‘Sis, you gotta let go’: on Mona Arshi’s ‘Dear Big Gods’

9781786942159In a recent launch reading for her second collection, Dear Big Gods (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019), Mona Arshi suggested it was a book she wrote only reluctantly. Her first book, Small Hands (2015), had at its centre a number of poems in memory of her brother, Deepak, who died unexpectedly in 2012. On her own admission, these new poems continue to be imbued with this grief and – though poets surely always write the book that needs to be written – there is a sense that the development of the new work has been stalled by such powerful feelings. My 2015 review of Small Hands saw Arshi as “an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences”. The influences I had in mind then were literary rather than personal, but I find the lack of distance travelled between the earlier and this more recent work rather disappointing.

In fact, Deepak’s death is the explicit subject on only a few occasions. The poem ‘When your Brother Steps into your Piccadilly, West Bound Train Carriage’ isn’t much longer than its own title but it evokes that familiar sense of (mis-)seeing our dead in a public place. The emotions remain raw, from the accusatory “how-the-fuck-could-you?” to the final “I am sorry, I’m so sorry”. A dream or daydream meeting is also the basis for ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’ in which the brother’s affectionate tone advises, “Sis, you gotta let go / of this idea of definitive knowledge”. ‘Five Year Update’ is by far the most extended of these reflections on the brother’s passing, written in very long raking lines (rotated 45 degrees to stretch vertically on the page). “I hope it’s fine to contact you”, it opens and goes on to recall the moment the news of his death was received (see also ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ from Small Hands), remembers their childhood together and the sister’s continuing life: “I’ve gone down one lump not two, I still don’t swim and yes I still can’t / take a photograph”.

how-to-grow-arum-lilyAs the blurb suggests, these poems are indeed “lyrical and exact exploration[s] of the aftershocks of grief”. But ‘Everywhere’ adopts a little more distance and develops the kind of floating and delicate lyricism that Arshi does so well. The absent brother/uncle is still alluded to: “We tell the children, we should not / look for him. He is everywhere”. As that final phrase suggests, the rawness of the grief is being transmuted into a sense of otherness, beyond the quotidian and material. It’s when Arshi takes her brother’s advice and lets go of “definitive knowledge” that her poems promise so much. ‘Little Prayer’ might be spoken by the dead or the living, left abandoned, but either way it argues a stoical resistance: “I am still here // hunkered down”. In a more conventional mode, ‘The Lilies’ develops the objective correlative of the flowers suffering from blight as an image of a spoliation that hurts and reminds, yet is allowed to persist: “I let them live on / beauty-drained / in their altar beds”.

Like so many first books, Small Hands experimented with various poetical forms. This book also – a bit wilfully – tries out tanka, poems in two columns, right justification, centre justification, ghazals, inter-cut texts, prose poems, a sestina, an Emily Dickinson parody and responses to Lorca and The Mahabharata. They don’t all work equally well and Arshi perhaps senses this in lines like these:

 

My little bastard verses

tiny polyglot faces

how light you are

how virtually weightless

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The irony may be that this sort of form and reach actually does show Arshi at her best. The sequence of tiny poems modelled on Lorca’s ‘Mirror Suite’ (1921-1923) is fascinating. Jerome Rothenburg, discussing Lorca’s poems, describes them as possessing “a coolness & (sometimes) quirkiness, a playfulness of mind & music that I found instantly attractive”. These same qualities – as with Lorca, a version of surrealism, a firm but gentle turning aside from “definitive knowledge” – I enjoy in Arshi’s work as she explores states of the heart and realms of knowledge not ordinarily encountered or encompassed. Dear Big Gods contains other such Lorca-esque sequences such as ‘Autumn Epistles’, ‘Grief Holds a Cup of Tea’ and ‘Let the Parts of the Flower Speak’ and these are far more interesting than the poems drawn from The Mahabharata or the experiments in prose.

