Lucky: Graham Buchan, Lapwing Press
As generations of pogrom, Holocaust, and genocide survivors pass away, the message of “never again” trickles away, and humankind seems determined to repeat its mistakes with some gusto. We have an acute awareness of history when it suits, but our inability to confront global inequality, unwillingness to co-operate in the face of threat, our brutal indifference to unnecessary mass suffering, tacit support of tyrants, and obsession with the retention of pointless naked power, demonstrates its selectivity.
I mention this in the context of the publication of Graham Buchan’s new collection Lucky. I felt like a gatecrasher at a family party when I turned up at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for its launch. It was standing room only in the basement as friends, family, colleagues and peers gathered to enjoy a well-organised evening of readings and music. This collection of over 70 poems, diverse in style and form, is dedicated to the poet’s late mother and recently deceased in-laws.
In Lucky Buchan chronicles a series of atrocities. From the gulags to the Holocaust, from Saddam’s Iraq to the London 7/7 bombings: here are the kind of horrors brought into our living rooms daily but to which we are desensitised by coverage sans smell, noise or feeling. On the odd occasion when the wall is breached and a tragedy is personalised there is a massive if short-term outcry, but overall we are shielded from the reality. Buchan writes in ‘Collateral’:
Don’t tell me of kids made orphans, mothers burying sons, men mourning women.
Don’t for God’s sake, personalise everything.
He speaks from first-hand experience, having worked in and written about many notable “trouble spots” for over 30 years. Closer to home his mother lost a favourite brother aged 19 in Bomber Command. Buchan’s in-laws were refugees from Stalin’s Russia. The mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters they left behind were definitely not lucky.
This collection might be pessimistic, even nihilistic in much of its subject matter. Buchan sees time like a bulldozer pushing history, like rubble, “down the slope of regret and wonder, of inconsequence and chance” (‘Survival of the Lucky’). In railing against totalitarianism Buchan can be didactic. He can offer simple “in yer face” invective Adrian Mitchell would have been proud of:
Defend the revolution - commit murder
Class enemy - someone to be murdered
Bourgeois - someone to be murdered
Organs of Security - murderers
Discipline - murder
(‘The Revolutionary Leader’s Guide to Basic Vocabulary’)
Yet in ‘Fear in the Age of Optimism’, a poem for two voices, the poet deconstructs loss of identity, belief and trust implicit in a reign of terror. He recognises the targeting of artists of all stripes in such dystopias, in a eulogy to Osip Mandelstam in the Voronezh gulag: “Is there a poem hovering here, somewhere in the doomed brutal air; between the terrified walls and the insane pipes?” (‘Voronezh’), or in a celebration of Shostakovich's Symphony No.4, “which lay hidden - the wild genius of it - for twenty five years until well after Uncle Joe’s death" (‘In bed with Shostakovitch’). In selecting Hitler’s Desert Island Discs, “If I had any say in the matter, I would compel Hitler’s choices to be Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullman, David Beigelman, Ervibn Schulhoff, Martin Rosenberg and Misha Veksler. Eight composers who he murdered.” (‘Choices’)
‘The Road from Konigsberg’ captures the mass flight of 200,000 inhabitants in the face of the approaching Red Army. We see similar faces daily on TV; fate indiscriminate, status irrelevant. All people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like the casualties of the London terrorist bombings: “A girl there, Intact but so dead she looked asleep/ Her book still open.” (‘Chance’)
So what can be done? Buchan offers no prescription. Can survivors carry on living almost as if nothing has happened, carry on believing for the sake of the next generation?
Life has to be ordinary.
Life has to continue.
I have a daughter.
And what of the author? In much of the second half of the collection Buchan offers a more personal perspective. In the whimsical utopia, ‘Grahamland’:
The postcards in phone boxes are from poets
big stanzas, genuine photo -
fountains gush wine …
Having defaulted on loans from the World Bank,
grahamland has closed its borders
and resigned from Nato and Eurovision.
A multilateral task force
is poised to restore order.
In ‘The Movie of my Life’ the author fantasises that "the movie of my life will be directed by Martin Scorsese/ with Al Pacino in the difficult central role/ I would emerge/ as an immensely complex character".
These exercises in escapism are amusing but do not reinforce the theme of the collection. However, in two rather beautiful Whitmanesque pieces Buchan finds some peace in the real if troubled world. One extols the beauty of a Moroccan night sky where
Gently tanned by starlight.
With this peace
May expand effortlessly to the boundaries,
To the sources
The other is a paean to the sun.
Glowing and pregnant with the doings of the day
She hangs heavy
Weightily snaps all restraints
- giant sphere of love and life -
And plunges to her hidden hammock
And invites out the icy stars
Do we have to thank our oft-maligned democratic institutions for the relative security of our lives? Or is it just a matter of luck? Is globalism just another aspect of totalitarianism? With the rehabilitation of Stalin, the rise of the neo-Nazis, the reinvention of class war, and the wholesale exodus of the “unlucky” from the east, what have we learned? There are no answers here, nor need there be. Graham Buchan has said his piece and there is enough in this collection to remind this reader of how lucky he is.