With the world trapped at home, Americans have had their lives and communities forced into micro focus. Poetry is one expression of day to day life under adversity. Concentrated prose is a natural fit for moments that are small, honest, but also potentially ugly. An artist who expresses this reality like no other is the English writer Billy Childish, whose work examines the grit and grime of the domestic and the industrialized community.
Childish is well known for his poetry collections and longer form memoir. However, he has also had a successful career as a punk rock musician and studio artist. His accentuated British style with tweed, suspenders, and a waxed mustache makes him out to be a living deconstruction of working-class England. As an art school dropout and someone who lived on the dole for over a decade before making a living as an artist, Childish certainly walks the walk.
His poetry books are interspliced with original paintings and prints which create a modern Neolithic style, depicting sex, naked bodies, and misery. These drawings, which feel like neolithic cave paintings, make Childish out to be the artistic intersection between a back-alley addict and a Celtic shaman before the arrival of the Romans. Childish’s poetry is written like a primeval record of a cockney England in its most degenerated form. His writing forgoes the principles of the King’s English in favor of phonetic spellings in lowercase type with minimal or no punctuation. Stanza breaks and enjambment are the reader’s only guide to what feels like the ravings of a drunk outside an English pub. If Bukowski is modern masculinity unveiled in its ugliest and most honest face, then Childish walks that same path back much further to literary tradition of a decrepit England spanning back to the settlement of the British Isles.
His writing contains raw expressions of sexuality and violence. He writes in a poem titled, when the spunk hits yur in the face, “then this bloke says/ ‘ya nans dead’ n its the same man/ who raped you/ then it starts raining/ then someboidy makes yu nob sore/ then all this spunk starts flying atcha// then the bus comers/ but it dont go your way/ it aint half fare…” Childish not only fully displays the raw violence in life, but also a mundane ache and pain that comes with the grime of day to day living. This juxtaposition, combined with strange phonetical spelling and the fearlessness of his subject, makes for fascinating reading.
The poetry of Billy Childish looks at the world with an apocalyptic glee. His focus and introspection is critical at a time when we are all confined to looking at the world through unwashed windows and bad news on the radio. I return to Childish for a connection with an ancient neolithic dread made new by industrialization. Though not uplifting, the poetry of Childish is certainly liberating in its unflinching gaze into the dark night of the city.