31BzXZVhekL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Arshi’s continuing love affair with ghazals also seems to me to be an aspect of this same search for a form that holds both the connected and the stand-alone in a creative tension. ‘Ghazal: Darkness’ is very successful with the second line of each couplet returning to the refrain word, “darkness”, while the connective tissue of the poem allows a roaming through woods, soil, mushrooms and a mother’s praise of her daughters. Poems based on – or at least with the qualities of – dreams also stand out. The doctor in ‘Delivery Room’ asks the mother in the midst of her contractions, “Do you prefer the geometric or lyrical approach?” In ‘The Sisters’ the narrator dreams of “all the sisters I never had” and within 10 lines Arshi has expressed complex yearnings about loneliness and protectiveness in relation to siblings and self.

Given the traumatic disruption of her own, it’s no surprise that Arshi’s most frequently visited subject area is family relationships. I’ve referred to several of these poems already and ‘Gloaming’ floats freely through the fears of losing a child, the care of an ageing father, a mother “entering/leaving through a narrow lintel” and the recall of the “thick soup of our childhood”. The soup works well both as literal food stuff and as metaphor for the nourishing, warming milieu of an up-bringing, though the girl who looks up at the end of the poem is already exploring questions of identity. She asks, “where are you from, what country are we in?” Given Arshi’s own background – born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London – such questions have obvious autobiographical and political relevance, though I sense Arshi herself is also asking questions of a more spiritual nature.

220px-Shiva_Musée_Guimet_22971So, in ‘My Third Eye’, the narrator is “more perplexed than annoyed” that her own third eye – the mystical and esoteric belief in a speculative, spiritual perception – has not yet “opened”. The poem’s mode and tone is comic for the most part; there is a childish impatience in the voice, asking “Am I not as worthy as the buffalo, the ferryman, / the cook and the Dalit?”. But in the final lines, the holy man she visits is given more gravitas. He touches the narrator’s head “and with that my eyes suddenly watered, widened and / he sent me on my way as I was forever open open open”. The book also closes with the title poem, ‘Dear Big Gods’, which takes the form of a prayer: “all you have to do / is show yourself”, it pleads. The delicate probing of Arshi’s best poems, their stretching of perception and openness to unusual states of emotion are driven by this sort of spiritual quest. Personal tragedy has no doubt fed this creative drive but – as the poet seems to be aware – such grief is only an aspect of her vision and not the whole of it.
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2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Kaveh Akbar

This is the fifth (and last) in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer of books chosen for the 2018 Forward Prize 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) – click here for my review of this book.
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.

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More than most, Kaveh Akbar’s poems read like jointed assemblages of seemingly disparate materials – accumulations, aggregations, medleys, jumbles. Over 91 pages, some work better than others, but on first reading there is such energy, honesty and commitment on show that it’s easy to be swept away. After a while, you begin to think that most of the poems seem cut from a very similar cloth. Amazingly, despite the inventiveness in imagery, the experimentation in form, the mix of cultures (Akbar is Iranian born, now living in the US), a paradoxical same-iness begins to set in and each time I read the book I find myself flagging about half way through.

item_XL_10301052_31669501Akbar doesn’t generally do the more familiar, simply focused poem. There are a few in the book like ‘Learning to Pray’, in scattered unrhymed triplets, in which a young boy (Akbar allows a straight autobiographical reading usually) watches his father pray, “kneeling on a janamaz” or prayer mat. The wish to emulate the admired father is conveyed pin-sharp. A later poem also starts from childhood and (mostly in loose unrhymed couplets) traces the boy’s later maturing in an America “filled with wooden churches / in which I have never been baptized” (‘Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)’). This poem also attracts threads of two of Akbar’s other main themes: his personal addictions and the ubiquitous sense of living in a fallen world.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

The sense of a fall is very powerful and Akbar is often to be found addressing, berating or pleading with a God figure. To this extent there is a religious element to many of Akbar’s poems, but it feels more like Rilke’s address and concern for the angels in the Duino Elegies, for example, where their actual existence is to be doubted though their impact on the way we regard and live out our own lives is profound. Akbar’s opening poem declares God sometimes visits us, “disguised as rust” (‘Soot’). God’s imagined proximity then breeds new perspectives on our own existence, including images of the Heaven from which we must have fallen: “Upon landing, the ground / embraced me sadly, with the gentleness / of someone delivering tragic news to a child”. ‘Recovery’ is also resigned to seeing life as it is really lived as “graceless” and the poem ‘God’ – before it really gets motoring with its examples of economic decline, personal illness, futile work and sense of fear – cries out: “I am ready for you to come back [. . .] / you are needed again”. Once more the mythic paradise is alluded to towards the end of the poem – simply as something that seemed promised yet is signally lacking in this world, so that “I will settle for anything that brings you now”.

