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  • Connor May

(ESSAY) What Sean Bonney Means When He Talks About Zombies, by Connor May

In this essay on the poetics of necromancy and partisanship in Sean Bonney's later works, Connor May discusses the sources and poetics behind the turn to wider textual solidarities inclusive of the dead and those who have figured in past and failed revolutions.

But for you it would be something of a duty in that you could perform in Tübingen the role of a waker of the dead. It is true that the Tübingen gravediggers would do their utmost against you.

- Hölderlin to Hegel, 25 November 1795

In an afterword Bonney wrote for William Rowe’s Collected Poems in 2016 we are faced with this chilling, apocalyptic revelation:

The darkness is dazzling. A bomb goes off in Athens. Thatcher’s corpse opens its mouth. The ghosts of the miner's slaughter a thousand cops at Orgreave. The body of Boris Johnson is tossed into an oubliette somewhere on the other side of the border, any border. Solar winds on the rim of the system.

Such visions abound throughout Bonney’s oeuvre, which suggests that something other than social realism is happening within his work. Rereading Bonney’s later works starting with Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud (2011) and finishing with Our Death (2019) I was struck by how often a specific set of connected themes appear, namely: death, the apocalypse, the undead. There is in Bonney’s poetry plenty of detournement, the writings of many dead authors (Hölderlin, Blanqui, Rimbaud, Pasolini, di Prima) are constantly recomposed in these texts. We feel like we are literally digging up the dead, and we feel like we have to do this in order to survive hell. The ressurective shock of Bonney’s recompositions becomes the generator of new revolutions. Bonney’s poems speak with the voices of the dead. As we get further into Bonney’s work his web of references gets bigger and bigger, sometimes the borrowings are obvious, other times it is hard to distinguish what is quotation from self-generated material. The speaker of a Bonney poem plays the part of a ‘necromancer’. The fact that the deceased figures that appear so often come back to life, or at least speak through the poet-speaker as a kind of surrogate, suggests that none of these figures have really died. They are existing on some other plane, something like a ghost dimension. Bonney’s poems effect an outright denial of finitude and of the end of revolutionary politics: No revolution is ever over, the bullets fired during the 1871 Paris commune are still in motion. Auguste Blanqui, that obscure thinker of cosmic necessity, wrote a cosmological treatise on the death and regeneration of stars and planets. In Blanqui’s system every situation gets repeated endlessly by an infinite number of copies of each of us. This means that we are indeed condemned to suffer the same defeats over and over again, but there is still the slim chance for a slight variation to occur, perhaps one of us will go left instead of right, and so take a slightly different path. 'Hope in progress is barred. But there remains a hope in bifurcations'. Bonney was aware, before most of us, that the gutting of the NHS and the politics of austerity that accompanied it were not just aspects of government policy that would ‘accidentally’ leave some of us by the wayside — rather they amount to premeditated murder of people on the fringes of society. Bonney’s work seems to have one eye on the constantly rising pile of bodies that are the victims of capitalism, and the other eye on the future that is forever foreclosed to us except through the hope of bifurcations, the birth of non-identical stars.

Our Death is a text where abjection, always present in Bonney’s work, reaches its height. The collective pronoun in the title suggests that what we are about to read relates to each of us, or to those with whom Bonney would choose to speak: to us who are dead. If you’re not with the dead you’re with the vampires. The vampires obviously represent capital, the bourgeois, politicians (Bonney refers to 'those razor head vampire suckworms in parliament' in 'Letter Against Ritual'), the person who designed the interior of job centres, the police. I can remember speaking to another poet who said that he found Bonney unreadable, like 'ugly propaganda' (his words). This strikes me as a refusal to think of poetry as having anything to do with politics, or a wish to separate poems according to genre, something that Bonney himself would abjure: ‘it is just plain dishonest to have one room with political poems in it, another with love poems and so on’ (BE, p.86). Bonney inserts himself into a lineage of English poets that includes Milton, Shelley, and Blake. Bonney references Milton several times in his poetry, even quoting him verbatim in sections of Happiness; as far as I know he only mentions Shelley once:

Black rings under my eyes almost as ominous as what Shelley called the 'gigantic shadows that futurity casts on the present.' Yeh, I was reading him this morning, Shelley, 5 o’clock or something. 'Poets,' he writes, are the 'mirrors' that reflect those 'gigantic shadows.' (OD, 83)

The text goes on to question the validity of Shelley’s statement (or job description) in an era when ‘futurity’ has been cancelled. But does the poem really hold this to be true? Lisa Jeschke has pointed out that a Bonney poem will often state something that seems quite extreme but then immediately pull back slightly, possibly to remind the reader that not everything that the poet-speaker says is meant to be taken seriously, 'in the enemy language it is necessary to lie' (H, 64). In a way that is typical for avant-garde or innovative poetry these poems interrogate the idea of the lyrical ‘I’ that ‘speaks’ the poem, and the ‘thou’ that is addressed by the speaker. Just as Kristin Ross in her study of Rimbaud underlines the ‘swarm-like’ nature of the commune poems, perhaps Bonney’s poetry is also somewhat evocative of that swarm image, but instead of a swarm of insects we have the swarming undead. The speaker of Bonney’s poems acts like a mirror that reflects the shadows of the undead of past generations. Even in the epistolary poems of Letters Against The Firmament, I sometimes do not feel like it is me being addressed, or any of the ‘invisible dead’ but instead someone who is at times one of capital’s vampires, or someone who inhabits an ambiguous position somewhere between ‘comrade’ and 'enemy'. The specific epistolary form that Bonney adopts in Letters (Our Death seems to be an extension of this form and not a break with it) is what develops out of Bonney’s rejection of certain strains of ‘contemporary’ poetry. Fran Lock explores epistolary form in a PhD paper, and explores Bonney’s use of it in Letters:

