Cumbria Times
A Voice of the Free Press
James Goodall
Features Writer
1:00 AM 8th February 2024

Review: Dean Rhetoric’s Foundry Songs

Dean Rhetoric’s Foundry Songs is my first foray into dystopian poetry, and this anthology certainly features all the hallmarks of the genre. The poems open inauspiciously, never on a bright spring day with crocuses sprouting. ‘Psalm of Bandages III’ begins: ‘It’s October and the trees are cancerous’, which is about as apocalyptic as it can get.

The title of the anthology conjures up images of old factory towns and heavy industry. The title poem paints scenes of economic hardship and places that have fallen on hard times. It also details the human condition, namely the plight of those living and working in such environments. Workers are depicted as manacled slaves: ‘There is a chain link / branded into my bicep’. Other pieces describe the physical harms inflicted. ‘And in Come the Toxins’, for example, in which workers are chewed up and spat out by the very machines they slave over: ‘There are over twenty known causes of respiratory disease / in the average industrial furnace and I’m seven of them’.

Foundry Songs features a debt-ridden populace, unhappy in its current employment and with nothing to feel good about. As ‘Comedy Lad’ explains, there is ‘No time for laughter / in this economy / mass redundancies’.

The first poem (‘Love Letter to Your Animal Decomposition’) is deceptive in structural terms, utilising simple-effect two-line stanzas. It implies a sense of order that isn’t repeated. Each line is generally free-flowing and sinuous, resisting end-stop. No traditional rhyming patterns are to be found. The odd chime, yes, but you’ll soon be snapped back to anarchy. In a way, the collection reads more like punk poetry. Short, punchy, and impactful. Rhetoric’s words are alive, assuming a variety of forms and resisting containment. Each piece reads like a confession, an emotional outpouring, an exorcism of inner demons.

Rhetoric grapples with intense themes, beginning with death, just to break us in gently! ‘Love Letter to Your Animal Decomposition’ records the final stages of an illness and the reactions of loved ones. Death is depicted here as something fundamentally repugnant and gives us a taste of things to come. Similarly, ‘Chest X-Ray’ is Cronenbergian in terms of its body horror imagery. The front cover features a human heart. But this isn’t poetry from the heart in a sentimental sense; the anthology has a more macabre tone. ‘A Farewell to Lungs’ pretty much does what it says on the tin. Here ‘withered balloons of grief’ give out after years of smoking. The descriptions are near the knuckle. We’re made to vicariously relive, breathe, and choke up the horrors depicted.

Yet there is also an ironic beauty to be found in Rhetoric’s depictions of the clinical – the radiographs of troubled lungs or ‘starry Night(s) of blood and alloy’. His poetry also contains brutal truisms we instinctively knew but could never articulate: ‘On average, it takes twenty months of radiation to change a photograph into a sympathy card … On average, a friend will offer twenty minutes of emptiness’.

Many of Rhetoric’s poems deal with repressed emotions. Anger is pent-up to breaking point, whereupon ‘wall(s) are … Jackson Pollocked by a fist’. ‘EMDR’ explains a mental health treatment for dealing with past trauma. And pieces like ‘How to Unlearn Yourself Completely’ are about bottling things up, repressing things that shouldn’t be repressed, and desensitising oneself to thoughts and feelings that should be given air to: ‘(I)f you suffocate these things for long enough / nothing really hurts’.

In the case of ‘EMDR’, and ‘St Guthlac Street’, in which children ‘sleep … with the light on’, the past traumas are sexual. In other cases, for example ‘Psalm of Bandages’, substance abuse is the root cause. Here lungs once described as ‘proud sails’ are now ‘winced with compounds’. In some instances, the past trauma is self-inflicted, as in ‘Emotional Eating Lad’ in which the subject punishes himself and self-harms to fit in: ‘(F)our mouthfuls are enough / to stay handsome / in the stomach’.

Religious symbols and iconography are dotted throughout the anthology, which is ironic seeing as each piece depicts a largely godless and godforsaken land. Paradoxically, the Lord’s name is often invoked whilst a character dabbles with suicide.

The children of Foundry Songs have no hope or future. In ‘Psalm of Bandages’, a ‘carelessly alive’ couple teeters on the edge of a self-inflicted knife. In ‘Good Lad’, young people live on borrowed time, ‘leasing each heartbeat until … (they) die’. In ‘St Guthlac Street’, minors seek out electrical appliances for their bathwater. In many ways, Foundry Songs has an anti-life philosophy. Its characters live recklessly with no hope of redemption.

Love is nonexistent here. The sexual act serves only to satiate lust. Relationships are built on mindless intercourse, which becomes routine and performative in later life. In ‘Euthanise the Creature’, an ‘innocuous hum of indifference’ rumbles between an older couple in bed at night. And ‘Love is a Supernatural Bone-Stinker’, as the title suggests, has a very cynical view of love, depicting it as something malevolent and illusory – ‘a shrieking spectre’ that binds you and makes you say things you don’t mean. ‘Never pretend a thirst you don’t feel’, to quote José Saramago*.

The great class struggle is also played out in the anthology. ‘All Working Class Birds Go to Heaven’ uses allegory in the manner of Animal Farm. Here birds make up the ‘two nations’, with pelicans at the top ‘sipping … filtered salt water and lime … (whilst) laughing at the crooked seabirds / who graft all day’. Another poem, with the colourful title ‘Poem in which I Call Richard Curtis a Cunt’, assassinates the British romcom and its well-thumbed book of cliches. ‘Crowsty Boys’ suggests there is no salvation for the working classes, just perpetual perdition and drudgery: ‘There’s no word for saviour in the working-class bible’. And this bleak outlook is revisited to its extremes in the likes of ‘And Out Come the Bailiffs’ as well as ‘Foundry Song’, where poverty and a lack of aspiration push their respective subjects to the edge.

Foundry Songs is by no means an easy read. You’ll need a long walk in the park afterwards to clear your head and reset. There are no rosy settings, and it tackles difficult themes. But there are plenty of silver linings to be found in its clouds, as well as the occasional burst of glorious sunshine.

*From The Double (2022).

Foundry Songs is published by Broken Sleep Books.