Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie

Full Disclosure: Have read some of her work before. Jamie is a Scottish poet, which means there’s a much greater chance of bumping into her at some point. I’ve yet to see her read, far as I remember. Review copy provided by Picador. [Note that because of wordpress’ formatting limitations the quoted poems are left-justified, which on occasion takes away an element of their meaning.]

Review: Since her first collection in 1982, Jamie has garnered a Forward Prize for Best Collection and Best Single Poem, a Costa Prize, and four TS Eliot shortlistings. It’s a remarkable collection of plaudits, not least for a poet who seems increasingly repelled from the monumental gestures that such prizes tend to value; the pugnacity of the title poem from 1994’s The Queen of Sheba, for example, might appear out of place in The Bonniest Companie. Though the poetry itself is no less undaunted, no less unafraid, it’s all underpinned by a sort of calm mindfulness about the deeply unsentimental cycles of death and rebirth that govern natural life, of which humankind is one point in a continuum.

Which maybe makes the book sound too zen and scientific, though it certainly draws deeply from both streams. The poems are anchored on their immediate surroundings – ‘my own back green’, the walk to the shops, the ‘small invincible bird’ – but their awareness of much deeper processes at work, casting their shadows on all such tiny immediacies, gives a tremendous undertone of sadness, often a very-nearly-vocalised desire to be free from such things. Here’s ‘Thon Stane’ (it might help to have a Scots dictionary handy: dsl.ac.uk is probably the best. While the majority of poems are perfectly gist-able, Jamie provides no glossary, an implicit assertion of the language’s place within the broader spectrum of Englishes):

‘Thon earthfast boulder by the bothy door,
taller than a man and
thrice as broad and
older than everyone put together –

stood there in his mossy boots
like he’s just this very afternoon
wandered down the brae – […]

I open the door, though he gives no hawker’s cry –
just proffers his mute wares,
as he has for long enough.’

That ‘thon’, a word my granny still uses to indicate a usually pointable-to ‘something over there’, puts the poem in a present, self-contained moment. Yet the geological implications of ‘older than everyone put together’, meaning absolutely all humans and probably animals, is right there, hiding in plain sight behind the everydayness of that first stanza, the throwaway ‘ands’ that keep one line tripping on to the next. The wee scene at the end, you’ll notice, is the poem’s only action – poet opens door and looks at big rock – but what histories are packed right in there? The timescale for the boulder to put its boots on and arrive outside the cottage, just to hold out its silent gifts of ‘lichen-saucers / a few lampwicks of grass’? And then the implications in that last line, the hyper-patient ‘long enough’ for which the boulder will endure, still offering its living goods? It’s all a bit fantastic.


The Bonniest Companie opens with several such pieces, which seem to purposefully adjust the reader’s perception of timescale. The opening poem, ‘The Shrew’, begins with the plea, ‘Take me to the river, but not right now’ – a sort of Frost-ish welcoming of death, with a caveat – before concluding:

‘ – but when my hour comes,
let me go like the shrew
right here on the path: spindrift on her midget fur,
caught mid-thought, mid-dash’

Again, the poem’s conception of time is pleasingly knotty. The future final hour becomes not just the present moment but the present place, this particular shrew I’m currently seeing, held in the suspension of its final act, unbounded by a full stop and pushed close to the onward edge of the right-hand margin. Death is weirdly presented here as more of a ‘yes, but also’ scenario. There’s a similarly mythic aspect to ‘Old Women’, one of the finest individual pieces in the collection, best read slowly, purposefully:

‘Thon tree,
earthfast at the foot
of your Alpine meadow,

dark, with mossy branches,
– apple perhaps –

can you give it a message?
Can you please say spring
will be there soon?

It’s creeping up the mountain
as though carried on an old woman’s back.

When we’re old women
we will fetch spring too.

You know the tree I mean.’

It’s such a fine piece of narrative play I can’t decide whether or not I believe there’s a real-world addressee here (there’s certainly no more than one). There’s an air of deep intimacy, that ‘thon’ again in its homely specificity, a tree that can provide for moss and survive the winter, a tree which seems the focal point of an entire relationship. The line ‘we will fetch spring too’ also feels redolent of something folklorey, something between an honour and an obligation, that suggestion that even the turning of the seasons is the result of serious labour and physical endurance. Connecting the tree’s stoicism to that of old women, and old women to a kind of mythic continuity, seems to carry some serious meaning for the collection. There’s a huge amount to be written about the quietly radical gender politics in Jamie’s oeuvre, and The Bonniest Companie adds many subtle layers.

Every time a poem seems to light on some kind of resolution, the book finds a way to complicate or refuse it, keep it in some kind of fluid uncertainty. Though several poems beautifully evoke a kind of deep (maybe genetic) memory – particularly the swans of ‘Migratory III’, ‘a lad they recall / thousands of years ago / skulking in a skin boat with his broken flute’ – the speaker, when she appears as the subject and not the lens of the poem, is often painfully aware of her incapacity to transcend time in the same way. Here’s ‘Blossom’:

‘There’s this life and no hereafter –
I’m sure of that
but still I dither, waiting
for my laggard soul
to leap at the world’s touch.

How many May dawns
have I slept right through,
the trees courageous with blossom?
Let me number them …

I shall be weighed in the balance
and found wanting.
I shall reckon for less
than an apple pip.’

There’s something deeply moving about comparing one’s own propensity to lie-ins with the ‘courage’ of apple-blossom. I can relate. Though again, that apple-blossom works perfectly as an emblem for the collection, that hard-won and short-lasting beauty that might, in spite of everything, come round again. Though the collection presents itself as a kind of year’s notebook, a seasonal cycle, a great many pieces are doing a much harder kind of philosophical labour than that description suggests, and far more politically-minded than nature writing is often credited.


On this point, there are (maybe) two poems that explicitly reference contemporary politics: ‘23/9/14’, a pointedly Scots poem which looks over the ‘withered leaves o shilpit trees / blaw across deserted squares’ and draws itself up at the close, in a movement remarkably familiar in a book about natural cycles:

‘We ken a’ that. It’s Tuesday. On wir feet.
Today we begin again.’

In fact, compare it to ‘Eyrie II’, in which strong winds destroy an osprey-nest:

‘What will the osprey do then, poor things
when they make it home?

Build it up, sticks and twigs –
big a new ane.’

The italics carry the meaning ‘build a new one’, but sound (to me) a lot like ‘begin again’. I begin to suspect that not a single word in The Bonniest Companie is placed by accident. There’s a similar punning wit in ‘Wings Over Scotland’, the name of a pro-indy website, which in the poem becomes a protest against unlawful killings of raptors in Highland estates. If there is a kind of accepting fatalism to Jamie’s thinking about natural cycles and deep time, there’s an accompanying urgency and purpose to her writing about the immediately contemporary. As Stuart Kelly points out, the collection does not include ‘Here Lies Our Land’, a poem inscribed on a rotunda at Bannockburn, describing a country ‘belonging to none but itself’; I suspect that it, too, might have unbalanced the nuanced pieces in The Bonniest Companie.