Bonney deploys the letter’s mode of intersubjective openness to posit and summon forth a crowd, a diverse and porous – as opposed to an undifferentiated and othered – ‘we’. Bonney’s use of the epistolary form works fruitfully against claims to authority and aims of domination; collective political identity emerges as relational, profoundly social, and constantly shifting across affinities, allegiances and shared experiences; not static or homogenous, but mercurial and vivid. The letter form for Bonney becomes the textual counterpart to the unofficial occupations of protest cohorts, enacting a makeshift and spontaneous relationality within borders of the dominant discourse.

Perhaps what Lock calls the intersubjective openness of the letter is what allows for the ‘cracks’ through which we can hear the ‘whispers’ of a subject in the process of being formed. Another way of imagining these cracks could be as fault lines:

the fault-line that runs through the centre of that prosody, and how that fault-line is where the 'poetic' will be found, if its going to be found anywhere. The moment of interruption, a 'counter rhythmic interruption', he calls it, where the language folds and stumbles for a second, like a cardiac splinter or a tectonic shake. (Letters, 115-116)

On the opening page of Letters Against the Firmament the speaker states that they have been trying to write, or thinking about how to write, poems that can only be understood by the enemy, though we are told that they abandoned that specific project. We, as discriminating readers, do not necessarily have to believe that. However, as we get further into the text of Letters we may wonder about what a poem that can only be understood by the enemy would look like, or rather ‘sound’ like. Noise, harmonics and music are categories that appear constantly in both Letters and Our Death. The poems seem to suggest that some frequencies are used by the enemy, and some can be appropriated for revolutionary purposes (OD, 94). This concept also intersects in a highly imaginative way with what might be called the ‘speculative’ aspects of the work. I say speculative because it seems like the best term, a lot of the themes included here are quite gothic (vampires, zombies, magic). The supernatural as it appears in Bonney’s work is somehow central and yet also something held at distance so as not to be taken too seriously (Letters 32, OD 18). A retreat into magical thinking could be seen as a retreat from social reality. I think that the obsession with the supernatural and speculative thinking that takes place across Letters and Our Death is not a retreat but is rather a necessary part of Bonney’s enterprise that brings us closer to the place where the visible and invisible meet. I would suggest that where the speculative or supernatural meets social realism a dialectic relationship is formed. Bonney himself talks about this dialectic: 'I’d like to write a poetry that could speed up a dialectical continuity in discontinuity & thus make visible whatever is forced into invisibility by police realism' (H, 65).

My reading of Bonney’s poems here has been heavily influenced by the work of Jacques Rancière, whose writing on the politics of aesthetics has much in common with the things that Bonney says about his own poetry. Rancière claims that in any given space there are things that can be felt, heard or seen. Rancière calls this the partage du sensible (distribution of the sensible). Rancière calls the police whatever power, institution or hierarchy determines what is seen or felt, (i.e. whatever organises the distribution of the sensible) and what is rendered invisible or silent. Already the parallels between Rancière’s partage du sensible and the police realism that Bonney speaks of should be apparent. Bonney himself makes the point that what Rimbaud means by the ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity. At the point when it all kicks off the individual becomes a collective, a swarm ('I is an other') (H, 64). When workers, trans people or refugees organise themselves in order to demonstrate against a local or national government this redistributes the sensible: those with no part are able to make themselves heard and seen. A process occurs whereby a collective subject is formed for the purpose of verifying their equality with everyone else in society. Art also has the ability to reconfigure the sensible, creating new subjectivities that are both singular and collective. Bonney’s poetry transmits a signal from the ghost dimension, it is barely a whisper, the message it carries is this: the combined forces of capital, the state and the police shall spread the reign of shadows and death over society if people fail to play the role of the force that reanimates light and life. We need the courage of those who dare to refuse the night of repression. Let us wake the dead together.


[1] Rancière Jaques, 'The radical gap: A preface to Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars Dossier: Blanqui's Eternal Gap', Radical Philosophy 185, May/Jun 2014. pp. 24

[2] Jeschke, L. & Hayward, D., (2022) “The State is a Murderous Life-Support Machine: A Conversation about Death”, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 14(1). doi: (The rest of this issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry , which focus on Bonney’s poetry is a fantastic resource which I have borrowed from immensely to write this essay).

[3] Lock, Frances (2020) Impossible telling and the epistolary form: contemporary poetry, mourning and trauma. PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London

[4] For an introduction to Rancière’s work I would suggest reading The Politics of Aesthetics which is short and easy to grasp.


Text: Connor May

Published: 21/03/2023

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