GRAHAM HARTILL: Men Inside (4): My Dead Holiday – Paul’s Story

My Dead Holiday.
Paul’s Story.

I dreamed my genesis in sweat of sleep, breaking
Through the rotating shell, strong
As motor muscle on the drill, driving
Through vision and the girdered nerve.
Dylan Thomas – I Dreamed My Genesis


Groups in prison are unpredictable in many ways – sometimes things interfere with men attending, due either to their own priorities, the demands of the regime, or when there’s some threat to security. When they built the spanking new wings, they somehow forgot to put in enough teaching rooms, so I need to block-book the room on Wing 2 every Wednesday afternoon. This week I have three guys lined up for a group session, chosen because they’re young and enthusiastic. I’m excited myself because it’s been a while since my jokingly named “Avant-garde Poetry Group” disbanded; but meeting him at the door of his wing, one of our members apologises for having a healthcare clash, and now there’s just the three of us.
Paul is in his early twenties, plays guitar and has written some lyrics, but never studied poetry. Andile is South African, and has been flying for a few weeks now on what we call his open field project, taking off from his disgust at the Marikana mine disaster of 2012 and what’s gone wrong with the Rainbow Nation. Two men who have never met before, both with limited experience of writing but going at it with a will from very different angles.
A week or so ago I’d met with Paul and got a few books from the library for him. But the book he brought along today was Dylan Thomas, bookmarked at “I Dreamed My Genesis”, commonly regarded as a quintessential, and quintessentially ‘difficult’, work.

From limbs that had the measure of the worm, shuffled
Off from the creasing flesh, filed
Through all the irons in the grass, metal
Of suns in the man-melting night.

“When I read this poem,” he said, “I understood it completely. I felt it was the story of my life”.
My eyes widened. This was some start to the session.


I got to know Paul better over the course of the next few weeks. I would go to his cell and talk about his poetry. When he showed me his scarred legs and told me the story of his accident, I asked him to write it down. Some edited extracts follow.


I left work a few minutes early and was cycling back home. Usually I would be wearing safety gear but I had forgotten my helmet that morning on my way out for the breakfast shift. I didn’t bother putting on my reflective ankle straps and sash as it was the middle of the day, and the sun was almost directly above.
I was wearing my favourite black jeans which were made of proper denim, unlike most of the stuff you find these days; my favourite navy blue t-shirt with coloured flecks on it and my favourite box-fresh hooded jumper, which had a black and white dot mandala-esque pattern on it. I still have the hood.
I had already cycled the first mile and a half of my journey and was now approaching the only real junction along my route. Curiously, it was here that I always had an unsettled feeling when I cycled home. On this day, the 19th July 2014 at 14:08 in the afternoon, I had this unsettled feeling again. After I had safely cleared the junction and was cutting through a closed car sales garage forecourt, I was hit by a 7-seat family car.
Upon impact I thought someone I knew had come up behind me on foot and pushed me to mess around, but I quickly realised this was not the case because I heard the car engine accelerating and it all got a bit too much too fast. I turned my head to have a look but I was pummelled into the parked car. I felt my right leg bones smashed like a bag of twigs, and that’s all it was, an instant. As I felt the sensation of my legs getting destroyed, I was hurtled to the left through the air as the parked car span, clockwise. I was hit again momentarily after landing on the road and pushed 18 metres forward in a seated position with my legs flat on the ground and my back to the bumper with my palms down, grinding against the floor, trying to keep my body from folding and going under the front wheel, which was right behind my left shoulder, spinning furiously. I could hear the rubber buzzing in revolution….


Andile’s was a different tragedy. In Marikana, in 2012, black South African police had opened fire on unarmed miners; “Under orders,” Andile insisted, “on the phone, from London!” I’d talked to him about what we loosely called ‘open field’ techniques, drawing on Chris Torrance and Allen Fisher and nodding to Olsen, as a way he could bring history and geography into his lyrics and stretch them wider, to write the bigger picture. This was to be a work in progress, perhaps a progress as long as his life.
Paul and Andile’s disparate shocks involve blood – plenty of blood – and metal.
How to survive, in a body, physical or social, so brutally trashed?