three-empty-beer-bottles-pile-16804845One of the main elements of this fallen state (again Akbar allows a simple autobiographical interpretation) is the damage caused by his past addictions, especially to alcohol. This is the main hook Penguin hang the book on (a cover of empty beer bottles, for example). Poems styled ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic …’ recur throughout the book, but the first section is most focused on this. A familiar comment from W.H. Auden is used to firmly yoke spirit to bottle: “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is damnation”. Many of the poems then have this sense of inebriation, muddling, confusion which Akbar’s style of writing is very at home with. ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly’ presents the drinker waking up, seemingly attacked by a home invader with a knife. Memories of keeping a housefly on a string intervene, perhaps because in the fly’s death the young boy confronted the idea of death: “I opened myself to death, the way a fallen tree // opens itself to the wild”. The poem returns to the threatening situation, then to more abstract thoughts of scale, a TV programme and the speaker passively returns to sleep. This is a great poem of the self as both endangered and paranoid, distanced from danger, the blurring of perception, thought and memory.

The title poem of the book seems to follow the alcoholic as an in-patient, this time in broken up prose. Thoughts meander again till they find a foothold in the self-recognition that “I answered every cry for help with a pour”. He sees this as a coldness, a turning away and tries to name it and therefore control it better: “if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs”. But rather than effective combat the wolf has become evermore part of the alcoholic, like two coins on a train track crushed together. ‘Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before’ likewise takes the reader into the addict’s mind, the thrill-searching (“I don’t / have drunks, sirs, I have adventures”), the sense of life as boredom without the booze (“we live / on an enormous flatness”). These poems are certainly – as a blurb quote suggests – additions to the “canon of addiction literature”.

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Though Akbar’s choices of form in the book are legion and each one works well enough (which is impressive in itself), form and content don’t always seem inevitably linked. What so many of the poems do have is a forward propulsion which is quite breath-taking, assisted by the frequent absence of punctuation. There is a frenetic restlessness, often matched by leaps of imagery close to the surreal (interestingly one of the poets acknowledged by Akbar is Tomaz Salamun). But I worry there is something close to programmatic about all this. Poems often draw together threads of philosophical musing (several from Rumi), then mix in (tangential) aphoristic-sounding or plain informational statements, then throw in what will be read as direct autobiographical elements. These various constituents are sequenced alongside each other and Akbar’s formal and linguistic energy (like the “old battery” delivering jolts in ‘An Apology’) whirls them round before the reader. In the best poems, there is a strong centrifugal force holding the parts together; in others they are simply spun apart and the reader ends wondering about coherence and consequence.

Texas-early-26But when it works, these are marvellous poems – and, for my money, this book would make a worthy winner of the 2018 Felix Dennis Prize. ‘Wild Pear Tree’ – as if in one breath – conveys a wintry scene/mental state, recalls halcyon days (of spring) and ends lamenting the forgetting of an “easy prayer” intended for emergencies: “something something I was not / born here I was not born here I was not”. ‘Exciting the Canvas’ is much more risky in its jig-sawing together of disparate elements – a bit of Rumi, the sea, a child’s drawing, a drunken accident, the Model T Ford, crickets, snakes – but somehow manages to hold it all together to make a snap-shot of a troubled, curious, still-open consciousness. And finally, ‘So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction’, dallies with the Rilkean idea of dying young, alludes to recovery from addiction, then grasshoppers, ice-cubes, personal ambitions and the self-image of “rosejuice and wonderdrunk” (which is merely one side of Akbar’s work). This one ends with the not-infrequent trope of a re-birth from burial in the earth. I like these images, suggesting that, for all the fretting about lost paradise, the absence of God, the self-destructiveness of the individual, whatever redemptive re-birth may be possible is only likely to come from our closeness and attentiveness to things about us, an eschewing of the “self-love” Akbar struggles to free himself from in ‘Prayer’: in a lovely phrase –though I’m still figuring it – he concludes, “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”.