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I mentioned at the head of this review that there was a barely-sublimated wish for freedom in the book, which I don’t think can be mapped with any coherence onto discussions of political independence (there’s a wonderful, if short, interview Jamie did with the BBC somewhere windswept in which she talks about making a new country, talking about something that’ll be important in two hundred, three hundred years. Her tone is pure ‘this isn’t about you, or me, nor should it be’). First, here’s ‘High Water’, its long, intricate sentences an almost audible sigh:

‘When the tide returns
from its other life,
bearing its adulterer’s gifts

and the wrack-plastered reef
becomes again a sunk unknown

then we should take our leave – […]

all the lives we never lived
piled behind us on the shore. […]

till the next tide brings us bobbing
back home again – us,
and our shamefaced boat.’

What chance do we have? ‘The Tradition’ agrees:

‘Older now, I know nor fee
Nor anvil breaks these chains
And the wild ways we think we walk
Just bring us here again.’

These are not uncomplicatedly happy reunions. Look, too, at ‘Deliverance’, in which a star shining through branches becomes a pied wagtail trapped in a lobster-creel:

‘O fisherman’s hand, reach in!
Send us chirruping!’

For all its mock-heroism (cf that ‘bobbing’ in ‘High Water’), there is something very genuine, very vulnerable about this plea for release, counterbalanced by the energy and resolve elsewhere. The poem in which the book’s title appears, ‘The Hinds’, is also full of this kind of longing; here, it is ‘the foremost’ of a party of deer who addresses the looker, who has come upon them ‘in a waking dream’:

‘they stopped, and turned to stare,
the foremost with a queenly air
as though to say: ‘Aren’t we
the bonniest companie?
Come to me,
You’ll be happy, but never go home.

The precise phrase comes from a Borders ballad in which the hero, Tam Lin, is rescued by his true love from the queen of the fairies. Naming the entire collection after this particular passage, with the deer standing in as a kind of supernatural envoy, is a strange gesture, and not one I’m sure I understand. The rhyme of ‘me’ and ‘home’ is probably a clue: is the suggestion that one cannot be happy if one cannot go home, maybe the opposite? Is there something in the earlier line, ‘alive / to lands held on long lease / in their animal minds’, that mapping of human conceptions of ownership onto the lives of deer, where they patently do not belong? Ultimately, I think, it is part of a suite of complicated thoughts on roots and community, of environmental coexistence and cohabitation, and makes most sense in concert.

There’s a lot I haven’t discussed here: on the varied and beautiful usage of the Scots language, on the sequence of memory-poems that render the past a discomforting and uncertain place, a deeply moving elegy for Jamie’s mother. The Bonniest Companie is very much a poetry of mindfulness, at times a wonderful book of self-care. In ‘Solstice II’, the book’s penultimate poem, the collection comes full circle, uniting in a moment the mundane and the transcendent:

‘Here comes the sun
summiting the headland – pow!
straight through the windows of the 10.19
– and here’s us passengers,
splendid and blinking
like we’re all re-born’

Tl;dr: This is a magnificent book, one that pushes the boundaries between the natural and the political. Read deeply.

Further reading: Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman

Will Burns in Caught by the River

Jane Routh in Stride Magazine

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

DavePoems has a Patreon

Dear Poetry Friends: today I’m launching a Patreon for my poetry review blog. If you read DavePoems, enjoy it, hate it, or otherwise would like to help me keep making it, this is a place where you can contribute anything from $1/month (about 65p) upwards. Any/all contributions are massively appreciated, you can cancel at any time, and if you can’t afford anything, of course the blog will remain absolutely free.

The other nice thing – contributing $5 (about a pint/month) gets you a twice-yearly poetry zine made by Margarida Jorge and myself! It will look SO SMASHING. There’s a much more in-depth explanation of what it is I’m planning to do and why this is a necessary move for my practice as a critic on the creator page.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, more reviews will be on their way forthwith.
All best,

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read her work previously.

Review: Positing any sure-footed ideas about Humbert Summer is a difficult prospect. It sometimes feels like reading several poets across a single book, and I’m not completely satisfied by connecting that to it being ‘written between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three’, according to the back cover. The poems aren’t specifically dated, and any attempt to say ‘this is a YOUNG poem’, ‘this is a GROWN UP poem’ is of limited value anyway. What is apparent, though, is the variance in tone between a poem like ‘temples’:

‘Mithras –
white ground
ghost is white in silent catnaps

spider traps!
all icons
of evil’

and, for example, ‘double denim’:

‘allow them to wash over you,
her sequences, the sky pink as old hands


it’s almost comforting to know
that the colours

are the first thing
you will fail to recall’

There are several poems in the former category, constructed around individual bursts of declarative speech, exuberant lighting effects, punchlines; ostentatious and belligerent. Humbert Summer falls more substantially into the latter, however; a tendency towards contemplative, elegiac pieces that seem to mourn a moment still proximate enough to leave a wound.

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That said, the above is probably too blunt a demarcation, and several poems could fit comfortably in both categories; there’s little to be gained from approaching Humbert Summer systematically. Part of the book’s challenge is determining the precise levels of irony at work, which seem to vary drastically from one piece to another. There is an obvious delight in language and a deft sense of humour, as in ‘tofu’:

‘the bean curd claims
it is firm & silken

But i don’t like to eat something
so coyly insinuating’

There is also a complicated relationship between the book’s various postures and the poet’s intent; ‘ars poetica’ warns:

‘boy, you want to toss a while
in my dark and back-to-nature thoughts –
know that i am serially unkind
to those who love me
because i am young, have flame
in my skin and believe
that these people
exist in infinite supply – ’

This passage holds within itself both the defiant gesture and its own critique, the knowledge that one (flame-skinned thoughtlessness) begets the other (love’s finitude). Likewise the self-conscious hagiography of the book’s title poem, which asserts ‘you’re old, / you won’t get it’. Given the it in question is ‘four-day drinking in a basement flat’, it’s difficult to take it seriously in its immediate context; it could very well, however, stand as a useful warning to readers inclined to talk down to the book, that despite its most superficial appearances, Humbert Summer knows precisely what it means.

Maybe it’s worth discussing this more deeply. If you were so inclined, you could read Humbert Summer over an hour or so; it is syntactically straightforward, often conversational in tone, its references more often pop cultural than not. But a casual gesture is no more indicative of shoddy poetic craft than a stately rumination on Rilke is indicative of heartbreaking genius, and on closer inspection there is very clearly an ear attuned to rhythm and sound at work. The poems in the collection are in close conversation with each other and acutely aware of their cultural contexts (everything I noted about Jack Underwood’s middle class markers also applies here, including the poet’s awareness of them); their cumulative effect suggests a meticulous design behind the apparently throwaway, though I’d hesitate to put too fine a point on what message that design might carry. The book’s apparent contradictions seem more like necessary complications, the ostensibly self-aggrandising postures more a direct response to a casually cruel and often violent world than an idle daydream. In ‘kill all men club’, Blakemore asserts:

they’ll find us prone

in pearls
and mother-perfume,
one filthy fur
between us

borrow a dress
and Dickinson’s dashes,
rip it up

and start again.’