(The) embodied self continually hovers between such extremes of petrification and vulnerability in Thomas, in an interplay between organic and inorganic…his ‘habitual confusion of metal and flesh’. For, however vulnerable it may be, the self has to don some kind of armour or carapace, in order to have agency and function in the world…Thomas is fascinated with the apparatus of self-protection, even if he senses that a ‘wounded self’ is necessary to his writing. The sculptural autonomy of his poems, growing in its protective elaboration, is itself a kind of ‘cybernetic fantasy’ and in some of them, ‘I, in my intricate image’ or ‘I dreamed my genesis’ …the speakers can seem nothing less than a cyborg…
– John Goodby


The sensation of tarmac grinding down your palms and elbows while scraping every other part of your body coming in contact with it is difficult to explain. Humans slide across tarmac more easily than I thought. The rubber on the heel of my shoe was vibrating madly, sending my feet back and forward like a metronome at top speed. My legs would buckle and fold below the knees moment to moment, but not constantly. I was using the back of my head and my neck muscles like an arm to help shuffle myself up the car when I felt my mid-section catch too much traction on the road and pull me underneath the car; I couldn’t afford to use my hands because they were already working hard against the ground to stop me folding in half. Eventually, using my shoulders, I managed to twist my position to my side. This is the point of which I could see most of what was going on; I could now free one hand and was trying to grab upwards at the bonnet and at the front left corner. The idea was to get enough grip to pull myself away from the car and throw myself from the speeding vehicle; it was also a kind of an attempt to get the driver’s attention. During all of this, having realised the situation fully, I was speaking aloud, not necessarily to anyone or myself but more just exclaiming my head voice. I recall saying “Oh no!” quite a lot and “What the fuck?” followed by the odd “Hey!” and “Aaaargh!” I was finding it very surreal and upsetting that it was taking so long that I had time to speak, but not just blabbing, rather actual coherent chatter. I felt it should have been quicker.
Eventually, along with the push from the car and my efforts, I was flung from the car. I think the car was turned away because it was headed for the pavement beyond which was a hedge and a house. I barrel-rolled and tumbled in a roly-poly fashion diagonally away from the front left of the car. I believe at this point my legs actually went under the wheels. After the car rolled over me I tumbled to a halt, facing the pavement. I was leaning back holding my legs up with my hands on my hamstrings.
I knew straight away that I was hurt but didn’t know the extent of the damage. Even though I had felt my legs break, the pain hadn’t set in properly, or perhaps I was so bewildered I just didn’t want to believe it and therefore had to check. My knees kept going down; my shins were folding over themselves. I remember seeing them starting to bend but not really believing it. It hurt quite a lot.
I leaned back straight away, unable to straighten my legs because of there being nothing responding below my knees. I picked up my feet and shins, one at a time and straightened them out as much as I could before lying down. At this point the pain was so great I laughed and then went very quiet. I turned to my right and saw a woman get out of the car that hit me; she was taking children out of the car. I was so upset and worried about that I repeatedly shouted down the road, “Are you okay? Is everything alright?” and sensing that they couldn’t hear me I started to drag myself towards the wreck. Upon reflection I don’t know what use I would have been but I am glad that it was my first instinct. After I dragged myself about 3 or 4 pulls, an old lady was running to my aid from behind me; she was shouting “Don’t move! Stop moving!” So I did, realising my attempts were futile.
She kneeled down and put my head on her knees.


Between the 10th August and 20th September 2012, there were 44 deaths, including 41 striking miners shot dead by police near the Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg in South Africa, after 3000 miners had joined in a protest against pay and conditions. The Bench Marks Foundation argued: “The benefits of mining are not reaching the workers or the surrounding communities. Lack of employment opportunities for local youth, squalid living conditions, unemployment and growing inequalities contribute to this mess.” It claimed the workers were exploited and this was a motivation for the violence. It also criticised the high profits when compared with the low wages of the workers. The International Labour Organisation criticised the condition of the miners saying they are exposed to “a variety of safety hazards: falling rocks, exposure to dust, intensive noise, fumes and high temperatures, among others.” The Trade and Industry Minister described the conditions in the mines as “appalling” and said the owners who “make millions” had questions to answer about how they treat their workers.
When the strike began, Lonmin halted production and said that it was unlikely to fulfil its full-year guidance of 750,000 ounces (approx.. 21.25 metric tonnes) of platinum. Lonmin said it will have to monitor its bank debt levels due to the disruption. Lonmin’s capacity to refinance its debt was also questioned.


