Paul Stephenson’s pamphlet, The Days That Followed Paris (HappenStance Press, 2016), is riven by tensions: traditional versus modern, collective versus individual, local versus international, all revolving around one date - 13th November 2015 - which also forms a pivotal subtitle to the chapbook.
Of course, the afore-mentioned date is that of the terrorist attacks in France. As a consequence, it has entered the collective consciousness with personal connotations for every individual, just like 9/11 and 7/7. Paul Stephenson lived through these attacks as an ex-pat in Paris itself. As I can confirm from my own experience, such moments are when you feel most acutely that you’re foreign, and this heightened sense of dislocation runs throughout Stephenson’s chapbook.
His first poem, “Safety Feature”, sets the tone:
“Facebook knows my whereabouts:
It looks like you’re in the area affected
by the Paris Terror Attacks…
…Xavier is safe.
Ricardo is safe.
Scott is safe.
Kate is safe.
Emily is safe.
Jason has yet to confirm.”
This piece uses Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic names to highlight the international make-up of this extremely French city, just as later poems mention “…the Algerian waiter…” or “…a Parisian man, a Swedish girl…”, all alongside the invocation of emblematic locations such as the Place de la République, Gare Saint Lazare and Montparnasse. Stephenson is taking the supposed security and safety of well-recognised places so as to subvert them and include the reader in his sense of dislocation.
Stephenson’s poetry has always combined accessibility with experimentation, clear narrative drive with the shifting sands of uncertainty and doubt, and his techniques lend themselves superbly to these poems of terrifying days when assumed truths are suddenly, terrifyingly undermined, as in the key poem, “Fraternité”:
“…A brother who pleads for you to give yourself up,
swears he noticied nothing strange
and claims you’re normal. A brother who shrugs, shows
the whites of his palms, pushes
the door behind him.”
The poet is taking a crucial term from the French revolution, a term that most of us previously thought we could define, and he’s layering it with new implications, unsettling the reader via the thematic potential of his story in tandem with his line endings, dangling verbs that then swing shut with a jolt just like the door of the final line.
Paul Stephenson first published a small selection of these poems in The Compass, not long after the Paris attacks. Even now, I recall the shock and buzz of reading them for the first time. The passing of time could have diminished their impact, bearing in mind that they revolve around specific events that are being replaced in our consciousness by new horrors. However, that very fact is a fundamental reason why they retain their power and even hit harder when I read them today. They portray contemporary concerns that affect all of us. As individuals, we share their collective tension.
The Days That Followed Paris is a pamphlet of far more political relevance than most overtly political poetry. Its subtlety reaches the heart as well as the head, undercutting facile convictions and opening us up to the life-blood of doubt.