2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Shivanee Ramlochan

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I am posting over the summer of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.

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Shivanee Ramlochan’s book is full of rebellions and unexpectedly, simultaneously manages to evoke the unholy trinity of Jean Rhys, Garcia Lorca and Garcia Marquez. But it’s not an easy read with its long lines of free verse transiting rapidly from person to person, place to place, from the demotic to the magical, from material to spiritual and the poems are also liberally peppered with Caribbean and Hindu references and allusions (many of which the likes of myself are going to have to look up). Ramlochan also invents many different characters, not giving all of them distinctively differing modes of speech but, in many ways, the (literally) presiding spirits here are the duenne and the soucouyant.

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Soucouyant

The former, in traditional terms, are spirits of children who died before they were baptized, who are fated to roam the forests of Trinidad, practicing their repertoire of dangerous pranks. They are sexless, their feet are turned backwards; they have no faces (though they have small round mouths) and they wear mushroom-shaped straw hats. The soucouyant is a shape-shifting Caribbean folklore character who appears as a reclusive old woman by day, but by night she adopts her true form as a fireball, flying across the sky in search of victims. These are outcasts, liminal figures with strange, threatening powers. Interestingly, Jean Rhys’ Antoinette, in Wide Sargasso Sea, is compared to a soucouyant and Ramlochan has spoken of Rhys’ character, “carrying her arsonist’s candle through the empty, cold halls of her oppressor’s mansion, ready to raze it to the ground”, as an important inspiration.

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Jean Rhys

As with Rhys, the oppressor/Rochester figure represents the status quo, the loaded dice of orthodoxy and patriarchal power, and so – in modern parlance – what Ramlochan is pursuing is the “subversion of the hetero-normative value system”. Accordingly, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love’ draws on a grandmother’s experiences as an illegal abortionist, often faced with the disapproval of society (the church especially): “They have called me many things between these aisles”. The facts of gender inequality are made clear because when “men aspire to terrible jobs, we offer them hushed respect”, whereas women doing the same are felt to deserve nothing more than an “acreage of sorrow”. The word “acreage” is picked up on. Its limited nature is explored, ironically, suggesting that even in their degrees of sorrow, the experiences of such marginal women are strictly limited: “Give her enough land to hang herself”.

minotaurThere is a sequence in the middle of the book which offers a clearer view of Ramlochan’s approach. ‘The Red Thread Cycle’, on the face of it, explores the traumatic consequences of rape. How to articulate the event is one theme and there is a magic-real quality which initially seems to add to the horror: “Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station. / Say you found yourself in the cave of the minotaur”. But this shifts quickly instead to reflect how police and authorities fail to take such a literal description seriously, even blaming the woman herself: “Say / he took something he’ll be punished for taking, not something you’re punished for holding / like a red thread between your thighs”. Other poems trace improvised rituals (real and semi-real) to expiate the crime and trace the passage of years. Some moments suggest the lure of suicide with allusions to Virginia Woolf’s death by water, carrying “pockets of white stones”. Seeing the unpunished rapist at large eventually becomes possible: “Nothing drowns you, when you see him again”. The sequence is a lot less chronological than I am making it sound, but what the woman has been doing over the years is, in a striking phrase, “working to train the flinch out of myself”. This has been achieved partly through art. Ramlochan certainly sees such pain as an essential part of the artist’s apprenticeship, that it will “feed your best verse”, and the sequence ends with her reading poems in public as an act of strength and self-affirmation, marking the psychic death of the aggressor: “applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy / is grating out gold halleluiahs / beneath the proscenium of his grave”.

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Lilith

But such possibly-biographical writing is not really typical of this book. Ramlochan transgresses beyond the confines of the Caribbean status quo by writing about her spirit figures who more easily and boldly express resistance. ‘Duenne Lorca’ seems to be an address to an unbaptised Caribbean Lorca-esque child. Like the Spanish poet, Ramlochan loves colour and a boldness of image almost to excess. The mother recalls how she “damped my dress with your purplish blood and rinsed you in the river, / stained my mouth / with the placenta of your leavings”. She rinses religion from his clothes each week and wishes him well in the forest he must haunt as an outcast but one who achieves freedoms unavailable within really existing society. It’s no surprise that Ramlochan is drawn to write about Lilith too, the Christian religion’s air-brushed female rebel. Even the Virgin Mary gets a poem, her character and role re-written as a jungle-haunting rebel, surviving weeks of deprivation. Eventually, she celebrates the “statues of the men who spoonfed us English [being] ground to glassine”. In this alternative history, the hoped-for liberation brought about by rebellion is successful: “We ate the words for marriage, for sacrament, for lawfully wed”.