The surface gesture – something like, ‘what we have might seem more decorative than beautiful but still carries the capacity for substantial change’, I think? – implicates the power structures that underwrite the gesture without necessarily bringing them into focus.


Later poems also throw new light back on earlier ones. The passage from ‘ars poetica’ claiming ‘serial unkindness’ is completely undermined elsewhere in the book; the absolutely stellar poem ‘Katharine’, for example, takes the elegiac tone elsewhere in the collection and finds it completely inadequate to the kindness the poem requires. It begins:

‘there was never
the tolling of bells,
just a sinking
on the stairs.’

The grand gesture is substituted for something far more muted, the poem alighting on Heaney’s last words, noli timere (‘don’t be afraid’), before the poem’s central testimony:

‘i saw them too,

the blackberries
by the motorway.
i sleep in the urge
to uncover and eat them.’

Heaney’s death and the extraordinary gesture of encouragement and solace that emerged from it are evoked beautifully here, an image of sweetness and pleasure passing at high speed, the speaker’s visceral desire to retrieve it. The poem’s closing stanza seems to acknowledge and very obviously push aside the poetic persona, make explicit what the poem has already embodied:

‘i could not find it in myself
to be cruel. for some time
i made,

but not what i meant to.’

Much like ‘kill all men club’, the piece gains strength partly from its own internal formal workings but also from its immediate surroundings; ‘Katharine’ allows a moment of calm and even vulnerability in a book where the construction and maintenance of a tough exterior is its own manner of self-preservation, self-care, or – in the poems above – a kind of feminist solidarity.

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The collection features references to an unusual number of biographical figures, often appearing in the background or in passing, providing a kind of atmospheric wallpaper for the collection. There is an entire poem for Valerie Solanas, a feminist writer in 1960s New York who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and who gained notoriety for attempting to murder Andy Warhol. Here again, there is a strange tenderness among the asyndeton:

‘the sorry show made him
made Andy unlovable un
lovely as a slice of
peanut brittle spunked
snag-hag up the walls in hotels’

The poem ends, ‘her mother burned her belongings posthumously’. Blakemore dramatizes Solanas’ attempt to effect radical change within a culture that devalues and decontextualises such actions; the poem’s inability (or refusal) to make total grammatical sense seems to imitate the wilful misinterpretation of Solanas’ work by a culture that demands even the author’s family erase her.

Elsewhere, Simone de Beauvoir provides an epigraph (the collection is well-read on feminist theory), Naomi Campbell and fashion journalist Cat Marnell appear, Bowie and Leonard Cohen stand in as examples of (I think) over-praised pop icons, alongside Dalí, St Theresa, the cast of Friends, Rick James, Patti [Smith?] and Stevie [Smith?] in the book’s closing poem. There is an impulse to include the workaday stuff of the world and give it due attention and credit, to acknowledge it as appropriate substance for poetry. Though it ultimately seems to arrive at a punchline, the poem ‘Rick James’ enacts a delicate and transformative handling of several chemical antidepressants (‘Hydrocodone – / semi-synthetic, a droplet on a leaf’, ‘Digoxin […] instrument of / fairy thunder, bells of dead men, / threat-flower.’), seeming to mirror the poem’s transformation of the musician’s very public persona back to ‘James Ambrose Johnson Jr.’, a real person with mental health problems which were neither acknowledged nor attended to in his lifetime. It’s an unusual act that seems to very gently draw in the reader’s ability to connect with the poetic renderings of chemical medicine, before leaving on a note of wry, almost accusatory comprehension:

‘none were present in the bloodstream
of James Ambrose Johnson Jr.
in sufficient quantities to pose
a threat to life in and of
themselves, though in orchestra

they made a convincing explanation
for his prior behaviour.’

Humbert Summer is full of these attempts at understanding troubled or troubling people, acts of empathy in the face of often overwhelming acts of violence. And violence suffuses the collection too, both explicitly and implicitly, in the early poems’ repeated images of knives, broken glass, blood, the later poem’s intimations of abduction and abuse. Like ‘ars poetica’, ‘three abduction fantasies’ seems to both enact and criticise its surface drama. The poem is in one sense precisely what it purports to be, with ‘a blonde retrospectively / transfigured by female desire’, ‘the boy is beautiful, with his bones / nearly visible’. But the poem, unsurprisingly, doesn’t flinch from the fantasies’ attendant destructiveness. The lines:

‘he’ll make you feel like a child again:

naked and shaking –
down in the bright and blood-red leaves’

are among the most disturbing in the collection. The poem seems fully aware of the imagined scenario’s implications. The book’s final poem, ‘thunder ’14’, seems to give voice to these violent impulses, a sort of divinely inspired stream of consciousness that takes in many of the book’s most powerful images, the poem’s lines spilling over and running on breathlessly:

‘a thunderstorm and all the dogs are barking a thunderstorm and
you come back to me your glass-eyes full a portion a portion of
you for the gods and i say i think i believe in magic now: nature
likes to remind us sometimes / i will take on my nature
or flying rise to meet it’

It’s so unlike the rest of the book’s meticulous precision (or studious disarray), it’s difficult not to read it as a kind of catharsis, a letting loose where the other poems worked to retain their composure. At any rate it’s perhaps fitting that a book so preoccupied with understanding its place in the world (the opening poem, ‘sick of the beats’, seems to address this question directly – ‘wondering / what higher place it is / you walk in, where you sleep, // and how retain that / state of grace’) should end with a great confusion.

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Stepping back from that brink, though, the last poem is not, I think, the last word in Humbert Summer. Towards the end, amid the tension and heightened emotion, there is an extraordinary moment of calm, a poem named ‘*’:

‘the cloud
is a yellow sun-dress
floating on cold, superb water –

someday we’ll live
somewhere warm

As you might know, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, but for this book to allow this frank a moment of quiet just knocked me sideways (listen to that wee chime on ‘water/together’). Blakemore, I think, is primarily a lyric poet, albeit with the trappings of her post-internet context, and moments like these are what put me in mind some of Dylan Thomas’ work, the poems that find some kind of beauty, moments of small ‘r’ romantic defiance in the face of violence or death. The moments of ironic grandstanding seem to be the necessary context for the moments of genuinely earned generosity, the signal payoff that explains or permits or redresses the noise.

tl;dr: Though it might appear slight, I think there’s a heck of a lot going on under the surface in Humbert Summer. There’s a tendency with first collections, particularly from young poets, to defer praise to the hypothetical Future Alpha Version whose work will actually merit close attention. Humbert Summer, I think, is already its own strange, multifaceted true mint.

Further Reading: Interview with Artefact Magazine

Interview with Pank

Review by Charlie Bayliss in Stride Magazine

‘When Will We Stop Hating Teenage Girls?’ by Eve Livingston

Buy Humbert Summer from Eyewear Publishing

Mona Arshi – Small Hands

Full Disclosure: Had not previously read any of Arshi’s work. Review copy provided by the Forward Arts folks.

