Author: Stephen Watts
For the last 40 years, Stephen Watts has been a fixture of the landscape and the language of East London. Whether that be in his own poetry, or in the many translations he has produced, his influence, while not always obvious, has left indelible traces.
Just after we opened the shop, Stephen’s book Republic of Birds/Republic of Dogs was published - a beautifully fragmentary account of Stephen’s transplantation from the outer Hebrides to the Isle of Dogs in the 80s. Having been lost in a drawer for over 30 years it became a central text for our new bookshop. So I am delighted that collected here, for the first time, is three decades of his poetry - a real treasury
Bird-flight is music, language is freedom, breath is laughter
from ‘Journeys Across Breath’
It’s hard to find a poet that speaks as timelessly about east London as Stephen Watts. A quality that Watts’ poetry has is the ability to encompass all perspectives at once; the reader feels as if it isn’t a person speaking to them, but rather the place itself. The rhythms of the street move through every line, the images are at once familiar yet otherworldly. Journeys Across Breath is a joy to read as a whole anthology as various images arise and reoccur, spinning the reader into a heady atmosphere where time dissolves:
Windows candled to Friday night,
Would know this street is a seamless cloth, this
City, this people…
Windows of crushed coffee bleating
In the deep blue of Aldgate night
(from ‘Fieldgate Streets’)
The feeling of the collection is best found in the title poem ‘Journeys Across Breath’ where Watts addresses his grandfather whose steps he can hear descending a mountain road in Italy. The poem moves from these mountains to Soho where Watts looks at his mother across a cafe in Frith Street in 1912. Watts explains to his grandfather that his ‘university’ was three years spent on a remote island in north Uist, beyond Skye. It was here Watts learnt about sound by testing his mother-tongue against silence. Stories such as this amass on Watts’ journey and pour from each poem in this collection. A magical read.