Featured Poem: Childhood Home by Lemn Sissay

Lemn and Jane 2 - c.Steve Wasserman RMSYL
Credit Steve Wasserman, http://readmesomethingyoulove.com

Last week’s Featured Poem previewed our latest RISE event with John Burnside and Rita Ann Higgins in Liverpool in association with Writing on the Wall and In Other Words, and this week we’re reflecting back on another brilliant RISE event which took place last month with Leigh and Wigan Words Together Festival with award winning poet, writer, broadcaster and patron of The Reader Organisation Lemn Sissay.

Lemn was In Conversation with Jane at an inspiring and moving public event in Wigan, and also visited HMP Hindley to read three of his poems to the young people there. Beforehand, the lads who got to see Lemn as part of RISE shared reading his poems with Get Into Reading Wigan Project Manager Val Hannan. She describes how, at first reluctant, they were well and truly taken on a journey to Planet Lemn while reading the poems and some great discussion was sparked.

You can read the whole of Val’s reflection on the young people at HMP Hindley and Lemn’s visit by heading to our RISE blog, but for our Featured Poem  we’re focusing on one of the pieces Lemn read at both of his RISE events, Childhood Home, and the reaction it got from the young men reading it for the first time.

The sense of sadness and isolation in the poem resonates further with their own situation.

‘The children nearby came to our secret garden/gazed at our mansion in disbelief

Either said they wished they lived here/Or that this was the den of the thief’

I ask them what they imagine the home to look like. One boy says ‘It’s like Harry Potter or something’ adding to this idea another boy chips in with ‘Yeah, it looks exciting, like you could have a laugh there’. ‘But it was our Narnia of food fights at midnight…’ adds weight to the initial image of this place as some Enid Blyton style boarding school or, in today’s context, J.K. Rowling’s ‘Hogwarts’ is the point of reference.

Keys begin to play a more ominous role in the poem and the boys pick up on this immediately:

 ‘But the rattle of rules and keys/Broke the magic – we all knew it couldn’t last…

The keys in cupboards, slamming security doors/Each child slowly retracts inside their self

Whispering ‘What am I being punished for?’

‘It’s like being in here’, someone says: ‘that’s all you can hear, the slamming of doors’. As we move further into the poem the sense of being unloved and unwanted causes the boys to reflect on their own situation. ‘Self-mutilation, screams and suicide/Of young people returned, return to sender…’ ‘At least we know we’ve got people who care about us when we get out of here, we’ve got somewhere to go,’ they all murmur in agreement.

Back on planet Lemn the boys see these poems come to life before their very eyes, they become even more powerful, even more explosive. I see them turn around to me or whisper ‘we did this one’ as they recognise the words of the poetry and hear them invested with new meaning. At first they are unsure how to react to Lemn, he is almost too crazy, they are not laughing with him but at him: ‘Are you on drugs?’ they ask; ‘Are you for real?’ ‘He’s off his head’ but as Lemn works his magic they warm to him and settle down for the ride. They laugh with genuine enjoyment and pleasure, they are keen to know more, hear more.

Childhood Home

The children nearby came to our secret garden
Gazed at our mansion in disbelief
Either said they wished they lived there
Or that this was the den of the thief
But it was our Narnia of food fights at midnight
Wet flannel battles in the halls
Fire extinguishers that lose their heads
We had nothing to lose – nothing at all

But the rattle of rules and keys,
Broke the magic – we all knew it couldn’t last
The alarm bells rang and rang and rang
In Emergency Break The Glass
And it’s no fun any more in here
The keys in cupboards, slamming security doors
Each child slowly retracts inside their self
Whispering ‘What am I being punished for?’

We’d been given booby-trapped time-bombs
Trigger wires hidden, strapped on the inside
It became a place of controlled explosions
Self-mutilation, screams and suicide
Of young people returned, return to sender
Midlit dorms of midnight’s moans
We might well have all been children
But this was never a children’s home

Lemn Sissay

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