It’s possible to read Dungeness Blues in one sitting; the collection is a relatively slim volume of 14 poems focussed on English film director, stage designer, author and gay rights activist Derek Jarman. Counter-culturist poet Jeremy Reed knew Jarman in the ‘80s, which may have assisted Reed make this such insightful work.
Reed captures Jarman at various points in his career. “Smears” considers Jarman’s first (1976) film on the life of Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, “Sebastiane”, with “that imperturbable Eno soundtrack”. Poem “Jubilee” visits Jarman’s 1978 film of the same name, where “Punk’s the economy – the Roxy, Blitz -/teens morphed into deconstructive remake,/it’s attitude, DIY style”.
Jarman is evoked as digging up “England’s skull/Edward II staring through eye holes”, in a reference to Jarman’s 1991 historical drama Edward II in “Transgressive Histories”, and editing the Pet Shop Boys’ video “It’s A Sin” “at Soho 601” in “Nasturtiums”. The poet puts himself in Jarman’s shoes as a historical figure, concluding in “Smears” that:
Decades don’t happen when you live through them
transitioning, it’s only history
provides the facts, turns the corner on time
into what really happened, most of it submerged
in a subculture underground
As well as considering his career, Reed writes about Jarman as an individual. He updates the lyrics of The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” to remember him in “Dungeness Blues” (“he stands by the track/a prescription in his hand”), keenly detailed in Doc Martens and “bumped up lymph glands”.
Some of the poems address Jarman’s sexuality, his “same-sex infamy”, cruising London’s Hampstead Heath in “Back of the Woods”. Reed also approaches the subject of sexuality more generally. “Angelic Conversations” considers the clandestine nature of homosexuality in history. “Derek’s Queerdom” addresses a pre-occupation with youth (“Youth’s optimism: it’s the one drug/you do or don’t as the prerogative/to win”). In “Transgressive Histories”, gay culture is brutally fast-moving so that:
Nothing stays modern, drugs and the DJ
in Heaven, get superseded by drill.
Plague licks the dance-floor into skeletons.
Jarman was sadly diagnosed HIV positive in 1986, and “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” replays the day in September 1991 that Jarman was “canonized” in the garden of his house at Dungeness, his health diminished by AIDS. Reed zooms in on the detail of the day, the sea kale, cotton lavender and horned poppies; the sculpted objects around him are “like signs/indicating viral scars, sarcomas,/the unstoppable wasting of his frame”.
Although Dungeness Blues is clearly a tribute to Jarman, Reed’s poetry is sufficiently strong and interesting for the collection to be of appeal to a general reader. One of the more universal poems is “Tenderness is a Weakness” which considers an introspective runaway, “a boy distressed/into homeless dejection”. With Jarman’s camera reinventing “gay commonplace”, Reed’s poem riffs on the theme of loneliness with striking imagery, concluding:
It’s the idea of romance never dies
an abstract potential, just sit and wait
on chance encounter, drink blue cough syrup,
endure anything, but never go home.
Dungeness Blues, The Jarman Suite is published by Zagava as a lettered edition (24 copies bound in blue velvet and in a custom-made wooden box with an audio cassette of Reed reading the poems), a numbered edition (76 copies in thread-stitched hardcover, bound in blue velvet, silk ribbon page marker) and in paperback, with a distinctive Jarman-blue cover.
You can also listen to a Podcast performance of the collection by Jeremy Reed on the Zagava website here.
Publication Date: 19 JAN 2021