(Guest Blog) England’s Epic Poet

by Ross Jeffery

Originally published on Storgy Magazine.

I’m not a huge fan of poetry, okay I’ve said it. I don’t know what it is, there’s something about the artform that I struggle with, it may have underlining issues with how this was dealt with at my secondary school and the bullying that took place in the classroom from my teacher and directed at me personally because I just didn’t get it.

After that I just turned my back on it, it was clearly for academics and well, I’m no academic.

I never gave up on it totally though, I had to discover it for myself and on my terms.

I had to find the right style that I could get to grips with, I don’t like all the floaty stuff, I like my poetry to be gritty or funny and one of my favourite poets is John Cooper Clarke (The Punk Poet) – his use of wordplay and his uncanny ability to get his point across in funny and engaging prose is something I truly love and admire. I think I enjoy poetry when it is real and heartfelt, when it’s dripping in pain and suffering and darkness (cheery guy that I am). I also have a fascination with the bible and the books of Job, Song of Songs (Songs of Solomon) and The Book of Revelation are some of my favourite books of the bible, due to the imagery that is created, the desolation of Job followed by the deftly crafted beauty of Song of Songs and the epic finale that is Revelation – and that is why I loved HellWard by James Sale so much.

How could such power be – the whole cosmos rent
Into parts and each part on its own work,
And better still, each atom purposeful, sent

Whilst far below on a bed, injured, hurt,
Powerless to do evil, much less good,
I lay helpless, fit soon to be but dirt?

HellWard by James Sale is a book that I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into. I’d seen a few of these Cantos performed online via Sale and his use of language, the themes of the collection and the bleakness of it were most appealing.

The collection focuses on the Poet as he is in hospital with cancer and calls on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry to help him in his time of need. Later Dante arrives to take the poet on a tour of what can only be described as purgatory or Hell – where our poet meets with people, friends and family – those that had some form of a connection to him at some point in his life.

It is in the meeting of these friends that had me reminiscing about the book of Job (how he also conversed with his friends – whilst being tempted to sin by Satan against his God). The way the Poet meets with these people and converses with them are incredibly well constructed, each one trying to bring him down further into the mire, each one with their own axe to grind, each one laying on blame or accusations, each friend or visitor a step towards a final destination that has yet to be decided.

‘Be careful,’ Dante said, ‘for here’s the end
Of hell itself in your world: the last test –
Philosophers whose ideas never mend

Or heal a single soul; rather, as pests –
Cockroaches scuttling in cellars below –
They quarry till your kitchen is their nest.

Sale masterfully gets his point across with these additional characters and the journey is one that is filled with pain, suffering, redemption and hope – the language Sale uses adds a regality to it that one would expect to find in the masters of the form such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dante and Milton but as I said I’m not much of a poetry man – so there are probably even more comparisons to be had such is the brilliance of Sale’s prose. You can witness with each Canto that Sale is someone that is passionate about language and poetry, crafting beautiful offerings from the ashes of a life, there is passion within the words and I feel that this is rather a somewhat personal journey for the author, one which comes across in blinding clarity and proves how powerful words can be, how in words sometimes we can find salvation and hope, but also despair and desolation.

The beauty of the book is in the journey and each Canto adds another layer to this incredible glimpse into the afterlife, the purgatory that awaits us or the hell we may or may not wander when our time comes. Each proceeding Canto has an echo in the next story, driving the reader onwards to a destination that they and the poet fear to tread, and it’s this that builds a palpable tension within the book and adds weight to the words and the prose that is always beautifully poetic. The wordsmithery of Sale ensures that each line is as sharp as a scalpel, that each verse hits with the directness of an arrow to a target, and ensures each Canto will take your breath away as you walk the delicate line that Sale has weaved before us.

The blurb of the book details that HellWard is based on Sale’s near-death experience in Ward 17 of Bournemouth General Hospital – and you can feel all the passion, pain, hurt, hope, despair, suffering, longing and fear in every line, it comes across as a deeply personal account of someone’s last days, a epic battle that is waging over their soul. HellWard also asks questions of the afterlife, leaves the reader pondering who will be waiting for them in the Hell Ward when their time comes, and it is this epic beauty, these unanswered questions that in my opinion solidifies Sale as ‘England’s Epic Poet’.

Ross Jeffery is the author of Juniper. A Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here @Ross1982. His debut novella Juniper was published by The Writing Collective in January 2020 to much praise and is available from Amazon stores – click here.

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