Rishi Dastidar – Saffron Jack

‘Bury that red
bandana and stick, that banjo; this is your
country, close one eye and be king.’

– Derek Mahon, ‘Ecclesiastes’ (1970).

‘I was one of us, at ease, so long as I passed
my voice into theirs’

– Daljit Nagra, ‘The Man Who Would be English’ (2007)

Like a lot of debut collections, Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape is a miscellany, jumping from political commentary to literary critique to romantic flirtation, but what unites it most clearly is Dastidar’s obvious delight in building unusual lines and phrases, letting the most vivid bursts of his imagination light the way. The book overflows with complex, often discordant flavours:

                ‘the failure barnacles that make
                the soul a marine carapace,
                indulgently leaking toward
                the histories you can’t outsail’ (‘On enthusiasm’)

                ‘And the quadriga’s thundering embrace came down to hold you
                And the rabona’s blaugrana arc came down to meet you
                And the collated astronauts came down to meet you
                And the cities of bespoke newsprint folded down to meet you’ (‘Trunk shavasana’)

The title poem turns the effect up to eleven:

                ‘my miraculous unions, my startling tomb, my crowned emptiness,
                my frozen divination, my comedic impudence, my naked obsession,
                my vulnerable esophagus, my dismissed biology, my blurred impudence […]

                my grandmaster apologies, my godfathered regrets,
                my impermanent staring, my grand projets,
                my memorials of war, my fired bunting, my gadabout dancing’ (‘Ticker-tape’)

In an interview on this blog in 2017, Dastidar described how he was ‘swinging for the fences’ in Ticker-tape, a phrasing that feels so apt for the book at large, with its grand, physical gesture, its transatlantic idiom (that fence ain’t around a cricket pitch), and, most importantly, its embrace of the possibility of failure. Sometimes you hit a home run, sometimes you strike out: what matters, in Ticker-tape, is holding nothing back. I’m still fond of the book, four years on, because even where it falls short of its own grand ambitions, its flaws are unmistakably, joyfully, unique.

At first blush, Saffron Jack seems in continuity with its predecessor: both books feature cover illustrations by the poet’s sister, the artist Ria Dastidar, this time a colourful mockery of the Belgian king Leopold II with pencils up his nose and cartoon monsters worrying at his epaulettes. Like numerous poems in Ticker-tape, the book foregrounds its formal ingenuity, sometimes amplifying the poem’s special effects, sometimes acting like a protective layer, keeping the deeper meaning quietly removed from the reader. Saffron Jack’s narrator also seems familiar: he is winningly self-deprecating, a gregarious, loquacious host just as keen to volunteer his neuroses as his regal ambitions. What’s entirely new in Dastidar’s work, however, is its feature-length dramatic situation.

Stephanie Sy-Quia expressed this perfectly when she described Saffron Jack as a ‘chimera’: unlike Dastidar’s debut, it is ‘a long narrative poem, a one-man play with modest stage directions, and a DIY manual for How to Set Up and Rule a Nation’. The book covers the final days of an unnamed narrator, who has hopped on a Eurostar out of London, and taken a cab to a town on the border of Belgium and the Netherlands, where war has broken out over a centuries-old diplomatic technicality that left tiny parcels of land legally unclaimed, ‘a gap in the crack of history’. Here, he establishes a nation, population: one. His first lines are both self-deprecating and wholly committed to the bit:

                ‘1. You polish it every night
                                1.1. No, not that.
                                1.2. The crown.
                                                1.2.1. Every night.’

These lines also establish the particular flavour of clown the narrator acts in these opening salvos. He speaks in legal-ish clauses, perhaps to himself, perhaps to an imagined posterity, but with all the self-indulgent puffery of the corporate-political world he (claims to have) previously inhabited. The tone in these passages is mostly light, playing around with kingship in the abstract, a fabular approach to the meaning of authority (‘someone comes along one day and says / 7.2.1. ‘Look, look, I can see some rust!’ // 8. And then it is all over’). The narrator might be a megalomaniac, but he’s a goofy one, a harmless one, a dictator your parents could joke about, with only the occasional discordant note to break the breeziness:

’24. This [job] gave you a lot of freedom –
                24.1 At the expense of other people
                                24.1.1. Sorry, subjects […]
24.2. It was well past time you took a bit of freedom
                24.2.1. For you.
24.3. Because if you didn’t
                24.3.1. No one else would do it for you.’

If you’ve ever actively listened to any given tory, you’ll recognise the chillingly casual step into totalitarianism, the cool tallying of my freedom against yours. Dastidar’s narrator has entirely absorbed this logic, and quite happily regurgitated it, but it’s to the poet’s credit that the violence of this passage didn’t properly unnerve me until a second reading, hiding in plain sight. The substance of what the narrator is actually devising here, quite beside its chummy presentation, lurks at the back of the mind, like a droning, distorted cello deep in the mix of an RBS advert.

Not long after this comes the first breakdown of the book’s legislative format. Until this point, the narrator has spoken in the loose, chatty, but structured declarations noted above, but here the speaking voice suddenly lets loose, discussing Kipling (and John Huston)’s The Man Who Would Be King:

‘You know, it’d also be cool to just control somewhere, especially when you’ve felt that you’ve never fitted in wherever the where is you’re from.’

Kipling’s story features two English soldiers (played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine in the 1975 movie), who decide British-occupied India is too ‘regularised’ – read: ruled by law – and march off into the Afghan hinterland to find a people who will crown them, at gunpoint if necessary. Though Connery winds up executed and Caine miraculously survives crucifixion, the narrator in Saffron Jack,  much like the movie’s promotional material: Adventure in all its glory!, sees only the triumph, the will to power, the fantasy of it all. The book’s staccato flourish gives way to a rapt venting of the id, the narrator’s vision bubbling to the surface as an imaginary tyrant hands him his rightful crown:

‘it’s only when he looks at you with the crown in one hand and imploring gesture being made by the other, and his eyes are watery and pleading and hopeful and hopeless and scared, and the crowd suddenly hush as they see where he’s looking […] and then you’re almost blown back by this gust or noise, this rush of love or fear and hope and expectations and dreams, all in this one blast, this one expansion of emotion.’

On one hand, this is still ludicrous. The narrator is filming a movie in his mind, starring himself as Sean Connery as dictator, alone in an empty house. But Saffron Jack’s narrative conceit – that all of this happens with mere minutes before the real authorities take it all away – simmers in the background, gives the passage a cold, horrible, painful edge, the fantasy of power undercut by the invasion of the real thing.

There is just one other moment in the book that breaks out of its usual rhythm, one that adds depth and context to the first. It’s probably not coincidental that this second break comes on the heels of the narrator unfurling the royal standard of his new microstate, a union flag coloured in ‘saffron and gold and red and brown and green’. He seems pleased at first, reasoning:

                ‘137. Well, why not? It is mine as much as it is yours.
                                137.1. You just thought it could be
                                                137.2. Spiced up a little.’

As if the awful Blairite pun has prompted a moment of clarity, this begins a downward spiral into the book’s second moment of outpouring, as he reflects on a Britain that, despite his attempts to assimilate – ‘129.3. You have got reconciled to the fact that you could never, still cannot, digest your mother’s cooking […] 129.3.2 You cannot help but take it as metaphor.’ – never quite ‘loved [him] back’. This leads in turn to his telling, almost re-experiencing, a racist assault which feels too viscerally upsetting to reprint at any length. It is the polar opposite to the earlier passage, an all-too-real plea for safety, sanctuary, solitude:

‘your lungs coming out of your mouth, your eyes coming out of your tears, praying to a god you don’t believe in that no one knows you are here’

The bitterest punchline is how the mechanisms of state interpret all this, deciding:

                ‘your black eyes, your fear, are only worth a fine of £150.

                144.2.1. Which does not even get fucking paid anyway.’

It’s here that the last vestiges of the book’s bonhomie are left finally aside. The myths and contradictory logics of white nationhood are laid out plainly, in full knowledge that their veracity matters less than their utility:

‘167.5.1. […] Do you really think a passport matters? Do you really think being born here matters? Do you really think it’s that easy to belong? Do you think 300 years of ownership provided us with any duty of care?’

Perhaps the narrator of Saffron Jack has assimilated too well: he has internalised the mores of empire to such an extent that the invasion and occupation of foreign, sovereign land is the only reasonable response. Unlike Kipling’s soldiers, however, his goal is, ultimately, not domination of others but salvation of the self: to escape the empire, he reasons, he must become an empire.

Saffron Jack’s last pages are characterised by a kind of bleak, resigned clarity, one I still find difficult to read from a poet who, in that 2017 interview I mentioned earlier, quite accurately described his aesthetic at the time:

‘I think I’m an optimist – not necessarily natural but I tend to a more upbeat, rosier view of things generally […] I’m interested in the extent to which poems can be vehicles towards the sunlit uplands, convey joy as much as they do the blacker, deeper moments.’

Compare to these lines toward the end of Saffron Jack:

‘What has been driving you on has been nothing noble. It has been vanity. Vicious vanity, venal vanity. […]

191. You did not create this to light a path for others, or build a shining city on a hill. To be a guideland. You did it so you could feel you were the hero of your own story.’

Even allowing for the poem’s persona, it’s hard not to trace an arc between these sentiments alongside the political realities this country has openly embraced in the past several years, the ideals it has long since stopped even pretending to value.

Derek Mahon’s poem ‘Ecclesiastes’, quoted at the top of this essay, follows from the eponymous book of the Bible which declares all human struggle to be ‘Vanity of vanities’. In Mahon’s poem, the speaker looks at the repressive, politically stunted world of 1970s Belfast and considers how easy it would be to betray his principles in exchange for power, to ‘close one eye and be king’. Dastidar’s attitude to Britain feels similarly jaundiced, but with the additional pain of knowing that even this act of profitable self-negation was never a possibility: before the narrator even appears on stage, the voices of imperial power are declaring an end to his reign.

It’s difficult to draw a neat conclusion on a book that repeats, several times, ‘And if you are waiting for a moral, do not’. Saffron Jack is a strange, sad book, and I’m struck by its refusal to offer an ‘upbeat, rosy’ ending, when it’s clear from Ticker-tape that this is, or was, a mainstay of Dastidar’s aesthetic. Saffron Jack knows the nation state is ‘as much an invention as the wheel, as jelly beans’, and that the myth of British racial purity is delusional, but it also knows the transparency of it all is part of the cruelty, and the cruelty is part of the point, and optimism alone is no protection. It’s this turn that makes Saffron Jack so fascinating to me: like Dastidar’s debut, it’s ambitious and generous, and where it is flawed it is flawed in a way that’s utterly unique, and, despite everything, there’s a sliver of joy in that. Thanks for reading.


Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia, 木蘭

‘I can never show anyone my map of Shanghai, not because it’s a secret, but because it is so huge and sprawling.’ (‘Falling City’)

Nina Mingya Powles is the editor of a small press, Bitter Melon 苦瓜, which specialises in small runs of beautifully crafted pamphlets – my copy of Jay G. Ying’s Wedding Beasts is on the couch beside me, with its sparkly gold thread, the paper slightly frayed at the perforations, the number 93 handwritten in black ink. Her own pamphlet, Seams : Traces, a study of the life and work of Korean-American poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, was risoprinted, scanned and uploaded to the Dead Women Poets website, with hand-drawn, livid red stitches running along the bottom of each page. Her book of essays, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, was published by the Emma Press last year. 

I mention all this to give a flavour of Powles’ aesthetics: her painterly eye for colour and composition, her creative and critical curiosity, the minute and tactile details that form the foundations of Magnolia, 木蘭. The first and last poems of the book concern Mulan, the 1998 Disney movie, but Powles waits until the closing poem to state explicitly that the Chinese characters in her book’s title signify Mùlán, the Mandarin word for magnolia. For a monoglot anglophone reader, it’s not until these final pages that the title comes into focus, indicates clearly (to me) toward an abundance of relations and contexts. It feels like a pointed strategy on Powles’ part, if one didn’t understand until now: go back, look again, look closer.

Magnolia, 木蘭 thinks deeply about the poet’s own position relative to the subjects of her gaze, be it a Disneyfied China or a bundle of zongzi; like the handwriting on a pamphlet, there is never a comfortable distance between artist and art. In the first and last poems of the book, Powles states explicitly her unfamiliarity with the Chinese language, and her experiences of being othered by a reflexively monolithic Western (read: white/colonial/European) culture. Throughout a deeply thoughtful, perceptive, rangy collection, Powles’ lyric selves attempt to locate themselves within multiple cultures that do not or will not accommodate them.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the book is so deeply rooted in the work of other writers, artists and artworks, from journalists Robin Hyde and Eileen Chang – whose vivid accounts of 1930s Shanghai Powles explores in ‘Falling City’ – to Rothko’s Saffron to failed Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade also feels like a touchstone (I think there’s a loop of jade in the cover image of Magnolia, 木蘭), as does Will Harris’ RENDANG, in their diffusion of dramatic personae, critiques of anglophone lyric traditions, and their difficult, perhaps irresolvable questions about culture and belonging; all three collections have as a focal point an account of returning to the poet’s mother’s (and/or grandmother’s) home. In Powles’ book, the constellation of artists cited are a form of navigation, but also estrangement; describing Shanghai through the lenses of Hyde and Chang create a clear, vivid image, but of a place which has long since disappeared. Magnolia, 木蘭 is full of ghosts, shadows, bodies rendered unreal by gaps in language and time. Even Powles’ youth in Shanghai, touched on briefly in ‘Falling City’, is a haunted, painful memory:

‘I sought out exact places I had stood ten years earlier, let bright waves of nostalgia wash over me. I watched them coming from a distance.

I knew I needed to stop doing this soon or else something would break.’

There are many bright spots in the book in which Powles allows her lyric imagination to run wild, though, like ‘Wolfgirl’, in which San from Princess Mononoke makes supper, her life among the wolves seemingly faded from memory, or ‘Two portraits of home’, maybe my favourite single poem in the book, in which the contents of two photographs are simultaneously revealed and obscured:

‘morpheus butterfly wing blue albatross white
plastic-orchid blue hawthorn-blossom white

the blue of the sounds skimmed milk
the blue of the sounds the blue of the sounds unripe-mango green

distant-forest green feijoa tree green’

It’s a beautiful magic-eye trick that suggests a true, real image (the sections are named ‘[IMG_098]’ and ‘[IMG_227]’, like the automated file names of a phone or digital camera), but one rendered utterly open to interpretation, the chiral twin of the correspondent’s tone in ‘Falling City’. In both poems, Powles is trying to show the reader something easy to name – home – but impossible to recreate; maybe remaining faithful to experience demands anything but plain facts. Personally, I can’t know the feeling of travelling thousands of miles to where I might call home and arriving somewhere that refuses to fall into focus, familiarity, reality. But ‘Falling City’ and ‘Two portraits of home’, in harnessing both the essayist and the impressionist, articulate it in terms I can process. I won’t forget them in a hurry.

Other highlights include the book’s central sequence, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Here, Powles takes a strategy similar to Layli Long Soldier’s pieces on the Lakota language in Whereas, in which a single word (or name) stands untranslated at the top of the page, and the poem carefully turns it over, considering it from multiple angles. In Powles’ words: ‘I started to see the [Mandarin] characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.’ The poems describe a slow, delicate, painstaking process of learning and unlearning, beautifully summarised in a single image in the poem’s sixth section:

‘Two days ago I smashed a glass jar of honey on the kitchen floor. The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly.’

Where the book’s opening poem acts as an overture or prelude, the closing poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’ functions beautifully both as an epilogue, and a kind of symbolic index. The varied aspects of magnolia proliferate here, as a tree in nature and as a word for the tree in multiple languages:

‘I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages so that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth can only hold so much.’

as a fragment of memory, or imaginative communion:

‘Mum gave me a heart of jade wrapped in pink and yellow threaded silk. It belonged to her step-grandmother, whose name I don’t know, who walked under the magnolia trees of Shanghai.’

or as artefacts of a specific cultural context:

‘The official flower of the city of Shanghai: dark trees with ghost-white buds haunt courtyards and avenues. At night they loom and glow.’

The meanings of the word and the object we’ve been gathering as readers come into flower here. ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’ opens as many thoughts as it ties up, and certainly gave me a firm push toward starting the collection over with these new contexts in mind. It’s a quietly bold move, resisting an impulse toward closure on a narrative the book makes clear is still in progress.

Beyond its work as an extended essay into culture and belonging, Magnolia, 木蘭, is a real sensory pleasure. In most Ghibli films – which seem a vital source for Powles’ imagination; her tinyletter, Comfort Food, features a shot from Ponyo (2008) – there’s at least one scene in which characters cook for each other, in which the whole frame overflows with frying eggs, or steaming broth, or bread in the oven, the warm, homely yellows and browns and greens come to life, almost giving off heat, almost giving nourishment. There aren’t many poetry books that give me a similar experience (fellow Emma Press poet Padraig Regan’s Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real comes close), and it’s a joy to see Powles’ skill with other genres offering uncommon flavours to her poetry. It’s hard to believe that Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade was just five years ago, such has been the impact of Asian and Asian-diaspora poets in these islands since. Magnolia, 木蘭, in asking far more questions than it finds conclusive answers for, in keeping its map of Shanghai as elusive to the reader as the city itself is to the poet, continues in Howe’s tradition, clearing new space, opening new avenues, planting new seeds.