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Kali

The collection opens with ‘A Nursery of Gods for my Half-White Child’ which – apart from sounding like a poem title from heaven to the likes of ACE – challenges the teaching of religion (Ganesh, Kali, Krishna, Saraswati) to children and tries to offer the freedom to invent and self-invent in its place. I think the book would have opened better with ‘All the Dead, All the Living’ which is a much more enjoyable, energetic, colloquial celebration of such freedoms of choice. Set at Jouvay or Carnival, the poem invites all and sundry to “play yourself / or somebody else”. More idealistic wish-fulfilment than serious life-coaching, this is a message of liberation – to play grandmother, mother, all the dead, the living, even a soucouyant – is infectious. In a blurb, Vahni Capildeo notes Ramlochan’s poetry’s resistance to having an “identity” forced upon it and she’s right that the poems wilfully refuse any easy, specific biographical reading. Towards the end of the book, poems are in the voices of gay men. ‘Crossdressing at Divali Nagar’ is a more quiet and tender poem than most in the book, as two boys dress and paint henna patterns on each other.

The final poem has the character Vivek naming his various male lovers after religious festivals (because his father had told him not to make love to “faggots”). Ramlochan’s challenge to orthodoxy is obviously working on several fronts here. Though narrated in the second person, the voice is really Vivek’s and it’s an impressive piece of sensual, tender and funny, ventriloquism. But the book’s last lines are full of the book’s more characteristic serious intent. A “glock” is a pistol and Vivek here seems to make a firm, final choice of his festival-named lover and in doing so manages to challenge patriarchy, religion, family, gender and what we might consider ‘nature’ all in one go:

The day you marry Hanukkah is a glock pointed to your father’s face.

You tell him

I am the queen

the comeuppance

the hard heretic that nature intended.

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Grenfell Tower Poems

 

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Several things coinciding . . . my last-but-one blog had Helen Mort wondering if cliché was an acceptable response to a vast and alien landscape (the Arctic) before which “linguistic originality can almost seem a little arbitrary”. Then, in the recent PN Review (May/June 2018 – No 241), there is a terrific essay by Kei Miller in which he is proposing a different kind of noise to more traditional English poetics which he characterises by using a passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day. Englishness, he argues, lies in a “lack of obvious drama or spectacle [. . .] a sense of restraint”; there is no need “to shout it”, there is a desire to avoid “unseemly demonstrativeness”. Miller goes on to explain how he found, in Grace Nichol’s 1982 collection, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, a far noisier, more playful, more liberated and liberating kind of voice, in contrast to the (still) prevailing “critical landscape [and] reviewing discourse that continues to heap accolades and praise onto poets for their restraint and their subtlety and their quietness, not stopping nearly enough to think how such praise can be racially loaded”.

651354Then I have been reading poems for Grenfell Tower (The Onslaught Press) and picking away at some link between the (in)adequacy of a certain English poetic voice to confront the scale of ecological issues, or as a vehicle for expressing certain cultural differences, or as a way of exploring the kind of tragic and grievous event represented by the Grenfell fire and its aftermath. This struck me particularly as, in the Grenfell anthology, there are well-know poets alongside others less well-known, plus some who felt impelled to write as a direct result of the catastrophe. I felt many of the more well-known names struggled to find a sufficient voice for this appalling event, often sounding too careful, overly subtle, perhaps too concerned with Mort’s “linguistic originality”. Does such a devastating, large scale, well publicised event require a different kind of voice from poets?

