Andrew McMillan – physical

Full Disclosure: Saw McMillan read at the Forward Prize, this is my first time reading his work. Aware of several prize wins/nominations.

Review: To get it out of the way, one of the most infuriatingly shitty reviews I read in all of 2015, was by Gregory Woods in the Jan-Feb 2016 edition of PN Review (full text hastily but legibly screengrabbed here). Woods begins by comparing McMillan’s stylish and purposeful use of Yorkshire English to illiteracy, before suggesting it could only have been a result of mistakes by both poet and editor; concerns about non-standard English comprise about half his word count. Woods’ next argument, that McMillan is not being a gay poet correctly (his deployment of homophobic binaries on the topic is baffling, particularly given his academic career as a professor of LGBT studies) is utterly meaningless as critique and seems designed to cause personal hurt. Woods also belongs to the school of thought that the ‘new generation’ (whatever that means) has been ‘rendered half-mute by new taboos’ (whatever those might be). The review is close-minded, vindictive and barely literary; much like other critics of his generation, Woods cannot bring himself to consider McMillan’s ideas worth engaging on their own terms, nor can he abide the thought that someone might want to do things differently to himself. Regarding his pithy parting shot, if Woods had access to a half decent dictionary surely he would know that the singular ‘biceps’ is also perfectly acceptable; it’s this kind of monolithic thinking about minor details at the expense of the bigger picture that leaves his review intellectually bankrupt. As a lifelong member of a half-mute generation, unbelievable horseshit like this can get in the fucking sea.

ANYWAY.

physical is McMillan’s first full collection, and includes the sequence ‘protest of the physical’, which was published as a pamphlet by Red Squirrel Press in 2013. The book clocks in at around 45 pages, a handful of which feature section titles and epigrams; it simultaneously feels ruthlessly efficient and deeply invested in the importance of white space on the page. It’s tempting to read this editorial approach as commensurate with the poems’ attitude to the body; ‘Jacob with the angel’ pointedly talks about its protagonists in terms of their physical fitness:

‘no soft parts of stomachs           no inch of them hung loose
like old sacking from the muscle’

I don’t think this is uncomplicated praise for the flawlessness of strength or bodily aesthetics, however, particularly not alongside a poem like ‘the men are weeping in the gym’, of which more later. Here, the inability of either Jacob or the angel to give way, to permit weakness or vulnerability, fades into the allegorical reading of the second stanza, in which Jacob ‘is beating on himself’, bruised and already forgetful: ‘on waking / he isn’t sure if he has dreamt it’. The poem seems to be characterised as much by the unfulfilling aftermath as the rational-thought-transcending act (and even that is framed as happening ‘the way the weather / or the stock market happens’ – which is to say, I think, as a result of intensely complex, but strangely desire-less or agency-less systems). The resolution to remain anonymous in the first stanza –

‘because names would add a history
and the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone
is something out of time’

– leads directly to Jacob’s closing request ‘for ink to be brought / he says writing something down keeps it alive’. It’s very much up for debate whether memorialising is a good thing, however; certainly it flies in the face of the first stanza’s argument for preserving the one-off, no-strings sanctity of their meeting.

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‘Jacob with the angel’ establishes an important point of friction in the collection. Throughout its lyrical moments of intimacy – or, more often, physically proximate solitude – there is a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures. Numerous individual pieces, (‘screen’, ‘Saturday night’, ‘if it wasn’t for the nights’, the excoriatingly sad ‘a gift’) even in their beautifully articulated understandings of emotional and physical exchange, seem to have at their heart a desire to explain themselves, even to apologise. The poems’ action remains just at the edge of focus, as the poem attempts to recreate the conditions in which their protagonists’ decisions start to make sense. McMillan’s speaker (though the book indicates autobiography, I’m not entirely comfortable just taking it for granted) presents the poems’ lovers unsparingly, often pitifully; in ‘screen’, the speaker watches his lover watch porn, because ‘I knew / that you would end up loving me too / much I thought you needed other idols’. What makes these pieces powerful, makes them so heartbreakingly comprehensible, is their willingness to demonstrate the speaker’s own culpability without reaching for self-defensive explanations. Though the poems seem to stand at a clinical remove from their often extremely vulnerable subjects, there is little space for romanticism; the first instinct of ‘Jacob and the angel’ is to take it ‘literally’ before ‘allegorically’, and it is in the allegory that the true mint is betrayed.

