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.

AKM

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

How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 2

This is the second posting on a metrical exercise on iambics. I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks, contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – this began with an iambic monometer and grew into an iambic tetrameter as detailed in my previous posting.

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Starting from the tetrameter again, the poem will now grow some more . . . This is where I got to last time:

 

Because I hope to speak to her

I walk again along the way,

the path beside the old canal,

where children play and mothers come,

where thistles bloom in purple knots

that grey and drift across the path,

here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day,

where users lean and drift, ascend

above the clouds and steeple cock.

 

From this pretty regular iambic tetrameter, grow on further lines while at the same time lengthened these lines to iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line). New material indicated in italics:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk

again along this way, the path beside

the old canal where children play and mothers

come, where thistles bloom in purple knots

that grey and drift across the path. It’s strewn

with wrappers torn from sweets, with needles dropped

another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock.

Its glint I glimpse where water stands, its gold

a coin, a drowned, two-headed coin she tossed.

A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wings

slapping the surface like a window smashed.

 

I’ve slightly re-jigged line 2 here and feel the need to punctuate more heavily with the lengthening lines. The di-syllabic “mothers” again presents an issue at line 3 – I’ve made the same choice here as before, not breaking the word, allowing 11 syllables in line 3, shortening line 4 to 9 syllables. “Slapping” – given the sudden violence of the bird’s flight – I have allowed to stand as a reversed, trochaic foot opening line 12. I’m now thinking of the narrator as a mother (though as easily a father) who has come to a place remembered as visited with a daughter, now more grown up. The coin toss image seems to allude to some life-chance or choice and the inclusion in the poem – in the narrator’s observations – of the discarded needles probably tells its own story.

 

Beyond the pentameter lies the less common reaches of the hexameter or alexandrine – six iambic feet per line:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again

along the path, this way beside the old canal

where children play and mothers come, thistles

bloom into purple knots that grey and drift across

the path strewn here with wrappers torn from sweets, needles

dropped on another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. Its glint

I glimpse where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned

two-headed coin she tossed. A bird is panicked from

the reeds, its wings beat the water like a window

smashed. If I stand inside the door and gaze across

the pews towards the brightly coloured glass of saints

and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs

each filled with sun, her robe is blue, her arms are full.

 

The lengthened line now begins to drag a little and is feeling rather clumsy here (it would need more work if I wanted to go with this) but as a reader I think of the slow, rather mournful walk of what now seems to be the possibly bereaved narrator. In line 3 the two syllables of “thistles” again ought to be broken across the line break – this time I cut the preceding word (“where”) to give more of a jolt to this threatening word so line 3 ends with a trochaic foot – “come” and “thist-” forming a spondee. Line 4 opens with a trochee too. The word “needles” presents the same problem at the end of line 5 – this I’ve re-jigged as above (though it does not read well to my ear at the moment). But I guess I’m happier to disrupt the predominant iambic by this stage – partly because it’s clearer to me now that this poem has a dark edge to it – but also because the longer lines give (maybe they need?) the chance of more variation. Line 10 has also been altered a little, “slapping” is replaced by the stronger monosyllable “beat”. The unexpected leap into the church interior seemed a good idea – a change of scene – and an intuitive link to the smashed rippling of the canal water, reminding the narrator of stained-glass. The image of Madonna and child is maybe too obvious but actually feels right for both writer (me) and the narrator (definitely now a mother of a child lost somehow). It’s also more acceptable as the church steeple had already been alluded to in the poem.

 

I’m now going to take this as far as the iambic heptameter line or fourteener:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again along

the way, this path beside the old canal, where children play

and mothers come and thistles bloom in purple knots that grey

and drift across the path. It’s strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. I glimpse its glint

where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned two-headed coin

she tossed. A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wing-beats break

the water like a window smashed. I stand inside the door

and gaze across the pews towards the brightly coloured glass

of saints and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs

each filled with sun. Her robe is blue, her arms are full of blood,

the red of ribbons, red of nails, the red of every month.

It’s her I think I need to find. Beyond the traffic noise,

I cross the bridge. A narrow boat is gliding down below,

its brightly painted tubs, its name a girl’s, I watch it pass

into the dark, a stink of smoke, a swirl, a wink of light.

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That the Madonna’s arms are full of blood surprised me but probably I am echoing those earlier thoughts of veins and needles. The repetitions of “red” felt quite bold, I think following the maturing of the narrator’s daughter. I grew up near the Kennet and Avon canal and still walk there often watching the narrow boats pass. Many of them are carefully decorated by their owners and this was coming to mind at the end though I still think this is a very urban part of the canal network. Obviously the passing boat, with its girl’s name, reminds the mother of her daughter (I guess we still don’t know exactly what happened to her) and though there is something positive in the painted colours of the boat (echoing the coloured windows in church I now realize), its passing into the tunnel is ominous and the fragmenting of the lines (these long lines are good for this) suggest a dissolving or passing away.

I don’t know how this reads yet as a poem and it’s certainly to raw and new to think which of these forms suit it best (if any). But it’s not a poem or a place I might have entered into without the use of this very methodical exercise. It’s worth a try, I think, and whatever the results, it’ll set you thinking about line lengths generally and patterned rhythm or metre more specifically – essential tools of the poet at any stage.