Magnolia, 木蘭 is available for £9.99 through Nine Arches Press.

Note: Hey all, trying something a little different here. Writing the long, more academic-style pieces I have in the past is fun, and fulfilling, but also very demanding in terms of time and energy. We’ll see how it goes in terms of consistency, but I’d like this blog to go back to being something like a reading diary, with more, shorter posts. Maybe I’ll do two this month and never again, but it felt good to put this piece together. In any case, happy new year, sending love and energy to you and yours, and thank you for reading. Thanks also, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.

Haunting History: Jay Bernard’s Surge

Some disclosures: It’s worth noting that I am a white middle class cis man and have not personally experienced the structural or interpersonal violence Bernard’s work often negotiates; broadly speaking, I benefit from much of it. I’ve met Bernard a couple of times in person, and they kindly shared an uncorrected proof of English Breakfast (2013), a book currently published only in the States. Many thanks are due to Muireann Crowley for her extensive editing, and to the National Library of Scotland for maintaining excellent archives. This essay is dedicated to the striking staff in the UCU: higher education should be freely available to all, its workers deserve fair pay for fair hours, livable pensions, and an immediate end to casualized labour.


“When you surge and you don’t deal with the question, barbarism expresses itself… When you surge, you have to have a definite political conclusion, otherwise you dip again.”

– Darcus Howe, “Resurgence or Barbarism”, panel discussion with CLR James, Sonia Sanchez and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2nd International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, London, 1983.

‘The perspective therefore of the young in Britain is to mash up Babylon, to create a new society, where the social relations are not as barbaric as they are, that is something which is not humane, and make it more human.’

– John La Rose, The New Cross Massacre Story (Black Rose Press, 1984)


On 17 January 1981, thirteen Black Londoners between the ages of 14-22 died in a fire at a house party in New Cross; a survivor died by suicide two years later. The subsequent investigation was grossly mishandled by police, who repeatedly attempted to blame the victims for their own deaths, including the intimidation and coercion of survivors into false testimony, even after eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence suggested the fire was started by a white man with an incendiary device. The police failed to find or prosecute those responsible, and in on 2 March 1981, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, led by Howe, La Rose and many other radical Black activists and artists, organised the Black People’s Day of Action, when an estimated 20,000 people marched in protest from Fordham Park to Hyde Park. The national media condemned the protest.

La Rose had been an active part of the left-wing political movement in London since his arrival from Trinidad in 1961. In 1966 he co-founded New Beacon Books, the country’s first radical Black bookshop and publisher. Today, New Beacon shares a building with the George Padmore Institute, an archive for Black British and European communities, which in 2016 appointed Jay Bernard as its first poet-in-residence. Bernard began work on a project under the title ‘Surge’, whose first poems appeared in Beacon of Hope, a book celebrating the organisation’s 50th anniversary, and in 2017 won the Ted Hughes Award as a live theatrical performance with film elements, as Surge: Side A. The title seems to hint towards the provisional, evolving nature of the project: little of the 2016 work appears in the full collection Surge (Chatto & Windus, 2019) unaltered, and reading Beacon of Hope in the National Library in Edinburgh felt like being given access to the poet’s notebooks, early records of Bernard’s emergent process in the archives.

In a review for The Poetry School, Victoria Adukwei Bulley analyses how Surge figures the boundaries between life and death, past and present, in poems spoken by ‘voices who transcend notions of presence as contingent upon the physical body’:

‘Central to the reading of the collection are two refusals […] If the first refusal is that of declining to perceive the past as behind us, the second is to see those whose lives were lost as gone and unworthy of our attention […] In Surge, the dead are here and now. They are hungry and eager to be heard.’

Bulley puts a finger on the powerful tensions in Surge between a will to comfort the bereaved and the imperative to remember that justice has not been served, that the dead should not become airy symbols of peace and forgiveness. Her identification of hunger and eagerness as defining attributes also encapsulates how unsettling are the poems’ ghosts, whose needs and desires, both for contact and community, persist after death. By obscuring any firm dividing lines between them, the tenderness and humanity with which Surge treats the dead only highlights the inhumanity visited upon the living.

Fluidity is fundamental to Bernard’s aesthetics, as a brief overview of their career demonstrates. In 2017, they made an audio-visual installation in the Tate Britain, incorporating recordings of speeches by La Rose and Howe. ‘The Sound and the State’ (2016) is a 25-minute presentation given at Glasgow’s CCA critiquing the aesthetics of state violence, which includes original short films, a scene from Robocop (1987) and part of a song by Silver Bullet, “20 Seconds to Comply”. Bernard’s piece focuses on state surveillance technology, the intensity of its deployment against Black people, and the act of listening as an aspect of belonging in (often hostile) urban environments.

Bernard has also worked extensively as a visual artist. They created the delirious, dreamy imagery in their pamphlet, The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat & Tears, 2016), and were Artist-in-Residence at the StAnza Poetry Festival in 2010, my own first encounter with their work. In November of that year, they published a long-form comic in the quarterly magazine Wasafiri, “Land Narratives”, which contains a fleeting reference to the New Cross Massacre. The comic is a fascinating element in Bernard’s oeuvre, as it feels far more like an autobiographical journal than much of their work since. In the comic, personal anecdotes are related in vivid detail, of freewheeling romantic and artistic adventures in New York, Paris and Vienna, and of being stopped-and-searched by the Met Police on their return to London. Here, several years prior to their residency at the George Padmore Institute, the emboldened far-right activists, fervently racist press corps and unaccountable police of Britain in 1981 haunts the contemporary narrator; they tell their story to two silent ghosts.

Across Bernard’s work, the lines between one identity and another, or even one body and another, are (sometimes disturbingly) written into a state of flux; a central thesis of many poems is the tension between necessary, radical change and the very real pain and upheaval necessary to achieve it. As early as their debut pamphlet, your sign is cuckoo, girl (tall-lighthouse, 2008), they are already ruminating on the deep past, reaching for a space prior to European colonialism and its systematic denial of the basic humanity of its subjects. The poem ‘Cadence’, for example, is a sophisticated piece, not necessarily because of its historical analysis, which meditates on the human cost of the expansion and retraction of empire, but in its era-spanning imaginative empathy, ‘to a time / when there were no nations to think of’:

‘I should imagine someone on a yellow hill,
feeling the same discomfort as me
stumbling star-crossed along the planet like me –
but centuries like haunted masts curve between us.’

Systems which continue to enrich nation states like the United Kingdom may be centuries old, but they remain conditional: it was not always thus and need not be in the future. ‘Migration’ imagines another deep past, far beyond even the most rudimentary mechanisms of human society:

‘If darkness catches you and you turn back to see
the blank menace of so many windows,
imagine the fear of the first people huddled, haunted
one hundred, thousand years ago.’

There are several such sequences in Bernard’s work, in which the conditions of the present moment are traced back (often extremely far back) to a point at which a radically different future was still possible. In a 2017 anthology, Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War, their long poem, ‘Summer in England’, investigates artefacts of Black history in London, the war and the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, legislation which compelled migrants to carry official papers and forced British women who married non-British men to forfeit their citizenship. While maintaining focus on the suffering endured by the poem’s protagonists, ‘Summer in England’ is often a surprisingly joyful, ludic piece. As Bernard notes in their introduction:

‘Conversations I’d had in Jamaica and elsewhere confirmed that many previously colonised people believe in being British – they went to fight voluntarily even if Britain actively denigrated them. This was a hard idea for me to swallow and therefore exactly the one I needed to explore. So the poem became a hopeful, playful night, in a country that was on the brink of victory and would be changed forever. Gender and class relationships were shifting; Britain’s colonial power would begin to slip […] it just hadn’t quite happened yet.’

Bernard’s extraordinary pamphlet The Red and Yellow Nothing (2016) takes this line of thought into an explicitly literary domain. Framed as a prequel to the tale of Sir Morien, son of Sir Agloval of King Arthur’s Round Table, the pamphlet draws from the 1901 English translation from the Middle Dutch poem “Morien” from the Lancelotcompelatie (c.1320-30). The obscurity of the story’s origins seems instrumental in permitting space for Bernard’s playful, visionary quest.  In the introduction, Bernard argues that Morien’s appearance in the original poem (‘his head, body and hand / was all black, save his teeth’) does not make his being the son of an Arthurian knight a contradiction, it suggests a story in which one’s literary inheritances take primacy over one’s genealogy. In an essay written for Speaking Volumes, Bernard sets Morien, his reader, and his writer in a complex network of relationships:

‘Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years) … He is not raced, but he is dark skinned; he isn’t nowhere, but he’s nowhere in particular. […] the particular history that produced the author that reproduces [and in some ways contaminates] him is not inevitable.’

The argument here is far from straightforward, and, like the pro-British colonial subjects of ‘English Summer’, might be difficult to swallow. Bernard implies that their own work, even as someone refuting the racist philosophies by which this country has self-mythologised since the first days of empire, is not free from ‘contamination’: re-writing Morien in a colonial society taints his fictional-historical one. In a powerful passage in The Red and Yellow Nothing, Morien awakes alone in a field after a festival:

‘He feels a weight. At first he thinks the term is thick,
then shame, but as the night becomes morning and
he turns over, drunk, in a cold, wet field, the dew that
cradles him finds the word: innocence.’

Had Morien existed – and, as Bernard notes, there is substantial evidence that Moorish knights were a feature of European life – he did so before white Europeans devised the systems of racial hierarchy that still prevail today. He is ‘innocent’ of them in a way that we cannot be. The ‘author that reproduces him’ seems to invest Morien’s historical moment with possibilities long since lost to our own.

There are few speaking characters in The Red and Yellow Nothing, and only Morien is named. The first section is sung by ‘A bard of indeterminate gender […] seated on a toadstool’, who begins:

‘A silver wind came passing in
the distant land where books begin
where maids are men and hermits siiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

Between the toadstool, the comically elongated ‘siiiiing’, and their playful subversiveness, the bard does not feel like a revered authority. But being ‘of indeterminate gender’, it feels as if the reader is being nudged to read them as a stand-in for the poet, especially when they conclude:

‘History is on the wing
the past and present form a ring
and time is but a fractal thiiiiiiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

This bending or blending of linear time is a distinctly Bernardian strategy. Which makes it all the stranger when the bard is unceremoniously murdered by Morien off-stage; section III begins by noting that Morien enters the poem ‘still dripping with the blood of the bard’. What feels significant here is that the loss of the poem’s first narrator does not silence the book’s narrative voice. The poems of The Red and Yellow Nothing are haunted by the disembodied bard’s refrain, ‘Blue grows the darkness-o / there beneath the daylight-o’, and each section’s title contains more personality than is conventional. Section VII, for instance, is named:

‘A Dark Interlude: in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah. The dark waxes wan, the dark waxes red. Light is emitted from things that are dead.’

The anachronistic speech patterns meld with the poetically structured; the titles serve as tonal guides as much as narrative ones, opening The Red and Yellow Nothing to a huge range of creative possibilities. The pamphlet is replete with literary and psychological detail, and yet the processes by which Morien, or Morien’s identity, or the story of Morien, are broken down and reconstructed are rendered in grossly bodily terms. The title of Section XI begins:

‘A pink interlude. Morien, whom we can no longer refer to as he, exactly, has undergone something we won’t call a transition, exactly, but a kind of metastasis, in which he has grown as something very different not far from the site of his original self.’

Metastasis describes a secondary pathogenic growth close to the original tumour, and it is difficult to fathom a positive connotation here. Morien is passed through a digestive system, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and filtered through a series of images in pink; the strangeness of the scene is difficult to convey without quoting in full. The process even seems to have taken a toll on the narrator, who in the title of Section XII reports:

‘Ragged and tired, Morien continues his journey through the forest […] It is hard to keep walking. It is hard to keep writing. It is hard to keep the halves of the past and future apart.’

The strangeness of the narrator’s self-positioning is easy to miss among the more spectacular surrealism of the poems surrounding it. The writer’s progress is implicitly tied to Morien’s, who has fetched up at a hermitage, ‘appear[ing] skeletal and genderqueer’; it might also be hard to keep the halves of the writer and the protagonist apart. Morien appears in a child’s dream, singing ‘Promise that you will sing about me’ a refrain from Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ (2012). Bernard’s poem articulates the song’s formal doubling: ‘promise when you sing you’ll sing / a promise that you’ll sing of me’, while in Lamar’s song, his characters harshly reject his attempts to ‘help with [their] story’, demanding he do more than merely narrate. Both poem and song are haunted by the question of where a narrator stands in relation to their subject, what responsibilities they might owe to those whose stories they tell; in The Red and Yellow Nothing, it is difficult to say who is haunting whom.


*             *             *


Bernard’s residency at the George Padmore Institute coincided, in June 2017, with the fire at Grenfell Tower. As their introduction to Surge notes:

‘Institutional indifference to working class lives had left nearly eighty people dead. The Windrush scandal was reminiscent of right-wing calls for black repatriation. The archive became, for me, a mirror of the present, a much-needed instruction manual to navigate what felt like the repetition of history.’

Ghosts have been at the heart of Bernard’s aesthetics since their earliest work: the haunted, haunting people of ‘Migration’ in their first pamphlet, the ghosts who accompany the speaker in the comic ‘Land Narratives’, the voice of a damned soul in ‘Song of the Strike’ (2013), who watches their own execution and, as they are cut open, smells ‘my mother’s cooking’. The variety of approaches to the subject Bernard has made over the years seem to inform their work in Surge; no longer handling the fictional Morien or varying degrees of autobiography, the New Cross poems in Surge seem to demand a personal investment that surpasses anything they have attempted previously. The ethical considerations necessary to the book’s creation – to handle archive material, to ‘walk into the belly of the beast’, as per the book’s first epigraph – push Bernard to their finest work to date.

‘Kitchen’, for example, is written in the voice of one of the victims of the New Cross fire, who travels to their family home. The poem is grounded in domestic particulars:

‘I went back to my mother’s kitchen:

peas were soaking on the stove
and a lettuce was uncurling on
the counter […] the spice
rack with a hundred grubby bottles’

The scene unfolds like a Dutch still life (a later stanza mentions ‘the dutch pot’). The food and domestic utensils, glowing in their specificity, appear in sharp contrast to the implied darkness surrounding them: the reader is primed to read this poem as one ‘reads’ a painting. The poem’s speaker transforms the house itself, their movement through it feels loving, familiar, rendering it a warm, wet, breathing creature on a continuum with its human inhabitants. Some lines later:

‘The first ray unencumbered
by the clouds spreads
its rose palm against the window –

I will be that for my brother and mother:

the light touching their faces as she
guts the fish, drains the peas.

The poem bristles with life, as the slumbering home wakes to its grief: the lines ‘I have held this house / in my arms and let it sob’ imagine it as another active sentience, and even the light against the windowpane becomes a tactile force, a ‘rose palm’ ‘touching their faces’. These closing lines leave the speaker’s will to provide comfort as a hypothetical, still a world apart from fish and peas, the mundane physics of daylight; the final line’s verbs, cognate with ‘gutting’ and ‘draining’, leave a taste of the pain and labour yet to come. The poem makes space for a huge amount of emotional information, and refrains from offering true closure: as in The Red and Yellow Nothing, this is not the song, but the promise to sing.

Where the poet stands in relation to the poems’ subject matter is always complicated in Bernard’s work, and may be a key factor in reading it as a multifaceted, yet cohesive, whole. Their dramatic personae are often so deftly embodied that the poet is all but invisibilized; by contrast, poems which appear autobiographical are sometimes narrated so dispassionately that the action takes on an eerie calm, as if the lyric ‘I’ is being observed by a second, distant self. Surge features two poems which Bernard sings in performance, ‘Songbook’ and ‘Songbook II’, both of which narrate the events and fallout from New Cross. The singer in these poems feels like an evolution of the bard from The Red and Yellow Nothing in their oblique angle to the events of which they sing, both commentator and participant. The first ‘Songbook’ is inspired by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘New Crass Massahkah’ (1983), and shares with Johnson’s song the unsettling dissonance between its upbeat melody and its devastating substance. ‘Songbook II’ concerns a character called ‘Miss D’, who is presented as a semi-mythical figure:

‘How many times has Miss D died?
How many times has she given us life
How many children does Miss D have?
As many as the people hearing this song’

Miss D is simultaneously among the other speakers in Surge who defy the boundaries between life and death and among their grieving parents. That the first chorus states that Miss D’s children are ‘listening in from beyond’ seems a confirmation of the book’s cosmology, that the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical body are, as Bulley notes in her review, more complex than the mere binaries of life/death and here/there. That these poems are intended to be sung, and bear pronounced formal patterning unlike any other in the book, draws attention to their artificiality in a way the reported speech and archive materials seem to do the opposite. Perhaps Surge demands the archivist’s fidelity to a recorded, documentarian truth, and the bard’s fidelity to a felt, remembered, embodied one.

