THERE is nothing pretty or pastoral about the latest collection from poet-lecturer Dr Steve Ely. It is all about violence, and his poems do not pull their punches.
They include meditations on genocide in Nazi Germany and Rwanda; battlefield death in WWI and the Falklands; brutality in medieval York; and escalating violence and vengeance in the mean streets of today’s UK.
The book takes its title from the writings of a moralising monk named Gildas, who surveyed Dark Ages Britain with despair.
“He blamed the Anglo-Saxon invasions on the character of the British, who he describes as ‘Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God’.
“And I thought not a great deal had changed. So I appropriated it for the book,” said Dr Ely.
He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, where he also directs the Ted Hughes Network, dedicated to researching the work of another poet who did not shy away from violent themes.
There are five sections in Steve Ely’s Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God, and in addition to its wide ranging subject matter there is a variety of styles, from versification in The Ballad of Scouse McLaughlin – the tale of a soldier killed in the Falklands – to the free verse of Werewolf – dealing with Nazism and its legacy – and the prose poetry of True Crime, a psychological mini-thriller set in Northern England in the 1990s.
The book anthologises material written over the course of ten years and despite its visceral content, it is quite analytical, said Dr Ely.
“The main argument is related to the role of the state. In a lot of discourses about violence we see it as being privatised to the deviant individual,” he explained.
“What I’m trying to expose, particularly in the first section, Werewolf, is the way the state is able to manipulate individuals and get them to act in ways in which they will exercise violence on behalf of the elites that control the state.
“Think of a civilised country like Germany in the 1930s, in which the most cultured middle class that had ever existed found themselves deeply implicated in the murder of 75 million people. How did that happen? The state manipulated their fears and ambitions and co-opted them into the project.”