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The mystical among the detritus

22 December 2016

Paul Vallely is impressed by a poet who inhabits both the secular and the sacred

FOR weeks, or rather months, our house has echoed to the words of the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts. My sixth-former son has just directed his first play. He chose a Symmons Roberts verse drama, Men Who Sleep in Cars, which he heard on Radio 4 two years ago, and which he decided to stage as a multi-media production combining live actors, an ethereal voice-over, and a series of short films that he shot around the streets of Man­chester, where the play is set. The poet’s words have fallen on my ears in a repeated jewelled shower as the painstaking editing of the films proceeded over recent weeks.

Set against the background of the 2014 World Cup, the play is about three men forced to sleep in cars for different reasons, but who, unbeknown to them, have a common connection. It is a haunt­ing story, which unravels the hidden links between the three men and the teenage girl who acts as the narrator of the piece.

As the poet’s phrases looped and whirled around our home, it became clear that Symmons Roberts, a lapsed atheist who is now a Roman Catholic, has a sensibility that inhabits both the sacred and secular imaginations, and cross-fertilises them in a singular way.

One of the characters in Men Who Sleep in Cars turns out to be dead. But it is not a ghost story in the usual fashion. A dead voice comes through the radio and the poet asks: “Why would you doubt those radio waves could carry a voice from beyond the grave — a frequency too high for human ears?”

But his core preoccupation is to show how we live on after death to influence others. The dead person becomes a voice of conscience, a reminder of reality, and pricker of self-delusion — and yet, the poet hints, perhaps also a guardian angel to watch over the unloved men who sleep in cars.

Symmons Roberts is a writer who finds the mystical among the detritus of everyday life. My son’s production created pieces of theatrical business from morning rituals, which echoed more transcendent ceremony.

But it was also striking how many references to prayer there are in the piece. They are organic to the text, utterly unselfconscious, sometimes metaphorical, but often metaphysical. There is a beautiful passage about how our souls slip out at death and become fireflies dancing in the sky in some soul network. An image of sleep being “a bird that flies through the house” echoes the famous line of the Venerable Bede that a man’s life is like “the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall”. And the car-sleepers’ lonely lullaby recalls the most mournful of Christmas carols with its lullay lullay refrain.

Ours is “a world more fragile than we thought”, as this poet says elsewhere. The marriage of these religious and secular sensibilities seems particularly apt at this season of incarnation when we remind ourselves that real religion is found not in the Church, but in the world in which the word became flesh.

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