The second half of Surge leans toward the documentarian’s side of this equation. The turning point seems to come in the poem, ‘Apple’, which begins with an utterly beautiful line: ‘And so, the revolutionary had a birthday party’. Shortly afterwards:

‘Don’t you love how they decided mid-meal
to lean into each other, peer into the photo
don’t you love that there is chicken grease
from the early part of this century’

The narrative layers of the poem fit snugly on top of one another: amid the ongoing crises post-1981, the activists saw fit to hold a birthday party for John La Rose, and a friend saw fit to preserve the moment in photography; later, a curator of the George Padmore Institute archive saw fit to preserve the photograph as a historical artefact, on equal footing with the more obviously relevant documentation of protest marches and radical literature. Later still, the poet-in-residence sees fit to celebrate the whole process, the careful pairs of hands through which this moment has passed. The unifying image is gorgeous:

‘the particular apple
they ate in slices […]
and cut the pieces into pages,
left it ageing on the plate […]

don’t you love those pieces of apple,
the brown photograph they have become’

The poem seems to push gently back against the impulse, even in moments as significant to British history as New Cross and the Black People’s Day of Action, to convert the human into the superhuman, as if they were not subject to age, decay and fatigue in much the same way as the apple, and the photo of the apple. In a fascinating note in Beacon of Hope, Bernard describes the experience of reading La Rose’s annotations to police interviews in the wake of the New Cross Massacre: Bernard finds their own reactions so closely echo La Rose’s that, ‘seeing his many exclamation marks and heavy underlining at the same points I detected as spurious, felt as though he was re-reading it through my eyes’ [my emphasis]. The process of keeping the past alive in the present is a deeply felt, deeply physical process, capable of inspiring the almost incredulous joy the speaker of ‘Apple’ struggles to articulate beyond its refrain, ‘don’t you love?’

The quotations at the top of this essay from Howe and La Rose broadly frame their political actions as a struggle between imperial barbarism and the humanity of those oppressed by it. Howe’s panel discussion took place at the 2nd International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, organised in part by La Rose and New Beacon; during the discussion, CLR James voiced his fears about the 1980s’ parallels to the 1930s, of the ‘new barbarism’ he saw rising in Europe, in its fascist ideologues and atomized, disempowered workers’ movements. Perhaps the most powerful thing Surge demands of its reader is an expansion of empathy, a recognition of humanity beyond the binaries of, ‘alive or deadmale or female, and here or there’. If we can hear the voices of the dead, how can we refuse to listen to the living?

In Beacon of Hope, Bernard notes how the original sequence of ‘Surge’ poems were inspired in part by the American documentarian Marlon Riggs, whose work in the late 80s and early 90s recorded the experiences and testimonies of gay Black men during the AIDS crisis; Bernard’s lecture ‘The Sound and the State’ was delivered at the Document Human Rights film festival as part of a series focusing on Riggs’ work. An interview with the arts magazine Jump Cut, Riggs explains his approach to filmmaking as being a blend of documentary and personal expression, about the struggle to find coherence within a multiplicity of voices. One passage seemed especially apt:

‘In this experimental form, I wanted an anchor. Not a dominant one-and-only point of view. There’re a multiplicity of voices in the video, not just my voice. […] But because I have such a dominant place at a pivotal point in the video, my viewpoint becomes, in a way, a thread throughout.’

Perhaps asking where the poet (or the b(ern)ard) stands in relation to the poems’ action may be missing a key point. As Bernard asserts in the introduction:

‘I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.’

Unlike Morien, who ‘isn’t nowhere, but [is] nowhere in particular’, Bernard cannot remove themself from the realities their poems invoke, the scenes they animate. They are, in the words of The Red and Yellow Nothing, ‘the dark light travels by’, the barely perceptible presence just out of shot, holding the whole production together. Their organising presence creates, in fleeting shots and cut-aways, a new society, not as barbaric as it is, but as human as it might be.


Further reading:

your sign is cuckoo, girl (tall-lighthouse, 2008)

English Breakfast (Math Paper Press, 2013)

Beacon of Hope: New Beacon in Poetry and Prose (New Beacon Books, 2016)

Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War, ed. Karen McCarthy Woolf (Nine Arches, 2017)

Surge (Chatto & Windus, 2019)


The New Cross Massacre Story (Black Rose Press, 1984)

Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, Interview with Marlon Riggs, Jump Cut, 1991

Review of Surge, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, The Poetry School

Review of Surge, Marek Sullivan, Frieze

Review of Surge, Jack Belloli, Review 31

You Are Involved: Vahni Capildeo and Martin Carter

Some disclosures: Capildeo is a friend and fellow Edinburgher. They provided digital copies of their collections Undraining Sea (2009) and Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012), which are no longer in print. Copy of Carter’s University of Hunger loaned from the Scottish Poetry Library. As ever, it’s worth noting that I am a white cis male writer based in Scotland, and there are significant gaps in my knowledge and understanding of Caribbean and diasporic literature and history, and of the gendered violence described in Capildeo’s work. Hugely grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley, for substantial structural edits. This is a long read (7.5k words), so if you’d prefer to read as a pdf, you can download one here.


‘Nicholas Laughlin: Do you think of yourself as a Caribbean writer?

Vahni Capildeo: I think that’s a political and not a literary question.

N.L.: It’s a political question that intersects with the literary. But answer it as a political question.

V.C.: I’ll try to answer in terms of the literary imagination.’

— Nicholas Laughlin, interview, “The Liberty of the Imagination”, MaComère 13 (2011-2).


Vahni Capildeo has published seven full collections and five pamphlets since 2003, with a notable spike in critical attention around their fifth book, Measures of Expatriation (2016), which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1973, they moved to Oxford in 1991, and are now resident in Edinburgh, self-defined Trinidadian-Scottish. In this interview with Nicholas Laughlin, editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, Capildeo identifies and rejects the terms by which Laughlin attempts to place their writing, arguing against a system in which ‘Caribbean writers’ are bound imaginatively either to the demands of the academy – ‘pressured unconsciously to write poems that can be “analysed” in class’ – or the publishing industry, in which ‘any environment in which a Caribbean writer tries to speak […] is a trapped environment’. The benefits of ‘belonging’ under such conditions, Capildeo argues, are worth less than the ‘liberty of the imagination’ that comes from being unbeholden to institutional structures. Freedom does not infer isolation, however; as Capildeo’s career has progressed, the extent to which their poetry is fired by the work of other artists has only intensified, with Skin Can Hold (2019) almost entirely comprised of collaborations with or direct addresses to other writers.

Martin Carter, Guyanese poet and socialist revolutionary, was born in 1927 and passed away in 1997. The reverence with which he is held by generations of poets from the Caribbean is as remarkable as his relative obscurity on this side of the ocean. (Or, more accurately, in these islands: as Niyi Osundare writes, Carter’s poetry ‘made a thunderous entry’ into progressive circles in post-independence Nigeria.) In an essay in All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, George Lamming argues:

‘[Carter] is unlike all the other Caribbean writers who have had their reputations made outside the region. […] Carter is one of the few, if not the only one, whose reputation was made inside the region and validated inside it, that did not require external validation.’

Carter refused to attend university in England like his older brothers, committing to work and organise politically in Guyana. A founding member of the socialist and anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party, he was arrested without charge and detained on an American air force base in 1953. From prison, Carter wrote and smuggled out the poem ‘University of Hunger’; its refrain, ‘O long is the march of men and long is the life / And wide is the span’, according to Capildeo, is iconic among his Caribbean readership. As Gemma Robinson explains in her introduction to Carter’s University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose (2006), his work is ‘a poetry of involvement, a poetry that helped shape the political and cultural parameters of Guyana’.

Capildeo’s overt engagement with Carter’s work is extensive. In 2004, they wrote an unpublished memoir under the title One Scattered Skeleton, a phrase drawn from Carter’s poem ‘Till I Collect’; perhaps an ironic gesture, given the poem’s warning not to ‘plunge too far’ into the waters of (personal) history. In an extract published in African Writing, Capildeo describes how Carter’s work provided an anchor for their family during a coup in Port of Spain in the summer of 1990, when broadcasting and supply lines were temporarily severed. In a review of University of Hunger in 2006, they describe those events in further detail:

‘heavily shod feet thudding up and down the street and gunfire from the hills, and the conversation during that breakfast time, the voice of a scientist reciting poetry enough to get us through the day — poetry he had by heart: Martin Carter’s.’

‘Till I Collect’ would provide an epigraph to Capildeo’s 2012 collection, Dark and Unaccustomed Words. Utter (2013) is dedicated to Carter in memoriam; the title may partly emerge from his posthumously published sequence, Suite of Five Poems (2000): ‘I will still be speaking with you, in / words that are not uttered, are never uttered’. Between 2014-16, Capildeo composed a dramatic performance as part of their Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship, a series of ‘Syntax Poems’ for multiple voices, under the title ‘Astronomer of Freedom’: the piece attempts to inhabit Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’ in Skin Can Hold (2019), a collection which also features an epigraph from Carter’s ‘This Is the Dark Time, My Love’.

In Capildeo’s review of University of Hunger, they quote from Guyanese poet Fred D’Aguiar’s elegy, ‘In Memory of Martin Carter’:

‘Traffic begins —
One giant bee. The morning, a rose,
Opens; Martin in everything.’

I did not set out to write an essay about Martin Carter; I set out to write an essay about Vahni Capildeo. In the course of my reading, however, it seemed I could not do one without the other. Of all the artists and writers and characters that populate Capildeo’s work, Carter appeared repeatedly, a benign presence, a touchstone. He seems to symbolise much of what Capildeo considers worth exploring via their art, of possible worlds and the poet’s duty to imagine them. To look over a few poems by Carter which seem to resonate most profoundly in Capildeo’s work – ‘You Are Involved’, ‘Till I Collect’, and ‘I Am No Soldier’ – is to illuminate how fundamental to each poet’s oeuvre are gestures of refusal, negations which enable new possibilities:

‘This I have learnt:
today a speck
tomorrow a hero
hero or monster
you are consumed!

Like a jig
shakes the loom.
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!’  – ‘You Are Involved’ (1951)

‘His net of twine will strain the liquid billow
and take the silver fishes from the deep.
But my own hand I dare not plunge too far
lest only sand and shells I bring to air
lest only bones I resurrect to light.’ – ‘Till I Collect’ (1954)

‘I am no soldier with a cold gun on my shoulder
no hunter of men, no human dog of death.
I am my poem, I come to you in particular gladness
In this hopeful dawn of earth I rise with you dear friend.’ – ‘I Am No Soldier’ (1954)

In three deeply divergent moods, Carter makes space for his imaginative and political stances by refusing simpler, easier or more commonplace responses. As Capildeo notes in their review:

‘from every imaginable and unimaginable place, and from under the shining governments of the damned … In the most fiery or brilliant of Carter’s poems he nonetheless seems to see by a kind of dark and inward light.’

That ‘dark and inward light’ encapsulates much of what makes Carter’s work still feel so contemporary, almost seven decades later.

For the purposes of this essay, and going somewhat against Capildeo’s own conception of Carter’s poetry as a complex unity, I’ve arranged my readings into three (broad) sections: poems of the parabolic or spiritual world, in which the paranormal is normal; poems of the mind, in which consciousness self-reflects; and poems of the world, in which physical and political bodies interact. In reality, as Capildeo continuously proves, these categories are porous and arbitrary; the ecstatic pronouncements of Carter’s work are just as involved in his ‘dark and inward light’ as his pensive, precise introspections. One creates categories as starting points, and hopes the journey justifies their bluntness.


*             *             *

I. Spirit

In their essay on University of Hunger (2006), Capildeo describes how, when read as a totality, it becomes clear how fundamental to Martin Carter’s oeuvre is ‘cross-referencing ideas, images, rhythms, and phrases, until they became preoccupations, counterpoints, a universe of locutions’. Capildeo even cites a series of page references, which ‘the reader interested in literary-critical riddles may pursue’. I did pursue, and the recurrent image they provide is Carter’s protagonist connecting to, perhaps communing with, the past, either through invoking spiritual presences or by a metaphysical connection to the landscape:

‘That night when I left you on the bridge
I bent down
Kneeling on my knee
and pressed my ear to listen to the land.’              (‘Listening to the Land’, 1951)

‘In the burnt earth of these years
I dip my hand, I dip my hand:
I plunge it in the furies of this world.’                      (‘O Human Guide’, 1952)

‘And that strange dissolution of shape into spirit
was traced from a snail and was found in a word:
O flower of fire in a wide vase of air
Come back, come back to the house of the world.’            (‘Voices’, 1977)

Like Carter, Capildeo is uncommonly attuned to the absurdity which constitutes the mundane, the often shockingly banal violence of being alive. In both poets’ work, the grossly physical domain exists alongside an immanent spiritual one, accessible in moments of visionary and/or poetic revelation. A key poem in Undraining Sea (2009) is ‘Disappearing People’. It begins:

‘When he saw her walking
he knelt down to the pavement
and bending, with his nails and fists
tugged at a stone the shape of a fish
so she could step smoothly;
and she did, without looking.’

The kneeling figure with his hands in the earth feels distinctly Carterian, and prepares the way, however esoterically, for a figure we might read as an echo of the poet, who appears to be on a long journey without a clear destination. The first obstacle the walker meets, meanwhile, is a locked gate to a garden in a land where ‘people fall into action, / play a violent rumour’. When the lock proves intractable, she shouts:

I am missing a layer.
You know how it has gone.
Where is the skin that pasted my bones?

An unidentified ‘it’ responds, emerging perhaps from unfinished sculptures, ‘half-made in marble’:

You get too far into your work,
then turn around with a tragic look
to see who still loves you.
You should try being lonely.

The voice seems to turn the poem’s mythic tone into something more personal and specific; given that ‘your work’ may refer to the text we are currently reading, the poem might be deliberately deflating its own conceits to permit this moment of self-criticism. The passage closes with a depiction of lights in dark water – ‘night-lights of apartments […] draw black water / into amber reflection’ – seem to echo the opening to Carter’s ‘Till I Collect’:

‘Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights.’

‘Disappearing People’ shares Carter’s ruminations on ancestry and origin, but Capildeo is keenly aware of the difficulty in forging an uncomplicated continuity between their Caribbean past and English present (in which the poem’s central figure is robbed, harassed and aggressively othered). A complex metaphor appears at the poem’s narrative climax:

‘He is like a grotto
built from imported coral.
The blocks look porous. They are rough.
Animal-ocean stuff too close up
yields notions, not natures,
being dragged from lost totals.’

The ‘imported coral’ might read as a spiritually and ecologically fruitful space transported far from its roots, as, maybe, Carter’s poetry might feel in the streets and halls of Cambridge. The poem seems to warn against an over-prescriptive reading in its suggestion that presumptuous ‘notions’ might impose themselves over the ‘natures’ of what is truly there; ‘Disappearing People’ seems to suggest that falsified (or ‘imported’), clarity is a far greater failure than honest confusion. The poem’s conclusion is aptly conflicted, refusing, or unable, to look even tentatively into the future:

‘If she tries re-creating
some past and some present,
it is a form of gratitude,
shaken out from the aptitude
for joy: […]
A future – that’s not in their gift:
infinites more of work than faith,
time grown inconsequential,
a sense of consequences.’

The chiasmic last couplet, and the sinister connotations of ‘consequences’, shine light on the poem’s feeling of tension between an imagined past and how it informs a desired future. If the poem is haunted by the past, its ghosts are often reassuring; if it has reconciled itself to the utilitarianism of its present, it comes with a deeply unpleasant feeling of being instrumentalised:

‘She is like a knife blade
that has been too much sharpened: […]
so apt for use, so used to be keen –
it can no longer cut
without risk of breaking.’

‘Home’ in Capildeo’s work is a fraught concept, to say the least, as much a philosophical ideal as a physical reality. Capildeo has written of Carter’s rendering of Georgetown, Guyana, as conveying a ‘reverse poetic effect’, as elements of his work which might sound metaphorical, as in ‘Freedom is a white road with green grass like love’ (‘The Kind Eagle’, 1952), refer to real conditions in Carter’s home city. In Capildeo’s poetry, an inverse process seems closer to the truth: by converting reality into language, they create a metaphorical domain which the poet may, however briefly, call home.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that poems which handle such ideas are so often haunted, accompanied with disembodied voices, as in ‘Disappearing People’, or ‘About the Shape of Things’ in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012). The latter opens with a recurring character in Capildeo’s work: a domineering figure who demands that the world abide by categories recognisable to hegemonic power. The figure demands: ‘Help me cut the world up / into paper shapes! / Then I’ll know I see it.’ A ghostly, plural voice responds:

‘Nameless Bones Nameless Bones below oceans
Nameless Bones we name them. That’s all the names
we have for you. […] Not for:
Display. Arraignment. Arrangement. We’re done.’