At the centre of the collection is the sequence ‘protest of the physical’, in which the lyric essays elsewhere in the collection are allowed a degree of freedom to roam, the book’s emotional reservations or compromises (‘love / is giving everything too easily / then staying to try and claw it back’) put into a slightly broader social context. It’s partly a coming of age piece, characterised by a kind of earnest, brash curiosity that wants to transform its immediate surroundings (‘town as a dialogueheavy scene from a Ken Loach film’), and find in Thom Gunn’s poems an alternative reality, a counterweight to the outside world where graffiti reads ‘pits close / we still sink / into them’. The sequence is also pleasingly unconvinced about the essential otherness of the poet, as either paragon of higher thought or necessarily removed from their community:

‘station walkhome           man in the doorway
of The Mount looking up              g night luv
theory       the moon isn’t just for poets’

While ‘protest of the physical’ by its nature asks the reader to engage with some throwaway or slightly rambly thought-processing, it’s a welcome, rangy departure from the densely woven lyrics elsewhere in the book, and has a few of its best lines: ‘theory     we’ve confused happiness / with someone being able to say our name to us’. It may feel a little younger (whatever that means) in its occasional dreaminess or unironic hero-worship, but that element of embattled optimism carved out of a place that ‘carried // young men and women […] / as long as it could but       spinebroken / had to let them go’, is a valuable addition physical‘s emotional register.

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Elsewhere, there’s something productively dissonant about the poems’ sure-footed, almost stately composure and the turmoil it conveys; after a close read or two, it was this apparently unbridgeable gap that started causing some serious heartsickness. The poems that arc towards closeness and understanding are notable in their relative absence. One such piece, ‘yoga’, starts off from a point of fairly conventional scepticism:

‘we are told to tell our bodies that they are beautiful
we are told not to pass judgement
on where the breath may fall’

The prefix ‘we are told’ acts as a kind of buffer while allowing the teacher’s message to pass on regardless, a kind of double bluff before the poem fully absorbs it: ‘it needs trust in the strengthofbody / of another to support your own’. At the conclusion, a full awareness and acceptance of both being a body and being subject to that body’s needs results in a deeply peaceful moment in the middle of a thoroughly unsettled collection:

‘I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful        sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing    where the breath may fall’

This, I think, connects to the heart of the book’s ongoing discussion of masculinity, specifically a socially conventional masculinity that physical clearly views as toxic and harmful, both to the individual and those around him. Several poems deal directly with male identity politics that demand its adherents remain not only destructive but downright stunted. The aforementioned men weeping in the gym are cartoonish and childlike:

‘their hearts have grown too big
for their chests     their chests have grown too big
for their shirts     they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit’

The gesture, however, is at least to some degree self-directed; the very next piece is ‘strongman’, in which the speaker bench-presses his homophobic nephew and asks ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight // of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ McMillan seems perfectly aware that the beautiful, muscular bodies that appear throughout the collection (and on the book’s cover) are subject to similar social norms; both ‘choke’ and ‘Leda to her daughters’ address directly a connection between physical beauty and physical violence. The failure of the men in the gym to accept ‘the thousands of tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger’ identifies – much as in ‘yoga’ – that relatively little strength (physical or figurative) is needed to stay a safe distance from those you love, that it is far easier to push one’s emotional immaturity away than to confront it.

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Both ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ and ‘strongman’ play out masculinity’s failure to accommodate self-questioning or even self-love; despite the ostensible comedy in these scenes, physical makes it absolutely clear that this failure has very real victims. ‘Leda to her daughters’ is a sad, angry piece that renders clearly the neediness and violent thoughtlessness that accompanies the masculinity defined elsewhere in the book. The poem suggests that the myth’s most mundane aspect is

‘to pretend he didn’t understand

to think my outstretched hand might be an offering of food

daughter       to think that I would feed him’

