British poet Stefan Mohamed has a diploma in professional performance and has been performing poetry, spoken word and comedy since 2012. His one-man theatrical show Farewell Tour, featuring original music by Oscar Lyons, animation by Henry Edmonds and videography by the poet made its debut in Bristol in September 2022; those of us who have not seen it, or indeed those who have and want more, can seek out the performed poems in this Verve Poetry Press collection of the same name.
Farewell Tour takes us on a trip through an England otherwise known – at least by Chuck Prophet fans – as “the angry isle”; here, a post-Brexit land of woe and degradation. First poem “Road Trip” immediately makes the point to the reader that it doesn’t matter who you are, “what scars or supplies you bring to the table”, this is about a trip through a ”sinking land” – a “stubborn rainy kingdom of cracked breezeblock and deflated swamp. This sulky Empire, primarily exporting derivatives, entropy and bad vibes.” The humour is dark, with the road signs “rendered meaningless in the blink of deep time. You can’t wait. You’re excited beyond reason just to get out of the house.”
As for those road signs, “Itinerary” confirms we’re in a country with an unfortunate lack of glamour – “Breakfast at Pustule/lunch at Drubbing/dinner at King’s Nob.” The names of the towns – “Lower Cuck”, “Crumplebottom”, “Tetchy”, “West Wanging”, “Little Vile”, “Bad Crumpet” – comically signify the grim environment, a world of mediocre guest houses and service station pasties. Mohamed takes us to some insalubrious places: Atrocity Park where there’s a radioactive slide and kittens crying from burning trees (“Trip Advisor Review – King’s Trauma”) and an “aggro and oddly utopian” city with “oozy streets/snapping selfies against the grayscale gothic/tagging the pictures bleak/and murk/and mire” (“City Break, Snarlingham”).
Although the poet hints at an element of generic awfulness in the modern world (“Britpop” leaves the reader to [Insert Nation’s Capital] on a hat), there’s no doubt England is our special place – references to Greggs, Marmite, Heinz Baked Beans, mushy peas, Rich Tea Biscuits, the Co-op, kebab shops, and fish and chips ensure the context from a culinary perspective. We’re also neck deep in a familiar culture war – Gnasher (from a banned Beano annual) eats a Polish migrant (“Catharsis”), oxygen is gentrified (“Architecture”), and people are demanding reparations and spitting ultimatums in a country which eats its young, hates its girls and cannot live with itself (“Dead Villages”).It’s a “kooky quagmire country where the birds are always bickering” (“Marmite County”).
One distinguishable feature of the poems in this collection is an experimentation with form. “Traditional Pub Menu” takes us through a choice of Starters including “Colonial hooligan bantering on a bed of redacted wince” and “small grey headaches braised in tatty nostalgia” to some startling Mains options – “wet green bulldog with repressed ham” or “perfidious tradwife on a bed of nervous Morrissey, with rose vomit and corrupt ale”. For Dessert, try a “hard border stewed in damp class system” or “victim complex baked in sloppy denial, with custard”.
Mohamed has poetic ideas in abundance. Inventively, there are three troubling mixtapes to listen to on our trip (“National Anthems”, “Clowns” and “Armageddon Outta Here”), and two audiobook companions; the dense and claustrophobic “Advanced Planning Theory (Audiobook)” considers the great urban planners’ imagined municipal transplant loops, and “Bertha Benz (Audiobook Preview)” recounts the story of a “proto-girlboss” on a long-distance road trip in 1888, maximum speed 10mph, without the consent and knowledge of her husband. There are further experiments and subversion: “A Complete History of the Contemporary Now – Revised Edition” takes the form of an index and “Fragments of Radio Interview with Former National Treasure” works with typography. There’s consideration of “Traditional Joke Formats” and “Traditional Folk Poems” as well as a poem made up of its title only.
Much entertaining, angry humour is derived from our perilous expedition, with a “Poem To Be Bellowed From Car Window While Hurtling Down A Hill At Unsafe Speeds”, the failure of navigation of “Short Cut”, the hardcore rant of “Normal Island” and a downbeat interest in what the nation looks like in the brutalist “Architecture”. There are “Maggot Mondays”, “Magpies” and “ambient noise”. You will need a steely resolve and some courage. Fellow poet Tom Sastry aptly says in respect of the collection that “we are shown the ugliness of our culture. In some places the ugliness is replicated within the poems, but what we also get is some of the sharpest satire and most inventive writing you will find…This is not a melancholic book of disappointed patriotism, lamenting what has happened to our country; it is an outpouring of disgust at the people we have become. Brilliant and horrible in equal measure.”
The onslaught and terror is lightened by some key moments towards the end of the collection; a moment of quiet optimism in “Pint Glasses”, where “sparring, fondly, over pints” turns to “smiling at strangers under quiet skies” and “kissing under umbrellas while the rain tries its worst. And they’re not getting it right now, but there is space in their glass for more”. Then in “Catharsis”, we’re headed for the border to escape but there is consolation found in effort and togetherness. These unexpected moments of tenderness after all that have come before may disarm the reader before fear and loathing returns.
Publisher: Verve Poetry Press
Publication Date: 15 SEP 2022