Review: Arshi’s first collection won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in an extremely strong field. As with many poets before her, Arshi’s non-academic background has been pawed over like a curiosity from another world, but her previous career has only a cursory impact on her work (one poem concerns Diane Pretty, who fought for the right to assisted suicide, another Shafilyah Ahmed, a victim of honour killing). Arshi is a poet, which is more difficult to make copy out of, but much less distracting from the poems.

Small Hands is a beautiful, minimally-designed and tiny edition – even the font is noticeably smaller than the industry norm – and Liverpool University Press have done an excellent job making the physical object match the work inside it. The collection is full of curious, shifty poems that seem intent on approaching their subjects sidelong, or from multiple angles at once. If this approach sometimes makes it difficult to get an accurate read on the poem’s message, it does make for work that seems to offer up something different with every reading.

For a taster, here’s ‘Taster’:

‘I taste it because it might taste of honey. I taste it because my brain is a hive. I taste it because I’m properly assimilated. I taste it because I was an only child and refused to share the oranges in the playground. I taste it because I never travelled. I taste it because I’ve travelled to the frozen tundra of the Northern Arctic.’

Several of the book’s poems operate in this kind of mode; there is a central theme, image or refrain around which the poem eccentrically orbits, creating some kind of understanding through irrational connections as much as logical progression. Here, the poem’s excessive ‘because’s push towards its sublimated question, and what it is exactly that’s being tasted (the world? truth? a pebble of quartz?) is left in all its multiplicity, mystery (‘I taste it because nothing is as holy as intimacy because I want it to purr and stink inside me’) and mundanity (‘I taste it because Auntie Naveen’s best friend tasted it and she never looked back’). The poem manages to have its cake and taste it, performing the very act of sensual inquiry it figures as an answer to its own question, as much an abstract sensation as an everyday habit.


In fact, ‘small hands’ might also be a useful way of thinking about the book’s individual poems, how sensory information is often the prime source of meaning, their preoccupations with tenderness and intimacy. Small Hands seems particularly interested in the boundaries between people, the complex play between love and a less empowering kind of desire, the will to give everything to someone and the need to retain one’s agency. The strange, excellent lyric ‘The Found Thing’ encapsulates this complex dynamic:

‘It infiltrated, left a trace in my mouth
and I wanted it. Emboldened, it began
to colonise all those tight spaces.’

The unnamed ‘thing’ becomes the speaker’s ‘constant mute companion’, then:

‘One morning it was just not there.
I searched and searched, panic rising up
in my throat, and I couldn’t manage
to say what it was I had lost, and how.’

The loss of being controlled is rendered as painful as being controlled in the first instance. In ‘Hummingbird’, the speaker offers up their body, part by part, the generous, loving impulse compromised by some gruesome details that hint toward the violence necessary to enact such a totalising submission of both body and personality:

‘Slide open the bone-zip of my spine,
anoint each rigid peak. Take my limbs

And fold me over. Here’s my mouth, hummingbird,
linger there, and hold my breath.’

Acknowledged in the poem is an apparent fear of the loss of bodily autonomy, alongside the clear delight in the act’s sensuousness. As with ‘The Found Thing’, there is a complicated power dynamic in play, the fear of being ‘colonised’, of the desired body’s capacity to ‘Be God’ over the desirer. These poems are alert to the beauty of the world, but keenly mistrustful of it.

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They also, I think, throw some light back on the book’s opener, ‘The Lion’, a strange, symbolic-ish story about another creature described as being ‘like God’, whose relationship to the speaker is framed in both sexual and paternalistic terms. Again, the speaker stands somewhere between physical desire and an awareness of its incapacitating or dehumanising effects:

you can never master the deep language

Of Lion, I am made dumb by the rough
stroke of his tongue upon mine. […] Sometimes

I think all I am is a comfort blanket for his

arthritic mouth.’

In this instance, however, the Lion does not have complete or final control. He is described in terms of decrepitude – ‘I hear the crackle of his bones’, ‘How unstable and old he is now’ – and the poem ends:

‘He starts undressing me under the sweetening stars.

Please girl, he mews; this might be the last time
I will see how the thin light enters you.’

The precise positioning of the italics is vital. ‘Please girl’ is the only direct speech in the poem; the final lines are the speaker’s, and their finality, their intonation of departure and, implicitly, the freedom that comes with it, are a subtly powerful statement.

There are a number of poems in which a domestic space is itself rendered as a kind of cruel and unusual container, a space of social surveillance and moral disapproval. ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage’ and ‘Bad Day in the Office’ are absurdist riffs on the arbitrary impositions of home life, the state of constant threat that it seems to promise:

‘Things you should have a good working knowledge
of: mitochondria, Roman roads, field glasses, making
rice (using the evaporation method only)

When your mother in law calls you smart,
it’s not meant as a compliment.’ (‘What Every Girl…’)

‘That estate agent arrived for the purposes of the valuation.
He dandled the babies on his lap and placed his index finger
on my bottom lip. There’s some paperwork somewhere.’ (‘Bad Day…’)

There’s a comic atmosphere to these poems, and their sudden tonal shifts are pretty funny. But it’s also underpinned by an awareness that the humour is working in friction with a less amusing truth, a threat of having one’s selfhood undermined by family and respectable society alike. In both poems, the speaker is in a position of powerlessness, and the poem’s wry expression of these criticisms, controls and abuses seems a kind of defence mechanism, a not-waving-but-drowning that indicates suffering through its absurdity. The last line in ‘Bad Day…’ is not the speaker’s words but an advertising blurb which has been ‘eye-balling me’: ‘We promise, you’ll never look back’.

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Between the glowing specificity of the poems’ vision and its often bleak humour are several short, painful elegies for Arshi’s younger brother. The matter is approached with a kind of euphemistic obliqueness, a heightening of poetic strategies employed elsewhere in the collection; the plainly-titled ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ begins with the flinching lines ‘The smallest human bone in the ear / weighs no more than a grain of rice’, the kind of trivia one might fixate on in the face of unfaceable grief. The book’s title poem is an act of mindful quietness, ‘passing our palms over creases’, ‘Someone will place his hand on my head’, ‘She’ll be tapping the glass: / only her knuckles illuminated’; the poem is composed of a series of attempts at providing comfort, its use of future tense hinting towards their insufficiency. The poem ends on the mother’s knuckles at the window of a room ‘swollen with light’, an ambiguous figure that trails off toward an inexpressible future.

Small Hands is an assured collection, full of neat phrases and imaginative generosity. As with many first collections, there are a few pieces that seem to reiterate ideas formed elsewhere about sensuality or intimacy more than provide a new angle (I’m thinking of ‘Ode to a Pomegranate’ or ‘The Bird’), or when the poem seems occasioned by a conceit that doesn’t quite seem to satisfyingly develop (‘Wireman’ or ‘Mrs M Unravels’). But when these explorations pay off, they do so with real style, such as in ‘Barbule’, probably my favourite single poem in the collection, a series of hypothetical definitions for a word that google tells me means ‘one of the processes that fringe the barbs of a feather’:

‘An opening or an opening of an opening. […] The first blind rooting tips of a shoot. The effect of moonlight on an oblong pond and an early word for virgin wool. […] The foul breath of an exotic bird, most commonly the peacock.’

