Organ Harvest by Damian Robin, published by Fulton Verse, 2018. Read three sonnets from the work here. 

by James Sale

Damian Robin is well known to readers of the Society of Classical Poets web pages.  His poetry is frequently published there, as are his comments on others’ poetry; and also, like myself he is on the SCP Advisory Board and is a Brit! I should add, however, that although we live in a small country, he lives in the north and I live in the south, and we have never met; we are not part of a Brit cartel or part of a mutual self-congratulation society.

Organ Harvest is a very ambitious collection of some 33 poems (coincidentally, perhaps, a Dantean-sized collection, certainly for the hell which he delineates) which explore a theme very dear to the SCP as a whole: namely, the forced removal of human organs from prisoners of conscience in China. I need hardly say, then, that his whole collection makes for arresting and gruesome reading, and there is actually no let-up in its relentless pace and intensity. If you wanted something light-hearted and beautiful, then this is not the collection for you. But before considering the merits of the poetry per se, one needs to comment on the quality of the book production itself, since it is noteworthy.

Damian Robin has a background in typography, typesetting and print-making stretching back to the 1970s, and his wife, Katya Robin, is the design artist. This all makes for a minimalist but effective and lovely book: everything seems freshly laid out and clear, and it is very easy to read. Which I like. The proofing has been done meticulously and I could find only one tiny, tiny error: on page 10 the word “anquish” should be “anguish,” but most people would hardly notice such a slip. So for those who treasure high production value books, then this one is for you.

So what about the poetry? This is a condensed and extremely powerful collection of poems, exploring from several different angles, the harvesting of human organs in China. These angles include the effect of the harvesting on the victims, the recipients of the organs, the doctors, the managers and workers (“Staff discuss the project”), and even governments. On that latter point, Robin certainly ensures the UK government gets plenty of flak in its collusion with, or failure to speak out against, this dreadful practice. His poem, “Where’s the bodies?,” based on actual official documentation of what happens in Westminster, is a model of savage exposure, as layer by layer Robin exposes the humbug and hypocrisy of Sir Alan Duncan, the erstwhile Minister of State at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

And this leads on to another observation about this poetry: the amount of research that Robin has done in order to write this book, including research by Nobel Peace prize nominated researchers. And so the facts all feed the passion, abhorrence and denunciation that lay at the root of this collection. Robin is using poetry as Dryden might have done over 300 years ago, to attack the powers-that-be and to stand up for truth and justice.

Perhaps, too, as we might expect, alongside the different angles and perspectives, Robin uses a variety of forms as well. In this he is most inventive. There is an epigraphic poem before the contents page, “a.” Here there are two innovations. First, the letter “a” is in red typeface as the anaphoric letter starting every line. Second, it is our first letter and a ubiquitous vowel, so that there is a sense as we read the poem of the bloody horror being built up line by line, detail by detail, until we reach the final line, which breaks away from the anaphora, to leave us with one word: “today.” But here the “a” too is in red, and so we are brought up to the moment and still the blood is being spilt – today. (Notice, too, the subliminal fact that in “today” that following the blood red “a” is the letter “y,” or is that the homophone “why”?)

One of the best things about this collection is Robin’s ability to conjure up some memorable phrases that exactly express the issue involved:

“… Smelling disinfected floors / won’t mop her mind.”  from “The transplant assistant”

“…She bulges with contortion, / wants one more heart abortion.”  from “Her heart”

“…conscience rots like clots in a vagina” from “Dead weight”

“… moral snails …” from “Wet media”

There is in all this, as I hope the four brief quotations makes clear, a genuine horror about what is going on in China, and the poet’s language gets to the nub of the matter so powerfully that we almost don’t want to read it. In other words, as political poetry, this is highly successful writing (though sadly in the West does anyone read poetry, apart from academics who get paid to do it?)

My favourite poem in this collection, however, is “A trapped surgeon says what he does.” This is one of many sonnets Robin writes within the book, and it captures beautifully the dilemma of those with a conscience, aware they are doing wrong, but fearful of what will happen to them if they resist the Party will. There is, as the whole collection makes crystal clear, no easy solution, no easy escape from the dilemmas that this practice throws up.