How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 1

I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks. I have been contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – from little monometers great fourteeners may grow!

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The first dab of culture in the experimental petri dish is the simplest of forms, the iambic monometer. If you want to join in with this, it hardly matters what you come up with (and I certainly make no claims for what follows) partly because the exercise is also exploring Glyn Maxwell’s claim that using form will propel the poet towards “words you didn’t expect, matter you never chose, resonances that crept up around you” (from On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)). Michael Donaghy often suggested something similar: “Like good poets whom the tyranny of rhyme forces into the discovery of their finest lines, I’m in it for the discovery. If writing poems were merely a matter of bulldozing ahead with what you’d already made up in your mind to say I’d have long ago given it up for something more dignified” (from ‘My Report Card’ – 2000).

 

Because

I hope

To speak

To her

I walk

Again

Along

The way

The path

Beside

The old

Canal

 

Here I’m more concerned with choosing regular iambs than making much sense. The hesitating movement of the short lines works quite well.  In the Poetry School sessions we looked at Robert Herrick’s famous poem in this metre, ‘Upon His Departure Hence’, as well as one by Karen McCarthy Woolf (‘Mort-Dieu’). Both poems use the curbed tentativeness of the metre to reflect on mortality – almost as if the form offered a safe form, a containment of (too) powerful emotion.

Now re-organise the same material as a dimeter. This will involve the composition (if that’s quite the word) of further lines simply to complete the form and this will take you into unexpected territory perhaps . . .

 

Because I hope

To speak to her

I walk again

Along the way

 

The path beside

the old canal

where children play

and mothers come

 

The dimeter remains a very brief line (I don’t feel much need for punctuation yet) but here the short reach of each line gives some urgency to the narrator’s hoping to speak to “her”. The reader (as much as the writer at this stage) is wondering who both narrator and hoped-for interlocutor is. The extra material begins to suggest maternal possibilities, partners, other children . . . The “again” of line 3 is also interesting – a recurrent search. Why can’t she be found. What is this need to speak to her? Why come to this location?

Now re-organise further to make a trimeter:

 

Because I hope to speak

to her I walk again

along the way, the path

beside the old canal,

 

where children play and mothers

come, where thistles bloom

in purple knots that grey

and drift across the path.

 

It feels natural to want to punctuate these lines now with their greater complexity and greater risk of ambiguity. The three beat lines perhaps begin to evoke the pacing of the walker? There is an issue with the 5th line in which (keeping to a strict iambic metre) the word “mothers” ought to be broken across the line break. I’ve decided to allow an extra syllable into line 5, so ending it with a feminine, weak, seventh syllable. Line 6 I’ve therefore left with one syllable short. It’s happenstance but I like the extra dwelling of a reader’s attention on “mothers” (I begin to think the “she’ is a mother, or the narrator may be a mother searching for a female child). The shortening of line 6 which refers to “thistles” also feels right; it introduces a spiky, perhaps threatening image and the shortened line creates an uneasy feel. These undoubtedly ‘fortuitous’ developments are just the sort of thing the poet has a veto over – we decide whether they stand or need to be revised further. Here, I let them stand.

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Next stage is an iambic tetrameter – four iambs per line:

 

Because I hope to speak to her

I walk again along the way,

the path beside the old canal,

where children play and mothers come,

where thistles bloom in purple knots

that grey and drift across the path,

here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day,

where users lean and drift, ascend

above the clouds and steeple cock.

 

Woah! No – I don’t know where this is heading . . . The longer length of line now begins to give a more conversational feel. This four beat line (either with accentual-syllabic or plain stress metre) is probably the most common in English verse. I think of it (and the good old iambic pentameter) as sort of neutral spots on the metrical continuum – neither too tightly bound nor loosely adrift). The greying of the thistles now seems to allude to aging (of the narrator?), certainly to time passing, time on her mind. The sweet wrappers make a clear gesture towards childhood; the discarded needles strike a far more ominous note (if a bit clichéd). Is the narrator seeking a child, no longer a child, has she become involved with drug abuse?

 

If you want to see this poem developing into an iambic pentameter – and find out (with me) what the poem is really about – I’ll post the remainder of this blog on Monday.

The art of the line break

I do like Glyn Maxwell’s thoughts on this in his 2013 book, On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012). I’m roughly quoting:

Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss . .  don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing. It’s nothing for your novelist etc . . . for those folks it’s a tabula rasa, a giving surface. For a poet it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose. If you write poems that you might call free and [Maxwell] might call unpatterned then skillful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all you’ve got. Put more practically, line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border. . .  a prose poem is prose done by a poet. . .

I like the physical sensation he creates here of the two spaces a poet works with – that almost dizzying cliff-edge of the line breaking, the powerful effect that must have, that it does have. And I’ve, personally, long puzzled over the prose poem, wondering ‘why?’. Some of my best friends write prose poems – look out Linda Black’s published by Shearsman – but they remain a closed book to me – ha ha. Why would you not exploit the white space Maxwell talks of? Surely not just because the art of the line break is a hard one to master? Oh – the discussions in workshops I’ve had! Briefly – something to do with breath, to do with reading the lines aloud, to do with the line having some weight before you snap it off. The rest – intuition.