‘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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Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ – a new translation

Two weeks ago, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. Last week I blogged part of this talk, looking at the poem, ‘Reyerta’, alongside my new translation of it. I confessed then, I have always found Lorca’s poems difficult to work on – though they are superficially both alluring to the translator and seemingly straightforward – though, in what I said last week and in what follows, I hope to show I have made some headway with them over the years. Here, I am discussing Lorca’s well-known poem (also from the Gypsy Ballads collection) called ‘Romancero sonambulo’ or, as it is usually translated into English, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. My full translation of the poem appears at the end of the post (an earlier version of it was published in the magazine Dream Catcher).

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Later in the lecture about the Gypsy Ballads that I referred to in my earlier post, Lorca talks about other aspects of the style of these poems. He says ballads have always depended on narrative – if the ballad poet veers too far towards the lyrical, without an echo of the anecdotal, the result is not a ballad but a song. Lorca was consciously looking “to fuse the narrative ballad with the lyrical without altering the qualities of either”. And he believed he had achieved this especially in the poem, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. As he says of it, the poem provides the sense of an anecdote within a very dramatic atmosphere, but this lyrical ballad is also marinated in the most amazing atmosphere of mystery. A mystery that even he, the author, would not penetrate. It opens:

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

Shadows about her waist,

she dreams at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green

and eyes of chilly silver.

Green how I love you green.

Beneath the gypsy moon,

all things are watching her

and she’s unaware of them.

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As narrative this is mysteriously brilliant and brilliantly mysterious. Unlike ‘Reyerta’ the narrative voice is expressive through the technique of repetition – 10 ‘greens’ in the opening 13 lines – suggesting an obsessive love or fascination with the colour green which seems immediately linked to a woman. The balance of the mystery is achieved with the first references suggesting fertility and fecundity, but later ones a rather queasy, uneasy discoloration of flesh and hair. The word ‘green’ almost becomes the woman’s name – “I love you green”. She is the focus of “all things”. As yet, we don’t know why she might not be aware of their gaze. The images of the ship on the sea and the horse on the mountain do little more than extend the horizon of the poem – they suggest this is more ballad than love song. There is a specific context – and, as we’ll see, it’s an important one.

1200px-Agave_americana_R01The next section of the poem displays some of Lorca’s startling, surprising images: the “stars of frost”, the “fish of shadows”, the fig-tree’s “sandpaper branches”, the mountain is a “a thieving cat” that “bristles its sour agaves”. These are good examples of Lorca’s technique with metaphor: to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality. But these lines are perhaps really more about raising the narrative tensions in the poem through rhetorical questions such as, “But who will come? And where from?”

Making things no clearer, there follows a section of dialogue, apparently between the house owner and a young man, who is perhaps on the run from the authorities as he is “blood-stained from the Cabran passes”. The young man says what he seeks now is domesticity, to settle down – to exchange horse for home, saddle for mirror, knife for blanket. But the house owner cannot oblige. Not because he does not wish to, but because he cannot. Cryptically, he says “I am no more as I am, / nor is my home my home”. Only later do we (perhaps) understand his utterly compromised position.

It turns out the blood-stained youth is really hurt, from chest to chin. Another of Lorca’s great images: “Three hundred dark roses / spatter your white shirt. / All round your belt / the blood reeks and oozes”. What the two men do agree to do (though the reason for this is not obvious) is to climb to the top of the house – here I imagine a flat roof with balustrades. Here the colour green returns (paint, twilight, treetops?) and a daubing of romantic moonlight. But also – and how ominously we have yet to learn – they begin to hear the sound of water.

downloadSo up they climb. We don’t know why, but the atmosphere here is dripping with ill omen: they are “leaving a trail of blood, / leaving a trail of tears”. Then there is another of Lorca’s images yoking together unlikely items. As they climb to the roof-tiles, there is a trembling or quivering of “tiny tin-plate lanterns” and perhaps it’s this that becomes the sound of a “thousand crystal tambourines / [that] wound the break of day”. Lorca himself chose this image to comment on in his talk. He says if you ask why he wrote it he would tell you: “I saw them, in the hands of angels and trees, but I will not be able to say more; certainly I cannot explain their meaning”. I hear Andre Breton there, or Dali refusing to ‘explain’ the images of the truly surreal work. In each case the interpretative labour is handed over to us.