Finally, these poems have been well crafted and highly impactful. But there is one small blemish in the writing that I would draw attention to: namely, the occasional grammatical solecism that just slightly detracts from the force of a powerful line. For example, in “Beauty in a butcher’s shop,” the concluding couplet, whilst good, is slightly marred:

“In fact, hard truth is hard to bear and take,
but beauty must have Truth, or else mistake.”

As I see it, the verb “mistake” is transitive and so requires an object: what does it mistake? But it is being used here intransitively, which feels as if the exigencies of the rhyme have overridden the grammar, but not justifiably so. It is a small correction, but I think the poetry would be even more powerful were this solecism not there.

It should be clear from all I have written about Robin’s poetry that this is a fine, passionate, committed collection. If you care about forced organ donor removal, Chinese politics, and man’s inhumanity to man (and woman), you will find this a treasure trove. But as I said before: it is bleak, it is unremitting, and there are no laughs or easy moments along the way. Earlier I mentioned Dryden as a political poet, and here perhaps as I sum up it would be good to draw a distinction between the kind of political verse that Damian Robin writes and that of Dryden. Both of course are committed, but often Dryden’s poetry involved irony and satire – essentially, he mocked his political opponents and it was the fact that the whole of London could mock them too, as a result of what they read, from which the poetry drew its strength. Robin has eschewed that methodology. Instead, what he has done is pile detail on detail, insight on insight, and really taken a huge cudgel with which to bludgeon the oppressors to death! In the long run I suspect that being earnest is less effective than generating laughter, but that said, this is a pretty substantial achievement and I salute Damian Robin for it.

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5 Responses

  1. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Mr. Sale is an intrepid literary critic. He analytically goes to places most would fear to tread. He has reviewed Frederick Turner’s “Apocalypse” and Frederick Glaysher’s “The Parliament of Poets”, as well as “Sonnets for Christ the King” by Joseph MacKenzie and poems from “Formal Complaints”, Masquerade”, and “Skirmishes” by Joseph Salemi. And now he has reviewed Damian Robin’s “Organ Harvest”. I am thankful Mr. Sale has alerted us to Mr. Robin’s brave foray into a “burning issue” of our time, “the forced removal of human organs from prisoners of conscience in China.”

    Mr. Sale points out that “Organ Harvest” is a collection of 33 poems, and because of his own attempt at a poem linked to Dante, notes a similar linkage here. But having read some of Mr. Robin’s poems, including the three suggested for perusal here, I do not find Dante’s “Inferno” here. In fact, I daresay I have read no English writer who achieves the fineness of Dante’s hendecasyllabic terza rima. T. S. Eliot once proffered Shelley as the writer in English who most closely approaches his lucidity; perhaps, but the chasm between those two writers is a yawning abyss. The poems of “Organ Harvest” that I have read do not remind me of Dante at all, except peripherally in some of the Italian’s writer’s imagery. Instead, Mr. Robin’s “gruesome…relentless” poems are more reminiscent of German Modernists, like Rilke, Heym, but especially Gottfried Benn, as in “Morgue”.

    Reply
  2. Jame Sale

    Thanks BS – these are helpful references. To clarify two things, though: one, I hope the review does not suggest that Robin and Dante are stylistically similar, for clearly they are not. The similarity is in the topic of being in hell. And second, I certainly am not ‘projecting’ into the poem because I myself have a Dante project on the go. You will notice, for example, in the review of JC Mackenzie I make a lot of the fact that there are 77 sonnets – exactly half of Shakespeare’s 154. This is because I am genuinely interested in numerology. Sometimes, of course, writers use numbers accidentally; other times the numbers are deliberate, and in the case of JC Mackenzie, highly meaningful. I allude to the 33 in Robin’s collection without necessarily saying it is the case that he specifically alludes to Dante (although the Inferno has 34). It’s a reflection rather than a statement of fact, and I hope you an accept it that way. Thanks again.

    Reply
  3. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    1. Rest assured, I did not think Mr. Sale said other than what he did say, but he did bring up Dante.

    2. I have read Mr. Robin’s poetry here @ SCP for some time, but I have never thought of Dante when reading his poetry. I do wish him moderate success in his finely packaged, brutally frank “Organ Harves͡t”.

    3. If memory serves me correct, of all the poems of Mr. Robin that I have read, it is his “Conversations with a Chinese Language Partner from the Confucius Institute” that I most admire; yet, I admit I am even more impressed that he has brought to print the difficult subject matter of “Organ Harves͡t”.