I hope it’s not invidious to make comments on poetic success or failure in an anthology intended to draw attention to the human victims and survivors of the fire (and through its sales to raise money for the Grenfell Foundation). The editor, Rip Bulkley, writes about compiling the anthology here.  But the struggle of artists to respond to such events is worth considering because it reflects how we might respond, or find it hard to respond, or find words for our responses. MP David Lammy’s Foreword to the book says that the Grenfell Tower fire exposes a tale of two cities – one with a voice, another without. Or rather, those in power continue to be deaf “to Grenfell’s voices and voices like them”. So this anthology is just one of many efforts to speak out, encouraging its readers to listen and “bear witness” and perhaps –  as Kei Miller suggests in a different context – such work needs greater volume and less quiet restraint. This is certainly reflected in the frequency with which bold repetitions and rough balladic forms are used in these poems and there is chanting too – less liturgical, more Whitehall demo, more football terrace.

imagesThe difficulties of addressing such a subject are expressed by Joan Michelson’s contribution which announces and extinguishes itself in the same moment: “This is the letter to the Tower / that I cannot write”. One of the best poems which does display evident ‘literary’ qualities is Steven Waling’s ‘Fred Engels in the Gallery Café’. It cleverly splices several voices or narratives together, one of these being quotes from Engels’ 1844 The Condition of the Working Class in England. Other fragments used allude to gentrification and the wealth gap in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Other poems, like Pat Winslow’s ‘Souad’s Moon’, focus on the presence of refugees in the Tower, or the role of the profit-motive in the disaster (‘High-Rise’ by Al McClimens), or the presence of an establishment cover-up after the event (Tom McColl’s ‘The Bunker’).

untitled 2But more often than not, these poets opt for more tangential routes to expression. Other disasters – such as Nero watching Rome burn, the 1666 Fire of London, the bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Aberfan disaster – prove ways in for Abigail Elizabeth Rowland, Neil Reeder, Margaret Beston and Mike Jenkins. The naivety and innocence of a child’s eye is another common device. Andrew Dixon’s ‘Storytime’ takes this approach, the child’s language and vision allowing simple but nevertheless powerful statements: “Mama don’t be afraid. Do you / want us to pray? I know what / to say. We’re both in a rocket / and we’re going away.” Finola Scott does the same with a Glasgow accent, a child staring from her own tower block home: “she peers doon at hir building, wunners / Whit’s cladding?’ A young life cut off before its full development by the fire is also the theme of two poems that refer to the death of Khadija Saye. She was a photographer who died in the blaze, whose work had been exhibited in Britain’s Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Michael Rosen’s contribution again uses childlike simplicity and obsessive repetition – as much representing a struggle to comprehend as the gnawing of realised grief:

 

In London W11

a school.

In the school

a room.

In the room

a chair.

A chair that is empty.

A chair that waits.

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Of course, there are also poems that take a more direct approach. The role of the firefighters recurs. Christine Barton’s poem is spoken by a local teacher, remembering Fire Brigade visits to her school and the tragic irony of their trying to rescue those same schoolchildren on the night of the fire. Andre Rostant – whose steelband practiced in the shadow of Grenfell Tower – addresses the fire-men as ‘The Heroes on the Stair’. And Ricky Nuttall was one of those men. A biographical note says he has been writing for many years, “as a coping mechanism for life and an expression of self”. We can be sure he would never have wished such an occasion to write about. He does so with devastating directness and authenticity about the facts of PTSD:

 

The silence of death

My smoke-stained hair

A hole in my soul

That will never repair

 

The feeling of failure

And pride that combine

To leave me confused

And abused in my mind

 

My lips wet with tears

I am lost    There’s no plan

Emotionally ruined

One broken man

 

It’s no surprise that – as a politically engaged, punk performance poet – Attila the Stockbroker gets the tone and noise level right. Most of his poem ventriloquises the uncaring voices of the Royal Borough’s council with his direct, angry protest against ‘Keeping Up Appearances’:

 

. . . it’s time to refurbish your building.

Not with fire doors, sprinklers and care

But with cladding to make it look nicer

So the rich can pretend you’re not there.
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Perhaps the most powerful poem here is by Nick Moss. He grew up in Liverpool but now lives in London. In the light of Kei Miller asking for a noisier, less restrained poetic sound, it’s interesting that Moss’ biog note tells us he performs regularly and continues to write because “if we keep shouting, eventually we’ll hear each other.” I don’t know if ‘Minimising Disruption’ is especially autobiographical, though it sounds like it (an earlier version of the poem can be found here). In it, memories of Ladbroke Grove music shops move on to song lyrics on the subject of murderers. Then Moss describes Grenfell, directly:

 

There are ‘Missing’ posters plastered all round Ladbroke grove.