The main point is that Thomas is attracted to the cybernetic trope and the figure of the cyborg, because these are ambivalent ‘boundary figures’ between states, ‘neither one thing nor the other’. Far from setting up the organic / inorganic split…he seeks to deconstruct the dichotomy. …The constant slippage in his writing between external and internal physicalities, between a sense of the embodied and the disembodied, reflects a fundamental uncertainty about the limits of the self. Thomas presents the attractions of the autonomous ‘cyborg’ body, together with its threats and, as I shall show, the alternative of dissolution.


“When I read this poem,” he said, “I understood it completely. I felt it was the story of my life”.


At this point I became unconscious. It was as if all of my senses were one; instead of being separate I was seeing sounds, tasting colours, hearing visions and feeling time. It was like I was a cell that was self-aware as part of a much bigger collective consciousness; all the other cells made up this ‘body’ and the cells were people, animals and objects, and the ‘body’ was the universe or rather, ‘all that was’. The cell that was me but also a small part of this body would occasionally go through valves and gates and encounter other cells; it was like I was aware of what needed to be done at these intervals and would have done it but something exterior overpowered me gently and put me on autopilot through these cascading valves of colour and lipid matter. These encounters would drain me of life-source though, and as it went on – for 300 years – I felt myself becoming wiser and wiser with each encounter. Like a blood cell delivering oxygen to muscle tissue, the haemoglobin would store the oxygen (life-source) and deposit it where necessary, and the more this happened the more I became self-aware and further understood my position and purpose in the body. All the while of course I was essentially getting closer and closer to my end, which made the whole process extremely poignant, meaningful and full of awe.
I opened my eyes and saw only the sky. Then my eyes focussed; I saw my girlfriend’s mum’s face and said:
“Finally. A human face.”


Andile’s’s Marikana sequence is still in process. Paul has left the prison, having handed over his poems and other writings to produce this article and to put out there in whatever way seems useful. I am grateful to both men for their work and generosity in allowing me to use their words. I hope to dwell a little more on Andile’s work in the next “Men Inside”.

At the end of the workshop I heard their connection – metal meets flesh – when Andile said, “It can be healing this poetry, can’t it?”

At the time of writing (5.12 pm, 29.11.16), platinum is trading at £734 per ounce.

For now, I’ll quote a poem from Paul:

There I sat and spoke to god
and the world was false.
My body folds; hang and align.
Held, braced in age, I wait.
Mothers calm in audience rush.
Ride the pain carved cabriole; I bleed.
The two I knew brought red reunion.

Say all I must, but long to stay.
The angels sting, my dead holiday; anaesthetise
Tricentennial godstream drift, howling soft coloured whispers
through me.
Bound to roar, my body barrels,
and is raised into the sky.
Iron wing; false, fade, return.
He does not answer, sleep now or stay.
No matter for I said remember.


Graham Hartill, with Paul & Andile (pseudonyms).
(1) John Goodby (2013), The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall. Liverpool University Press.



Graham Hartill was born in the industrial West Midlands in 1952. As a teenager he was fascinated by avant-garde music and theatre and staged a few chaotic performances. He moved to Wales, worked as a performer and installation artist and went on to study in the USA. On his return he began to assimilate the influences of American open-field poetry and became a mainstay of the burgeoning poetry scene in Cardiff. He is currently writer-in-residence at HMP Parc, Bridgend, South Wales and teaches on the Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes MSc for the Metanoia Institute. In 2013 he became the first Writer-in-Residence at Swansea College of Medicine.

Graham has published widely, both poetry, papers on facilitation and co-translations from classical Chinese.


Selected Poems of the Three Caos (with Wu Fu-Sheng), The Commercial Press, Beijing, 2016

Selected Poems of Cao Zhi, (with Wu- Fu-Sheng), The Commercial Press, Beijing, 2014

Chroma, Hafan, Swansea, 2012.

A Winged Head, Parthian, Carmarthen, 2007.

The Poems of Ruan Ji, (with Wu Fu-Sheng) Zhonghua Book Company, Beijing, 2006

Cennau’s Bell (Selected Poems), The Collective Press, Abergavenny, 2005

Tilt (with Ric Hool and John Jones), The Collective Press, Abergavenny, 1996

Ruan Ji’s Island / (Tu Fu) In The Cities, Wellsweep Press, London, 1988

The Lives of the Saints, Read, Write, Create, Sutton, 1997

Turas, Red Sharks Press, Cardiff, 1988

Songs from the Purple Mountain, Spectacular Diseases, Peterborough, 1984











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