Featured Poem: Class Zero by Inua Ellams

This October sees the start of the RISE (Reading in Secure Environments) partnership between The Reader Organisation and five literature festivals across the UK, bringing a range of contemporary writers to readers in secure criminal justice and mental health settings. Over the coming weeks, we will be previewing the events by featuring work by the RISE authors on The Reader Online. 

First in the series is ‘Class Zero’ by Inua Ellams. Inua will be visiting the Gardener Unit in Prestwich Hospital – one of a number of medium secure Adolescent Forensic units across the country providing highly specialised care in a secure environment for boys 11-18 years of age – during the Manchester Literature Festival. Introducing the poem is Damian Taylor, Reader-in-Residence with Greater Manchester West Mental Health Trust. Damian reads weekly with groups in HMP Styal and Prestwich Hospital, including the Gardener Unit. 

Last week was the 11th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news? I was finishing lunch and about to head to my A-Level English class. The poem Class Zero tells the story of where Inua Ellams was: ‘Double class after lunch is maths lesson’.

An apparently playful scrap breaks out between Inua and his friend where ‘small fists like soft rubble rain on the buildings of our bodies – limbs like metal beams twist under the dust clouds of voices, billow upwards and outwards, continuously’ until the teacher arrives and tells ‘how ten minutes ago, two planes were flown into the World Trade Centre, calls it “America’s worst nightmare” and sinks into silence we take for despair’.

Having read the poem through, I ask if anyone in the group remembers where they were when the towers fell. In the silence it strikes me that most of the lads I am reading with are the same age now that Inua was at the time of the attacks:

‘We are sixteen. All we care of beyond these four walls are Pamela Anderson / Snoop Dogg / and the tingle of taste buds before a pint of Guinness. With no frame of reference this is new’.

What do you care about beyond these four walls? I ask.

I get various replies including, nothing, football, and Eminem. The Chaplin, who has sat with us this week, tells us how he was working in a London Hospital at the time of the 7/7 attacks. Another staff member mentions JFK and the boys look at him blankly. We have lost our frame of reference again.

Suddenly one of the boys says, ‘It’s something to do with growing up. Realising that sh*t happens that is bigger than you. You aren’t in a bubble, where it didn’t mean much.’ Does it mean anything now, I ask. He repeats the poems final line:  ‘The most muddled day […] I agree, “me too”’.

‘Years pass’ and we are brought into the present, into a conversation in which we are all free to find our own frames of reference as we try to bridge the gaps between memory and feeling.

Class Zero

Double class after lunch is maths lesson. I walk in impeccably dressed
in uniform till James Cannon, my best friend, whose wit is swift as
comets, announces to the class: “Inua has a minus area” – that’s the
mathematical term for a black hole. I jump over the table, grab James
in a headlock, grind my knuckles into the crown of his skull till his
knees buckle. He screams, calling others into our mock scuffle and the
class becomes a mass fray, where small fists like soft rubble rain on the
buildings of our bodies –limbs like metal beams twist under the dust
clouds of voices, billow upwards and outwards, continuously /

till the maths teacher, suddenly there, pissed calls for order. Dust
settles. In the debris of rough shirts, upturned chairs, she demands
to know the culprit of the fray. But in the calamity just passed, we’ve
grown together like a family of dust boys, so no one calls my name /

She shrugs and tells how ten minutes ago, two planes were flown into
the World Trade Center, calls it ‘America’s worst nightmare’ and sinks
into a silence we take for despair. We return her news with blank stares.
We are sixteen. All we care of beyond these four walls are Pamela
Anderson / Snoop Dogg / and the tingle of taste buds before a pint of
Guinness. With no frame of reference, this is new /

I leave school puzzled, into our living room, find my father huddled
around the television, mother paces back and forth. The atmosphere
is horror laced with disbelief, I sit cross legged towards the t.v. screen,
lean into the footage played over again: two planes / crash into
buildings. Instant rubble rains off, the metal beams twist under the dust
clouds and fire, billow upwards and outwards, continuously /

till they suddenly fall. Dust settles. In the debris of torn lives and
upturned worlds, the news reader calls for the culprit of the fray, but
pauses to say how from Ground Zero, New York spawned a new race of
people – survivors of the day, concrete powdered to one tone of grey /

Years pass, I date a girl called Sara, ask what she did as the towers fell,
she say it was her birthday, she blew out her candles as the fires swelled,
the most muddled day she’d been through, I agree ‘me too’ /

Inua Ellams

Class Zero is taken from Candy-Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars (Flipped Eye, 2011) by Inua Ellams, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

For more information on the RISE programme of events, visit our website – and watch out for the dedicated RISE blog, coming in October.

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