Category Archives: Poems

Ethnographic Poems

Ethnographic research, which usually involves prolonged and in-depth engagement with a particular social group, brings with it certain dangers to do with the historical association of ethnography with colonialism, the up-close-and-personal nature of fieldwork, the interpretations made by the researcher, who is usually an outsider, and with the representation of these interpretations after the event.

One of the responsibilities of the ethnographer is to engage in an ongoing reflection with events in the field, always questioning interpretations, always making truth claims with caution, and always searching for traces of oppressive regimes being reproduced through their actions.

The poems reprinted on these pages were part of this process for me, during my PhD research, which regularly took me across the country between my home and my research sites. Sitting on the train, ‘gazing out the window’ provided a productive metaphor for the research gaze I was taking into my fieldwork, and the verses below littered with the familiar images of train travel and the things seen and felt along the way. If you would like to read something in a bit more of a conventional academic vein on the promises and dangers of ethnographic research then you can do so here and here.

These poems are sketches, scribbled down on notepaper, improvised. Please don’t expect them to scan, nor to convey any straightforward meaning. While I offer no interpretation of them here, there are various recurring images and themes, such as loss, harm, exposure, betrayal and capture, and these are all dangers worth interrogating if you are engaged in ethnographic research. On reading them again I am also struck by the tone, like some kind of heroic martyr, or fallen angel. As far as I know I have managed to keep my published output free of such tones, so perhaps that is one function of these little endeavours.


Facing Forwards

A rushing blow of smoke and steam, This trip it roughens, Cuts they bleed

The cold air sharpens me like a vice, The metal frame glazed and sparkling white.

I remember well in times now past, What the smoke and steam and glaze may cast

But I see now that I missed the point, Which me, or I, obscured from sight.

Smoke and steam, Frosted white dream, Gliding on a razor’s edge

And though with love, with pleasure, comes fear, Love’s deep abyss draws me near

And I’m facing forwards back to you.

The cold air bites, My fingers shake as my hand it writes

But my jet warm vapour trail, My billowing pluming tail

Comforts me in the cold, Facing forwards, Bold.

Tin Train Life

I’m two down now how do I get up again, I needed them then but they wreck me still

Under the branches all arranged on the steepest slope

And now I don’t even know what my ideal was in the first place.

And I talk about choice like I have some idea what it’s like to ever come close to encapsulating even one moment of what anyone ever felt

All I have is various shiny bits of card, they may be nice colours but they don’t get me far.

And this is a long break I wasn’t expecting, And I keep thinking I need more direction

But the truth is that it’s the speed and force and violence that hurts, and so direction doesn’t mean so much after all.

But that’s only a hunch, Why the fuck must I keep second guessing myself

Is it me or is there some comfort in unpredictability

Not comfort, no, cold comfort if so

All that remains is cold, dry, shrivelled mistakes, Served up on the world’s most enourmous plate.

What the fuck do you mean you don’t recognise me, Am I not different from anything you’ve ever before seen

Of course I am but your mind’s made up, And so I vanish under your cruel hand

But you claim to do it for honour and benevolence, You may even claim charity

But now it’s me that cannot see.

A mass grows, Sleepy, beautiful and dangerous

Do I have to relentlessly interrogate all that is here, According to what has already been

But where does this leave what is yet to come

Though I know everything must start at one, I’m stuck at zero not knowing how to become.

And who really cares about those who dance, Well I do, because they do not

And we strive to balance every scale, As if anything was ever so simple.

Yet simplicity is all I really desire, And that’s the nearest a truth I can offer

But don’t try making me feel good, I appreciate concern

But only in the sense that I know it’s not meant.