The poem shares certain affinities with M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), a book-length poem concerning the crew and enslaved people on board the eponymous ship, including the 150 people who were murdered for insurance money during its voyage in 1781. In an essay at the end of Zong!, Philip argues that the poem disrupted ‘the eye trying to order what cannot be ordered’, to ‘create semantic mayhem’ in a story which Philip believes cannot or should not be told. Both poets explicitly raise the moral quandary of giving voice to and making art from people whose humanity and agency have been erased multiple times over. Capildeo’s lines in ‘About the Shape of Things’ also echo Carter’s ‘Listening to the Land’ (1951), another poem haunted by the transatlantic slave trade:

‘and I bent down
listening to the land
but all I heard was tongueless whispering’

Capildeo’s speaker, meanwhile, discusses how:

‘this morality of nameless bones
begins to stir in me against my will
to help […]
against my will to help the namer. […]

“Does it need signalling,
the central secret of each thing?”’

At the close of a deeply emotionally charged poem, Capildeo interrupts the original speaker, the ‘namer’, with a familiar voice, a familiar poem:

‘Guyana’s poet,
Martin Carter, said it:
Till I collect my scattered skeleton…

Deploying Carter here, as a bulwark against unsettling the nameless dead, artfully combines the individual’s wish to acknowledge and respect their links to colonial history, and to defend those histories from careless attempts to ‘cut the world up / into paper shapes’, to render complex interrelationships into (literary) playthings. They remain a phenomenon that refuses to be ‘displayed’ or ‘arraigned’, but equally refuses to disappear; as Carter has it, if they speak, they do so on their own terms, in ‘tongueless whispering’.

Throughout Capildeo’s work, the world of the spirit goes cheek-by-jowl with the mundane. As early as their first collection, No Traveller Returns (2003), is the poem ‘White as Jasmine’, which plays this dynamic somewhat ironically: the poem wryly indulgences a superstition, that a distant death in the family is accompanied by a ‘sweet smell’, only for the speaker to experience the same phenomenon on the other side of the ocean. You might forget the spirits, but they will not forget you.


*             *             *

II. Mind

If one can conceive of the world not as neatly divided between the living and the dead but on a fluid continuum, Capildeo’s explorations of atypical consciousnesses (whether human, animal or, occasionally, monstrous) should be a breeze. They share with the poems’ spiritual presences an assertive idiosyncrasy that does not require, and often actively refuses, taxonomizing. No Traveller Returns (2003), for example, is organised around a long central sequence, ‘Monster Scrapbook’, a series of texts curated by the mysterious scholar, ‘H.’, with the intention of advising a mysterious ‘Society’ how best to understand, systematize and tame Monstrous beings. ‘H.’, however, cannot quite be dismissed as a misguided patrician:

‘It is a feature of the Monster mind that the most abrupt transitions and the unlikeliest effusions are believed by the Monster to connect […] Monsters want logic, therefore everything they speak is a kind of poem’

These statements form a passable critical reading of Capildeo’s poetry; very few critics leave questions of their ‘difficulty’ undiscussed. A reader inclined to interpret ‘Monster Scrapbook’ as the poet’s perambulation of their own psyche, this introduction suggests, is missing the point: we should be careful not to participate in this (often violent) disconnect between how the Monster understands themselves and how they are understood. ‘The Monstrous Task’, for example, is a precise unpicking of common social responses when confronted by Monsters:

‘Monsters are nervous because they are much fallen in love with. People who work fall in love with them, and explain to the Monsters that they must be fitted in. […] This is not because of low self-esteem or poor self-image. Monsters protest. They repudiate the language of damage and repair.’

This early passage establishes some of the sequence’s fundamental principles, ones that resonate throughout Capildeo’s oeuvre: the language used to name individuals and their ways of being does not always align with their experiences. Moreover, this language often facilitates forms of social alienation or control, in which uncommon modes of consciousness are falsely considered unnatural. The poem implies that ‘being fallen in love with’, for example, has less to do with ‘love’ than with another’s desire to ‘correct’ a not-quite-human they perceive as ‘damaged’. Later, in a poem titled ‘Monster Hunting’, the speaker explains:

‘Attracted by the seeming power and completeness of the Monster, the natural predator of the Monster will be driven by a resentful wish for mastery. […] the true hunter will use himself (herself) as the means of punishment’

The clinical clarity of expression here is truly painful. Among many such accounts, silence and solitude seem infused with a powerful and restorative energy. In ‘Lux Æterna Et Perpetua’, an empty house is ‘alive with that live quietness’ of ‘places which are largely inhabited by a form of active emptiness’, where ‘Poetry is spoken in the silence of the live house at night’, a place where the ‘Monster’ may dream in peace.

Both Capildeo and Carter render sleep and dream as productive spaces of retreat, the ‘active emptiness’ of a private space that cannot be breached. Also in both poets’ work, however, is a sense of the precarity in such spaces, and their echoes, particularly for Carter, of death and the erasure of selfhood. In Carter’s work in the 1950s, under constant surveillance and repeated incarceration, dream is repeatedly rendered as one side of a coin whose opposite is death:

‘the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.’ (‘I Am No Soldier’)

‘The slave staggers and falls
his face is on the earth
his dream is silent’ (‘Death of a Slave’)

‘Mine was a pattern woven by a slave
Dull as a dream encompassed in a tomb’ (‘Not Hands Like Mine’)

‘It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.’ (‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, all 1954)

There are many other examples. Dreaming is consistently an active, almost practical force, one specifically targeted by ‘the man of death’: to deny a person’s capacity to dream is death by another name. A poem late on in Capildeo’s Utter (2013), ‘In a Dream’, begins with lines in a small typeface, which would normally suggest an epigraph, but if the text originates elsewhere, I could not find it:

‘In what dream did I begin with you? […]
this spit of narrow land is thrown
open between law and access,
the savage deliveries of sea.’

‘Delivery’ may connote commerce or religious salvation, both meanings ghosted by colonial overtones, given how the land is manipulated for the benefit of ‘law and access’ and the heavily pejorative ‘savage’; Carter’s revolutionary Guyana may not be far beneath the surface. The poem proper, meanwhile, begins:

‘One day I’ll sleep            and that will be for a long time
and while I’m in a dream              all will have dream status’

The poem’s initial simplicity allows it to introduce some far-reaching terms of play. One gets the impression that ‘a long time’ is a great deal more than eight hours, and the implications of ‘dream status’ feel as destabilising as freeing. Another ‘you’ is incorporated into its narrative:

‘and while all’s scheduled for dream        it will not matter
on the day of the longest dream         that you are part
in the dreaming                picking up where earlier glimpses
slipped painful perfections into which feet of sleep
walked and as they walked         meadows began outspreading
slides of sleepscape        fourdimensional eyes of sleep’

Though the topography of dream consists of unsettling details like ‘fourdimensional eyes’, the poem’s insistent, lulling rhythms, the soft texture of ‘sleepscape’, feel like a lullaby, ‘the day of the longest dream’ like an element in a fairy-tale. The poem feels forgiving, comforting, perhaps healing, but fixed in the fictional. At the midway point, the poem turns:

‘Spirited away
I’ll recall this sleep: reality. Like no dream
the years’ complicated origami of hurt
in a dream          falling away        a puckered swan’s fell’

Consulting the OED, where Capildeo worked prior to the writing of Utter, shows ‘fell’ to mean, alongside its amendment of ‘falling away’, an archaic term for an animal’s hide, or an ill omen. The logical relationship of the poem’s elements is secondary to its associative possibilities: the poem does not permit recalling a dream as ‘reality’ and assigning it to the ‘falling away’ of pain without complicating its terms. Unusually in Capildeo’s work, ‘In a Dream’ permits what sounds a lot like a hopeful vision or prophecy:

‘One day of sleep the longest sleep and in a dream
so much will be suddenly unnecessary
shoes    when we’re entering an ocean   obvious
for what has been obvious           our long-unseen dream’

Alongside its more obvious meaning, ‘obvious’ derives etymologically from Latin, ob viam, ‘in/on the way’. The lines might assert that what feels familiar need not be inevitable. This closing passage also seems to associate immersing oneself in sleep and immersing oneself in the ocean, ritualised acts which enable cleansing, restoration of clarity, which allow the ‘obvious’, ‘long-unseen’ dream to manifest. Casting off one’s shoes and entering the ocean, of course, has disquieting notes of self-destruction: the poem seems to share Carter’s fear to ‘plunge too far […] lest only bones I resurrect to light’ in ‘Till I Collect’, with its metaphorical network of the sea, the subconscious, and the double-edge of ‘resurrection’.

Visionary narrative and trauma are both to the fore in Measures of Expatriation (2016), a collection keenly aware of how powerful individuals and institutions discredit what does not conform to conventional narratives. ‘Kassandra #memoryandtrauma #livingilionstyle’ is a painful, intimate account, in the voice of the prophet of the Iliad, of how the lived experience of abuse and the demands of the justice system are fundamentally incompatible. In an interview with the Scottish Poetry Library, Capildeo argues that this is both an unwillingness and a learned inability to hear what is being testified:

‘If [survivors of sexual assault] don’t present a sort of linear narrative, they often get punished, because the amount of violence and fragmentation they convey is something that doesn’t fit in people’s idea of a fluent witness’

‘Kassandra’ frames this experience in one of the book’s most frank extended metaphors:

‘As people encouraged by helpful foreigners to cross
a minefield may smile, stretchered, blinded or their legs blown off,
so each of my memories, a living and willing witness,
gets up to walk to you, to tell my story, but doesn’t
make it.’

The poem feels like a direct relative of ‘Monster Scrapbook’ (2003) in its identification of the obstacles between the speaker and their access to safety and understanding. Though it valorises prophetic and fragmentary narratives, ‘Kassandra’ itself is unlike many of the shorter poems in Measures of Expatriation in its formal linearity, its direct, comprehensible argument, and its compact palette of metaphor. The disjuncture between the formal content of the poem and the poetic forms it clearly holds in high regard feels like another source of pain. ‘Kassandra’ ends by stating plainly the cost she must pay to be heard:

‘If you want it
to add up, why give me the gift of prophecy? I split,
spill truth like marrow from bones, gleaming on stone-strewn ground.’

It is perhaps unsurprising to find at the poem’s emotional peak the Carterian image of bones imbued with the power of speech, the capacity for telling truth inextricable from the speaker’s death. A powerful relative to this meditation on language and belonging is ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the collection:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. It is as if language places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage; thrashing, independent, threatening to rive our known world apart.’

It’s hard to miss the tones of hopeful admiration in the vision of Jörmungandr rendering all borders meaningless, of ushering in a world defined by fluidity, a society more faithful to the truth of one’s own witnessing. As in Carter’s work, this moment of dream coming to fruition is marked by a vast broadening of perspective, with an image as apt for chaos and destruction as for renewal, as in the ‘jig [which] shakes the loom’ in ‘You Are Involved’, or the dark, memorial waters of ‘Till I Collect’. The relationship between language and the truth is one of the strongest throughlines in Measures of Expatriation, and it’s striking how the book makes space for both the monstrous optimism of ‘Five Measures’ and the bleakness of ‘Kassandra’. If there is hope in either poem, it is in the dissolution of structures, the idea that, as ‘Five Measures’ suggests: ‘thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound’. If language is home, however, then ‘home’ may be something the wakeful, logical, linear world cannot abide.


*             *             *

III. Body

Capildeo’s most stridently visionary poems remain keenly aware of the ‘man of death […] aiming at your dream’, as in Carter’s ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, not only as a metaphor but as a material condition. In an insightful review of Utter (2013) for the Caribbean Review of Books, Vivek Narayanan considered the collection Capildeo’s most sustained political engagement to date, reading the poem ‘A World’ as a meeting-point of Capildeo’s social critique and Carter’s empowering presence as a forerunner. The poem revolves around an ‘iron-suited man’, who Narayanan interprets as the ‘kind of elected official […] who has so often meant bad news for the postcolonial world’. Narayanan cites Carter here, connecting ‘A World’ to his lines ‘Men murder men, as men must murder men, / to build their shining governments of the damned.’, from ‘After One Year’ (1964), a poem of disillusion at the Guyanese post-revolutionary movement. For such a short poem, ‘A World’ features an unusual number of hands:

‘In which the hands of people changed to things like flowers […]

by which that iron-suited man, foolish and careful,
negotiates crowds, his two wrists bearing red hibiscus […]

How approach the cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts?
How approach the man whose sand crab hands try running askew?

Ah whose iced hands disappear, condense, remade droplets…
instant, lasting blister-silk, should he once touch a heart:’

The poem closes on this last couplet, its ellipsis looking toward a line that will not, or has not yet, come to pass; an unusually lyrical gesture for social commentary, as Narayanan suggests. Where ‘people’s’ hands might turn to ‘things like flowers’, the man’s are sand crabs, cockroach-gripped and iced. If the poem establishes a nature-good/manufacture-bad dichotomy, the man’s hands are not entirely condemned, given that cockroaches and crabs are still living beings, however unpleasant they might appear. Capildeo clearly relishes the chance to turn their linguistic flair to political sketch-work – ‘cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts’ is a delight to vocalise – but keeps their analysis in active tension by refusing a definitive answer: the possibility of constant remaking keeps the poem’s hope alive.

Trading the Caribbean for the home counties, among the smaller lyric pieces of Measures of Expatriation (2016) is ‘Snake in the Grass’, an exploration of historical violence and contemporary revisionism in the City of Oxford. The poem critiques the ‘diversion and cover’ of the buried past by the official renaming of streets and literal paving over of past atrocities. Its speaking voice is surreal, chaotically energetic, and confronts the City directly with its own historical wrongdoing:

‘Under Christ Church tower,
under kings of new history,
the Jewish town lies in pre-Expulsion sleep;
under that again, nameless bones.

King Edward I signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, compelling all Jewish people in England to migrate, convert, or die. ‘Nameless bones’ have appeared in Capildeo’s work previously, in ‘The Shape of Things’ in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012); here, the phrase appears as a much gentler reminder that it is not only in the Caribbean that British imperial violence has left a deep, repressed scar. Carter’s ‘Till I Collect’ is also quietly present in the sequence that follows, in the repeated ‘till’ that begins successive lines:

‘Do not shun me. I am not sleeping.
Glass is the least security. My kind’s for re-use,
willing to coil cold in the earth
till each deadly resurrection through your changes of nation,
till your kind hand comes and the smith repairs us.’

Carter’s hand dipping into ‘the burnt earth of these years’ in ‘O Human Guide’ (1952) seems woven into the unsettling resurrections of ‘Till I Collect’. The nameless ‘smith’, and the provenance of ‘your kind hand’ feel uncannily familiar to the speaker and unknown to the reader, compounding the helpless feeling ‘Snake in the Grass’ engenders, of being swept away in a nightmare; it’s hard to read that ‘repair’ straight. It’s worth bearing in mind that the poem is dedicated to Alaric Hall, a medievalist whose first monograph concerned Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, when reading the poem’s conclusion:

‘Forget your wife, if you still have one.
The two of us decide who’s for taking.
Bring me to your son, blossoming in his cradle.
Introduce us. I have a name.
Man, join us together. There’s wisdom in my core.’

Hall’s book examines how elves were useful scapegoats for many social and personal ailments, a means of reinforcing group identity in pre-Christian Britain through their mutable other-ness, their capacity for inhabiting several subject positions simultaneously or interchangeably. Perhaps most significantly here, they are not explicitly inclined toward good or evil; the passage above is deftly poised between chaos and renewal, the bringing to light of a painful truth which may still result in the child’s continued ‘blossoming’. Through the ‘nameless bones’ beneath the city, the expelled Jewish people are connected to colonial violence in the Caribbean, as the poem recognises that population control by the English crown has an extremely long history. If the poem’s speaker is one of Hall’s elves, they are a transgressive figure who very literally brings the nation’s buried history home to roost. As Sandeep Parmar argues in her review in The Guardian, Measures of Expatriation challenges not only the violence inherent to borders, governments and social control, but demonstrates the fragility of their ontological foundations.

After a collection so preoccupied with the structures that organise and control human society, it’s perhaps not surprising to find ourselves, in Venus as a Bear (2018), with our ears to the ground. Venus as a Bear is nature writing that disrupts the generic convention of human subjectivity as the central organising force, and invests the animate and inanimate alike with agency. This produces what might be described as Capildeo’s homeliest book: though poems of historical anger and existential loneliness are still present, there is an unusual density of pieces that provide a place for comfort or rest. Given the poet’s sensitivity to the repetition and evolution of images, compare the imaginary sheep that populate ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’ in Measures of Expatriation:

‘friend sheep, if i stretched wide enough
i could give birth to a child like you:
a round-eyed barrier against normality’

‘everywhere I carry a sheep across my shoulders, wide peasant stride’

‘‘Sainte mouton’?
‘Sureté mouton’?
‘Secrèt mouton’?’

