Issue 26: Sam Buchan-Watts

Sounds Inside

      (For Matthias Connor)

                    a private moment

                                                splintered with observation                                              

I am overhearing a documentary on Radio 4 about music cultures in UK prisons, listening to the friend I am currently living with, a medical professional at the local prison, listen

as he tries to manage the weekend kitchen, clearing up after his boisterous child, the clamour of clutter re-joining the kitchen’s ambience, his son

has opted not to harass him while I am in the living room, one of two living rooms I might choose from, where I amble about in order to linger

longer than I would if I was in there with him, talking idly so as to avoid his son’s chaotic attention, and discover that my friend likes the programme more than I anticipate, given

what he’s seen and heard, how left-to-die the industry is in the broader hierarchy of attention, and notice that my friend’s rhythm in the house as the owner – though I want to qualify this

with the conditions unique to him: part-owner, late in life, no help, etcetera – is different from mine as lodger, and the over-identification with the family I feel

in my satellite proximity, a position that feels precarious though well intentioned, demonstrable love offset with what’s pragmatic – a balance we all, by degrees, manage, though my friend

is invested more than most in alternative kinship in a lived way, indeed, has been more present this year than any member of my family, and – since this isn’t about me – he truly believes

that medical aid be provided indiscriminately, a fact not distinct from why he’s dedicated so much time to working in prisons, why he has begun to see so much life

in terms of structure, during the irregular time off he gets for childcare – the rhythm of the supermarket on weekday afternoons, the gym in which toddlers trampoline

supervised behind nets for fifteen-minute periods, with its smell of socks, I suppose, the baptist church perched awkwardly on a double roundabout, its Monday playgroup

costing a few pounds, his mortgage, with its morbid scaling and punitive fees, paid for by his work at the prison, this all being, broadly speaking, a means of organising experience,

which would be a convenient basis for a poem, the space articulated between my listening and his, the interaction of domesticity and kinship, a diagram

of listening, the threshold between inner and outer ear, levels of sound and significance, but all of this might complicate the simple fact I am listening

more to my friend, whose working life is unique among the people I know, than to the documentary and the reflections he makes afterwards because, though he does his best

not to bring the prison home with him, I have felt it hardening his world, even if I hesitate to say it hardens him, a world where inmates frequently attack the healthcare staff, whose ear

is the only ear available in an environment in which my friend is forbidden to walk more than ten steps with a set of keys in hand, where a door must be closed newly each time

it is walked through, a disingenuous response to corrupting violence, a man smokes spice through a ventolin inhaler but sleeps with it lit, waking with a polyester football

shirt burned to his body, a proximity of atrocity I find profound, take special pride in telling people about my friend, hearing their attention lift, feeling the contour

of their ear, their voice going sombre, hop the fence between responsible inquiry and a rawer curiosity, meanwhile

two men in a prison in South London are so fearful of leaving their shared cell they listen to the radio all day, which is transportive, without the inclination to read in it

a poem, in a built environment in which there are no lie-ins, where the ear is, as Lacan says, the only orifice that cannot be closed, though I am not convinced Lacan considered the status

of the orifice in prison, where you might use a phone supplied by Samaritans, but it has to be requested and delivered and men have to be resourceful, boil baked

beans in a kettle, one inmate in London crushes biscuit and hoovers it up in a multifaith chapel just to hear the difference in sound, to carve out space in which he might hear

what, I don’t know, textural difference, transformation, something that necessarily I cannot get near, though I can go in and see my friend, forgo our habitual speech acts and hold him

to me, awkwardly, yet choose to make do with the sound of his pottering, that he is brewing a second pot of coffee this late in the morning

Sam Buchan-Watts is the author of Faber New Poets 15 and co-editor, with Lavinia Singer, of Try To Be Better (Prototype, 2019), a creative-critical engagement with W. S. Graham and ‘an open invitation to think variously with and through the responsibilities of responsive reading’ (Kate Briggs). He is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ Award for Poetry (2019).

In 2018 he undertook a fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art. A pamphlet, Cloud Study, is published by If a Glyph Falls and he has recently published his debut collection Path Through Wood with Prototype (2021).

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