Camden Street, Harcourt Street, George’s Street, Smock Alley.
No bells from the churches, no urban foxes, no first snowflakes.
Just the boom-boom of a bass, somewhere in the distance.
Rats skittering, across sodden blankets, beds of needles.
On our journey, people laughing, having the craic.
Making the most of their night out, under Christmas lights, strung high on streets, over strung-out people.
On Grafton Street, a Gucci sign beams over the remnants of humanity.
What does this poem say?
It begins with four street names. A sense of placement and of movement: a short stroll round Dublin’s Southside.
Then three negations: “no… no… no…”. What is missing? Church bells, foxes, winter’s first snows. A Christmas card scene, an idyllic picture of Dublin, present in the form of an absence: a haunting.
Then contrast. A bass throbbing in the distance, no poetic quality, no imagery, just onomatopoeia: “boom boom”. The vulgarity of nightlife and its idiot rhythms.
Another twist of perspective: from pumping drunk ecstasy to grim filthy horror. Rats, dirty blankets, needles: the homeless as the figure of abjection, appearing not quite as people, but as the intersection of various forms of filth. Here is the obscene underbelly of the city, that only we who take this walk can see.
The rest are blinded by the oblivion of their own enjoyment. Fun and laughter return, and so too beauty, pleasantness, warmth in the form of Christmas lights, but now they are hollowed out, absurd. How could such things coexist, share space with such misery? How could their brightness, their aspiration, amount to anything other than an obsecenity: strung-up lights over strung-out people?
Final shift, final contradiction: Grafton Street and Gucci appear as the figure of consumption, the hypocrisy of the city’s bustling indifference as money and goods circle round and round. The humanity of the homeless is reduced to waste, “remnants”, as the lure of high-fashion branding beams down in grim irony.
* * *
There’s nothing difficult about this poem. It’s diagnosis is simple: beneath the affirmative veneer of the city is a subterranean world of poverty. We could see it if we only looked, but we choose to look past it as we busy ourselves with our own privileged lives of shopping and socialising. But it exists nonetheless as a kind of horror that haunts our activity and spoils and corrupts our happiness.
Everyone, I think, has experienced these moments where the presence of suffering is forced to the attention of our consciousness, and asks us difficult questions of ourselves as caring moral beings. Is not our humanity partial, self-serving, hypocritical when suffering can coexist in such proximity? And we have all written this poem in one form of another, drawn together the same clumsy contradictions, puked out the same tired autocritique, so that we can finally utter the statement “homelessness is bad” in the guise of a profundity.
I have written this poem several times, and always scrunched it up and threw it away. Why? Because it says nothing. It presents itself, hypocritically, as social critique, as a political statement, as a symbolic mirror reflecting the ugliness of the real which we refuse to see directly. But really, its diagnosis is not social or political, but spiritual, metaphysical. It pushes homelessness and homeless people outside of politics and into the syrup of sentiment, smothering structural reality in the fake universality of human empathy (if only we could recover it!) as if the world were experiencing a deficit of nice thoughts. It’s message is not that a problem exists that must be fixed, that people live in shit situations for specific reasons that we might do something about, but rather that society is decadent and we must lament and find redemption. It is patronising and self-indulgent. Patronising, because real homeless people are reduced to abstract, identical and absolute victims in order to tell us something about ourselves; self-indulgent, because it’s not really about homelessness or homeless people at all, it is about the redemption of the person who speaks through the poem, allowing him to transcend the moral cesspit in which he traumatically finds himself: self-worth is restored because he is The One Who Has Drawn Attention.
It’s bollocks, basically. And specifically, it’s the kind of bollocks we as adolescents come out with when we’re first finding our feet in the world as moral and political beings and still think we’re the first ones in the world to have ever noticed anything. It’s excusable when it’s handed up by a Junior Cert student as a composition assignment. (Which is not to say that teenagers don’t have unique, important and interesting thoughts, because they do, all the time.) Maturation is the process of learning that it’s not about you, that other people are not characters in your moral drama, and that what you think means fuck all unless you’re prepared to do something about it.
* * *
But Enda Kenny is not some middle class teenager, privileged but basically as powerless as anyone else, indicting the world to resolve his guilt. He is the leader of government of a territory in which homelessness is ever-mounting as a crisis. His pukey humanitarianism is not a few lines in a notebook that nobody will ever read – it’s national news and a matter of Dáil record. A text is indissociable from the voice that speaks it, and here the transposition of sophomoric bien penses into the discourse of power transforms banality into obscenity. Here gooey universalism isn’t just some hippy rubbish to make us all feel better, it’s the attempt of one whose policies, whose decisions, whose position and function within a structure of power, puts human bodies on the street to shiver and die, to assert that, beneath it all, he shares a common humanity with his victims. That beneath it all, Enda Kenny and Johnathon Corrie are just people trying to make the best of things. That he is just one of us struck by guilt and grief and trying to make sense of the absurdity of it all. It’s obscene beyond comprehension.
This is Scrooge McDuck’s Christmas epiphany. This is the mercy of power for its subjects. This is the cold monster of the State trying to fabricate a heart. It deserves nothing more or less than contempt.