Tuesday Poem: Teacher Man - by Steve Ely

The first day, Shane told him to fuck off
and punched Dominic in the head before
slamming out of the classroom.

The second day, Joe Rowton asked him
if he was gay, 8B6 practised wrestling moves,
year eleven bombed him with screwed-up worksheets.

The third day, his classes ignored him completely
and just continued their conversations.
Zoe erupted in a screaming fit and bowled chairs
across the classroom.  He wrote out his resignation.

The fourth day, he left the envelope
on the mantel and gave it one more chance.
Shane squared up to Dylan and somehow
smashed his laptop.

The fifth day, he took the envelope into school
and turned it in his hands all morning.
Shane tore up Kai's work but wrote a half-page himself.
Joe Rowton read 'Hitcher' and deemed
the poem mint.  Zoe mastered the punctuation
of direct speech: "I'm off to the bog
and you can't stop me cos I'm on my period."

He took the envelope home and on Friday night
got hammered.  Saturday and Sunday
he worked all day.  One more week.

On the one hundred and ninety-fifth day,
Shane threw a water-bomb. Joe Rowton read out
his five-hundred-word essay on karting.
8B6 got certificates and Zoe stayed behind
and told him, "Why can't we have you next year, Sir?
You're a laugh, we learn things with you."

Six weeks on the beach my arse: schemes of work
and lesson plans; a fortnight teaching summer school;
and a half-day at the Magistrates, with Shane
and his weeping mother; he'd swiped SpongeBob socks
from Primark 'because his feet were cold'.
He put in a good word.

The first day back, Shane told him Lee Darby
had brought in a flick knife and Joe Rowton
had got Zoe pregnant: but don't tell no one
you got it from me. 

Copyright Steve Ely
from Werewolf, published by Calder Valley Poetry 2016

This poem made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  It captures so graphically the realities of teaching for so many teachers.  And it reminded me of a residency I had in a school where the staff barricaded themselves in the staff room at break and ignored all extraneous noises until it was time to venture out again. Only the head was brave enough to park his car in the school car park. As the writer in residence I often got treated as a free babysitter. I was abandoned on a Friday afternoon with year 11XX by a teacher who grinned wolfishly before declaring a dentist's appointment and scarpering.  Several of the students disappeared shortly afterwards and some of the others began practising basket ball with the light fitting over the blackboard. Creative Writing?  It was a free-for-all. But one of the students came up at the end and asked for my autograph.  I must have looked puzzled because he added 'Just in case you get famous!'  I could never have been a school teacher.

It was a Yorkshire poet Bob Horne who introduced me to Steve Ely's poetry at a writers' retreat.  I bought the Calder Valley Poetry pamphlet last year and I'm still reading it.  Werewolf is a dark collection that looks at the world and records its tragi-comic realities without softening the message that we are a violent, deceitful species.  'Every Child Matters' begins:

          not really

          we profess to believe it          but our actions say otherwise

'Werewolf' - Lucas Cranach the Elder

'The Death Dealer of Kovno' deals with the 1941 Jewish massacre in Lithuania. The poetry is compelling, even when the subject matter appalls.  Peter Riley describes the collection as 'this narrative catalogue of the capacity for human harm' which 'becomes a song/story book that grips, fascinates and in a grim kind of way, delights.'  Which is exactly how it feels.

All our moral 'givens' are questioned.  We think we are morally superior? That concentration camps couldn't exist in the UK?  No.  Even the worst could happen here.  In 'Spurn'

Once the decision was made
it was simply a matter of logistics.

Trains from ghettos all over the country
dropped their freight at Doncaster sidings,
where tantalising tastes of Southern Fried Chicken
licked around the cars
like tongues of heavenly vipers.

In the mythologies of the poetry, the Tigers of Tigerland, happy to co-exist ('Tigerland was a broad land and there was room enough for all.') are at first welcoming when the White Men arrive. But soon there are no more Tiger people - only a colonial folk tale of savage beasts who 'came howling from the hills like savages, raping women and slaughtering children, until Providence snuffed them out.'

Male violence in particular is put under interrogation. In a year that has seen the revelations of Trump and Weinstein, massacres in the US and Europe, and the horrors of ethnic violence in Yemen and Myanmar the poetry is both a dark mirror held up to ourselves and an honest reflection of the world beyond the page.  It emphasises the fragility of our own, illusory, safety. The poetry is astonishing, both technically and linguistically.  I'm still reeling from its impact.

Steve Ely is the author of a novel Ratmen (Blackheath Books), a biography - Ted Hughes's South Yorkshire (Palgrave MacMillan), and two other collections of poetry - Englaland and Oswald's Book of Hours, both from Smokestack.

Werewolf is £7.00 from Calder Valley Poetry


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