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This review is taken from PN Review 66, Volume 15 Number 4, March - April 1989.

OUTSIDERS INSIDE Ken Smith, Wormwood, Bloodaxe, £4.95 pb

Wormwood is one of those rare, satisfying books made when a poet finds the perfect subject and takes it in full stride. Ken Smith was writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs for two years between 1985 and 1987, and here he speaks of that institution and its inhabitants both as direct reportage and in the form of a larger metaphor for the dispossessed of Thatcher's Britain, its outsiders - in this case, those on the inside. Such wordplay recurs through the collection: there is the herb of the title, with its bitter root and its absinthe intoxication, the plunge into despair and the dangerous ecstasy. There are sardonic aphorisms: 'on the wing', 'as it happens', 'time is what it is'. There is the identification with the wanderer, the exile, the refugee: these are communications in transit, in airports (America, Eastern Europe). And always that urgent voice speaking straight to the reader as time runs out (like the blurted telegrams in Terra or the narrator's breathless voice in the brilliant long poem Fox Running), the shockingly direct speech of the wounded healer, the shaman bringing back news from the other side. This poet shames us with his rawness as he documents the authentic speech of a troubled society. His poems should be read into the parliamentary record.

With very few exceptions, Britain's recent poets have either been reticent in taking on this function, or many of those who have (I think of Bill Griffiths, Allan Fisher, Alan Halsey, Wendy Mulford, ...


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