With the real, flesh and bone sheep in the opening poem of Venus as a Bear, ‘Welcome’:

‘Early lambs    born some hours ago […]
succeed in standing
funny fuzzy     valuable wedges
cave painting      hand-smoothed treasures […]
a hybrid flock    individual faces
strength in the legs     warmth in the shed’

Where the lines of ‘Insomnia Drawings’ are surreal, dream-logical and unpredictable, the caesurae of ‘Welcome’ create an inhale-exhale rhythm that feels lulling and reassuring, narrowing the poem’s field of vision. The terms on which the poem welcomes the lambs into the world, and the reader into the book, are remarkably uncomplicated: it’s good when newborns are strong and warm! Even with Capildeo’s more characteristic breaks into sound-sense (‘funny fuzzy’) and associative leaps (‘cave painting      hand-smoothed treasures’), the connections are lucid, as the speaker’s presence among new life connects them to cycles as old as animal husbandry and the first works of art.

In their review of Carter’s University of Hunger (2006), Capildeo takes time to investigate the editor Gemma Robinson’s extensive footnoting, particularly the explanation of Carter’s image of freedom, ‘a white road with green grass like love’ (‘The Kind Eagle’). An ostensible lyric flourish is elucidated by the editor’s note that the roads of Georgetown were literally white, paved with marl; Capildeo describes this as ‘a reverse poetic effect’, as metaphor becomes reality:

‘[Carter] travelled particular roads time and again and made poetry that could be felt by readers who had travelled other, very different roads […] we stand for a moment in the ghost of Carter’s footprints and feel that the roads of Guyana, whatever they are paved with now, have been — are — worthy of poetry, worthy of attention.’

In the short sequence, ‘Inishbofin’, the speaker also walks a white road ‘with stone and clover edges’, which the poem describes as:

‘A looked-for line between wet sky and water […]
How have I been so stupid and not known this?
Heaven most probably is underwater,
Sounding with ease, increasing pressure on us.’

The poem’s third section, meanwhile, begins:

‘The road goes two ways: right and left,
obvious, the bright white dust;
sure as last year and yesterday,
the harbour where friends disembark
without confusion for the climb
towards the hall on the small hill.
Nothing is interchangeable’

The relative lack of either grammatical artfulness or physical drama is rare in Capildeo’s work, and a poem like the first section, in which all lines begin with capital letters and a concept as huge as ‘Heaven’ is handled so lightly, might be unique. The poem holds its subjects with reverence, as much for the place that gathers people together as for the people who gather – three of the four sections are dedicated to writers at the 2015 Inish Festival: Rebecca Barr, Deirdre Ní Chonghaile and Bernard O’Donoghue – set specifically on a road with ‘bright white dust’ lined by green clover. The visual echo of Carter’s Georgetown, and the blending of time in ‘last year and yesterday’ (cf ‘one minute and one hour and one year’ from Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’), allows the west of Ireland and the capital of Guyana to share an imaginative space; the poem carries Carter’s understanding of home as un-interchangeable, and Capildeo’s more complex patterning of homes and homeliness. The fourth and final section is tiny, and binds together some very powerful symbols in Capildeo’s oeuvre. The section in its entirety:

‘sea for a bit
lovingly lifting it off
this felted skin
this roof needing resurfaced’

Not only time but human subjectivity shucks off its boundaries: the poet is the building is the human touch is the sea.

In an interview with Sarala Estruch, Capildeo argues that Venus as a Bear is more ‘being’ than ‘doing’, less interested in argument than their previous collection. Measures of Expatriation is an extraordinary achievement, in its ambition, its complication and its refusal to make itself smaller, more easily digested. Here, the poet seems to be recalibrating, finding new ways of challenging imaginative boundaries where Measures confronted the physical.


*             *             *

IV: Astronomer of Freedom

Capildeo’s most recent collection, Skin Can Hold (2019), is prefaced by Martin Carter’s poem ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’:

‘Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.’

Remembering the singular white roads of Georgetown and Inishbofin, what might initially strike a reader as metaphorical was altogether more real for Carter; University of Hunger cites Phyllis Carter’s belief that it was one of the poems smuggled out of her husband’s prison cell in 1953. Earlier in the same poem are the lines:

‘It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.’

If Skin Can Hold can be summarised in a single opposition, it’s the festival in the guns, the carnival in the misery; the phrase ‘strange invader’ recurs in ‘Midnight Robber Monologue’, a speech for the eponymous Carnival character, an agent of chaos, death, and poetry. Skin Can Hold is unusual in Capildeo’s work for the ways in which it explicitly reaches beyond the printed page, into dramatic monologues, public performances, political activism and, perhaps most pertinently for their oeuvre, collaboration with other artists. Carter has been an active presence in their work from the outset, as an exemplar of how the fantastic blends with the mundane, how a profound dreamlife may remain rooted in its political responsibilities. In Skin Can Hold, it feels like Carter is as much a model for the artist-in-community as for a private creative practice.

At the heart of the collection is ‘Astronomer of Freedom’, a lyric-dramatic exploration of Martin Carter’s iconic revolutionary poem, ‘I Am No Soldier’. What makes the Syntax Poems difficult to critique is that they are bookended by the poet’s own critical prose, offering the reader a way into and out of the text, including a reproduction of Carter’s original. Capildeo states their intentions clearly:

‘We [Capildeo and their collaborators] hoped to make the text inhabit areas of life and styles of being human and verbal that make sense in the world of ‘I Am No Soldier’, but which would be invisibilized in a lectern reading to the seated bodies of listeners.


Their intended effect arrives if words jump and jumble on the page in a way that informs the performance, and if the audience does not feel they have listened to ‘readers of poetry’, but rather participated in a sense of call and response, cry and chorus, intimate camaraderie.’

The text itself feels like an explosion in progress, as if the potentialities already seeded in Carter’s work, particularly its conflations of time and space, are being played out to their fullest, as the poem’s own grammatical references blur and overlap:

‘there are galaxies of happiness
(in darkness)
(in my hand’s revolving wheel)
(in my breast)
(in my breast and in my head)
(and in my head and in my dream)
(and in my dream and in my furious blood)

wherever            (wherever he may fall)’

What is implicit in Carter’s poem, in a line like ‘one minute and one hour and one year’, or in the grammatical fluidity of ‘Cold rain is mist! is air, is all my breath!’, is taken as permission for further play, to create a discrete world within the materials Carter offers. Here are the final lines of Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’:

‘The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness
And the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.
Let me rise up wherever he may fall
I am no soldier hunting in a jungle
I am this poem like a sacrifice.’

And those of the syntax poems:

‘I had seen / the glittering
darkness / And the planet
wheel / and the planet
head / and in
blood. / Let
fall / I am
a jungle / I am
sacrifice. //’

The syntax poems are explicitly collaborative, and there are notes in this short passage which don’t harmonise with much of Capildeo’s work; it’s possible to feel how the process of close reading that informed the syntax poems makes space within the source text for new aesthetics. The essay after these lines is explicitly presented as a ‘how-to’ guide, examining the salient rhetorical constructions in ‘I Am No Soldier’ that provide a grounding for the syntax poems. In Capildeo’s own words:

‘These materials are primarily an encouragement to readers to prepare their own kinetic, immersive, or collaborative responses (should they so wish) to any text of their choice.’

It feels appropriate that Carter’s work should be the case study for such a generous, many-minded attitude towards the assumed boundaries of poetic composition. Capildeo describes Carter’s work as ‘still carrying out its own propulsive transformation’, a beautifully apt description of an oeuvre that has so bare a presence in publication in these islands, but so rich an afterlife in the bodyminds of his readers. Where so much of Skin Can Hold looks with frustration and fury at the past and present, ‘Astronomer of Freedom’ reaches toward Carter’s own ecstatic invocation of a better world, his ‘secular hymn to the glittering potentiality seeded in ourselves’, his visionary belief in, Capildeo’s words again, the ‘I that can be we’.


*             *             *


Perhaps focusing too strongly on Carter’s presence, influence, or example in Capildeo’s work is to risk misrepresenting a vastly multifarious and complex oeuvre; yet he does occupy a status enjoyed by no other artist, as ancestor or model literary citizen. For both poets, the act of refusal, the denial of simplistic boundaries, is a source of imaginative power, something which on many occasions in Carter’s writing flows directly into his moral and political belief in a fairer society, in which life in its complexity is celebrated, in which the voices of the dead are revered, and the voices of the oppressed are raised up. In an interview with The Wolf in 2016, Capildeo outlines Carter’s significance not only to their own oeuvre, but within innovative poetry at large:

‘Carter’s ‘I’ is interesting because it feels communal and collective without being representative or coercive. […] The struggle to create this kind of plural ‘I’ has perhaps been overlooked by some British avant-garde poets’ surface reading of, and turning away from, ‘postcolonial’ literature: the ‘I’ that cries or sings as if in one voice and yet is astir with the voices of many.’

In Capildeo’s work, the poem’s attempt to navigate or circumscribe the experiences of the singular, socially imposed self resolves into ‘singing… with the voices of many’. If Skin Can Hold is any indication, Capildeo’s oeuvre is still wholly open to radical change and formal evolution, and I count myself fortunate to witness how their work carries out its own ‘propulsive transformation’. Thanks for reading.



Further Reading:


Capildeo, Vahni – No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003); Undraining Sea (Eggbox, 2009, rights reverted to author); Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Eggbox, 2012, rights reverted to author); Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013); Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016); Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018); Skin Can Hold (Carcanet 2019).

Carter, Martin – University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Gemma Robinson (Bloodaxe, 2006).

Philip, M. NourbeSe – Zong! (Wesleyan, 2008).



Capildeo, Vahni – One Scattered Skeleton, African Writing (4), 2006.

All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, ed Stewart Brown, (1999, Peepal Tree).

Hall, Alaric, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, (2007, Boydell Press)



Capildeo, Vahni – “And did those feet…” Review of University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Gemma Robinson, Caribbean Review of Books, 2006.

– “Everywhere and Nowhere”, The White Review, 2017.

– “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review (228), 2016.

– Review of Seasonal Disturbances by Karen McCarthy Woolf, Hello, Your promise has been extracted by Ahren Warner, and Kingdom of Gravity by Nick Makoha, Compass Poetry Magazine, 2019.

– Review of In nearby bushes by Kei Miller, Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, September 2019.


Baugh, Edward – Review of Undraining Sea, Caribbean Review of Books, 2011.

Chingonyi, Kayo – Review of Measures of Expatriation, Poetry London (85), 2016.

Hussain, Nasser – Review of Venus as a Bear, The Poetry School, 2019.

Laughlin, Nicholas – Review of No Traveller Returns, Caribbean Review of Books, 2004.

– Review of No Traveller Returns, Caribbean Beat, 2004.

Moore, Kim – Review of Venus as a Bear, Poetry London (91) 2018.

Narayanan, Vivek – Review of Utter, Caribbean Review of Books, 2015.

Parmar, Sandeep – Review of Measures of Expatriation, The Guardian, 2016.

Paul, Cris – Review of Measures of Expatriation, Poetry Wales (52:2), 2016.

Wheatley, David – Review of Venus as a Bear, The Guardian, 2018.



with Jack Belloli, Stride, August 2019.

with Sarala Estruch, estruch-notebook.co.uk, 2018.

with Nicholas Laughlin, MaComère (13) 2011-2.

with Sandeep Parmar, The Wolf Magazine, 2016.

with the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast, 2017 [transcription courtesy of Amy Key, via Twitter.]

Jane Yeh – Monsters, Detectives and The Truth of Masks

Some disclosures: Have not met Yeh in person, have spoken online a few times, mostly about cats. Usual caveats: I’m a middle-class cis white man and my readings are informed by how British (poetry) culture works to centralise the subject position I occupy. As such, I’m poorly placed to understand the nuances regarding gender, race, and other social factors in Yeh’s work. I’m indebted to Muireann Crowley and Peter Mackay for their editing work on this essay. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy.

*             *             *

“The Brighton Pavilion does not feature a pillar of columns and has never collapsed” – note to ‘Blue China’, Marabou (2005).

Jane Yeh’s oeuvre is uncommonly compact. As the publishing industry demands consistent output, and new collections routinely reach a hundred pages or more, Yeh’s three books – Marabou (2005), The Niinjas (2012), and Discipline (2019) – consist of just one hundred and seven poems combined, most of them brief. This is favourable for a critic: the poems very rarely deviate in quality, and recurrent themes and motifs are relatively pronounced. The most salient include: dramatic monologues, often with anthropomorphic narrators; heavily end-stopped, declarative sentences; the vocabulary of genre fiction, particularly detective/thriller/horror novels; ekphrasis of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms; dry humour, often about the narrator’s solitude or social inadequacies.

Raised in New Jersey, Yeh studied at Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and was a poetry reviewer for The Village Voice in New York, before crossing the Atlantic to study creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Marabou was published in 2005, the same year Bernardine Evaristo’s Free Verse Report found that fewer than 1% of poetry collections in these islands were written by Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) poets. Marabou was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection (the first BAME poet to do so since Kwame Dawes in 1994) and for the Costa Poetry Prize (the first BAME poet to do so in the prize’s history). At the time, critics William Wootten (in the TLS) and Thomas Day (in the Cambridge Quarterly) praised the collection, though both noted the ‘impersonality’ of the poems in Marabou, that ‘you can’t tell much about Yeh’s personal circumstances from her poems’; both reviews worry at the degree to which the biographical Yeh may be identified among the poems’ masks. Marabou, in its American aesthetic lineage – Yeh has cited Lucie Brock-Broido, Stephanie Burt, and Amy Woolard as major influences – and in context with the overwhelming whiteness of mid-aughts British poetry, was something of an outlier.

More recent readers have noted the unique textures of Yeh’s poems, their multifarious provenances: Sarah Howe has compared them to ‘snowglobes’ and ‘dioramas’; Rachael Allen to ‘miniature fictions’; Edwina Attlee describes them as ‘stagey, but complete, like a Joseph Cornell shadow box’. In each case, the reader gains purchase on Yeh’s poetry through qualities not native to the medium; specifically in terms of self-containment and exactness, with notes of a dream-like, constructed, three-dimensional elsewhere. Yeh herself has spoken of how her aesthetic priorities lean more toward those of popular culture than, implicitly, high art; in conversation with Natalya Anderson, she explains:

‘I guess you can say what I do is a kind of escapism. […] I view my poems as a kind of entertainment. Of course, entertainment or being entertaining doesn’t preclude serious thoughts or issues. […] It’s kind of about the power of art and imagination as an escape from the awfulness of the world, temporarily, and how valuable that can be.’

Throughout the interview, Yeh deflates or deflects Anderson’s queries about her work and personal history: asked whether she was drawn to poetry for its emotional intensity, she responds, ‘Partly, but also the brevity of it’; asked if growing up in New Jersey informs her writing: ‘It doesn’t much really’; What is it about the imagined world that attracts you? ‘Partly it’s just fun’. This casual off-handedness feels consistent with Yeh’s desire to leave her work open to interpretation. While discussing with Sarah Howe the preponderance of dramatic personae in her work, Yeh argues:

‘I’m not thinking “this ghost represents the fear of the dead”, I’m just instinctively drawn to writing about different subjects. If you were a critic or something you could come up with things that are common to them, maybe.’

I don’t think she is being facetious here; Yeh is a perceptive and precise critic herself. If her poems are miniature dramas, they emphasise the playfulness of plays; so long as the reader’s experience or pleasure has been accounted for, the critic may make of it what they will. Yeh’s long and eclectic career as a reviewer on both sides of the Atlantic have put these principles into action. In a largely enthusiastic review of Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape she argues that the title poem’s ‘repetitive excess and opacity are clearly intentional, but it’s uncertain to what end’; of Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Yeh notes that the book’s persistent ‘cartoonish kookiness feels more calculated than playful, too often to no end.’ Yeh is far from opposed to what is wild and ambitious: she seems to value Dastidar’s idiosyncrasies, naming them ‘linguistically daring and formally inventive’, and ‘clever, restless, playful’. ‘Excess’, even ‘kookiness’, are perfectly valid aesthetic strategies, right up to the point at which they no longer serve the book’s purposes. Though Yeh never explicitly draws this boundary, it might be when the poet appears to be having more fun than the reader: a line falls between an invitation to share in a poem’s hyperreality, emotional intensity and unpredictable play, and a poem losing its way in the attempt.

