Review of 'The Shadow Knows', Adrian Mitchell, Bloodaxe £9.95
Last month I attended a fantastic cultural event at the European Social Forum in London, an evening of radical poetry - the highlight was a film of Adrian Mitchell performing his famous anti-war poem 'To Whom it May Concern', written for the anti Vietnam War movement and recently revived by Mitchell for a new generation of anti-war activists. Mitchell's latest collection of poetry, The Shadow Knows, is dedicated to all those millions of people who took part on 15 February 2003 in the greatest demonstration against war that the world has ever known. It is a brilliant body of work, exploding off the page in anger with a force that demands to be read aloud, but is also incredibly warm, humane and very funny.
The 'shadow poet laureate' places himself in the tradition of great anti-establishment poets like Byron, Shelley and Blake. In satirical poems like 'Back to the Happidrome' he guns down figures of the ruling class responsible for horrific acts of inhumanity and mass murder:
'Lords and Commons, Presidents and Queens!
They all dance hand in hand
With the Arms Manufacturers of this land!'
This poem burns with images of destruction and insistent questions, impossible to turn away from, that sear into the imagination:
'at what heat do the eyeballs boil?
at what heat does the heart explode?'
Mitchell describes in painful lucidity a world those of us in the anti-war movement would recognise, a world ruled by 'Murder and Money', and as well as revealing the truth to us through his verse he also delivers visions of great beauty and humanity which he always connects to the hope offered by the movement. His poetry ranges from apocalyptic, subversive ballads to elegant haiku and image poetry celebrating the beauty of the world and humanity. There is a warmth and redemptive force that runs through his fierce political poetry as well. The section of poems intended for performance are, for me, the most inspiring. In 'Work to Do' he speaks out for the pacifists of the anti-war movement. Invoking Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it is an appeal for all humanity to work together to provide a better future and break the cycle of war and oppression. Our task is to stop:
'World War Three -
The war between the rich and the poor'.
He offers a vision of internationalism and equality as the prize.
Those of us who didn't make it to Hyde Park on 15 February 2003 missed out on Adrian Mitchell addressing the crowd with his call to action, 'When They Tell You to Go to War', which should take its place in history as one of the greatest protest poems performed on the greatest day of protest in history. Reprinted here, for us to share, is the drumming call:
'don't go to work,
don't go to school,
go into the streets
take over the streets
and bring Britain to a full stop'.
Throughout the collection is a common theme that another world is possible, and that the future lies in our hands. Mitchell's poetry is a vital part of that struggle, for we must be able to imagine another world if we are ever going to be able to create it. Mitchell puts the ownership of his poetry and imaginative force into the hands of ordinary people - connecting us all in a common language of struggle and humanity. Adrian Mitchell insists his verse is for the use and enjoyment of all, to inspire people to action, not for the systematic abuse of school children in the classroom. I can highly recommend this collection as an antidote and an inspiration.