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.

 

 

Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

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Recently I took part in a panel discussion about the art of translating poetry. It was chaired by Connie Bloomfield from UCL and held at the Enitharmon Gallery in Bloomsbury. I was joined by David Harsent (translating Yannis Ritsos), Emma Wagstaff and Nina Parish (co-editors of Writing the Real: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry) and Jane Duran (translating Lorca). Part of the evening was spent comparing our differing approaches to translating a poem in Catalan by Josep Lluis Aguilo. Inevitably, we differed on our approaches both to the specific and general issues raised by poetry translation. But it has prompted me to gather up these 20 thoughts on the issues in this blog post.

While preparing it, I also happened across further observations on the issue as quoted in the recently published Peepal Tree Press translation of Pedro Mir’s Countersong to Walt Whitman. The late Donald Walsh is quoted as saying “The translator’s first task is to discover exactly what the author has said . . . He must try to re-create in his language the miraculous fusion of thought and expression that produced the original work . . . the translator’s role is humble and secondary . . . he must do his best to circumvent obstacles . . . his duty is to express not himself but his author”.

As what follows will suggest, I find myself largely in agreement with such views – though the compromising, tentative, humble processes that Walsh describes here and the inevitably pyrrhic kind of victories one can expect from them are unlikely to make for dramatic headlines in literary journals or publishers’ blurbs – but I believe this is what the best translators do.

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Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

  1. Ask the big question: can we translate a poem? Because there are so many uncertainties, so many sacrifices, the absolute and perhaps only truly safe reply is to say: ‘No – too much will be lost’. But see #13 below – and now go to #2 (who wants to be safe anyway?)

 

  1. Ignore such crushing absolutism as expressed in #1. Roll up your sleeves and, like Shakespeare’s Ferdinand believe “some sports are painful, and their labour / Delight in them sets off”. Whatever the apparent obstacles, just do it: start shifting those logs of poetry translation if only because you want the challenge, if only because it’s a fascinating process – but mainly because it’s important (see #20)

 

  1. Know that to translate is to incur guilt. The moralistic tone in discussions of translation proves the importance of the task and suggests the passionate intimacies involved in this weird relationship between source author, translator and reader

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  1. Define translation broadly (1): responding to the emoji on my phone is an act of translation. Plus, it is not merely to transpose to another language, but from one language period to another, one language level to another (formal to vernacular), to paraphrase with clarity, to lay out logical and grammatical links more clearly, to interpret signs, symbols, gestures, facial expressions

 

  1. Define translation broadly (2): any good poem is a form of translation. Transtromer saw poems as manifestations of invisible poems written beyond languages themselves. Rita Dove says translators often understand best that any poem is merely a silhouette of our attempt to capture elusive original communications – like stepping stones across a river, the better to hear the silence

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  1. Think of turning the original source into something in the target language with the same information and with the same force as the original

 

  1. Use these simple methods (naturally used by native speakers to achieve greater clarity in communication – thanks, David Bellos) to begin to convey information and force:
    1. Synonymy – word for word replacement (literal translation)
    2. Expansion – replacement of problematic words with longer versions in the target
    3. Contraction – replacement with nothing, elision, skipping, abbreviations – turning a blind eye
    4. Topic Shifting – rearranging the sequence of the expressions for more clarity
    5. Change of Emphasis – other methods of making parts of the original expression stand out from the rest, in order to assist communication
    6. Clarification – adding expressions (not in the original) – making what was implicit in the original more explicit

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  1. Accept it – poetry is poetry so its translation is mostly a question of force – the shades and emotional colours, the rhetorical temperature, the ramifications of meaning of a word/phrase/form

 

  1. Discuss this: force is what Robert Frost called the sound of sense – poetry’s confessedly ineffable tones, gestures, interrelations, patterns – and to convey it we need to match such constituents (though not necessarily preserve them like lifeless bones)

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  1. Measure the force in a source poem via a process of triangulation – determine your direction of travel via multiple reference points connected to the source text – not only the text but also good old-fashioned literary interpretation, wider cultural perspectives, the source author’s wider oeuvre, anything you can lay your hands on

