No Time for Forgetfulness

Conflict Studies by Paul Laughlin (Lapwing, £5); ISBN 978-910855-76-8
Paul Laughlin’s ‘Conflict Studies’ arrives as a curt reminder of what often gets overlooked – be that out of expedience or exhaustion. So often the blandishments of ‘moving on’ or ‘moving forward’ are deployed as anaesthetics to awkward memories of The Troubles and their aftermath. Conflict Studies confronts their debasing effects on common humanity in poems that will surely find an echo well beyond the borders of Ireland. At their best, these poems are propelled by a lyrical directness and a willingness to confront sticky realities that makes them invigorating to read: not least because they are up for a scrap, a necessary one, in sweeping through political obfuscations. They are smartly observed throughout – the detail illuminating the greater point, such as in ‘Red, White and Blue’ in which:
“A faded UVF tattoo intrigues The Polish care assistant Who now feeds and washes you”
Laughlin’s eagerness for debunking entrenched racism and generalised hostility to the outsider is at its best here. Irony strips away pretence, mundanity counters pumped-up masculinity:
“She jots her observations down Then fills your Rangers mug And helps you take your meds First red, then white, then blue”
All very good, though loyalist chauvinism is an obvious target. The volume’s title poem takes aim at those who have profited more slickly – by mealy-mouthed opportunism – the powerful remarketing themselves:
“How they preen for the press Those old combatants Emerging from conflict Submerging their part in it”
In ‘Who We Are’, he scorns the normalisation of this PR-speak:
“Let us again assure you The murder of your families Is not who we are For the avoidance of all doubt The torture of your neighbours Is not who we are”
There are more than a few who might remark ‘why revisit this now?’, but it still feels like a subject that needs addressing, amid risk of amnesia, and as northern Irish/British politics stews in the uniqueness of its own unresolved crises. (Which, of course, is easy enough for me – an outsider – to say, who doesn’t have to live with it). This volume sideswipes such detractors by being an insider’s poetry, from one who has witnessed the political landscape pulled from under the working-classes and co-opted by nefarious fundamentalism. Laughlin, as a long-standing Derry trade-unionist, knows his stuff. He can also be seen to represent an aspect of northern Irish politics that rarely gains attention: one that is rooted in a socialism in opposition to sectarian definition and demoralisation. In ‘Political Poem’, he takes a shot at the quarantining of politics away from culture:
“This poem has been neglected
This poem will be collected

This poem must be decoded
This poem can be downloaded”
In ‘Narratives’, he describes the tame, safe distance of an academic “Sipping red wine in a Derry bar” while discussing “The power of words to harm or heal”. It’s a punchy observation on cultural ownership and hierarchy:
“It’s not poets who forge Our narratives now Nor gods who make Their own importance here”
Lapwing’s smart but unfussy utilitarian format feels like a good fit for Laughlin’s poetry. It will be interesting to see how this book is received, and what comes next from this poet. I suspect it is a volume that has a receptive, waiting audience among people for whom the personal and the political are painfully indivisible, and for whom poetry is its most distilled and effective mode of communication.
– Neil Young