Lifesaving Poems: Chrissy Williams’s ‘The Burning of the Houses’


The Burning Of The Houses

Tottenham is on fire and I work in an arts centre
where the sky is blue and I can hear birdsong
from a sound installation of birds
cooing outside my office window.
This is London. Hackney is on fire now
and Jamie is looking up from his desk.
He stops working. He tweets that he can see
people smashing up a bus. He says there is a car
being soaked in petrol. He asks if there is someone
in that car. He tells us that car has been set alight.
This is London. Croydon is on fire now
and Anna is Facebooking furiously from Manchester
calling everyone bastards for doing this.
I am watching the BBC and reading Twitter
licking between #LondonRiot and my friends.
Sometimes you can be proud of your friends.
I remember when Bianca came to stay
and we got tickets to watch The Night
James Brown Saved Boston in the QEH.
People are getting hurt. Television isn’t going
to save us. But it’s okay now, some of my friends
are linking to videos of kittens which must mean
everyone is fine. This is London. It is on fire.
I go to bed while it is burning. I wake up
and parts of it are still burning.

Chrissy Williams

from Flying into the Bear (Happenstance, 2013)

It is good to see a young poet tackling a topic of such heavyweight, political interest as the London riots. In its slightly offhand diction and demotic-heavy reporting of the caged minute, it appears to be doing nothing of the kind. I also like this in a poem.

‘I am not going to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty’, the poem wants to tell us, and then proceeds to do exactly that.

Look at that first sentence. ‘Tottenham is on fire and I work in an arts centre/ where the sky is blue and I can hear birdsong/ from a sound installation of birds/ cooing outside my office window’ (my italics). Look how long it runs, all made possible by the choice of that ‘and’ in the first line. Thus the facts of Tottenham being on fire and the speaker working in an arts centre are put on an equal footing right from the off, presented without commentary, the two ‘spaces’ of riot and art juxtaposed, if not merged completely.

This reminds me of what Seamus Heaney talked about in the opening essay of The Government of the Tongue, ‘The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker’, where he highlighted of the conflict between ‘song and suffering’. His context of course was the Troubles in Belfast, telling the story of the pressure he and his friend the singer David Hammond felt not to make a recording of music and poetry on a night when bombs were going off mere streets away. The context, tone and idiom could not be more different, but I have no doubt Chrissy Williams shares exactly the same awareness of that tension in her own material.

The arts centre is described with the prepositional ‘where’: ‘where I can hear birdsong and the sky is blue’. Things are upside down. The indoors has become the outdoors, the world outside brought inescapably to the interior. We may not be safe. Later the poem will tell us ‘it’s okay now’, but really we knew this already, because of the ‘birdsong/ from a sound installation of birds/ cooing’. Which is more ‘real’, the sound-installation birds cooing outside the office window or the tweets about ‘people smashing up a bus’? The poem seems to argue that they are as significant as each other: videos of kittens are as much a signifier of ‘normality’ as ‘furiously’ using Facebook to post opinion about events hundreds of miles away.

‘Playfulness’ is an overused word to describe poems which have such sudden shifts of tone, place and idea,  and where seriousness runs the risk of masking itself with references to Facebook (as a verb) and Twitter. But in this poem, and for this poet, it really is what she is up to. At its heart the poem is not so much about burning houses and cars, but the way we look at culture, from cooing birdsong installations, to James Brown concerts, to using the right hashtag so that your looking can be looked at by others. It is not enough to look any more, it is what your looking looks like and who it is seen by.

This is what makes the reference to James Brown so poignant. The notes at the back of Flying Into The Bear tell us that the singer was responsible for halting the Boston riots of 1968 with a single gig. But in the poem this is presented as memory of travel to a place of high culture to observe a performance of popular culture that in memory has become loaded with political significance : ‘I remember when Bianca came to stay/ and we got tickets to watch The Night/ James Brown Saved Boston in the QEH.’

In its refusal to make judgements (look at the deliciously neutral ‘Sometimes you can be proud of your friends’) and overt lack of trust in a single narrative to describe an event of real, not poetic, suffering, the poem can properly be called postmodern.

I think Chrissy Williams is the future.

With thanks to Chrissy Williams

1 Comment

  1. Anthony – a wonderful poem and a terrific lesson you have appended to it. If you are right, and I hope you are, that Chrissy Williams is the future, we have much to look forward to.
    All best…


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