 

  1. Empathise and keep ego quiet – imagination is the major part of this triangulation process: so work hard to imagine what motivated the poem, re-live the act which gave rise to it and is enmeshed in it (thanks, Yves Bonnefoy). In translation we hope to release it from its source form into a new form that resembles/matches its original intention, intuition, yearning

 

  1. Measure the success of your empathetic act not by a term-for-term resemblance to the original poem (thanks again, Yves) but by the ontological necessity of your new words/forms/images

 

  1. Contradict my #1 – so it turns out, translation is possible if, with Bonnefoy, we regard the process of translation as poetry re-begun                                                                       . .
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  2. Be inspired by Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the task: we look to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind

 

  1. Close the source text, says Michael Hofmann, rightly, once your translation is beginning to gain some height in its flight. Close it!

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  1. Don’t confuse translation with versioning – the permission we give ourselves is different. To translate puts us in a position of responsibility to both the source text and a working English poem, equally. Versioning puts us in a position of responsibility only to a final working English poem

 

  1. Ask yourself how might I like my own poems to be treated – translation or version? Will you feel well served or misrepresented? Pleased or aggrieved? I’m not pre-judging your choices, but they will affect your view of your own translating processes

 

  1. Discuss this: Peter Robinson argues versions result in failures of tone or meaning, that they impoverish and almost invariably lower the tone, reducing the complexity of the original. But surely, such radical revisions might equally result in a better poem than the original? Still – neither will be a translation

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  1. Label versions and translations appropriately – we have a responsibility to the paying public who, in my experience, are always very clear about what they want to read

 

  1. Keep translating – because the desire to translate and read in translation is optimistic, humanistic and hopeful. Contra Babel, it provides evidence of a powerful urge towards community and communication. It shows there is more that unites us than divides us

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer 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) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) – reviewed here

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

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

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

 

 

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Nick Makoha

This is the third 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) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

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 Peepal Tree Press for providing a copy of Nick Makoha’s book for review purposes.

Poetry is an art of the relative, but the ability to write about contemporary events beyond one’s personal sphere always strikes me as an absolute and rare talent. Yet it always turns out the poet’s individual circumstances contribute to such escapes from the personal and this is so with Nick Makoha who has talked of writing in exile from Uganda. He fled civil war and the rule of Idi Amin as a five-year old boy in 1979. Many of the poems in Kingdom of Gravity are shocking (and so powerful in particular ways as art) and their obsessive subject is power without justice in post-colonial Africa.

There are moments when early Auden seems a useful comparison. Each poem creates its own world of suspicion and unease, often of violence. Each poem is spoken by a human subject – I thought of Glyn Maxwell’s phrase “the presence of a human creature” (On Poetry, Oberon Books, 2012). This is maintained even though the materials of the poems are journalistic, clogged with stuff, hawked up, hacked off incidents that most of us are only familiar with from news, TV and film. The forms are often shaped but roughly so; Makoha’s voices often make use of anaphora/repetition and tend to the epigrammatic. Such patterning is mostly ironic because if there is one thing this collection expresses it is a sense of exile and disconnect, a loss of all moral compass. The construction of the book seems to encourage this sense of disconnect. Three poems evoking Uganda’s 1979 turning point (after Amin’s 8 year rule) are scattered across 2 of the 5 sections of the book. Each of the 5 sections are introduced by poems linked with airports and travel, distance, arrivals, departures – exile again – and these set the tone.

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The figure of Amin – and those in the ensuing years who have resembled him – recurs. The book is full of father figures, often distorted, corrupt, vicious, God-like, their hands covered in blood. A crocodile is considered in one poem, the creature imagined as Idi Amin’s teacher:

 

Wrath the only nature of God you taught him.

What of mercy, peace and Uganda?

 

Our bodies still rest in your jaws.

 

The book’s opening lyric, ‘Highlife’, praises the power that comes with “Presidency” and these include the power to throttle another man, to spare a life, to change perception by force, to be acknowledged as “God”. Such big men always promise much to gain adherents but in promoting themselves they soon threaten far more than they deliver:

 

This man is a firm knot in our chest. A landlord draped

in Savile Row suits, who uses our towns as a race track.