Here, the act of wilful ignorance – an echo of ‘swearing […] that the words they mutter as they lift / are meaningless’ from ‘the men in the gym are weeping’ – is directly connected to the sexual abuse of the myth. The poem’s plain speech locates it in the absolutely contemporary, and the use of persona (one of very few in physical) allows the possibility that the speaker of the other poems might be more easily located as the thoughtless aggressor; as mentioned, physical is all too aware of its own capacity to harm. It’s uncompromising and sometimes angry in its expression, and like elsewhere in the book, its emotional frankness is what gives it such force. The photograph on the front cover, which first appears beautiful and alluring, the model’s fingers pushing fulsomely into his own side, starts to appear self-defensive and vulnerable, and a lot less sexy. It’s rare enough for a male poet to spend so much energy on such deep self-criticism, and in McMillan’s hands it becomes something uncommonly powerful.

tl;dr: physical is a complex and deeply human book, with some of the finest and most clear-eyed poems about love and personal-level power dynamics I’ve read in a long time.

Further Reading: Ben Wilkinson in The Guardian

Richard Scott in Ambit

Martyn Crucefix on his blog

Interview in the Yorkshire Post

McMillan on Thom Gunn in The Guardian

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.

Some (But Not All) Of The Good Books I Read In 2015, According To Ill-Defined And Highly Subjective Criteria

Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.

So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.

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Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in The Guardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.

Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience.  Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.

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Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN]
Harry Giles – Tonguit [probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best]
Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck]
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]

Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Harry Giles – Tonguit

Full Disclosure: Harry’s a pal. I was in the same writing group as him for a while and saw drafts of a couple of the poems in Tonguit back then. Briefly discussed his pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam on this blog when he was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Prize last year. I contribute to his Patreon, and his advice on setting up my own (and more generally his thoughts on regarding artistic labour as labour) remains invaluable. NB: Many poems in Tonguit are in Scots, and Giles has provided standard English glosses on his blog; the pdf might be useful for this review. Also note that wordpress can’t render the proper formatting of many of the poems quoted here.

Review: The word ‘tonguit’ pretty neatly maps onto the English word ‘tongued’, referring to a sort of inquisitive probing motion, a sensory and sensuous exploration. In Giles’ first collection the word’s secondary meaning of ‘language’ (or ‘acted upon by language’) is loud and clear. The first lines of the book’s first poem, ‘Brave’, declare:

‘Acause incomer will aywis be a clarty wird,
acause this tongue A gabber wi will nivver be the real Mackay, A sing.’

Giles both acknowledges and performs the complicated act of self-positioning that appears in various guises and contexts throughout the book. It’s tempting to quote from ‘Visa Wedding’ (‘Listen, hit’s semple: // in Orkney A’m English; / in England A’m Scottish; / in Scotland, Orcadian’), but that poem makes explicit what most, if not all, the other poems in this collection seem to understand as a prerequisite; that the world is strange, and one’s own position within it arbitrary, confusing and often subject to aggressive social pressures. On a cursory read Tonguit might appear kind of piebald, with deft formal experiments sitting alongside political flyting and geeky concrete poems, but they are all underwritten by a hyperawareness of bizarre and violent systems of power. These systems, Tonguit heavily implies, infect every aspect of daily life; labour, housing, travel, public services, pop culture, mental health, even the most intimate personal interactions are subject to interference from capital and the state. The poems’ often elaborate conceits seem to indicate the effort necessary to even begin criticising (or offering alternatives to) these in-built, ready-made oppressions; even then, there is no guarantee of escaping complicity.

[Note also that, as with Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Tonguit’s unglossed use of Scots is an assertion of the language’s place within a broader spectrum of Englishes, and is its own small subversion of the dominant mode; moreover, the ‘magpie’ (Giles’ descriptor) nature of this Scots asserts a plasticity and openness within that national tradition. The book seems to find in its Scots a linguistic space relatively unsullied by the centralised authority of standard English, which in Tonguit is more often than not the language of corrupt business, government and cultural paternalism. Perhaps just as importantly, the Scots in Tonguit sounds friggin lush.]