    3. I also must admit that, although I am extremely interested in mathematics and measure, numerology per se has little interest for me, nor does the fact that Mr. MacKenzie wrote 77 sonnets in “Sonnets for Christ the King” seem “highly meaningful”, at least no more than, say, the 33 poems in “Organ Harves͡t”.

    4. I have never been to Ravenna, but when Mr. Sale announced his trip to there, I must admit I was a bit excited for him, as I remember my own trip to Florence; so back in the Spring I wrote this poem, after Byron’s rather verbose meandering when he was in Ravenna.

    The Tomb of Dante
    by Buceli da Werse
    for James Sale

    Next to the grand Basilica of San Francesco in
    Ravenna, Italy, one can discover Dante’s tomb.
    Though not as sumptuous as is the Florence cenotaph,
    it is kept up with love and care, a red rose on its urn.
    A quiet, empty lane leads to the Neoclassic place,
    a bright, light, simple mausoleum covered with a dome.
    The final home, a humble space, not easy to discern,
    a little laugh, a touch of gloom, a distance from the din.

    On Via Alighieri in the shadows of the day,
    the poet’s still remembered in the base relief display.
    Within the ages which before me pass, I shall assume,
    far from Apelles and great Phidias, art shall resume,
    that held in Hellas Grecian forms and Roman souls as well,
    who haunt Ravenna’s streets and rooky groves in Dante’s spell.
    Some pass each day where Dante’s bones are laid, as pass some must,
    a cupola more neat than solemn that protects his dust.

    5. Back then, in Spring, I also remembered a couple of poems on Ravenna by Hermann Hesse, from when I was studying German literature decades ago in Heilbronn; so I wrote the following poem as an argument against Hesse’s depressing tone in those two poems.

    Ravenna, After Hermann Hesse
    by Alberdi Ucwese

    I’ve not been in Ravenna; it is not a small, dead town.
    Although I’ve read of it in books, I have not walked around.
    A thousand-year’s weight sits in churches; birds hop on the grass;
    mosaics don the monumental walls, somebody laughs.
    One-hundred-fifty-thousand move about its streets and stores;
    each listens and reflects, in noon or night, old songs it scores.
    Off from the mausoleums and the baptistery rooms,
    there’s pizzas, piadina, salad, pasta and ragout.
    Beyond basilicas and chapels, even Dante’s tomb,
    there’s red wines sparkling, fresh fish caught, beneath an airy blue.

    Alberdi Ucwese is a poet of Italy.

    6. I do hope Mr. Sale will keep up his work in poetry and literary criticism, even if he is not as appreciated as he perhaps wishes he were; for in his varied endeavours he does bring things to light.

    Reply
  4. James Sale

    Thanks BS – points 1-2 noted and good. As for point 3 there is so much to say! But the simplest thing for now is simply to return to Dante and observe how 3 is important: the 3 sections, and 3-line stanza and other uses of three which mimetic ally reflect the blessed Trinity, the divine number of completion. Indeed, a beginning, a middle and an end is in 3 parts. So 3 becomes structurally and symbolically important, and Dante uses this fact. So, too, the number 7 has other properties. Of course, in terms of my review, you may be right: perhaps Robin did not use 3 in this way, but as I said, I reflected on it by way of passing, as I often do. My next book that I am reviewing FYI contains 88 poems. Does that mean anything? We’ll see! On point 4 – thank you – I do appreciate your writing this for me and it did recall memories of my trip to Ravenna. So this is wonderful. As I have said before, your writings are a joy, and if ever there be a collection of them I’d love to review it. On point 5 I love the sentiment – resisting the morbid – and love the poem’s airy tone and atmosphere: quite exquisite – thank you. And finally, you now are the one venturing – into my psychology! But you know I make no bones about it: I like and want appreciation. And I actually think that those who say they don’t are either lying to us or lying to themselves. That said, it’s also important to establish that I am not co-dependent on appreciation or praise; it’s good to get it, but I can live without it, and furthermore, it won’t affect my literary judgement. If I am bringing things to light, then that is a good thing; I think you are too, BS. Most people contributing to SCP are as well. Let’s hope that all the positive and well intentioned people, all of us struggling to be more creative, do not get side-tracked by serpents in the garden who wish to poison life for everybody and turn brothers against sisters, and seek – like Sauron – to control all poetic life on Middle Earth.

    Reply

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