 

Mark the length of his shadow; where it reaches,

men fall.

(‘Big Nation’)

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The book’s title poem is like this. Re-writing Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Auden’s 1939 ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ from the inside, Makoha speaks as a man wanting to create a world wholly in his own image: “What makes a man name a city after himself, / asking bricks to be bones”. His conviction is that he has been spoken to by “an oracle”; he claims to be searching for “a place to call home” but ominously is equally “in search of fire”. The kingdom of gravity is the condition of “having the world at your feet” and Makoha’s analysis of tyranny looks deceptively open-ended, asking if once the world is believed to be fully known, a reflection of the power-hungry self, then “how will you be sure that nothing is lost?” Such absolute control is an impossibility, of course, and for the tyrant the only solution is a call to arms: “Smear your bodies in red oil. Tonight we split the darkness. / We will be remembered as the wild cats // who smeared their bodies in blood” (‘From the King’).

As this makes clear, tyrants need followers. They are well represented in the book – both as victims and as the breeding ground for the next wave of tyranny. ‘Watchmen’ seems voiced by a man in whose calculations his wife, children, contraband, money, beer and a prostitute all seem interchangeable counters in his mind’s equations. Hard to follow what happens next – the border between fact and fantasy is uncertain – but a powerful male figure rips a sheep to pieces, offers it to other men if they become his “true bloods”. There are plenty of takers:

 

Some say he had promised land, others positions,

and yet others gold. The truth is we all wanted

to be kings with wives and cars.

There is a drone in our voices.

 

The night’s coolness has not yet gone.

The apparition snatches a Kalashnikov from a shepherd’s fist

and slips into the river. What’s weird is we all break rank

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations.

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The willing yielding up of individuality implied in the choice of the word “drone” is driven home in the final lines which repeat Frost’s repeating trick in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but turn his swooning/determined ambiguity into an unambiguous, threatening, weaponised, overwhelming “swarm” of humanity.

The speaker’s sense that something “weird” is happening, the potentially redemptive sense of the growth of evil is reflected in a few other poems such as ‘The Liberation’ where someone who “used to be a boy” now moves “like smoke across the red dirt towards the second terminal”. In this case, such drastic shifts in human behaviour are considered “a costume” to be worn when the earth “erupts” but the potential reversal of the process implied by this metaphor elsewhere looks like liberal wishful thinking. ‘Candidate A’ seems voiced by a tyrant selection committee, enumerating an individual’s qualities, making him suitable for elevation to “His Excellency, Field Marshall, / Effendi etcetera”. Love of his own reflection, unprovoked violence, rejection of the rules, an appetite for acclaim and acquisitiveness replaced by “immediate gratification” mark out this fanatic among the ranks for a bright future though ultimately he’s to be used by whomever is speaking: “in his effort to be remembered, we will make our mark”.

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I was reading this book partly while visiting Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. In the commemorative museum, I was struck by a quotation from Gandhi: there is no way to peace; peace is the way. As in Picasso’s painting of the bombing of the town in 1937, Makoha’s poems give us more of the horror of when things break down, but also remind us that peace is more than just the absence of war. Poems like ‘Resurrection Man’, ‘The Dark’ and ‘How to Make Blood’ ask great determination of the reader and also ask us where we stand as we read them. The poet’s stance is driven by a form of survivor guilt. His escape to the UK meant an equivocal freedom:

 

My own country rebukes me. I hold the world on my back.

 

Look for me in translation. In my own language you will go unanswered.

My Ugandan passports are a quiet place of ruin.

 

One of the airport poems, set at Charles De Gaulle, Paris, perhaps speaks in something like Makoha’s own voice. It is about the impossibility of telling a story fully. He has no problems with endings – the difficulty is that “I have lost where I began”. The condition of the exile is always liminal, not living fully in either of two places. In Makoha’s case this gives him the space to contribute to English poetry a dark, knotty, often difficult kind of music, plainly relevant in its response to some of the horrors of the contemporary world. The book’s cover has been well-chosen by Peepal Tree Press: a grey scale image of a child standing beside an utterly devastated tree trunk. Hands by her side, she seems to be waiting for something to happen. Something else to happen.

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Charles De Gaulle, Paris