can feel the blood pulsing and can almost taste the bile.