It’s a relatively simple effect, but beautifully executed, and it’s moments like these where Arshi’s capacity to translate sensory information into language that Small Hands seems at its most powerful.

Tl;dr: Small Hands is a cracking wee book (physically speaking), and there are poems in here to really savour. Well worth picking up.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin – The Boys of Bluehill

Full Disclosure: First encounter with Ní Chuilleanáin’s work, though a couple of esteemed colleagues have recommended her previously. Most statements below should be read with a silent ‘I think? Maybe?’ Review copy kindly provided by the Forward Prize folks.

Review: Of all the poets to approach with little prior familiarity, Ní Chuilleanáin might at first seem a daunting prospect: all available reports online speak to her tendency towards the oblique, the riddling or parabolic, poems that seem impossible to locate in time or place with anything approaching confidence; certainly I read with the awareness that I was very likely missing a lot of resonances with her earlier work. I think there’s something much more important to these poems, however, than a distillable autobiographical self or self-figure. Ní Chuilleanáin perhaps avoids these blurbifiable factors to allow the book’s philosophical concerns to take centre stage, and poems set somewhere Ireland-ish at some time in the recent-ish past ramify into nuanced, topical and at times radical discussions about bearing witness to trauma, and how power is wielded against such witnessing, from the intimately personal to the governmentally mandated. As Aingeal Clare puts it, her poems ‘are exercises in historical memory, providing invaluable points of entry into the larger forces that shape our lives today’; even if food banks and austerity measures do not literally appear, the kind of mentality that occasioned them does.

On the other hand, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are, if not exactly hermetically sealed, then at least uncommonly tightly bound (sometimes literally – the second poem is a weird riddle about a disused printing press and, yep, bindery; the poem’s implications are not necessarily warm to the world of publishing. Maybe). The collection’s closing poem, ‘The Words Collide’, seems in part a little parable for the reader who has, perhaps, just finished an unusually demanding book of poems, a provision of tools for a second reading. The poem features ‘a tough small woman forty years old’ trying to convince a scribe to write a dream to an unspecified compatriot, ‘the only one / who will get the drift’. The richness of the dream –

‘Among those beloved exiles
one sighed happy, as a curtain
lightened and the grammar changed, and the wall
showed pure white in the shape of a bird’s wing’

– is countered by the brute unimaginativeness of the scribe, who in the poem is the only one capable of accurately conveying her obviously urgent message. His refusals become ever more ludicrous and contrived:

‘It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag,
it will crack his collarbone.’

Of all the book’s parables, ‘The Words Collide’ is perhaps the most straightforwardly decipherable, or reducible to its component parts (although a parabolist once noted that such poems can never be wholly distilled without residue, and that residue is where the poem lives). The woman’s esoteric, ostensibly harmless message (her toughness and persistence hint otherwise) is still regarded as suspect; those with the power to relate it to its sole capable interpreter are desperate to supress it by any means necessary. The poem acts (maybe) as a kind of translator’s footnote: read me again, but carefully this time.


As is hopefully clear from the above passages, The Boys of Bluehill also manages to convey a real sense of humour, a warmth and understated sharpness unapologetic for its subtlety. The poems’ dramatic and ironic movements come in small fluctuations in tone that underpin the poem’s central concerns. A poem with the unassuming title ‘Juliette Ryan and the Cement Mixer’ begins, tongue-in-cheekly, ‘The world is beauty and order, / beauty that springs from order’, and tries to render understandable the self-destructive impulse to touch cement mixer blades like ‘velvet […] or the skin of a muscular chest’. ‘Somewhere Called Goose Bay’ is set (maybe) in a small town in Labrador, on the rural west coast of Canada. The poem’s laconic observations of the locals and philosophical concerns about the divvying up of land into political spheres gives the lyric a distinctly, beautifully, Bishopy undertone:

‘I am stranded
in the pilgrim hostel where the only advice
I have been given is not to comment
on the goat’s hair in the butter, if indeed
it is fair to call it butter. Presently
a spruce old woman – I have seen her photograph –
is to come and inform me about the last four

Something in the poem’s vocabulary redoubles its air of mid-century leisure, while pressing on – however archly – with the poem’s (and the book’s) preoccupations about the possibility of knowing or understanding the past and how it unsettles the present:

‘there is nobody here except me
and the man who stands by the door. I’ve asked him
why it should be goose, he said what is a goose?
He says, Eat it up. You’ve surely paid for it.’

The twisting of tenses here makes the man’s gnomic response even more confusing, given the presumably straightforward ‘real’ answer. But the human impact on the landscape, the colonial act of naming (Labrador is just north of Newfoundland, the prototype British colony in the Americas) and its erasure of the past connects to concerns about truth-telling that are at the heart of the collection.

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This in mind, the opening poem, ‘An Information’, is an almost supernaturally well-wrought piece that aggregates many of the book’s recurring motifs and images: hidden places, wedding music, moving water, open or closed hands. The opening line is a perfect tonal encapsulation of the whole book: ‘I returned to that narrow street’, its intonations of an unwelcoming and uncertain home, a painful memory. The poem’s narrative seems straightforward: the speaker asks an unnamed ‘you’:

‘what did you say when you went out
so the crowds that danced at the wedding
would not know your whole story? […]

did they guess, in the shop where you got the duck eggs,
that you had a guest?’

The poem’s title seems to destabilise the apparently straightforward narrative about hidden pregnancy, or even raise questions about whether the episode should be read literally at all; given the undeliverable message of the book’s last poem, does the unusually singular ‘information’ here also carry symbolic weight? In any case, the poem’s closing passage also makes a shape to be repeated later in the book:

‘Open your hand,
let it fall down, whatever you were holding, […]
do not look back to see whose hand
finds it, or where it is hidden again when found.’

The poem’s ultimate gesture, its offer of some manner of closure or healing, I think, is the promise of a network of solidarity, a promise that others will – like the letter-writer’s friend – find, understand and pass on what is necessary to keep the truth in currency. Such is the care with which this promise is made, however, that I cannot be entirely sure of it.


Though I mentioned the book’s wit and warmth, it would be disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t also carry a throughgoing preoccupation with death and the erasing effects of time. As Patrick Crotty notes in Poetry Review, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems ‘resist particularity of time and location, as if distrustful of that same world’s claim to substantiality’; what is absolutely substantial is the feeling of lateness, of irretrievable time, that colours much of the book, particularly in the book’s elegies. In ‘For Eamonn O’Doherty, 1939-2011’:

‘even his shadow is hairy, has teeth and warmth. […]
an apple falls and rolls, fetches up at the root of the tree.
The shadow’s vast hand reaches, there’s the sound of a bite:
they still belong to him, they still have the taste of apples.’

