Safety Net of Sky

The Koestler Exhibition for the North West
World Museum Liverpool
30th March – 27th May 2012

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

Part Two: Writing*

from a great height the smile
deadfalls into frown.
this bird will never know a cage:
startled by a dog’s bark
she flings herself
into the safety net of sky.

Extract from the poem: From a Prisoner’s Window (Anon)

A selection of writing from North West entries to the Koestler** Trust’s UK-wide annual awards is part of the Safety Net of Sky exhibition and free to the public to take away.

The collection contains words of separated love and the power of place; of institutional life and freedom; of drugs and the powerful lure of gangs; of social and political injustice and mental pain; of nature and the nature of poetry itself.

The anthology begins powerfully with The Rose Garden by Sean Donoher: an examination of mental suffering which is so severe it overlays everything, even the beauty of an early morning rose garden, so that it becomes “Eden with a personal serpent” where “Busy bees enter brain, /Designing interior nightmares”. The sense of confinement is amplified by the use of full stops at the end of most of the lines, whilst polysyllabic words and long vowels create heaviness and emphasis: “Bootlace redemption screaming”.

A piece of prose writing, The Gateway to Hell (Anon) addresses the outcome for one individual whose extreme mental pain made life intolerable “in the dark corner of this even darker world”. Mental Health, A Journey Through Understanding by Anthony Hughes offers some hope through trust and psychotherapy. I liked his image, “not only what makes me tick but how the clock was wound up in the first place”. Life Writing (Anon) gives a bleakly vivid account of the obsessional aloneness in which a person can go “unobtrusively mad”. What a good phrase. The same can be claimed for Ziad Ziadi’s description of his view being further diminished by “the construction of another two prisons of equal status next door”, as if he is being slowly bricked in. Another autobiographical piece, The Cockney Connection by Bernard Compton describes the Dickensian conditions of some of his childhood contemporaries whilst giving hope for redemption through compassion and creativity and faith.

Shattered (Anon) and Changes in Life (Anon) are both cautionary tales which show the results of making bad decisions. The poem Band Items (Anon) economically creates a picture of the desperate activities of locked-in people: activities, such as self harm, from which they must be protected. “If you can make something deadly you probably will”. But some people have the antidote love to focus on. Graham Lake, for whom “sleep is sweet when I dream of you,” has a message within the message in his poem My Secret and Michael Caine’s Dedicated to Eileen, written in rhyming couplets, celebrates the love he has received from someone who has treated him like a son.

Some of the writing takes poetry as the subject. The strongly rhymed Basically (Anon) champions directness - cutting to the chase - in communication: “Metaphor is not my whore……I prefer my words to show, to burn, /To ignite”. Addicted by Joseph Garry is a visually expressive poem before you even start with its meaning. He skilfully sustains the metaphor of poet as junkie, addicted to his craft, no matter what journeys of pain it takes him on:

She is my puppeteer.
She pulls my strings
Leads me into dark places.
Corridors of

Although The Last Goodbye (Anon) is about loss and grief, it is also distinguished by its sensuous detail: the territory of effective writing:

my hand piercing through the little
milk bottle tops as I picked it out of its shell,
my father’s hand turning silver trout in the frying pan.

The vividness of the recollection accentuates the sense of loss. My First Encounter with Nature (Anon) has a similar visual reality.

This selection of writing, harrowing as much of it is, also has humour. Describing the squalid conditions and edgy characters of the Temple of Celestial Thieves, Alan Hall draws humour from the situation: “It was an open house full of shabby, middle class trappings, urine soaked tramps and ranting schizophrenics; I felt instantly at home.” As does Redwood, the owner who has named himself after a tree: “You can be a new lama in my lamasery. Ha!” I really wanted to read on… Claudius – Crossing the River (Anon) also made me smile. The writer has made use of a single location to evoke two linked occurrences and also celebrated the skill of the under-dog in outwitting the masters in this account of scrap-dealing during the Roman occupation of Britain.

Peter Alger’s Life Experiences contain humour and pathos: “me and my mum made a Humpty Dumpty Easter egg for a competition out of a boiled egg and paper and glitter but the egg never made it to the school because I ate it on the way.” We laugh at the writer giving in to the temptation of the egg but it’s sad too because the inability to defer gratification means that the chance to win the competition has been lost. And the seven stories which record memorable life experiences such as birthday parties and sports days also map the gradual movement from mainstream education to a school “what was for disabled people”. And this is sad, not because of the change of school but because the writer has identified himself as “disabled” – a word we’re trying kick out.

One of the poems, From a Prisoner’s Window (Anon) gives the exhibition its name. This is a fine poem, its subject closely observed: “iron-grasp feet to bleak branch /sits a rigid blackbird” and succinctly expressed – every word earns its keep as part of the whole. The idea is simple enough: from behind his grill a prisoner watches a bird that has the freedom he has forfeited. Yet the image, “safety net of sky” presents quite a complex idea because we associate the sky with flight and freedom whereas safety nets save us from the pull to earth created by gravity. But the writer has combined the two ideas and the implication is that the freedom of the sky makes us safe, as long as we can fly free of the “deadfall”.

Like the art, photography and three-dimensional work the writing in Safety Net of Sky deals with the big issues. We are all imprisoned by something; some of us are aware of it – some of us are not. If you’re lucky you will see the Tic-Tac-Tree through the bars.

artwork brings back memories
and helps us reflect,
they create these images
to gain respect,
the colours and style
convey an emotion,
they make you feel good
like a magic potion! ***

*Art, Photography and Three-dimensional Work dealt with in Part One of this review.
** Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) was a political prisoner in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two. He wrote a classic prison novel: Darkness at Noon.
***Group chorus from Frame of Mind, a rap written by the young curators in response to the exhibition, written as part of a workshop with URBEATZ, a Liverpool-based Youth Culture and Media company.

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