In an interview with New Welsh Review, Yeh praises Oscar Wilde’s essay The Truth of the Mask, in which Wilde articulates the value of costumes in Shakespeare’s plays as a means of conveying the complex emotional situations of his characters, as in Hamlet’s black suit, Macbeth’s nightgown, or Prospero shedding his enchanter’s robes. Wilde argues that costume deeply informs not only how a character appears, but how they move, how they take up space, even how they behave: Wilde’s assertion that ‘until an actor is at home in his dress, he is not at home in his part’, applies to more than the theatrical. As this study of her three collections will explore, Jane Yeh’s poetry takes these principles to heart: no matter how outlandish the persona, there is always the sense it has been wholly inhabited. By giving herself a mask, she gives the reader the truth.


*             *             *


This tension between the drive for a poem to revel in linguistic play and for the poem to provide a purposeful and apparent effect for the reader animates the second poem in Marabou, ‘Double Wedding, 1615’. The poem is an exploration of the wedding day of King Louis XIII of France and King Philip IV of Spain to each other’s sisters, Anne of Austria and Isabella of Bourbon. On a first reading the reader might assume the royal narrator is employing the first-person plural, but as the poem continues it becomes impossible to tell whether the speaker is Anne, Isabella, or both: the erasures of self they suffer in the name of statecraft are integral to the poem’s functioning. The narrator(s) relate(s) how:

‘We are wired

For great things and small movements, hooped
To glide like gigantic orchids, full-

Blown, slow-footed, and deliberate
In error. Afterwards we will bear the strange marks

Of another house, gold arms on a gold collar’

As an English Literature postgrad, I have been primed to read ‘small movements’, ‘slow-footed’ and ‘strange marks’ as self-reflexively literary, commenting on the operations of the poem as much as the subject matter. Being ‘deliberate / In error’ may speak to an artist’s anxiety about trusting their work to the good faith of ‘another house’; the strictures suffered by the narrator, her pearls ‘fitted just the length / To choke us’, may be consistent with how Yeh figures the tension between poetic form and poetic freedom. Yet this is, at best, set dressing to the poem’s central concern, its expression of the narrator’s interiority. The poem is less interested in royalty as a social or governmental phenomenon, and more in the stark contrast between its extravagant frippery and the crushing sadness of its participants:

                                                 ‘This day will slip from us
Shedding marquisette, point d’esprit, zibeline, trailing

Taffeta and broché behind it;’

The following lines, running headlong to the poem’s conclusion, offer an explicit description of grief for the speaker’s lost self:

                                                 ‘it will leave us bare-
Handed and desperate to remember what we were

Before it, and it will take everything we have
To recollect what we wore when we walked

The length of the nave without stopping, how we kept
Our eyes straight and unturning until it was over.’

The touch of parody earlier in the poem, in which the princesses ‘glide[d] like gigantic orchids’, is a distant memory: there is little to soften the blow of those last lines, the trauma of denied selfhood. Yeh’s poetry has rarely, if ever, returned to such a demonstrably bleak emotional space, but it feels significant that ‘Double Wedding, 1615’ sits so prominently in her first collection, that it depicts so vividly that ‘awfulness of the world’ from which one might seek, and often fail, to escape.

The isolation suffered by the narrator of ‘Double Wedding, 1615’ is one of the more conventional approaches to the subject in the book. ‘Monster’, for example, is narrated by a figure who begins as a Bride of Frankenstein-esque cryptid, ‘singled out by fate / To become a creature that lives in the dark alone’. The poem gradually shifts from the monster’s lair to the movie industry that demands such horrors become grist for their mill, the narrator predicting their coming ‘back in business / Back with bells on, back spitfire, back sharp’. The poem concludes at the intersection of the monster’s seduction of their unsuspecting victim, and a movie star’s sprezzatura: ‘They’re calling, they’re calling for overtures and beginners– // Flashbulbs everywhere, my dear. Won’t you lead me in?’ Unlike most of Yeh’s personae, the ‘Monster’ seems to have a way out of their solitude, perhaps out of the poem, as their final question offers an open hand toward the reader. It’s a gesture that few of Yeh’s poems perform so explicitly, and there’s reason to suspect the narrator’s confidence is on shakier ground than it appears: the lines before these are ‘I have been glamorous, / But not for long enough’, and the shift from shadowy lurker to blockbuster seems abrupt. That the Monster’s fashion sense, their ‘marabou / Blonde’ hairdo, gives rise to the collection’s title perhaps calls attention to its superficiality. The question of where the ‘true’ self is located, and whether this self may be substantially changed by the successful adoption of an outward persona, is left unresolved in the poem’s final, glamorous, question mark.

Perhaps the most fascinatingly weird of Yeh’s narrators, however, declares their strangeness more subtly in ‘Vesuvius (In the Priests’ Quarters)’. Taking the storied cataclysm as its backdrop, the speaker is calm and measured throughout, admiring with tactile intensity the sleepwear of their priestly order:

‘I always loved how they spread themselves,
Armless and headless,
[…] that perfect stillness of things

Dropped from a great height.’

Their sandals, meanwhile, are ‘soft / Brown mouths, open and dumb as those / Of oxen’. The heavy meter here is lulling, gentle, but its observations clinically cold: the chilling comparison of leather footwear to animals often killed to make that leather is totally at odds with the line’s soft aural texture. This disconnect between tone and content reaches a peak at the poem’s conclusion:

‘We were kneeling
When it hit. Through the window

I saw its hand and when the others ran
I stood, walked the row
Putting on each pair of sandals, pulling

One crackling cloth over my head after another.’

The ‘others’ are no less doomed, but the narrator’s calm indulgence in sensory pleasure in the face of sudden death is difficult to process: their abandonment of ceremony feels inspiring, brave, and slightly creepy: has the priest been waiting for this moment, in which personal boundaries no longer preclude them from trying on their colleagues’ clothes? The priest’s last thoughts are not of their imminent afterlife, and perhaps the priest’s unwavering faith in the sensory world gives rise to their vivid description of the ash cloud as a ‘hand’. Though the plain gowns are a far cry from the whalebone corsets of ‘Double Wedding, 1615’, they both act as anchors for the poems’ narrators in the face of existential crisis.

Like many poems in Marabou, ‘Double Wedding, 1615’ and ‘Vesuvius (In the Priests’ Quarters)’ sit at a crucial moment in which one era passes into another; these transitions are often imagined in the idiom of luxury and royalty. ‘France, 1919’ sees communist Chinese students both repulsed and fascinated by the long-deposed glories of Versailles; ‘Portrait at Windsor’ is in the voice of a four-hundred-year-old painting as it is destroyed by fire; in ‘Parliament of Fowls’ the eponymous flock ‘speeds over continents’, taking in the palaces of Westminster and Chartres, relishing their prophecy that ‘Your century is over’. The word ‘Marabou’ is itself something of a relic; eighteenth-century in origin, it refers to the use of feathers in the trimming of dresses and hats, and had its most recent heyday in movie star fashion of the 1960s. Its sole appearance in the book is almost incidental, in the glitzy vernacular of ‘Monster’:

                                                                ‘I am coming back, back
With a trash artist’s vengeance, hieratic in eyeliner, marabou

Blonde, black like an automatic
.22 pistol’

The passage through the collection of both word and sartorial tradition from royalty to femme fatale, the fluidity between the worlds of ‘high’ art and ‘low’ culture, embodies Yeh’s aesthetics in miniature: aristocratic excess cannot survive isolated from the world at large, and ‘trash art’ is no less worthy a resource for poetry than the portraits of Velásquez. These principles come increasingly to the fore in Yeh’s subsequent collections.


*             *             *


The Ninjas (2012) features numerous interlinked poems. The last line from ‘The Windham Sisters II’ (a continuation of ‘The Windham Sisters (After Sargent)’ earlier in the book) is the first line of ‘The Lilies’, which itself is spookily doubled in ‘The Night-Lily’. The birds from ‘The Birds’ have ‘heads the size of dolls’ heads’ and eat gingerbread from witches’ houses; the witches in ‘The Witches’, ‘don’t want to kill all the birds, just the ones the size of dolls’ beds’; ‘Sequel to ‘The Witches’’ is narrated by an operative sent by the birds to infiltrate the witches’ coven. The book is full of these breadcrumb trails, which seem to carry little significance beyond the fact that they exist. Maybe this is an indication that the book’s various narrators operate in a single extended universe; maybe it’s only appropriate that, in a book full of mythical creatures and secret societies, The Ninjas moonlights as a codebook for amateur sleuths (there is, after all, more than one way to make a book of poems entertaining).

Though many pop cultural tropes and motifs are present in Yeh’s work, few archetypes appear so frequently as the detective, and nowhere so densely as in The Ninjas. Some detectives are explicitly identified as such, as in the multiple appearances of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s notable how many of the speakers in The Ninjas decipher social codes or are in the act of pursuing the truth about themselves. The android from ‘On Being an Android’, for example, seems to have been investigating their relationship to humanity for some time, which yields the following:

‘Being human means the whole world is made for you like a cake.
Being an android means you get some cake, but you can’t eat it.
I don’t know how to flirt, so the bears at my local are teaching me.’

It’s tempting to read the android’s perceptive analysis as emblematic of structural exclusion, that ‘android’ and ‘human’ may stand in for any number of marginalised and centralised social categories. The line immediately afterward, however, is a reminder that, equally, this is a poem about a robot looking for dating lessons. ‘Teen Spies’, from Yeh’s first collection, features another hypervigilant, romantically short-changed figure:

‘We kill time waiting for our lives to start

With log notes: Saw a demented corgi piss
On someone’s shoe. Shadowed DF back
To his flat. Observed a parrot sat
On someone’s head. I am past
seventeen and have never been kissed.

The teen spy and the android both experience the world at arm’s length, absorbing all observable data, without the expertise to differentiate signal and noise. The android echoes the teen’s emotional state in their blend of decisive self-assessment and deep emotional uncertainty, asserting that ‘Everyone admires my artificial skin, but nobody wants to touch it’. Across her collections, Yeh affords much time and empathy for those whose need for connection outstrips their ability to locate or comprehend it; in sketching these ostensibly comic figures with idiosyncrasies and surprising expressions of fears, desires or dreams they come far closer to the reader than their technicolour exteriors might suggest.

Yeh’s sense of humour is at the core of The Ninjas, and much of it centres on the possibilities offered by the conventions and structures of detective fiction. Three poems in the book, each spaced seven pages apart, are numbered lists: their titles, in order, are ‘Scenes from My Life as Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman’, and ‘Scenes from My Life as the Abominable Snowman’, a neat piece of role-reversal that goes unremarked within the poems themselves, which appear to be playful exercises in non-sequiturs. If there is a discernible connection between:

‘11. Overheard: squawks from the surveillance pavilion
12. Adjective meaning ‘pursuivant to fishiness’
13. I take the case with a gothic reluctance’

it is probably at the reader’s discretion. The poems themselves feel like technicolour Rorschach blots, and feature some beautiful play with music and tone – the last of the three features the lines, ‘19. Overview of Nebraska, with added narrative matter / 20. Ruh roh’ – and provide a valuable release from the creeping sadness behind many of the book’s monologues. The meta-narrative across the three poem titles, the shift in perspective from hunter to hunted, aligns with the book’s preoccupations with the arbitrariness of social roles and the protean nature of selfhood. Read alongside each other, however, a feeling of paranoia creeps in, the possibility that everything is unbearably freighted with possibly contradictory meaning – ‘18. I vanquish the wrong evil mastermind’ – the cumulative disquiet means the poems cannot be taken entirely lightly.

In the spirit of Yeh’s cultural ecumenicalism, a crucial figure among these poems may be Commander Data, the android officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who Yeh has identified as her favourite character in an interview on the Faber Poetry Podcast. Data is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes mysteries, even roleplaying as the detective on the ship’s immersive virtual reality simulator, the holodeck. Like Data, many of the narrators in The Ninjas struggle with their proximity to, but exclusion from, being considered human: ‘The Ghosts’ insist that ‘We don’t mean to spook you, we just want to be noticed’; ‘The Birds’ ‘want to live on the ground like people, but they can’t be arsed to make weapons’. In its array of absurd characters with relatable problems – who hasn’t wanted to ask the bears in the local how to flirt? – The Ninjas follows Data’s lead, a clownish means of prompting real existential unease.

Despite this inclination toward the narrative possibilities of painting in primary colours, the language of nightmare is never far beneath the surface of The Ninjas. ‘The Body in the Library’ begins as a light-hearted meander through Agatha Christie-esque murder-mystery tropes – ‘There is a foreigner with dark hair and a secret / Who says Eet ees not me! when he is questioned’ – but ends with a deft critique of the pleasures of the genre, starting by rendering the detective himself as ‘a metaphor’:

‘like the end of a story

Or its aftermath: the part that doesn’t get written,
Four years later, when the case has been closed
And the bodies have been forgotten – how the dead
We have failed to keep remembering are alone.’

The poem seems to mediate between the book’s genuine delight in genre conventions and how they shape perceptions of violent deaths in reality. The poem sheds its playful bravado in its closing lines, as it confronts the implications of participating in a literary sub-culture centred around murder – often of women, as the poem notes: ‘She has a date with the killer. She just doesn’t know it’ – and comprised of narratives in which the dead are often set-dressing for the duel between detective and murderer. Throughout The Ninjas, Yeh assigns solitude or loneliness to sympathetic characters whose ability to know and represent themselves has been forced into doubt. Affording it to the forgotten dead of murder mystery novels is a powerful self-critique, a recognition that, for all their play with generic convention, there may a grim cultural animus behind how they render reality into fiction. Perhaps the detective, in their aptitude for removing masks, is the perfect antagonist in an oeuvre so full of them.


*             *             *


The anxiety on which ‘The Body in the Library’ comes to rest feels like a prototype of what would appear in Yeh’s most recent collection, Discipline. On the surface, the book carries what might be thought of as Yeh’s trademarks: the Great Detective makes an appearance in ‘Scenes from Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death’; there is a poem in the voice of a ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’; the co-stars of ‘The Detectives’ bear a striking resemblance to those of the monster-hunter soap opera Supernatural. Throughout the book, however, is a sense that a full aesthetic revolution has been completed since Marabou, as though the rules that governed or generated those earlier poems have carried over, their emotional situations more detailed and subtly shaded, the stakes often far graver.

A recurring feature of persona poems in The Ninjas, for example, was the ‘if… then’ constructions that delineated the bizarre rules of their consciousnesses and societies:

‘If a robot crosses your path, it means your grandmother just died’ (‘The Robots’)

‘If I think hard enough about anything, my hair starts to curl’ (‘On Being an Android’)

‘If they spy a goat they try to confuse it by flying backwards in slow-motion’ (‘The Birds’)

The lines’ dream-logic and proper grammar lend them the air of being procedurally generated, like attempts to imitate causal understanding in artificial intelligences. Where The Ninjas is populated by quasi-human subjects attempting to achieve humanity, however, Discipline features fully human subjects whose humanity is denigrated or erased. Here is the opening stanza to ‘A Short History of Migration’:

‘We boarded a seashell to ride across the waves.
The mythology of our passage involved dirt, sharks, a zeppelin, and wires.
We ate the same meal seventeen days in a row (pancakes).
We learned to say yes, please in four different languages.’

The poem invokes the clichés of immigration and assimilation narratives – later, the speakers assert that ‘We hindered our children with violins, bad haircuts, and diplomas’, and that ‘We kept our money close, and our feelings closer’ – but permits no identifiable real-world analogue to emerge. Arguably, it might delicately exhibit the perceived narratives regarding, rather than the actual experiences of, migrant people: what arrives on the page may be designed to satisfy the demands of the culturally centred for performances of exoticism, while permitting the author to continue their imaginative work unhindered. In either case, a slight shift has occurred in Yeh’s work: the speakers in ‘A Short History of Migration’ are not learning the rules of a secret cabal of ninjas or witches, but something identifiable as a modern capitalist society, in which ‘We learned about sturgeon, washing machines, ennui, and fake tan’. In Discipline, the idealised milieux of nobility and the stylised communities of popular fiction make way for something much closer to the texture of reality.

This shift is also observable in the poems’ choice of biographical-historical subjects; the refined subjects of fine art in Marabou are replaced by contemporary artists, most visibly the avant-garde artists and drag performers Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. Nomi collaborated with David Bowie and was an early casualty of the AIDS pandemic in 1983, Arias is still an active creator and performer, and maintains a popular Instagram profile; a far cry from Sargent and Van Dyck. As Sarah Howe notes in interview with Yeh, the poet’s ekphrastic habits have shifted from the Old Masters to contemporary art installations, from the static image in the gallery to the three-dimensional space. Though Yeh suggested this was an accident of what was in her ambit at the time of writing, it holds water as a metaphor for how her practice has changed between Marabou and Discipline. The opening poem in the latest book is ‘A Short History of Style’, subtitled ‘Joey Arias at Jackie 60, New York 1997’. The central dynamic here seems to be between the roving, critical eye of the narrator and the all-but-silent subject; there is something of David Lynch’s lush cinematography in the speaker’s meticulous observation (perhaps surveillance), and its shades of nightmare, barely concealed threat:

‘The disposition of her arms
Is a case of

Nothing ventured, nothing
Gained. Her violet ear

Makes sense if
Something wicked is

Being said. The angle
Of her nose is a challenge,

A crime against nature. Her
Throat a fine line.’