The figure retains a disturbing amount of agency and sensual life; death seems only to have turned this vitality into something at once homely and unheimlich. In ‘Two Poems for Pearse Hutchinson’, the poet and translator’s death provides an occasion to think on the ‘small languages’, ‘Welsh, Galician, Platt-Deutsch’ and their threatened survival:

‘I could see the small languages clustering
like swallows on wires but then caught like the birds
beating their wings madly against the mad cage
of the imperial tongue.’

Galician has deep connections with Portuguese, but also contains a great many loan-words from northern Celtic languages; Platt-Deutsch is spoken in northern Germany and the eastern Netherlands and is descended from Old Saxon. Ní Chuilleanáin’s point is, I think, that small languages contain an inherent fluidity, a potential for subversive indeterminacy and flexibility that crosses arbitrary political borders and refutes imperialist narratives of purity. As the first of these two poems explains,

‘there was only one reader, and this time
he has not waited to explain
the rules of the game, which will not be played again.’

These lines might be among the book’s most affecting, bringing a sense of joy and confusion and playfulness into the elegiac frame, while implying that, despite everything, the game will go on. In The Boys of Bluehill, loss is very much an active, even vitalising force that raises questions about the passage of time, whether it really has the ability to fix pain or sadness in the past at all; in ‘Stabat Mater’, suffering ‘shivers because it feels your touch, / it’s alive’; in ‘Direction’ the speaker’s father ‘in the time / since last I saw him he has moved and changed more than in all of his life’; in ‘Teaching Daily in the Temple’:

‘the phrase I missed
still there in the coded
labyrinth I must infiltrate again,
the language of the scroll construe, hunt down
between those hedges an escaping prey
before night falls on the phrase, on the lips
that move in the grave.’

Though undoubtedly a difficult and often puzzling book, The Boys of Bluehill is also tender, hilarious and often dizzyingly open-hearted, keenly aware of its contemporary contexts and the histories that inform them. There is a hell of a lot more to talk about here, like Ní Chuilleanáin’s preoccupations with monasticism, with folk music (the title is shared with a traditional Irish hornpipe), the ecocentrism and geological scale of some of her poems that seem to connect her to Kathleen Jamie’s work, her thoroughly weird metaphysical conceptions of time. But as I have a far more mundane understanding of the latter, I’ll wrap up here.

Tl;dr: The Boys of Bluehill is a stellar work, a book that promises to open up and open up. Read it several times. Take notes.

What is Reviewing For?

Full Disclosure: This is a slightly adapted/updated version of a talk I gave for students at the Oxbridge Academic Program in St Andrews in July. Cheers again to Tristram Fane Saunders for inviting me, it was great craic. This is also a bit of an apology for not getting more reviews out lately. Once again, thanks for reading. [ed: there’s a really good discussion about this essay going on in the comments.]

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A discussion about what reviewing is for is also a discussion about who it is for. Up until the very recent past writing about writing in these islands has been the domain of middle/upper class white men, with only a few notable individual exceptions. As with many poetic-critical matters, I first turned to the American poet-critic Randall Jarrell, whose essay on “Contemporary Poetry Criticism” in 1941 might have been written yesterday. Here, he identifies a distinction between publisher-friendly ‘good’ criticism, the kind that provides a kind of advertorial testimonial and drives sales, and the good criticism which “is often involved or difficult, and which always tells the public not what it wants but what is good for it”. Jarrell here co-opts the language of the doctor, probably for dramatic effect, though the connection between good art and a healthy body politic is rarely so clear-cut.

What has changed most noticeably since Jarrell’s time of casually using male pronouns when describing ‘the poet’ or ‘the critic’ is that such obvious markers of exclusion have faded out of use. What they have left behind is the more insidious means of silencing and erasing that characterise the culture at large: i.e. codes of practice that favour men very much like Jarrell, a university educated, cishetero, able-bodied, middle class white man. Literary research body VIDA’s recent figures on representation have returned some fairly damning statistics, particularly regarding the 80:20 male-to-female ratios in the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. In a subsequent discussion on Twitter, TLS assistant editor Michael Caines dismissed the statistics out of hand, even blaming women for not working hard enough to be commissioned by him. His behaviour is perhaps revealing about how such journals operate: cultural change is understood to be the responsibility of the oppressed, who are expected to overcome institutional prejudice simply by working harder to meet pre-existing male-friendly standards. This line of thinking allows editors to assume an ostensibly neutral position – ‘let the market decide’; ‘cultural change takes time’ – without examining their own roles in upholding those same prejudices about whose writing ‘matters’, in fixing whiteness and maleness at the centre of culture.

Economics also factor heavily in who can and cannot participate in an artistic community, and, given poetry’s scant resources, it’s perhaps unsurprising that low-paid or unpaid critical work or editing internships disproportionately favour middle class men with money, and thus time, to burn. I should point out (I should have pointed out earlier) that I am one such man: I was invited here off the back of a writing career I made online, for free, bolstered partly by financial support from home. In a recent interview with Claire Askew at the Scottish Review of Books, poet and artist Harry Giles argued that austerity measures make it ever more difficult for young writers to develop their work and support themselves, and that such measures are exponentially harsher on writers facing other forms of marginalisation: women, LGBTQ, racialized and disabled writers have suffered from cuts to public funding far more acutely. He continues:

“What’s needed are not nebulous opportunities and endless carrot-work, but schemes to make jobs for young writers (and artists of all disciplines) and bursary support. Initiatives like the Edwin Morgan Award, from which I’ve benefitted greatly, are very welcome indeed – but we also need initiatives that aren’t based in competition, and which enable writers to support each other.”

This last point is simply expressed but cuts to the core of how poetry culture in many ways reflects the aggressive neoliberalism of British culture at large; under the current system, only a select few receive huge portions of funding, and the substantial prizes that do exist (TS Eliot, Forward, Costa, the new Roehampton Prize) tend to favour older poets who often already hold lucrative and influential positions in academia, publishing or both. The ‘competition’ is rigged, stepping over other, less privileged writers is the norm, and the criteria by which artistic ‘value’ is judged are far from apolitical.

Meanwhile, in America, the fiasco over Michael Hudson’s use of a female Chinese pseudonym to gain publication in the Prairie Schooner and subsequently entry to the Best American Poetry anthology shows how willing some white male poets are to maintain their perceived entitlement to cultural centrality. In an article for VIDA, the poet Purvi Shah identified the practice not only as ‘yellowface’ (which had been in currency since the story broke), but coined an extremely useful term: ‘literary manspreading’, the act of occupying more space than one needs, to the detriment of those who need it more. Perhaps more importantly, Shah identifies a number of ways to further equity in future; these strategies revolve around providing solidarity for poets of colour, and an increased emphasis on working collectively or as part of a community, for example, “the next editors of the anthology could be a collective of women of color poets across diverse communities and be given the latitude to set criteria for their poem selection […] it is too easy to throw stones at one editor from an historically-oppressed community”. I was guilty on that last count, and I find myself once again regretting rash words. Shah’s point stands: if we are genuinely concerned about including marginalised writers in the literary communities we as white writers and readers have taken so long for granted, it will take direct action, and (maybe) a certain loss of comfort. It will take monitoring the work of editors and presses and demanding positive steps towards inclusivity, even from poets and editors we know, love and respect. Perhaps particularly from them.