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So far as I can tell, there is only one poem which features both an autobiographically recognisable, anecdotal voice (aka Default Player Character in the Contemporary UK Poetry RPG) and standard English: ‘Piercings’, which directly engages with the speaker’s first queer relationship. I don’t think it’s accidental that this particular poem utilises the book’s most direct means of communication; perhaps employing Scots or a poetic conceit would have mystified a scene whose clear and uneuphamistic expression still remains relatively rare in the politer corners of poetry culture. That said, the poem’s real transgression seems more in its flaunting of social niceties, specifically in the feeling of loss, bordering on betrayal, when the speaker understands that his former lover has ‘pulled // out every metal sign, become / employable, less obvious’. Capital has a place for queer people, the poem suggests, provided they can leave their non-normative markers at the door.

Tonguit’s several excellent love poems operate under a vital intuition, namely that it’s probably better for everyone’s nerves if you leave it to the reader’s imagination. ‘Poem in which nouns, verbs and adjectives have been replaced by entries from the Wikipedia page List of Fantasy Worlds’ is aptly titled and creatively arrayed:

‘Don’t belkan to me, don’t tir like
I’m lodoss to your emelan blest,
like I’ll xen when you tortall my deverry tarth,
ooo, I’d landover earthsea with you, panem. […]

eidolon to pern me, tamriel! Harn me till
all my mundus aurbis one glorantha !’

The gist is all there, and with some pretty delightful nerdiness to boot. Giles is also a games creator, and there’s a kind of purposeful playfulness to many of the book’s pieces. The reader takes on the poem’s specific circumstances and adapts their approach to fit; that act of adaptation, of shifting one’s perspective, is vital to the poem’s meaning. ‘Sermon’, in which a speech by the Prime Minister to the Munich Security Conference has had the word ‘terrorism’ replaced with ‘love’, is a real highlight in its demonstration of how any word, sufficiently stripped of meaning and context, may be weaponised. Of course, every poem asks the reader to follow certain conceptual commands, it just happens that these rarely ask more than ‘imagine a poet in a field, feeling things’ or ‘imagine they’ve read Kierkegaard after an episode of Downton Abbey’. Giles trusts the reader’s capacity to play, or play along, and to see genuine subversive value in it.

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‘Your Strengths’, for example, is composed of government-mandated questions from the UK Citizenship test, a Department of Work & Pensions psychometric test (which was proven to give the same result regardless of user input, ie ‘you are fit to work’) and a DWP Work Capability Test. In performance, Giles delivers the fusillade of intrusive, personal, loaded questions with ever-increasing aggression and scorn as the Kafkaish horror unfolds. Those under interrogation, the poem suggests, have been forced into such a position of weakness that the questions barely need to make sense; indeed the senselessness is likely part of a state-sanctioned exercise in humiliation:

‘Do you lose concentration on a daily basis?
Do you lose control of bowels at least once a month?
What must all dogs wear in public?
Can you cope with minor changes to routine?
Can you complete a simple task?
Can you complete a simple, everyday task?
Can you complete normal activities without overwhelming fear or anxiety?
Can you sustain any personal action?

Do you always say thank you, even for little things?’

By the end of the poem, the line between the abusive governmental voice and the voice of the poet finding potential for subversion within that voice is difficult to distinguish: are questions like ‘Are you able to look at things and see the big picture?’, ‘Can you let bygones be bygones?’, ‘Do you always try to get even?’ provocations to political action or reminders of the governmental will to violence?

Happily, Giles overtly political-minded work does far more than rail against the darkness, and leaves ample room for interpretive or discursive thought. A series of poems from his pamphlet Oam – first written as part of a campaign to reopen Govanhill public baths in Glasgow – forms a hopeful and deeply human centrepiece; where amassed power terrorises, community organisation in Tonguit performs small, sustainable, subversive acts of love. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ is a beautiful bit of caricature, unravelling toxic masculine ‘hardness’ into something nurturing and communitarian:

‘The hairdest man in Govanhill has airms like rebar fae
cartin aboot auld folks’ messages.
He spits that haird hit colfs potholes.
He pisses that haird hit dichts stairwalls
blast-cleans
n hit smells o roses n aw. […]

He’s that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattooed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE.’