The reason for the climb to the roof-top perhaps only now becomes clearer. One of the men – I take it to be the house owner addressing the youth – asks where his girl is, a girl who used to wait for him on the roof top: “fresh-faced, her black hair, / on the green balustrade!” So the rooftop was one of the lovers’ meeting places. Then there’s another of Lorca’s jump-cuts of overwhelming drama. Up on the roof, as they reach it, over a rain-water tank, hangs a body:

 

Over the face of the cistern,

the gypsy girl was swaying.

Green flesh, hair of green,

with eyes of chilly silver.

A slip of ice-frosted moon

holds her above the water.

W-I-handrailDid they know this? It appears not. But who is she? Daughter? Lover? Both? Is this really what the two men find there? For sure, there is some mystery about the chronology because the seeming explanation of the killing is couched as a flashback: “The dark night grew intimate / as a cramped little square. / Drunken Civil Guards / were hammering at the door”. But Lorca often plays fast and loose with verb tenses. Was this earlier? Were they in search of the rebellious youth? But they found his girl-friend? Hanging her on the rooftop? Is the house owner her father? Does he know what has happened? Is this why his house is not his own anymore? Is this why he is no more what he was?
icarusThe only certain thing is that the poem does not reply. It ends with a recurrence of that opening yearning – now it’s read as a more obviously grieving voice – though it’s not necessarily to be read as the young man’s voice. It’s the ballad voice, the one I took so long to really grasp in Lorca’s work. It is a voice involved and passionate but with wider geographical, political and historical horizons beyond the individual incident. Like Auden’s ploughman in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, glimpsing Icarus’ fall from the sky, yet he must get on with his work, ‘Sleepingwalking Ballad’ returns us in its final lines to the wider world:

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

 

In passing, the poem refers to the dead girl as a ‘gypsy’. By gypsy, Lorca said he intended to allude to Andalucia itself, because “the gypsy is the loftiest, most profound and aristocratic element of my country, the most deeply representative”. So there’s certainly a political element to the poem, but that’s an aspect I’ve no time to explore here.

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Here is the complete text of my translation:

 

Sleepwalking Ballad

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

Shadows about her waist,

she dreams at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green

and eyes of chilly silver.

Green how I love you green.

Beneath the gypsy moon,

all things watching her

and she’s unaware of them.

 

Green how I love you green.

Great stars of frost appear

beside the fish of shadows,

making way for sunrise.

A fig-tree scuffs the breeze

with sandpaper branches.

The mountain, a thieving cat,

bristles its sour agaves.

But who will come? And where from?

Still she’s at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green,

dreaming of the bitter sea.

 

“Friend, I would love to change

my horse for your home,

my saddle for your mirror,

my knife for your blanket.

Friend, blood-stained I come

from the Cabran passes.”

“Young man, if I were able,

I’d seal this bargain.

But I am no more as I am,

nor is my home my home”.

“Friend, I would love to die

so decently in my bed.

Steel-framed it would be

with sheets of fine linen.

But you see this wound

running from chest to chin?”

“Three hundred dark roses

spatter your white shirt.

All round your belt

the blood reeks and oozes.

But I am no more as I am,

nor is my home my home”.

“At least then let me climb

to the high balustrades.

Let me climb! Oh, let me

reach the green balustrades,

the handrails of the moon,

where the water’s echoing.”

 

So two friends climb

toward the high balustrades,

leaving a trail of blood,

leaving a trail of tears.

A quivering of the roof-tiles’

tiny tin-plate lanterns.

A thousand crystal tambourines

to wound the break of day.

 

Green how I love you green,

green wind, green branches.

Two friends, now they climb,

with the slow wind leaving

a strange taste in the mouth

of bile, mint and basil.

“My friend! Where is she, say?

Where is your bitter girl?

How often she’d wait for you!

How often she’d wait for you,

fresh-faced, her black hair,

on the green balustrade!”

 

Over the face of the cistern,

the gypsy girl was swaying.

Green flesh, hair of green,

with eyes of chilly silver.

A slip of ice-frosted moon

holds her above the water.

The dark night grew intimate

as a cramped little square.

Drunken Civil Guards

were hammering at the door.

