-Reviewed by Claire Trévien–
I like to think I’ve read poetry on all sorts of topics, but aside from Tim Wells’ ‘Out of the Blue’, not many poems on lavatories spring to mind, and fewer still do whole poetry pamphlets dedicated to the topic. Why not though? They’re a part of our daily lives and poor sanitary conditions are a health hazard still affecting many nations.
It didn’t really hit me that it was the topic at first, the pamphlet opens and is mainly taken up by a sequence based on 1832’s cholera outbreak in Exeter in which more than 400 people died. The source material is Dr Thomas Shapter’s The Cholera in Exeter (1849). It’s full of gruesome details, all written in a cod-19th century register, which made me wonder uneasily why exactly this suffering was being re-enacted:
Skin old and clammy. Cramps, emaciation.
Abnormal smell. Intelligence entire.
Vomiting and purging now profuse.
6 P. M. Tongue covered with a brownish fur.
Skin cool but dry like cloth.
Vomiting and purging both abated.
Has passed a good night
free from pain, pulse soft and full.
A quantity of faecular matter
tinged with bile.
2 P. M. Two bilious motions yesterday.
The colliquative diarrhoea decreased.
A great disposition to sleep.
There are questions to be asked here, I think, about poetry based on history. To me, the sequence exists mainly to contrast with the more contemporary poems annexing the end of the pamphlet, to highlight that yesterday’s problems are still ongoing today. That’s quite a lengthy set-up, if so, and I’m not sure the four poems chosen to close the pamphlet really contextualise it effectively.
Two of these end poems are humorous in approach, ‘The Unnameable Taxonomy’ reels off a list of euphemisms for going to the toilet, which get increasingly imaginative:
Bombing the Bowl, Growing a Tail.
Dropping a Biscuit in the Pail,
Planting Corn, Doing the Dog,
Worshipping the Water Gods.
It’s Balancing the Daily Budget
There’s a whiff of politics in this, but it doesn’t quite carry through; the ending stays safely PG-13, ‘now, visit the garden and pluck a rose’. The other poem, ‘The G7 Aid Budget’ promises a more biting delivery with that title (and the subtitle ‘The Bristol Stool Chart, 1997’), but again nothing is quite teased out beyond the (I assume) giggles it’s meant to elicit:
1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts. Hard to pass.
2: Sausage-shaped, but lumpy.
3: Like a sausage, but cracked on the surface.
The final poem, ‘The Flying Toilets of Kibera’ is set in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. In his notes, Brown claims that
A number of additional poems deal with contemporary issues of sanitation and water. Globally, some 2,000 children under five still die every day from diarrhoeal diseases. Of these, 1,800 deaths are linked to water, sanitation and hygiene.
Yet this poem is very much the only one in this pamphlet where a concern for contemporary sanitation is expressed, and this, still done quite flippantly:
You choose, Samira: either use the bag,
or squat outside in the perilous night –
(Arabic, meaning ‘pleasurable place’).
I’m not too sure what to make of this pamphlet overall. I can see that Brown is trying to be satirical, or at least politically mordant, but the pamphlet relies too much on the concept that we, as readers, are going to be embarrassed by the very mention of poo. The shock effect aimed for falls flat.
This December, I have given myself the task of reviewing one pamphlet a day to raise money for next year’s Saboteur Awards. You can help by donating, or sharing the link using the hashtag #pamphletparty. I am not sure how this month is going to go, some pamphlets will be easier than others. I have given myself the aim of writing at least 300 words for each, a lower word-count than the usual reviews on Sabotage, in the hopes of making it more manageable! Here’s a linkto the previously published reviews in this project!