On 23 April 1979, Blair Peach, a teacher from New Zealand, was killed by a blow to the head delivered by an officer of the Metropolitan Police Force Special Patrol Group (SPG). He had been demonstrating against a meeting to be held by the Nazi National Front (NF) in Southall, West London.
Peach did not set out to be a martyr. He did not set out to die. His acting in solidarity with the community under attack that day was probably, had it not been for his death, as unremarkable as his less recollected actions, such as spending nights on the cold, wet street corners of Brick Lane to prevent the NF from holding paper sales. Yet the tragedy of his death, compounded by the ensuing miscarriage of justice, has been remembered as a galvanising moment of anti-racism in the UK, and has inspired a number of poetic works, including Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Reggae fi Peach’, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en banlieue, and Chris Searle’s edited collection One for Blair. In the early 1980s a Southall primary school was named after Peach. A touching tribute. Naming is touching. To name is to touch.
This edition of Cordite Poetry Review tries to remember Blair Peach on the fortieth anniversary of his death. But what is here gives little sense of who Peach was and what he did, and perhaps only a partial view of what it means to remember him today, when Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of the extreme right, Hong Kong pro-democracy, and the climate crisis dominate the news:
to erase. But the failing is ours, too. It’s what the living do best. Last Friday, madness tore (Gavin Yuan Gao, 'Letter to Blair from Home')
The Peach edition’s lack of Peach is not due to the poetry somehow failing in the task of representation that we seem to have set out for it. On the contrary, Blair is not here because poetry itself cannot do other than fail to represent, an abiding concern in Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Homecoming, which we are proud to present in this issue as a chapbook. A memorial can only represent loss, the absence of a person. It cannot reconstruct that person’s presence: their gestures, moods, and contradictions. What is here struggling to touch to Peach represents a longing for some of the ideals (dreams, even) that his figure has come to represent in collective memory: resistance, solidarity, anti-capitalism, anti-racism. In other, perhaps bathetic, words, a world of love, not hate. More than a mourning of a person, these poems seem to allude to how these ideals have failed in the degraded public sphere; failed through the degradation of the language that we use to talk about these ideals; and how these failures are inflicted on the body, which Harold Legaspi evokes in ‘No-one Listened’.
So many roads to inevitable failure. What then, of poetry and resistance? Poetry of resistance is not expressive only of resistance as an oppositional response to some external oppressive force or pressure. What exceeds these fields is what guarantees poetry its status as poetry: that which is not simply information, nor simply a call to action. What is poetic is that which perhaps even impedes that passage to action, diverts energy away from an event. Something in poetry always wants to say something counter to the poetic intention. Alternatively, catch yourself at a rally wincing as time-worn chants roll thinly over the crowd (when something something is under attack, what do we do? STAND UP FIGHT BACK). Your discomfort in solidarity, your need to maintain distance, is resistance enacted as linguistic repulsion. It is poetic:
Mammalian life trying hard not to exist as manky bandaid sandwich The fillings that are served in the space between us, or the lost siren (Ann Vickery, ‘Manky Bandaid Sandwich’).
As well as a word that remembers a person, ‘peach’ is a near-homophone to ‘speech’. In the saying, it fills the mouth with the impossible fullness of language. To say peach is to silence that first sibilant and break speech (is this why poets have used this word so much?) into something else. For us the word peach, thought of in this way, helps us understand poetry as a splitting off, turning over and spitting out of common language. What kind of common language is the law? M. NourbeSe Philip’s ‘If/Shall’ responds to law as the culmination of language as oppressive structure, by rupturing and breaking down the Treaty of Friendship and Peace with Morocco (signed in 1787, it is the longest unbroken treaty in United States’ history).
This assemblage of some 70+ poems might be read as a figure for the temporary assemblages of people variously referred to as a march, protest, a demonstration, a riot. Les Back referred to the inevitably temporary nature of such solidarities as ‘intermezzo’. Solidarity is like a dancefloor. Heterogenous and contingent, it will materialise and heave for the big moments. And dematerialise when the affective conditions change, when the moment passes, when the sound system is switched off. The bodies too are fragile, vulnerable, and, sometimes, bear the cost of the dance. Understanding the fragile, tentative nature of connection has informed our process of collecting the poems in this edition. This capacious, unlikely assemblage of poets such as Mykaela Saunders, Dimitris Troaditis, Misbah, O-Jeremiah Agbaakin, Samuel Lee, through its discontinuity and dis-identifications, illustrates the difficulty of assembly in the public space more broadly.
Blair Peach was not the only person to die on the frontline, and ‘this is the era of taking white men off pedestals’ (Sista Zai, ‘A Response to LKJ’s Reggae Fi Peach’). What then does it mean to invite poets to respond to the memory of Peach in 2019? Peach was from Napier, New Zealand, where Maraea Rakuraku was born and raised. Rakuraku writes with a parallax view of NZ history, culminating in an exuberant, discontinuous, polyphonic suite of three poems entitled ‘Kōrerorero/ the say-so’:
We may have been born in the same place, Blair walked the same streets perhaps, even known the same people? It’s unlikely, you shared a beer with Dad at the Pro, or sorted peas, at Watties with Mum. Did you know about Te Kooti? and what happened to him at the prison? Did you trace the profile of Te Mata? (‘Named’)
Rakuraku’s final poem, ‘Ka whawhai tonu matou’, sees Peach’s memory woven into, and finally displaced by the resistance narrative of Rewi Maniapoto, 1864. In this PEACH edition, remembering ‘takes place’ in riotous discordance, making poetry a site for fuller, more complex representations of what it means to resist.