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I want to argue that poetry is not a sanctified space, and that the lines Seamus Heaney drew between “the actual conditions of our daily lives [and] the imaginative representation of those conditions in literature” are dubious at best. For a great many people, the ability to make poetry intersect with the reality of one’s daily existence is a matter of life and death; for a great many of our most lauded poets, it is an intellectual exercise.

This year’s TS Eliot Prize winner, David Harsent’s Fire Songs, is an excellent example of a poet in a position of no small privilege exploiting the language of atrocity (including images of torture and the Holocaust) to make rhetorical hay and, ultimately, pick up twenty grand for his trouble. The book is full of scenes of violence against and revulsion towards women’s bodies, and repeatedly treats female desire as untrustworthy; the book also contains insensitive depictions of mental illness and war crime. The authority of the speaking voice in Fire Songs, I would argue, is propped up by Harsent’s own privileges as a wealthy white male academic. There is little evidence in the book that he has questioned his own position relative to his subject matter, or what right he has to be handling it; the speaker seems to aspire towards a stance of apoliticality, as if his poetic messages and gestures are free from cultural context. If it wasn’t clear already, no such position exists, and the fact that such a pretence is so richly rewarded by one of poetry’s most powerful institutions has troubling implications.

In a review in Poetry London, Michael Hulse called Fire Songs “a dark set of meditations on destruction, loss, last things […] a Sebaldian natural history of destruction, a vision in which processes of pain and occlusion are hardwired into a fabric of existence that offers no redemption […] Definitely not for the faint-hearted”. What Hulse does not discuss is what message those meditations deliver, the political implications of a wealthy white man so richly imagining a world without redemption; what position would such a man hold in such a world? Note also his deployment of other powerful men for ballast, and the pre-emptive strike on the ‘faint hearts’ of potential critics; these acts are intended to frame both book and review as unassailable, to reject the very credibility of critique.

Hulse’s review is in many ways deeply conventional, in that it first discusses the poet’s past achievements, superficially relates the book’s content second, and leaves little or no space in which to discuss the mundane-world implications of the book’s ideas. Much like Jarrell, Hulse writes under a great many assumptions about the relationship between poetry and the society in which it is an active participant. Indeed, regarding “Fire: a song for Mistress Anne Askew”, Hulse seems to take as much pleasure in describing the poem as the poem does in describing Askew’s suffering:

“Passion comes with a gravelly, darkened beat, sounding as if a Kiplingesque long line of iambics leavened with anapaests had been broken on the rack. Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr at the centre of the opening poem, was broken thus before being burnt as a heretic.”

Hulse’s conflation of metrical jargon and a real-life tortured woman is itself a deeply insensitive act, and speaks to the intellectual distance underpinning his critical work. And this is a key point; in the short space of a conventional magazine review (around 800 words, often less), there is little room for examining one’s own aesthetic prejudices; it could be argued that an appreciation of Fire Songs is dependent on the assumption that poetry does nothing, is removed from the workaday world, is consequence-free expression; again, imagine the social standing required for these conditions to be the expected norm. Under these conditions, criticism of the book’s overt misogyny may be explained away as over-literalism, a censorship of the imagination, or simply lacking the ‘heart’ to consume Harsent’s play with suffering, to see ‘how things are’. Under these conditions Harsent can play the taboo-breaking outsider or neutral bystander casting judgement from a safe distance.

Harsent, aided by Hulse and others, maintains his cultural authority through a systemic refusal or inability to permit discussion of his work’s underlying messages, or the power structures that allow, even encourage, such arrogation of authority in the first instance. As Charles Whalley puts it:

“The politics of established verse, where it has any, are predominantly Lib Dem: its emphasis is on individual freedom and dignity, while mostly ignoring the conditions through which that freedom is granted. In claiming, in its humanity, to soften the edges of C21st neoliberalism, it perhaps merely soothes the consciences of its beneficiaries. The suspicion remains that, as in much of the past, most poetry is only a store for the values of the affluent, only a ruling class talking of and for itself.”

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In short, it’s all sunshine lollipops and rainbows. But the point of this talk was to identify what reviewing is for. To the best of my understanding, it is this: reading. Jarrell argues that publishers need reviewers to boost their products, but that it is far more important that readers have trustworthy advocates; a reviewer is a specialist reader, an expert practitioner of a common skill. If our goal is to build a creative culture that respects the marginalised and holds the powerful to account, we need to first acknowledge how ingrained the resistance to such change will be.

To that end, if you want to review: first, that’s awesome, get online as soon as possible; second, read as much as your time, energy and sleep patterns will allow. Read poetry, read criticism, read essays you find on twitter. Our culture unduly respects voices that disrespect the marginalised and their experiences, voices that refuse to see abusive structures of power and how poetry aptly mimics them. It is the work of the reviewer to identify how these trends manifest in art, how art can be complicit in the systemic violence of society at large.

Pretending the world of the poem ends at the edge of the page is a dangerous falsehood; pretending the only poetry worth rewarding is written by liberal academics is harmful and culturally stymying. A good reviewer must first recognise their own position within these oppressive structures, and ultimately act according to their best principles. Which isn’t easy! Sometimes that will involve recognising your own prejudices, and maintaining a critical practice that constantly questions its own motives and cultural context. You will make mistakes sometimes, and you will sometimes do so publicly; the real test is how you respond. Understanding the artistic community not as a state of cultural Darwinism but a potential means of collective empowerment is an excellent place to start.

There is no way you hold within your person the means to understand every possible perspective, and you should be suspicious of those who claim authority where they have little or none (this essay included). Understanding and respecting the work of others takes time, effort and often a total rethinking of how you act or express yourself. It sometimes means creating platforms for or signal-boosting marginalised voices, even if that means relinquishing some of your own institutional power. Such acts are not easy, but they are, I think, a positive first step towards a culture that can speak honestly and openly about its past and future.

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Full Disclosure: This is my first encounter with Rankine’s work. For anyone new to the site, I am a middle class white fella, and I will do my best to recognise how that impacts my reading of Rankine’s work.

Review: Okay, straight out of the traps, cuz I want to get this out of the way, this is poetry. It is a bunch of words arranged with painstaking precision. There have been any number of successful poetry books in these islands that use prose extensively or even exclusively (see Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars), and focusing on the form too easily elides the vitally important messages Citizen delivers.

The book is a collection of stories, essays and traditional lyric poems that (in part) attempt to expose and explain the harm caused by structural and microaggressive racial violence; its recurring use of the pronoun ‘you’ is partly an attempt to circumvent whatever defence mechanisms we might have against the idea we might be complicit in racial oppression. The social mores that enable the situations narrated in Citizen are so basic, so much a part of the wallpaper of daily life as to be near-invisible; as Holly Bass notes in her review, “this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit. What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others”. The bare facts of Rankine’s readership demographics are of no small importance: of the top ten hits on google search for ‘claudia rankine citizen review’, for instance, eight reviewers are white; three of the top four are white men working for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and Slate. A relevant question might be, talented though these critics are, why these authoritative sites decided that white writers were best positioned to discuss this particular work. If your response is ‘they just picked the best writers available’, you should read Citizen. ‘The best writers’ is not a politically neutral category.