The faces of the missing who are not-yet-officially-dead

 

The poem is powerful partly because it manages to tear its gaze away from the blackened stub of the Grenfell Tower to achieve some historical perspective, not to calm and reassure but to stoke the anger it so evidently feels. The poem recalls other, older song lyrics and then a comment made by John La Rose about the New Cross fire in 1981:

 

‘an unparalleled act of barbaric violence

against the black community’.

 

I guess history teaches us to be wary

Of words like ‘unparalleled’.
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However you read/judge the poems I’ve discussed and whether or not you think such a devastating, large scale, well publicised event as Grenfell requires a different kind of poetic voice, please buy a copy of this anthology – as I have said, all proceeds go to the Grenfell Foundation. Go straight to: The Onslaught Press or Amazon

PS. Myra Schneider, one of the poets included in this anthology has linked me to a later poem she wrote on this subject, published here.

 

 

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1: Richard Georges

This is the first in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique) and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing)

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books)

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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Many thanks to Shearsman Books for providing a copy of Richard Georges’ book for review purposes.

The seed if not the full, rich fruit of Richard Georges’ Make Us All Islands can be found in Derek Walcott’s 1979 poem ‘The Sea is History’. The mostly unwritten narrative of the Caribbean slave trade, the colonial and post-colonial experience of the transported peoples is the subject of Walcott’s poem: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / [. . .] Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is history”. Born in Trinidad and raised in the British Virgin Islands where he still lives, the sea is also the depository of the brutal struggles and stories of the Caribbean past for Richard Georges, though the ubiquity of the sea in these often painful, often very beautiful poems, means its symbolic burden deepens and broadens to something nigh-existential without losing any of its historical or political power.

To begin with, Georges makes poetry from some of the very few records that have survived. The words of one transported African – known by the name Abednego – lie at the heart of ‘Griot’. The poem title (pronounced gree-oh) is a West African word for a historian, storyteller, praise singer or poet and, placed at the opening of this book, is both a confident declaration of intent by the poet and an erasure of the Western tradition’s Homeric image of the bard. Rather than heroic military exploits or mythical wanderings, the “cross of the griot” is to “speak for the speechless, / to grip the stem of the bone and coral sceptre, / to be mounted, to sing light into the bleakness”. And the words of Abednego that come down to us turn out to be a dismally familiar, devastating precursor of the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement: “Abednego the griot, the spectre / speaks: In slav’ry days, the black man’s life count for nothing”.

 

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A griot

 

Poems like ‘Offering’, ‘Birth’ and ‘In the Moment Freedom Comes’ make some of those black lives count through re-deploying details of Spanish or Portuguese slave-ships wrecked or captured in Virgin Island waters. In the latter poem, the woman Ungobo languishes in the hold of the Atrevido until it is attacked by an English ship. But her sense of a liberation into sunlight and salt air seems brief if we give due weight to the concluding image in which the English sailors pluck the slave-ship’s cargo “from the hold like fishermen / clearing their traps”. Many of the figures focused on by Georges are survivors, the kind of “folk” who built the church for the community of liberated Africans in Tortola, Kingstown. Their dramatic survival from the wrecking of the slave-ships is vividly imagined:

 

Dream them gripping

snarling rocks as black sea claimed the broken hulk

of their prison. Amidst angry sea-spray coral

heads rise in watery light, their minds routeless,

home as far as Babylon

 

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Richard Georges

 

Likewise, George’s post-colonial figures are survivors too, of injustice and straitened economic circumstances. In ‘The Fisherman Measures Life’, the man’s labour and his rickety boat are un-romanticised in the steady-paced, long-lined tercets. This man carries with him a sense of the island’s history, recalling the “griefs” of the slave-ship Donna Paula, but his observations of nature prove no more consoling. Recalling the hunter/hunted imagery of the mid-twentieth century German poet Peter Huchel, the Fisherman watches seabirds chasing fish:

 

“It is much the same on land,” the fisherman thought.

Shark suited men sweat and chase American cash

like fishhooks, mouths transpierced with incandescent lures.

 

And in the end, he is as much a part of this brutal economy of hunter and hunted; as he pulls up his fishing pot, “its wooden frame comes to view / the cloudy depths dissolv[ing] in slippery shadows”.