Yeh capitalises the first word in each line in every poem, but here the somewhat unfashionable formatting amplifies the speaker’s archness, their aloofness that leaves a disquieting distance between the observed woman as aesthetic object and as human agent, between the poem’s ‘fine line’ and the mark across the throat. The poem concludes:

‘The catch

In her voice like a rusty key
Turned. A hundred

Nights blurred together
Like an ink blot

Smeared – her long fall
Of hair saying No no no.

This passage is a small masterclass in how a carefully placed line-break can summon an image then alter it radically in one smooth motion: the ink blot, then the ink blot smeared; a physical fall that becomes part of the model’s body. It is also a masterclass in how artful language can aestheticize an expression of pain. A ‘catch’ in the voice may be a skilful performance or sadness struggling to be heard, and the fact that the subject’s only utterance is through her hair is its own kind of nightmare, prioritising the viewer’s assumptions over the subject’s interiority. The title ‘A Short History of Style’, and its position at the very front of the collection, should flag up to the reader the uneasy relationship the poem, and book, depict between surface and substance, the unreliability or even malice that might animate the imposition of meaning onto what we are about to observe.

There are similar dynamics at work a few pages later in the title poem, which likewise features a female figure, this time with moving images literally superimposed onto her body:

‘The shape of a deer
In silhouette

Projected on a woman’s dress […]

The reverse: a blank surface

Painted over – another girl,
Blotted out.

Besides this, and ‘A Short History of Violence’, in which an unnamed male figure flees from an unspecified, but implicitly fatal, threat, there are few poems in Discipline that aim for such a powerful sense of dread – specifically in the form of the physical or figurative erasure of self – and most of them in the book’s opening pages. It is as though, having established the presence and proximity of these existential threats, the book is content to leave them hovering in the wings, the reader primed to identify them in the recurring notes of unease and uncertainty in the poems that follow.


*             *             *


This habit of planting unease in unlikely places is perhaps best exemplified by ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’, named after the smallest mouse in North America. (It may well be a literary relative of the ‘robo-dwarf hamster’, or Roborovski hamster, the smallest breed in the world, which appears in ‘The Robots’ in The Ninjas.) ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’ is the closest Discipline gets to the cartoony monologues of her previous collection, but these surface similarities only highlight the poems’ fundamental differences. Here, the poem begins in familiar fashion, a cutesy narrator with a sympathetic problem:

‘It isn’t easy being so small           that your head is the size of a marble
Rolling across the floor please                                    don’t step on me my tiny paws
Are digging a tunnel the size of your thumb                          (it’s called a burrow
My home)

There is nothing uncharacteristically strange about these opening lines, aside from the excellent comic/bathetic timing in the last line-break. At best, one might argue that this is the heaviest Yeh has ever leant on this aesthetic, though one might ask, in her own words, to what end? The next lines open some unexpected possibilities:

                                                                   ‘even though I’m small I have rights
Like the right to keep any nuts                                   I find like the way I like
To go out at night and stuff my face                                         with seeds’

It’s a blink-and-miss-it phrase before the narrator resumes their mousiness, but the poem has introduced not only the concept of rodent civil liberties but the implication that they are under threat. Also implicit here, of course, is that the mouse’s interest in their rights is primarily based on their freedom to consume as much as possible. That the mouse’s motivation is far from morally inspirational feels like part of the point: the protection of one’s freedoms should not be dependent on the performance of model citizenship. Most of the monologues in previous volumes have occurred in a self-contained dream-world, quotidian details like pubs and Roombas employed primarily for comic purposes; here, a world of rights and legislation is recognised and pointed towards. A couple of lines later there is an even clearer connection to real-world politics, as the mouse disputes how:

‘Even though we’re so small                                        they call us a mischief
A harvest or horde we’re just                      trying to stay alive […]
Even though my voice is very small                       like the sound of a miniature beeper
Going off                                             I am talking to you now mouse to mouse’

The mouse asserting their rights seeds an idea (a faceful of seeds, no less), and the pay-off might be here, in which the mouse protests the language with which living beings are framed; PM Cameron referred to refugees in Calais as a ‘swarm’ in 2015, and discourse has only deteriorated since. Maybe it’s foolish to locate a critique of authoritarian immigration policy in such a ostensibly playful poem, but as a fan of detective procedurals might suggest, the best place to look for a coded message is where a regular pattern changes, and ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’ is a distinct shift in perspective, tone and vocabulary from the rest of the book. Its closing lines link it back into the general currency of the collection, prompted by that heartbreaking presumption of equal footing, ‘I am talking to you now mouse to mouse’:

Remember my silky fur how I don’t                          have a fire helmet to protect
My tiny skull how I’m still                              here even though you think you’re alone’

These last words are addressed directly to the reader, and made me suddenly aware of myself sitting in a comfortable spot in a world full of maligned and unprotected people. Though the line may be read completely straight – this is, after all, the smallest mouse in North America and too small to be seen – the mouse leaves a haunting impression, in the sense of asking to be remembered before they have gone, and the vague threat of constant surveillance. I may be reading some three-dimensional chess games into a poem about a talking mouse, but I think that the poem’s genius is in its plausible deniability; like ‘A Short History of Migration’, its themes are perfectly legible without giving anything away about its specific real-world referent. Perhaps the poem’s unmistakeable joy in role-playing is significance enough.

It’s certainly true that the book takes pleasure in stylised vernaculars. In ‘A Short History of Patience’ the speaker is characterised by bluesy Americana:

‘Baby, I could go out on a limb
And say the evening’s smoky eye draws near […]

                                   Without you
I’m lonesome as a cricket in a jam jar, chirping

Till the air runs out’

‘Turn It On’, a poem inspired by a Sleater-Kinney song of the same name, tweaks that voice to the band’s mid-nineties punk rock sensibilities:

‘The song

Spills from her open
Mouth, don’t you

Worry honey, left
Hand on the strings.

Her voice
Is a holler

Made of fury and beer.’

In both these cases, the tone creates the poem. ‘A Short History of Patience’ opens with ‘The soft chiffon of the river as it turns / Out of view’, and ends with ‘Ryegrass spreading through the yard like an open secret. / The blue line of the horizon like an eyelid, closed.’ The roguish asides help deliver the feeling of tumbledown peacefulness, underlined with a feeling of slowly being vanished from the world. ‘Turn It On’ feels even more straightforward, beautifully capturing the heat, light and self-assurance of a punk singer in a basement show. In light of these poems, then, ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’ is something of an outlier. It opens:

‘My uniform was gabardine brown, with extra straps attached.
I wheedled the shit out of the target. I Mumbai’d his sorry ass
All over the pavement. Don’t believe the lies they tell.

My ornamental shrubs were planted for maximum effect
I took a bullet right in the pitta pocket.’

The poem’s vernacular is obviously hard-boiled, but doesn’t seem to abide by any standard usage, and the meaning of ‘I Mumbai’d his sorry ass’ appears mostly opaque, to this reader, at least. Referring to ‘the target’ seems to suggest a military (or paramilitary, or petty criminal) operation, but ‘wheedled’? Did the narrator cajole the target into submission? It’s also unclear whether ‘ornamental shrubs’ is a metaphor, or real ornamental shrubs, deployed to sinister effect. Unlike ‘A Short History of Patience’ and ‘Turn It On’, the poem’s use of non-standard English seems to be largely for its own enjoyment, and it would be tempting to file the poem alongside Yeh’s numerous ludic spaces, like the fake book and movie reviews later in the collection, if not for the poem’s closing lines:

‘Sisters, I think our kindness will surprise them
When the time for judgement comes.’

After thirteen lines of playful, euphemistic swagger, this close is marked by its total lucidity. Perhaps ‘A Monstrous Regiment of Women’, with its Knoxian notes of feminine apocalypse, fits alongside poems from Marabou which stand at the close of one era and the beginning of another, particularly given that there are far more inferences of physical violence than almost any other poem in Yeh’s oeuvre. The line immediately prior to these, however, is ‘I manacled a sandwich and totted up the score’: even if one assigns a note of final reckoning in that ‘totted up’, the poem hardly offers enough context for its last lines to be read entirely straight. As with ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’, these are poems that cannot easily or comfortably be assigned a clear political expression, but that does not preclude the possibility that one exists. As with ‘A Short History of Migration’, these are poems which, like the art installations which pepper the book, create a space in which meaning can be explored and constructed, rather than providing the reader with one ready-made.

One such installation closes the collection, ‘Rabbit Empire’. Written as a commission for a project curated by the poet Rachel Long, the poem, alongside work by Ross Sutherland, Jack Underwood and Caroline Bird, was spliced into David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) at an experimental screening in London. The poem, as one might expect, makes specific reference to scenes in the film, specifically the nightmarish sit-com populated by rabbit-headed humanoids which seems to exist somewhere adjacent to the film’s reality. Commissioning Yeh for a project on Lynch feels like a perfect fit: Yeh shares Lynch’s facility for leavening existential dread (and lingering threats of violence) with absurdist humour. What particularly connects ‘Rabbit Empire’, perhaps many of Yeh’s poems, to Lynch is how their accumulation of unusual images and situations can make the occasional straightforward statement deeply unsettling. These are from the second to fourth stanzas of ‘Rabbit Empire’:

‘The door to the past only opens one way,
Into a hotel room – you can’t turn it off like TV.

It’s swish to nibble on a cream cracker
While she goes about in heels like a bachelorette on speed.
At the picnic, the grass is so green we could cry.
The language of the dead sounds like static

Or a weird encyclopaedia; when the phone rings,
It’s for her. Our eyes light up in the dark.’

Beside the amphetamines, which were often prescribed to American housewives in the fifties, there’s nothing particularly outlandish in the objects which comprise these lines, drawn entirely from a domestic vocabulary. But the persistent combination of these quotidian objects with off-kilter consequences builds that unheimlich texture found in so much of Lynch’s and Yeh’s work, the feeling of déjà vu, of a dream encountered in waking life. By the end of this passage, the nonchalance with which the narrator(s?) suggests that static, perhaps from an untuned TV or telephone, resembles the dead’s preferred means of communication, is profoundly sinister. When their ‘eyes light up in the dark’, it’s hard to see things ending well for her. The poem concludes:

‘She wakes up in Kansas, trailing memories like babies.
Roses fall through the air like a sweet shop exploding.’

The nod to The Wizard of Oz is an apt place to conclude a collection that plays so heavily around the borders between rationality and irrationality, that is made primarily of dream-logic but has so much to say about being alive in this time and place. The cover image of Discipline is a photograph of the installation Cakeland by Scott Hove, an LA-based artist whose sculptures are made of cake. In an interview, Hove describes how his pieces, which incorporate fangs, horns and switchblades, ‘add psychological depth to the viewing experience and force the viewer to choose how to integrate the dark elements into the lightness of the cake’. It is tempting to adapt Marianne Moore’s maxim; Jane Yeh’s poetry is imaginary cakes with real switchblades in them.


*             *             *


It’s testament to the quality of Yeh’s work that writing so much still feels like scratching the surface. An essay of equal length might be written about her prosody, or how her poems use disjunction to create a deep psychological profile in an extraordinarily condensed space, or how her poems discuss social marginality without explicit narratives of marginalised people, to name a few. What stands out most to me about Yeh’s work is its generosity, or rather its un-self-centredness. It takes a serious openness of heart to be so willing to appear to ludicrous, to so consistently prioritise the playful and the culturally communal, to keep, as she demands of the poets she critiques herself, the time, energy and experience of the reader to the fore of one’s aesthetics. What Wilde understood about costumes and masks rings true here. These trappings are pleasing to the eye, and help to sell the audience on the dream; when we pay more attention to how they move, what behaviour they permit or disallow, than how they appear on the surface, even a lonesome android can move us closer to their truth.

Further Reading:

Faber Poetry Podcast Episode 3: Jane Yeh & Richard Scott

Poetry Society Podcast: Jane Yeh talks to Sarah Howe

The Poetry Extension: Natalya Anderson interviews Jane Yeh

Sophie Long interviews Jane Yeh in New Welsh Review 95 (Spring 2012)

Jane Yeh reviews Rishi Dastidar, Rebecca Watts & Roy McFarlane, Poetry London 87 (Summer 2017)

Jane Yeh reviews Patricia Lockwood & Morgan Parker, Poetry Review 107:3 (Autumn 2017)

Jane Yeh reviews Tishani Doshi & Andrew McMillan, Poetry Review 108:4 (Winter 2018)

Oscar Wilde, The Truth of Masks: A Note on Illusion

Jane Yeh, Marabou (2005), The Ninjas (2012) & Discpline (2019) are all available from Carcanet, or your local independent bookshop.

Turning a Page: The State of Poetry Criticism 2011-18

[NB: This report was first published in the Brixton Review of Books (No. 6, Summer 2019). It is reprinted with kind permission of the BRB editors Michael Caines, Tess Davidson, and Alice Wadsworth. I’m a big fan of the magazine, it publishes excellent people, and you can subscribe on the BRB website.]

In the six years between 2011 and 2016, British and Irish poetry magazines and newspapers published critical work by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) critics 130 times. That was just 3.7 per cent of the total number of such critical pieces for those years. In the two years since the launch of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme in 2017, BAME critics have appeared in the same publications 115 times, 8.3 per cent of the total. The Ledbury scheme has desmonstrably spearheaded this rapid, vital change; but these successes must be taken in context as part of a fight for an inclusive poetry culture dating back many years.

In 2005, Bernardine Evaristo prompted Arts Council England to investigate the lack of BAME poets publishing in these islands. With the additional support of other British arts councils and the London writer development agency Spread the Word, the subsequently published report, Free Verse, discovered that under than 1 per cent of books published by major presses were by BAME poets. The Complete Works programme mentored its first ten BAME poets in 2010, and eight years later, that figure stands above 16 per cent; even Faber has begun to redress its institutional whiteness, publishing Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons in 2017, Zaffar Kunial’s Us in 2018, and Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche this year. As Evaristo argues, however, poetry in this country in the 1980s and 90s was far more receptive to BAME poets, as the prominence of John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Benjamin Zephaniah, E. A. Markham and Linton Kwesi Johnson demonstrated.[1] What Evaristo identified was not just a contemporary failure but a significant recession.

Besides the poets, what about the people who write about poetry? In my initial study, “The State of Poetry Criticism”[2], I found that between April 2015 and May 2017, only 4.4 per cent of reviews across seven major poetry platforms were written by BAME critics. Yet there are some signs of change. In 2015, for example, only ten articles by BAME critics were published, 1.3 per cent of the year’s total; the corresponding figure for 2018 was sixty-two, 8.5 per cent of the year’s total.

There have also been negative responses to what, in historical terms, might feel like a sudden change. In the past year, Michael Schmidt, publisher of Carcanet Poetry, editor of PN Review and mentor in The Complete Works, has written a series of editorials in PN Review in which he decries “identity politics”, describes a recent willingness to hold prominent white male artists responsible for their actions as “censorship”[3], and relates his own feeling of being “silenced” and “anathematised” for being “a white male in the vale of years with what used to be regarded as a good education”.[4] Like Peter Riley before him[5], Schmidt argues that a prescriptiveness imposed on work by BAME poets by publishers and critics is a manner of “censorship”. Both Riley and Schmidt omit the fact that publishers and critics remain overwhelmingly white, and that their decision to police the borders of BAME poets’ work maintains the centrality and cultural influence of white poets, critics, publishers and editors, not to mention the curators of “good educations”. In both cases, senior white figures instrumentalize their ostensible concern for BAME poets’ wellbeing to defend their own positions of power. Riley condemned Claudia Rankine for “parading the wound” in Citizen: An American lyric (Rankine won the Forward Prize for which Riley was shortlisted); Schmidt swiftly proceeds to defend the work of Woody Allen and James Levine against “censors”, elevating two (alleged) sexual abusers to the ranks of D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov.

As many have noted, to those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression, and as a series of studies have shown, we remain far from equal. Programmes like The Complete Works and the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics have made tangible inroads for a still relatively small number of BAME poets and critics, but even this slight shift represents significant change.


Resuming the work of my survey published online in 2017, I had two main questions: whose poetry is reviewed? and whose reviews are commissioned and published? The set on critical writing now includes data from twenty-eight magazines dating from January 2011 to December 2018, a total of 4,866 articles reviewing 7,711 books. Those magazines are: Acumen, Antiphon Poetry, Bare Fiction, The Compass, The Guardian, Gutter, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, London Grip, the London Review of Books, Magma, Modern Poetry in Translation, Mslexia, The North, Oxford Poetry, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, Poetry Review, The Poetry School, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Wales, Sabotage Reviews, Southwords, The Stinging Fly, Stride, the Times Literary Supplement and The Wolf.

