‘Poems, like music, are devices for decorating time’

Stephen Sexton on Cheryl’s Destinies, a new collection that travels back and forth in time

Stephen Sexton: “because we spend most of our time fixated on the past, there’s a liberation, even a tiny thrill, in writing about the future”

Stephen Sexton: “because we spend most of our time fixated on the past, there’s a liberation, even a tiny thrill, in writing about the future”

 

“history is what we call / what might have happened differently / and didn’t”

The first time I heard of Nostradamus was in September 2001. I was 12 or 13 and stunned and horrified by the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. The footage was replayed hundreds of times over those days. Then the new language of the Taliban and al-Qaeda; the war in Afghanistan which – we didn’t know then – would last for a generation, and lead to the terrifying circumstances the Afghan people have been forced into today: cycles of violence, recrimination, vengeance; misogyny and fundamentalism.

Nostradamus, tabloids said, had predicted the attacks in his quatrains written in the 16th century. The internet was young then, but its forums must have been a riot of interpretation and fantasy and the French seer’s impish, bearded face, his leftward glance. Soon enough it became pretty clear Nostradamus hadn’t predicted 9/11. However, I started to understand the lengths the imagination will go to protect itself; how conspiracies take hold. When one is visited so suddenly by terror and chaos, any narrative becomes a kind of comfort: it puts events in a sequence, reclaims order from disorder, makes what was not inevitable slightly more bearable by calling it inevitable; foretold, fated, destined.

Cheryl’s Destinies is, among other things, a book about time. Poems, like music, are devices for decorating time – sentences proceed through syntax and syntax must move from one moment to the next. Poems find their context with readers in the future of having been written, and they resonate there. The first poem in the book, The Curfew, consists of a speaker obliged to keep indoors for days on end, who passes the time telling stories about a grandfather.

Cheryl herself, a psychic and tarot enthusiast, is half of a love story running through the book. She falls in love – like many people – in a bowling alley, writes Agony Aunt columns for magazines, and is occasionally called upon by frustrated detectives to solve murders. She is also, like you are, a reader: she divines the future by reading the signs, interpreting images in their contexts, putting things in sequence, identifying patterns – an evolutionary instinct we use to make predictions, to tell the future.

I’m not convinced Covid-19 is a particularly interesting subject, but its effects on language and poetry might be compelling. How cruel that air, a poem’s most quick medium, became treacherous. How strange too that metaphor – poetry’s essential gesture between writer and reader; what Ted Cohen called “the achievement of intimacy” – seemed to offer us no relief or perspective. There was suddenly no intimacy. This is one reason, perhaps, why there are few, if any, satisfactory metaphors for the experience of lockdown.

The middle section of Cheryl’s Destinies, Siamese Dream for the Cloths of Heaven, is a kind of symposium (in the wine and poetry and song, Greek sense of the word) wherein WB Yeats and Billy Corgan of ’90s American alternative rock group The Smashing Pumpkins have a conversation about their arts. In 1917, after the first of his automatic writing sessions, when Yeats was “put in touch” (via his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees) with otherworldly “communicators”, he wrote to Ezra Pound. “We have come to give you metaphors for poetry”, is what Yeats said those voices said. “An unseen hand guides mine, what can I say”, is what I say. In our new isolations, why not, I thought, however silly, join disparate parties together. Why not create intimacy where it didn’t exist before, for the heck of it; why not twin past and future?

Time has taken on a different music lately. Working on these poems, often late at night, I developed a peculiar relationship with time. In those moonly hours, I started to think of the poem at hand as a kind of translation from the future. Since the lines I fiddled with would attain a certain shape and form at the end of my fiddling, I figured I was drawing the future towards me rather than moving towards it. Naturally, I came to understand these thoughts as symptomatic of the stress we lived through and continue living through; that same desire to make the difficult bearable by placing it in a narrative.

The future will resemble, we understand, either our lives before the pandemic or, on the other hand, some new world corresponding with our best philosophies for more equal societies, deepening and broadening of empathy. At the present moment, it’s imperative our immediate future is one of compassion and hospitality towards those refugees fleeing persecution.

One of the great sentences in Ziauddin Sardar’s wonderful book, Future: All that Matters, a lockdown standout, is this: “The future is not immune from colonisation”. The future has always been contested, and it’s a zone contested to great effect by Brexit and Trump, twin agitations for a frightening “golden age” similarly promised by cruel actors of the last century. Those men offered the chronically disenfranchised a narrative, and consequently, a future. They haunt this book too. So do the young men so seducible by that politics of power. I worry about them; how frequently that rage turns inwards.

Like the horror movie trope of history repeating itself, usually on some crucial anniversary (25 years to the day teenagers drowned in the lake; 50 years ago this very night etc.), Cheryl’s Destinies was composed in our decade of centenaries, during which, on some level, things seemed to happen twice. And, because we spend most of our time fixated on the past, there’s a liberation, even a tiny thrill, in writing about the future. Eavan Boland said “Our future will become the past of other women”. The intergenerational connection is profound.

Sardar also points out that futurists like Elise Boulding and Richard Slaughter suggest we should look 100 years in front of us and 100 years before us, connecting us to our grandparents and grandchildren, so the future “becomes a mirror image of the past: our children and grandchildren take the place of our parents and grandparents”. How present they all are.

If we could learn anything from this experience, it might be the reiteration that there’s just us, past and future: vulnerable, improbably connected; in and of the tricky air poems and breath happen in.

Cheryl’s Destinies is published by Penguin today

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