Interestingly, in his recall of the wreck of the Donna Paula, the fisherman sees both “black and white hands” trying to survive. This is more than just a fleeting image in this book. Elsewhere, George carefully considers both “mariner and cargo”(‘The Heavy Anchor’) and this, alongside his concerns for survivors as much as fatalities, begins to transmute the rolling, destructive, slavering image of the sea in poem after poem into an elemental force (while still representative of historical/political forces), becoming one of the conditions of human life more generally. The opening section from ‘Proverb’ puts this succinctly: “God / fashion man / from mud / and put him / right back / when he / done.” This is a sentiment to make even Beckett’s pessimistic view – that we are born astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more – look sanguine. So the body of rooster lies rotting on a river bank; a stone lies in the water.

 

The stone smoothed by flood or famine if asked

could tell of slave and tsunami, or of when it was

a rough rock perched on the hillside

 

and a radiant rooster crowed

 

In the vivid and fertile Caribbean landscape, time passes and erodes; death dominates. Here are the key words from the tiny lyric ‘Light Sound Land’: deafening, spat, lose, scatter, bending, splinter, lose, bowing, shrinking, din. The sea is usually the agent of these grim conditions and the book’s title – make us all islands – emerges not as a plea, imperative or warning but as a resigned statement of fact, the consequence of the conditions in which we live.

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The title phrase appears in ‘At the Waterside’, a brilliant, sustained, survivor’s meditation in 5 parts, drawing together many of the themes in the collection. The sequence has an unusually clear and stable lyric ‘I’, a man who sits watching ferries arrive on the Virgin Islands. Unlike the “white-capped tourists” (but like the Fisherman), the narrator sees the present day through the lens of history or, to be more precise, the general neglect of the island’s history. The authorities prefer to construct “concrete totems where [the island’s] cedars groan”. But for the narrator:

 

It is here where the Empire unravels, crumbling

in Ozymandian ruin – preserving only

an ancient anger held by hands burnt black in sun.

 

Perhaps it’s the same fisherman here who sails perilously out to Buck Island, to where “sparkling blues betray the reef’s lying rocks”. The narrator twice cryptically insists that “something greater” covers the fisherman. It is partly history (the clouds hang like “ghosts of slaves”) but also (and in a poetic defiance of gravitational logic) it is the ocean itself, the “whipping waters”, an omnipresence in these poems, suggesting that, whether mariner or cargo, all individuals are both authored and erased by the sea.

 

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Buck Island

 

When you buy this book, I suggest you begin by reading the final poem, ‘Oceans’. Here too the sea is “effervescent” with history – “the bones // of slaves, of sailors” – but it also represents a more existential “abyss consuming even light in its depth”. Here is Richard Georges reading from this poem. The narrator demands to know what language might express it, how it may be securely held. The ocean also lies in the lover’s body: “And so we all remain. Divided. / Like the shores of islands”. To counter-balance such division and alienation, the little poem ‘Draining’ suggests one of humanity’s constituent drives is “a life / desperate to drink / the air outside of / us”. The metaphor is quickly switched; what runs through us is a river intent on returning to the sea. In ‘Mural’, a second ‘griot’ figure in a bar directs the poet to watch a turtle rolling and turning in the ocean. The man in the bar is a seer. Like the Fisherman and like the narrator of ‘At the Waterside’ too, what he sees is the “writhing mural / of hope and history / always carrying on”.

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The stoic instinct to hope emerges in these poems as powerfully as the poet’s instinct to speak. Perhaps surprisingly, what remains with me after reading Make Us All Islands is the great beauty of Richard Georges’ language and verse. Battered by the power of his literal and symbolic ocean he humbly suggests the difficulties of articulation, imagining only a “broken book of poems”. But time and time again, he successfully evokes the light and dark of past and present and he takes on the “cross of the griot”. The rightness of each word and line-break in the poem ‘A Place in the Earth’ is a case in point:

 

The dumb bodies

lie like leaves

in the dirt.

 

Death drags

the drying lips back

drawing mouths

into snarls

 

bracing the teeth

against the whistling

flute of the throat.

 

The living

philosophise

over the bones

 

while the yellow love

laughs from the trees

above.