Seeing as the autocorrect on this word doc doesn’t recognise ‘microaggression’, here’s a brief definition. Racism and other oppressions do not maintain their social dominance solely by overt, conscious acts of bigotry. Microaggressions generally happen below the level of awareness of members of the dominant culture (cf Hilary Clinton’s speech identifying the ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens in America who fear black men in hoodies; when our own Prime Minister decides that our Muslim friends, family and peers do not deserve to live in peace, how does that impact the way our own ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens think about each other?).


In the US and the UK alike, the dominant culture means middle/upper class white people, like myself, and if I know poetry culture round these parts, very likely yourself too. And it doesn’t take much research (though Fiona Moore’s studies are extremely relevant here) to see that poetry in these islands have a serious problem acknowledging and supporting work by black and minority ethnic poets. The message runs: white people have won prizes and are taught on the curriculum, thus are culturally central, thus constitute the category ‘good poetry’, thus white people make the prize lists [ed – the Forward Prize has done sterling work in this regard as of late]. White people are the default and will be met with little/no critical objection; BAME poets are other, their presence requires justification. If they write in a way that does not fit within the existing poetic norm, they are very easily ignored, filed away in pre-made and ill-fitting categories that diminish their intellectual work; note how much easier it is for academic white poets to pick apart these aesthetic prejudices. I truly don’t imagine, however, that these decisions are made deliberately (that would be relatively easy to deal with); they seem to uncritically follow the kind of social imperatives that (at one extreme) make us call human beings seeking refuge from international warfare ‘swarms of immigrants’. It takes a huge and conscious effort to identify and expunge ourselves of the reflex prejudices our culture wants to imprint on us; note, for example, the way the term ‘identity politics’ has been appropriated as a means of dismissing the very discussion of those complex and fraught relations.

If the above shows anything, it’s how time- and energy-consuming it is to get around to talking about a book that questions and rejects basic social norms. In an interview with Radio Open Source in Boston (which is seriously worth listening to), Rankine describes the process of accumulating these stories from friends and colleagues, that the book’s early sections – the short, sharp, confounding accounts of language becoming violence – are a kind of communal witnessing or testimony. They are also, as Rankine explains, a means of talking back, addressing what in hindsight seems a blatant act of ignorance and/or violence, but in the moment is simply too unbelievable to address or even process: the phrases ‘What did you say?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ return and return in Citizen. The first act of resistance is believing that these things did, in fact, happen exactly as they appeared to, and part of the book’s challenge to white readers is to see ourselves in these interactions, at the very least to see how these interactions benefit or favour us by making us more comfortable, more firmly situated as trustworthy, welcome, central and normal. Whether or not we are the university employee complaining about how affirmative action meant her son didn’t get into the right prestigious school, or the man who ‘tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’, as white people we still benefit from these underlying messages and the normalised white supremacy that makes them acceptable. We need only stand by and watch to gain from them.

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In this regard Rankine’s voice is key to how the book expresses itself, and why listening to her read is so informative. Her voice remains flat, calm, reserving all possible energy for a rehearsal of what is, in actuality, one in a series of exhausting reminders of what her body means to a society hostile to its presence. Sections IV and V are dedicated to the poet’s management of her mental health brought about by a daily engagement with the kind of violence detailed earlier in the book. These later passages are difficult reading, elaborating on the impossibility of anything like safe mental space when ‘Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that.’ Perfectly logical emotional processes, like anger at having one’s individuality erased, are precluded by the world’s need to avoid addressing uncomfortable truths: ‘You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice.’

The sequence comes after an extended exploration of the career of Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a black woman. Rankine opens with a discussion of Jayson Musson’s (aka Hennessy Youngman) YouTube video encouraging black artists to commodify their anger, in a way that Rankine identifies as ‘tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations’. Musson’s ideal black anger that creates marketable personae and sells music does not make room for Williams’ real, unpalatable and ostensibly inappropriate anger, which ‘in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness’. Rankine aligns Williams’ story with Zora Neale Hurston’s line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”: that background includes the tennis venues Indian Wells and Wimbledon (aka the All England Lawn Tennis Club), and a professional sport that cannot or will not acknowledge its complicity in violence against an individual who refuses to bend or apologise for her brilliance. During Williams’ unbeaten run in 2012, Rankine describes the new narrative shaped by tennis’ commentariat: ‘She has grown up […] as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others’. Citizen makes it clear that no amount of success, achievement or contribution to the body politic can, under the existing cultural system, secure that individual love, respect or peace of mind.

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The essay also illuminates the extreme care and precision that characterises the book’s own use of language. Each sentence moves slowly, treads purposefully – there is little relaxation, little of the personability or openness that typifies lyric poets like Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. Rankine seems prepared for her ideas to be minutely scrutinised, intuits that only the most rigorously exercised thoughts will stand a chance of being heard. And hypothetical anger – dynamic, animating anger that for most lyric poets is a central weapon – will only be pigeon-holed with Williams’, labelled as ‘crazy’ (for a high-profile example, cf Taylor Swift lashing out at Nicki Minaj’s valid criticism of the music industry, and how swiftly that industry moved to frame Minaj as the aggressor). That Rankine creates both absolute clarity and valuable complexity is an incredible achievement, and deserves to be recognised as such. She is a writer of almost peerless skill, and in a better world this review would be free to discuss her talent with subtle organising metaphor, details that seem perfectly incidental until it emerges that they underpinned the entire endeavour. That she has proven the lyric form capacious enough to hold some of the most complex thinking on racial inequality I’ve ever read is worth celebrating on its own. For what that’s worth; lest we forget what countless awards and achievements have done for Williams’ emotional wellbeing.

Returning to her Open Source interview, Citizen is a book about the intimacy of racial violence, about how the body can be made into the locus of racial hatred, how that process becomes gradually corrosive in the most personal ways, and how resistance to these acts will be wilfully misinterpreted. The short sequence on Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi, after the latter called him a ‘Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger’, quietly but joyously reframes the episode: ‘The rebuttal assumes an original form’. Zidane, a brilliant and articulate athlete hitting back against a career’s worth of diminishment and abuse (‘what he said “touched the deepest part of me”’), was still unable to control the subsequent narrative which, like Williams, refused to contextualise his actions. Rankine’s book is a reminder that Materazzi, like the line judges at the US Open, like the employees at the university or commuters on the train or drivers in the car park, all act in the interest of maintaining white supremacy, from which people like myself benefit every day. As Rankine asks an English colleague regarding the death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots in London, ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?’ This is an important book, and hopefully the catalyst for a long and difficult discussion.

Tl;dr: Citizen is an astonishing work, an accusation and a call to action. Read it over and over.

Further reading:
Claudia Rankine’s Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry
Holly Bass in the New York Times
Nick Laird in the New York Review of Books
Interview with Rankine on Open Source
Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker
Shaelyn Smith in The Rumpus