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Jason Edwards: ‘Refuse/Refuge: Five Sonnets’

Editor’s note

In the following poems, Jason Edwards embarks on a poetical journey by taking as a starting point the artworks in the exhibition Refuse/Refuge. At the same time he makes one wonder how an artwork can function as a stimulus in one’s imagination and produce a new and different artistic form. In his textual sculptures, Edwards weaves different threads and thereby links aspects of the artworks with his own theoretical explorations.


The Power of Passports

(for Majid Adin)

My second time in the United States,

I am changing at Minneapolis

On a connecting flight to Saint Louis,

To visit my good friend Rose Baghdady,

Who lives with her girlfriend in Missouri.

It’s illegal to commit sodomy

There so she has asked me not to out her.

So when I am escorted off the plane,

Accompanied by a grey Alsatian,

Asked what the purpose of my visit is,

Who I’m staying with, the answer’s tricky.

Each time I check in thirty years later

There’s a pause as notes are read on the screen:

Am I there a terrorist or just queer?

Liquid Traces

(for Forensic Oceanography)

The circum-Mediterranean basin:

Fantasies of sitting in a café

With the Greek language poet Cavafy,

In the early twentieth century,

Cruising diasporic, suntanned sailors

In the service of pleasure, poetry,

Candle-lit, onanistic reverie.

Nothing like the tragic reality

Of sixty three people deeply at sea,

Near Tripoli where my brother was born;

Not the legal responsibility

Of Libya, Malta, or Italy,

Nor NATO, employers of my father;

No-one's problem, they were all left to die.

Failure Requires Faith in Humanity (After Tennyson)*

(for Maria Tzanakou)

Descending through the dismal night tonight

The bounds of heaven and earth seemed quite lost;

We beheld, high upon the dreary deep,

It seemed sent from God to save us, a ship,

Bright with shining people on its wet deck,

But gone as soon as seen. Then nothing but

Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,

Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the depth

And full of voices, slowly rose and sank,

Roaring; and all the sea was burning flame.

Later, at the lace fringe of the breakers,

Then swept up the strand, the baby Arthur

Was not delivered safely to Merlin;

Instead, dead refugees for the papers.

*Editor's note: The phrase of this title, 'Failure requires faith in humanity', belongs to the artist Maria Tzanakou, while the poet follows Tennyson's poetical form.

Staring Quietly at the Backwash

(for Ina Lounguine)

Each time, why can’t I put the headphones on?

What is it that I am afraid to hear?

What might be so bad I cannot forget?

What sounds could possibly be so shocking?

Instead the bland image of hands shaking

Next to a mosaic of mouths smiling,

Grins as insane as that of Tony Blair,

Inspired by God to start the Iraq War!

I wake up in the middle of the night

Because I cannot help but remember

The sounds of mortal bodies in terror:

Pigs on a local disassembly line.

They can’t go back, they have to keep going,

They’re bare life, dead meat, and no angels came.

Shifts and Contrivances

(for Janne Malmros)

Two vitrines in the middle of the room,

Containing a cutout, primitive boat,

That can be made from bark, wood, here paper;

Inspired by a Victorian account

Written by polymath Francis Galton,

Famous for being Charles Darwin’s cousin,

An early advocate of eugenics.

His book Hereditary Genius

(Footnote: Macmillan, 1869)

Advocated welcoming “the better

Sort of emigrants and refugees from

Other lands”, also naturalizing their

Children. I staggered out of the water;

My brother wrapped, mirrored me in Mylar.


Jason Edwards teaches in the History of Art department at the University of York, where he works at the intersection of queer and vegan theory and the visual and material culture of long nineteenth-century Britain. His first book of poetry, Complexity, Death, and Nothing was published in 2016.

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