The comedy is straightforward, but the poem’s celebration of selflessness and generosity (‘he’ll staund in fer a missin goal post / ithoot ye e’en askin’) in the face of the decimated public service budgets is pointed and urgent. Likewise, contemplative pieces like ‘In yer haunds thare are nae deid hings’ ‘Blue Ghaists’ and ‘Govanhill Baths, July 2013’ broadcast their political messages quietly and subtly through their insistence on this particular place’s vital importance, investing the baths with history, social context, and the simple fact of its immediate value as a service. The latter piece, a haiku sequence, places the then-derelict baths into the realm of natural cycles, endurance and renewal:

‘steel shutters / brusts
fae reid brick a bluimin
purpie horn

[…]

boots on auld
white tiles / something saft gies wey,
some wee herb’

Deep time is a vital source of meaning in Tonguit, which locates these gains and losses within geological contexts (see ‘Pantoum on Reading Wikipedia’s Timeline of the Far Future’). The book holds a kind of dual perspective between the locally immediate needs of human beings and the fact that on a big enough timescale, even the Holocene extinction will barely register. Even this apocalyptic undercurrent has wonderfully uplifting moments, however, like the weirdly celebratory poems for crickets, ‘Song for a Lover as Magicicada’ and ‘If you measure the distance between the teeth they’ll tell you’. The former invokes the predictable mathematical patterns that determine cicada life cycles, the latter the discovery by researchers at the University of St Andrews that:

‘it turns out the fossil of a cricket
is a lossless audio codec
is a phonograph cylinder expecting the right
mandrel and needle
hey Indestructible Record Company you know squat
against the fossil record’

The cricket’s song survives, and the microscopic focus invoked by the poem finds traction against the inconceivable vastness of time through which such a small thing has passed intact. There’s something deeply reassuring about seeing humanity’s place in such grand schemes, of asserting that yes, our own lives are tiny on this scale, but on that scale (the one valorised in the Govanhill poems) they simply cannot be overvalued. And both scales are valid. Tonguit asks the reader to consider its scenes from strange vantage points, to permit alternative systems of meaning; this drive to hold multiple, ostensibly contradictory, ideas in tension is one of the book’s great pleasures.

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The long view and the contemporary are intimately bound in ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ (‘Old advice for building a country’), a sequence of versions after the Tao Te Ching (a 6th century BCE document from the Zhou dynasty court), dated to September 2014, the time of the Scottish independence referendum. Unlike elsewhere in the collection, ‘Aald rede’ is written in Orcadian, which Giles notes has ‘a different but related grammar, orthography and vocabulary’; the choice seems to indicate the deeply personal nature of the subject matter, but also to lend the piece an added strangeness, amplified by the decision in Giles’ English glosses not to provide a direct crib. The poem demands extra work of the (non-Orcadian) reader to draw out its meanings. Here’s a sample, from ‘57’:

‘the mair the laas
the peurer the fock
the sneller the blads
the mair the strowe
the sleer the sleyts
the waar the wark
the mair the ring
the mair the crime

syne

dinno deu
n fock transform thirsels
mak still
n fock govern thirsels
grow teum
n fock growe fouth
want no
n fock growe haemelt’

Giving the poem enough attention to work out its meaning is very much worth the effort (‘laas’, which doesn’t seem to appear in the glossary, means ‘laws’; I first read it as ‘loss’). Suffice to say the government who applied this philosophy would please its citizens better than its shareholders.

Tonguit sees the need for immediate and radical political change, and celebrates direct action; it acknowledges that this moment is just one in a vast history. It offers its heart to the reader in deeply personal poems about marriage, love, loss; it buries the confessional behind arbitrary language functions and semantic emptiness. It is dazzlingly ostentatious; it is stark and delicate. It sets all manner of stalwart presbyterian hackles ablaze at its attempt to seek balance and mindfulness in a world that hates both. But this, too, is a heartening aspect of a book that in other hands might have appeared too all-singing or over-reliant on gimmick; Tonguit enacts variousness as much as it valorises it, and in its hard-won optimism is a powerful and timely meeting of formal weirdness and deeply human political philosophy.

Tl;dr: This is an awesome book, unusual and surprising and featuring some incredible moments of calm and imaginative generosity. With multiple readings the surface playfulness gives way to deep considerations about the nature of power, and language’s complicity. Read it.

Further reading: harrygiles.org; @harrygiles

You can buy Tonguit from Freight Books or your choice of ethical book wholesalers.

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.

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.

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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.

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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,
Dave.

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

Pepto-Bismol,

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 speculates:

‘someday
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.

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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
together.’

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.

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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:

‘Although
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.