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

 

 

Lorca’s Gypsy Ballad ‘Reyerta’ – a new translation

This week, at the Omnibus Theatre on Clapham Common, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. I have always found his poems difficult to work on – beyond a superficial level – though, as what follows suggests, I hope I have made some headway with it over the years. There are plenty of very poor translations around. I’m posting two blogs on this and including two of my own translations, the first, unpublished as yet, the second appeared  a while back in a small magazine. I’ve left my talk pretty much as . . . My translation of ‘Reyerta’ can be found at the end of the posting. I will post on the even more astonishing poem, ‘Romancero sonambulo’, next week.

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My personal story with Lorca maybe begins even before I’d read him. When I did come to read him – in a Penguin Modern Poets collection with (quote) plain prose translations – I didn’t get it. Later – as I often calculatingly do with a poet I don’t get – I tried to translate a few poems. To begin with, I didn’t get it then either.

Actually, my problems are genuinely surprising, in retrospect, as I’d long before this responded powerfully to something which I can now see had a strong Lorca quality to it. Let’s go back to the early 1980s. Imagine the beard, the much longer hair. The ignorance . . . A friend of mine loved his Irish folk music. He told me to listen to a song sung by Christy Moore. I say a song – a ballad really.

The song’s voice (a young man) tells us he went to a wood, he cut a branch of hazel, went fishing with it and caught a trout. What drove him was the fire in his head. The scene is vividly conveyed, neat turns of phrase like the white moths and moth-like stars and, as he lights a fire, the trout turns into a girl who calls to him but runs off.

Then the youth’s narrative jumps – the kind of moment that really does take the top of your head off. The voice concludes:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

download (1)I really didn’t know it at the time, but the song’s words are, of course, by W.B.  Yeats. It is his poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

But I knew well enough that I found it moving – the yearning of the narrative, the devastating presentation of time passing, the strange images and most of all the mystery that spread itself over the whole like endlessly suggestive moonlight.

II

And so eventually, in Lorca too, I began to understand three big things – his poetry’s sense of generative mystery, the strange unexpectedness of his images and the boldness – the jump cuts – of his narrative development.

I’m focusing on these things tonight and what better place to start than a lecture he gave. Lorca typically (both self-deprecating and boldly idiosyncratic) calls it rather a talk about something no one has taught him – a lecture about the collection of poems called Gypsy Ballads. He published this best-selling book in 1930 and here he is speaking in October 1935. Of course, within the year he would have been murdered, his body dumped somewhere never to be found.

But in these lecture comments, we catch the man very much alive, I think, plus the poet’s love of outlandish metaphors. He says that lectures, in the traditional sense, tend to “fill the audience’s eyes with the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. For those of you already nodding off, he means in such talks we often fall asleep. Or at least, the speaker inadvertently fills the hall with “yawns too big for even the mouth of an alligator”.

hqdefaultI have now translated a number of Lorca’s poems and one of the great difficulties is to carry over such metaphorical leaps into English where they risk sounding very silly indeed. Fair enough, the alligator is, on the face of it, obvious enough: its gaping jaws give a good jolt of comic hyperbole to his image. But it’s still surprising in the context of a be-suited, bespectacled lecture hall in Spain. There is an exoticism there on the verge of surrealism and is characteristic of Lorca’s images. This search for novelty in image is clear when he argues later that a real poet must “shoot his arrows at living metaphors and not at the contrived and false ones which surround him”.

The Morpheus image does something else which is typical. Lorca takes up a creaking old mythic figure and with his sustained and vividly specific imagination, a vigorous verb, plus the kind of adjective on which he always liked to turn the volume up to 11, he brings the god of sleep and dreams to modern life: “the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. This sort of thing really is at the heart of Lorca’s project to take up traditional forms and stories and invest them with a modern vitality. One of his fellow students in his brief time at Columbia University reported that for Lorca, “new metaphors were the core and mainstay of any new poetry [. . .] Lorca’s central idea in writing was to employ phrases which had never been used before [. . .] an attempt to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality”.

This is the root of his belief that by means of poetry “a man more rapidly approaches the cutting edge that the philosopher and the mathematician turn away from in silence”. Never a proper, card-carrying surrealist, we can see why his work was working along that same grain. The well-honed, well-trodden, conventional, empirical/logical grooves of the philosopher or mathematician need a down-right shake up and poetic images easily seize the liberty to do this.

