A review of Blood from Stone

Reviewed by Ken Smeaton

Blood from Stone
Pentridge Workshop Collective
Softcover, 129 pages, reissue

In the 1980’s I took part in Poetry workshops at Melbourne’s notorious Pentridge Prison begun as an initiative by a group of Northern Division prisoners. The innovative workshops were instigated by The Melbourne Poets Union and coordinated by poet Rosemary Nissen. The project ran for two years and from the workshops came a noteworthy collection of poetry by the prisoners called Blood From Stone. 

The collection is an eye opener, poems made in an environment of incarceration and punishment about life ‘Inside’. About jail, about being a prisoner and the fear and danger of prison life. Most of the poems are coruscating and angry and explore issues of life inside, of loss and anger, pleading for real justice and rehabilitation, often displaying a hard wisdom learnt at the hands of corrupt and cruel prison officers.  However, most people imprisoned are there for very serious crimes, we hear arguments that prisons are there to rehabilitate when in actual fact the sole purpose of prisons is to punish. As a text on Humanities this book should be read and studied by all High School students, as a deterrent to any thought of a life of crime.

Many of Melbourne’s accomplished poets took part and for the prisoners the twice-weekly workshops provided an enjoyable break from the tedium and routine of prison life. The men were not asked or questioned about their crimes or the reasons for their imprisonment; some spoke freely of their history while others did not. Above all the empathy and trust between the men and the visiting poets provided the bridge to proceed. The dozen or so Poetry Workshop members and poets worked on their writing and within a year presented their poetry to the world in Blood from Stone. The brilliant cover design by Allan Williams aligns directly with the intellectual and emotional power that is present in some people who for whatever crime are imprisoned. At the end some had no interest in continuing while a few talented men upon their release continued writing and found a place in the poetry community and some had their work accepted and published in respected literary magazines.

Blood From Stone is an important document dealing with the effects of punishment in a country that looked away from appeals for justice and proper rehabilitation of the cruel Australian prison system. Pentridge Prison was a fearful institution and in my lifetime was the site of the last man hung in Australia for his crimes. My nervous sense of apprehension going into the prison was allayed by the professional and non-judgemental approach of the coordinator and visiting poets. Contact with the men inside who for their sins were nevertheless grateful for this significant opportunity to be able to relate, to think and feel free (for a few hours once a week) from their daily oppressive regime.

Having only recently re-read Blood From Stone, just re-issued in a new edition, I was impressed: the quality of the writing produced by the workshop members stands the test of time. There is nothing ‘nice’ however in the topics covered. Anger, loneliness, drugs, sex, violence, frustration, mindless repetition, depression, regret and suicide are leading topics.  Regardless of the topic many of the poems therein are clever and interesting like the poetry published in the established literary magazines of the day. In the end Blood From Stone is an integral document of the long and painful struggle for reform of the corrupt and cruel history of the Australian penal system. 

In 1997 H M Pentridge Prison finally closed ending the cruel and inhumane mindset condoned within its bluestone walls and is no more. What lives on are documents like this book.  For all our sins Blood From Stone pleads its case, we may be criminals deserving punishment but we are still human beings deserving basic respect. While the guilty are subject to a cruel, cowardly and corrupt warden clique and located behind iron bars and locks and long sentences, imagination and poetical inspiration remains free and unbound.

The book is available from the publisher’s website www.nissen-wade.com

About the reviewer: Kenneth Smeaton was born in Ballarat and has a forty plus year influence in the Melbourne open poetry movement. He continues to produce his Real Poetry Movies and is the author of White Sheet, Street Poetry Lab, 1982; Real Face Abalone Press, 1987; Cooooeee Street, Poetry Lab, 1987; Nightclub Poetry Audio Anthology, Street poetry Lab, 1989; Love Poet Live, Eaglemont Press, 2002; Voice Box – a suite of Ken’s poems translated into ten languages.