III

The Gypsy Ballad called ‘Reyerta’ or ‘The Quarrel’ or ‘Fight’ shows a lot of this for me. Lorca’s own comments on the poem suggest his interest in the way groups attack each other for unlikely reasons – a glance, a rose, a love affair centuries old, a man feeling a bug on his cheek. It opens:

Halfway down the gulley,

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

Like fish? A surprising image – but perhaps the silver and red (of fish fins; of steel and blood) makes this a vivid visual opening to the poem. But the surprise holds my attention; I can’t dismiss the slipperiness of the fish, the literal and metaphorical slipperiness of knives in a fight, perhaps the speed of movement of fish/fighters.

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The images of the next quatrain are vividly expressive but hard to be literal about:

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

The women weep but to see them apparently perched in a tree top explains less and reveals more. So – they are far from the quarrel, putting distance between themselves and the ruckus, and where better than an olive tree, symbol of rootedness, domesticity perhaps, a long rural history, the bark’s wrinkles echoing their old weeping faces. Then the quarrel as an utterly non-literal, aggressive bull might seem an obvious image but again Lorca fixes our attention and conjures an independent life for it – as in a bullfighting ring – crashing into walls, even beginning to climb them.

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Mysterious black angels float through this poem at various moments. They are partly obvious, ominous, harbingers, though not of salvation but doom. Again, Lorca commits to them, commits details to them which tend to deepen the mystery of their significance: they are “bringing / meltwater, handkerchiefs. / Angels with wings as wide / as these Albacete knives” and, at the conclusion of the poem, they are seen “wheeling / in the air to the west. / Angels with trailing braids / and with hearts of oil”. With hearts of oil? Golden, greasy, liquid, melting, fast-beating, lacking healthy blood, anointing the earth, the good stuff spilling everywhere? Its meaning is a mystery and I suspect one Lorca would not venture to explain himself.

images oilJust one last detail from this great poem. Juan Antonio de Montilla is killed in the fight and – in one of Lorca’s characteristic jump cut edits (more of that in a minute) suddenly (it seems) the “judge and Civil Guard / come through the olive groves”. Somebody – a participant, one of the old women? – gives them an account of events in the form of exactly one of Lorca’s startling metaphors. This may have been a quarrel over a card game, or a girl, like so many others, but Lorca dizzyingly elevates it into an historical, even epic context:

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

and five Carthaginians.

Here is my translation in full – the original Spanish follows:

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Fight

Halfway down the gulley

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

a harsh playing-card light,

silhouettes on sour green,

the infuriated horsemen.

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

And black angels bringing

meltwater, handkerchiefs.

Angels with wings as wide

as these Albacete knives.

Juan Antonio Montilla

rolling dead down a slope,

his body full of irises,

pomegranate on his brow.

He rides a cross of fire now

down the road to death.

*

The judge and Civil Guard

come through olive groves.

Slithering blood moans

a serpent’s mute song.

Masters! Civil Guardsmen!

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

as have five Carthaginians

*

Evening crazed with figs

and hot rumours falling

faint on the wounded

thighs of the horsemen.

And black angels wheeling

in the air to the west.

Angels with trailing braids

and with hearts of oil.

 

Reyerta

En la mitad del barranco
las navajas de Albacete,
bellas de sangre contraria,
relucen como los peces.
Una dura luz de naipe
recorta en el agrio verde,
caballos enfurecidos
y perfiles de jinetes.
En la copa de un olivo
lloran dos viejas mujeres.
El toro de la reyerta
se sube por las paredes.
Ángeles negros traían
pañuelos y agua de nieve.
Ángeles con grandes alas
de navajas de Albacete.
Juan Antonio el de Montilla
rueda muerto la pendiente,
su cuerpo lleno de lirios
y una granada en las sienes.
Ahora monta cruz de fuego,
carretera de la muerte.

*

El juez, con guardia civil,
por los olivares viene.
Sangre resbalada gime
muda canción de serpiente.
Señores guardias civiles:
aquí pasó lo de siempre.
Han muerto cuatro romanos
y cinco cartagineses.

*

La tarde loca de higueras
y de rumores calientes
cae desmayada en los muslos
heridos de los jinetes.
Y ángeles negros volaban
por el aire del poniente.
Ángeles de largas trenzas
y corazones de aceite.

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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