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. The figures do not cover other important intersections of cultural exclusion such as class, disability, education or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. Regarding race, my terms are unsatisfactorily binary; this is, in part, due to greater accuracy often being impossible without self-reporting. As many writers have noted[6], neither BAME nor Person of Colour are ideal terms; both involve significant erasure of cultural, racial and national experiences and traditions. I hope that the outcomes of this study justify the employment of reductive terminology. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as Black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9 per cent of the total UK population, 4.9 per cent in Ireland. While I do not believe in the imposition of arbitrary quotas, it is, at the very least, useful to have such a basic demographic benchmark in mind when trying to determine what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.[7]

Of 4,866 articles published between January 2011 and December 2018, 245 were written by BAME critics, 5.03 per cent of the total. Of the twenty-six magazines and newspapers in the study still regularly publishing, only five surpassed this basic figure: Poetry Review (14.5 per cent), Poetry London (18.3 per cent), Oxford Poetry (18.5 per cent), The Poetry School (20.4 per cent) and Modern Poetry in Translation (21.4 per cent). Nine magazines published 1 per cent or fewer BAME critics.

Particular attention is due to the London Review of Books. The LRB has published seventy articles by thirty-three critics covering eighty-six books since January 2011. Every one of their critics is white, 83 per cent are men, and every one of the books reviewed is by a white poet. The magazine publishes poems with greater regularity: six of the 388 poems published since January 2011 are by BAME poets (1.5 per cent). 70.6 per cent of all  poems published are by men, including twenty-eight by August Kleinzahler, twenty-seven by John Burnside, twenty-two by David Harsent and nineteen by Frederick Seidel; these four poets account for 24.7 per cent of all poems published in the magazine during those eight years.

The country’s other major literary journal, the Times Literary Supplement, has a similar record. Though one of only five platforms to publish more than twenty articles by BAME critics, this constitutes 3.6 per cent of its total. Contrary to trends observed elsewhere in the data, most of these articles were published before 2016: nineteen before and five after. Much like the LRB, the TLS published just seven poems by BAME poets (1.3 per cent), and 72.2 per cent by men. Before December 2018, the last BAME poet to publish in the TLS was Imtiaz Dharker, on February 5, 2016.

Much like the TLS, PN Review’s publication of BAME reviewers has also regressed sharply. The magazine published thirteen articles by BAME critics between January 2011 and October 2013; there then follows a period of three years and four months, or twenty consecutive issues, without a single review by a BAME critic. Since March 2017, there have been just three articles published by BAME critics, and an excellent regular column by Vahni Capildeo does not cover for the magazine’s failures elsewhere. Despite this, PN Review has been a consistent publisher of BAME poets throughout the data set: 206 of their 2,100 published poems between 2011 and 2018 are by BAME poets (9.8 per cent, well above the national average of 8.3 per cent).

More encouraging examples do exist. In Poetry London, for example, twenty-one articles by BAME critics were published between 2011 and 2016, 11.9 per cent of the total for those years. In 2017–18, the magazine has published nineteen articles by BAME critics, 29.7 per cent of their total. An even more remarkable change has happened at Poetry Review: between 2011 and 2016, the magazine published fourteen articles by BAME critics (6.1 per cent); between 2017 and 2018, that number has more than doubled to thirty, a full 40 per cent of its total in the past two years. These increases are consistent with the magazines’ publication of poems: Poetry London’s publication of BAME poets rose from 7 per cent in 2011–16 to 16.2 per cent in 2017–8; Poetry Review’s publication of BAME poets rose from 16.1 per cent to 28.2 per cent over the same periods.

The Complete Works and the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programmes have played a huge role in recent changes. Similar to The Complete Works’ mentorship of poets, the Ledbury scheme aims to provide BAME critics with training and opportunities to develop their craft. Of the 245 articles by BAME critics in the data set, 117 were written by fellows of one or both programmes, 47.8 per cent of the total. This increase has, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with an increase in critical attention toward BAME poets, and with BAME poets publishing in higher numbers. In total, 627 of the 7,711 books reviewed in the data set were written by BAME poets (8.13 per cent). The figure fluctuated around 6 per cent between 2011 and 2016, with a peak in 2016 (7.7 per cent) and a trough in 2013 (4.9 per cent). In the past two years, this figure has doubled, to 12.9 per cent in 2017 and 13.1 per cent in 2018. Though I do not have exact figures, it seems that more books by BAME poets are being published year on year, particularly by small presses such as Nine Arches (in 2019 the press will have published collections by Theresa Lola, Ian Humphreys, Roy McFarlane and Tom Sastry) and Penned in the Margins (Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus). Veteran publishers such as Carcanet (Jane Yeh, Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller) and Bloodaxe (Chen Chen, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Legna Rodriguez Iglesias), meanwhile, continue their good work with more established poets. There is a close relationship between BAME poets’ access to major publishers and BAME critics’ access to major journals: one enables, requires, demands the other.

While there have been significant advances in the reception of BAME poets and critics in recent years, it remains the case that these small steps are supported by a small number of institutions and individuals, and the possibility of backlash and regression is significant. For instance, the publication of poems by BAME poets reached record highs of 10.8 per cent in 2016 and 10.9% in 2017 but fell to 8.4 per cent in 2018. There have also been numerous instances of high-profile white journalists responding to work by BAME poets with ignorance (for example, Kate Kellaway’s description of “oriental poise”[8] in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade) or outright hostility, as in the September 2018 issue of Acumen, whose front cover asked, “Has poetry been hijacked?”[9] The author of the essay in question, Paul Gittins, refers to “a Guardian journalist” before quoting a piece by the poet and academic Sandeep Parmar.[10] Gittins refers to Parmar using male pronouns, before condemning attempts to decolonize literary culture as “threatening the very identity of poetry”. Gittins conflates the “identity” of poetry as a medium with that of white poets, and frames this country’s white critics (95 per cent of the total), white poets (92 per cent) and white prizewinners (88 per cent) as an embattled minority. He also follows Riley and Schmidt in claiming that his concerns are primarily for the welfare of BAME poets, describing Parmar’s article as “condescending” for suggesting “they apparently need a favourable quota system to enter the prize lists”. Parmar’s article makes no such proposal, and Gittins’s memory seems short: no BAME poet had ever won the Forward Prize for Best Collection prior to 2014, and the T. S. Eliot Prize only once before 2015; almost two-thirds of all BAME shortlistings have been in the past five years. White authors repeatedly position ourselves as central, unmarked, natural occupants of cultural space, even as concerned guardians of BAME poets, however much our supposed advocacy rejects even the slightest structural change. It is possible, indeed vital, for white critics to spend time and energy questioning our biases, educating ourselves about our colonial histories and how we continue to benefit from them, and listening at least as carefully to work by BAME poets as we do to white poets, showing respect to the literary canons and traditions in which they situate themselves. Part of this work, however, must include raising up BAME voices ahead of our own: the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programme has demonstrated an abundance of extraordinarily capable candidates.

[1] Evaristo, Free Verse Report, 2007, 3.

[2] Dave Coates, “The State of Poetry Criticism”, DavePoems (May 29, 2017). https://davepoems.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/the-state-of-poetry-criticism/

[3] Editorial, PN Review 242 (July–Aug 2019), https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10244

[4] Editorial, PN Review 245 (Jan–Feb 2019), https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10385

[5] Peter Riley, “Vahni Capildeo”, Fortnightly Review, April 12, 2016, http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/04/vahni-capildeo/

[6] See, for example, Courttia Newland, Nikesh Shukla et al, “Beyond PoC and BAME: The terminology we use to define ourselves”, Media Diversified, July 16, 2016, https://mediadiversified.org/2016/07/16/past-poc-and-bame-the-terminology-we-use-to-define-ourselves/

[7] Office of National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census

[8] Kate Kellaway, “The Best Poetry Books of 2015”, Observer, December 8 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/08/best-poetry-books-2015-clive-james-claudia-rankine

[9] Paul Gittins, “Hijacking Poetry”, Acumen 92 (September 2018). The use of the highly loaded term “hijacking” in reference to BAME people should not be overlooked.

[10] Sandeep Parmar, “Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo”, The Guardian, 20 Oct 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/oct/20/why-the-ts-eliot-prize-shortlist-hails-a-return-to-the-status-quo

Rebecca Tamás – WITCH

Some disclosures: Have met the poet once briefly, spoken a few times on social media. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. I requested and received a text copy of the essay “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult”, published by The White Review, from Tamás in the process of researching this piece. A heads up for those who need it: the book thoughtfully and carefully critiques violence against women, particularly in a political context – Tamás has discussed in an interview her wish to prevent such scenes from becoming ‘spectacles of women’s pain’. Deepest thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

Review: It’s difficult to know where to start in discussing Rebecca Tamás’ first full-length collection, WITCH. The poems incorporate a huge amount of visual and aural information: in terms of discussing recurring themes (physical pleasure, solidarity between women, fluidity of identity, understanding the past to imagine the future, the sanctity of living, and some non-living, things) and images (dirt/silt/mulch, ash, trees, neon, honey, the colour blue), there is simply too much for any single review to cover. Arguably this is the ideal situation for such a many-minded, open-hearted book.

WITCH spends much of its time following its eponymous character, an immortal being witnessing, on a near-geological scale, the warp and weft of human history. The book playfully casts its ideal reader/listener in one of the few mortal characters in the book, the ‘petrol station boy’ who appears in ‘WITCH EUROPE’ and ‘WITCH AFTER’. He seems genuinely enthusiastic to hear what the witch has to say, and ‘shares a cigarette with her / under the no smoking sign which is his way of saying / I don’t know what to be sorry for but I am sorry’: the witch reserves her stories for those willing to do the work of careful listening. WITCH is precise and agile in its tonal and syntactical shifts: there are many occasions in which it feels like a poem is on the verge of hyperbole, of drifting away from its solid emotional core, but re-centres itself immediately with some casual turn of phrase that takes the breath away. For an example, here’s a short passage from ‘WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES’, noting the gear-change into the last line:

‘the witch wonders what happiness could possibly look like
at some point it went wrong and even though she’s very old
she doesn’t know exactly when that point was
but she’s thinking that the most likely is probably Orpheus
when Orpheus was singing it was so marvellous and Eurydice sang too
obviously they were a great couple’

Earlier, the poem locates the forced feeding of the suffragettes in a history of punitive measures against women, like the scold’s bridle. Here, space is made for a moment that almost dismissively punctures the gravity and distance of both history and myth, one which allows that deflation to bring home the poem’s drama. It continues:

‘Orpheus went back to get Eurydice from death as we know
but he wouldn’t let her make her own way out of the rubble seek into the scratch of
each step that is not knowing always not knowing […]
her song is still down there somewhere’

One of the great strengths of WITCH is its instinct for when to be explicit (that is, make an uncomfortable truth unignorable) and when to trust the reader’s engagement. In the myth, Eurydice is a treasure to be won and lost by Orpheus, here she is a person. It’s a simple change, but one that reorients the entire scene: the poem draws out echoes between Orpheus and the prison guards, who both fatally considered their charges incapable of self-determination. The poem explores how political change rarely comes with ‘lots of clear light pouring in gold fantastic gold’, more often with undignified physical suffering, that ‘the smell of freedom is the smell of vomit’. The final image is one of visionary anger, the witch conjuring a scene that sustains her mind when her body is made abject:

‘all the fires coursing up the townhouses […]
were all already there cracking and flailing
and spitting
the pleasure of seeing everyone see it
their white eyes fat with flames
it is all burning it has all been burning us’


*             *             *


‘WITCH MARS’, ‘WITCH EARTH’ and ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, meanwhile, are characterised by weariness and a wish for escape. Often this manifests formally, as the propulsive lines seen elsewhere waver and halt, becoming structurally simpler than the rest of the collection:

‘mars is just lovely […]
witch says to herself that no one has ever been hurt here […]
no one has corrupted mystics still pure and flashing like neon signs’ (‘WITCH MARS’)

‘what the earth deserves
so much
so much more
than dead bodies […]

the earth likes wolves at least
you can give it wolves
you can give it
that’ (‘WITCH EARTH’)

‘Witch lies on the volcano
amongst creeping language […]

the witch has too many reasons to part from the earth but she won’t part […]
she cannot go home from the world’ (‘WITCH VOLCANO’)

In each of these instances – as in ‘WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES’ – a moment of profound sadness is countered, however forlornly, by imaginative force. In ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, the witch seems to recover her strength, or at least starts moving again, after watching a congregation of ghosts in what feels like a communal ritual of healing:

‘ghosts are pink and blue and gold            agile birds
they are safe when they can change
safe when they can mourn and have voice to mourn
safe when they can hurt                                safe and entirely shattering
all of them crowding up into each other’s skinny arms
transparent clever yearning bodies and eyes […]

the witch watches the charged belonging air
rubs her foot in the salt lava
intimate and hot as god’

The ghosts manifest as an emblem of ideal community: their ghostliness allows them to present their ‘organs pulsing and held out like gifts’ to each other, a surreal enactment of one of the book’s key principles, the relative paucity of hard boundaries between one self and another. (This is grimly echoed in ‘WITCH FIRE’, as the deathless witch’s body disintegrates into many others at the stake.) As Tamás notes in an interview with Alice Hiller, the book celebrates ‘being amorphous, open’, and that ‘The witch doesn’t really believe in gender. […] Witch is male. Witch is female.’

While this mode of thought – disdainful toward taxonomy, faithful to mess – informs much of the book’s communitarianism, anti-facism and socialism, it might be worth hovering around gender a second longer. In her essay in The White Review, “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult”, Tamás talks about Silvia Federici’s landmark study, Caliban and the Witch, which examines how the category ‘witch’ is delineated and propagated by early colonialist European states as a pretext for wiping out generations of women’s social power and shared knowledge in the witch hunts of 1580-1630. Prior to this, the ‘devil’ was a capable, if easily defeated, trickster in most European folklore; during the witch hunts he was co-opted as an inversion of social norms, playing strongly on stories of him offering sexual and social freedoms outwith the authority of husband and state. In WITCH the devil explicitly exhibits genderfluidity through his ability to shapeshift, an embodied freedom from binaries, in a way that harmonises with the book’s opposition to political strictures.

Tamás is an excellent storyteller, WITCH accommodates an impressive amount of emotional and scholarly information, and it is absolutely possible to relish the messy, intimate, glorious relationship the witch and the devil enjoy without considering any of the above. When placed in their literary-historical context, however, as representatives of those excluded and punished in the name of social cohesion, the layers of meaning and possibility that constitute ‘WITCH AND THE DEVIL’ begin to become apparent. There’s too much of it to quote satisfactorily, but here’s a taste:

‘when the witch first met the devil the devil was
a beautiful man and a beautiful woman
the devil had long eyelashes and a body that was hard and soft
at the same time so that you wanted to hold him
and also be held by her […]

the devil liked getting up early which is what the witch liked so they would go out
before anyone else was around and they would act out satanic rituals in the woods […]
and also the light had the green tint of rusted copper and took part in the celebrations […]
the witch didn’t just feel like she was getting what she wanted she felt like everyone
everywhere was getting what they wanted’

The specifics of their relationship are, like much of the witch’s life, marked by hyperreality: one could easily read blood sacrifices as a spooky proxy for long walks on the beach. The early parts of the poem run away with themselves rhythmically, absent of decelerative punctuation, and the descriptions of their sex life – ‘the devil had all the sexual organs you could / want’ – exhibit perhaps the richest blend of earnest joy, comedy by exaggeration, and thematic seriousness in the whole book. A real treasure is the poem’s treatment of the witch and devil’s breakup (if that’s what’s meant by goodbye), a mature and loving conversation:

‘when the witch said goodbye to the devil
they didn’t get overtly emotional but they held onto each other
for a long time until there was a flow of breath back and forth
that was entirely equal in the air passing through their mouths’

I can’t recall many poems that not only explore sexual/romantic relationships as loci of nuanced mutuality and regard the end of said relationship not as failure, but change, but also extrapolate that thread into its broader political thinking. As the devil notes in an intimate moment: ‘you had to make a decision are you prepared to destroy yourself / for freedom even though it will be really awful and maybe worse than not freedom’. The lovers’ sensitivity and, unlike Orpheus, willingness to let go at the right time, informs and is informed by their attitudes to the world at large.


*             *             *


Alongside the witch poems are twenty-one spells. In Tarot, the twenty-first Major Arcana is The World, associated with the completion of a cycle or fulfilment of what is willed, and often represented by a figure both male and female, heavenly and mundane. This feels like too much of a coincidence not to be intentional. It may be that the spells are intended to be read like tarot cards, a suggestive space for self-reflection that does not require or even encourage a conclusive answer. Though the witch poems often abide by obscure logic, they are identifiably in the process of forming a narrative or argument; the spell poems feel like momentary embodiments of the moods of those poems, their rational scaffolding forgone. ‘spell for joy’ begins:


nothing can be trusted!
raise up your rinsed hands!
terrible fury and becoming!
take off your clothes!’

The poem seems more interested in the visceral effect of reading these words than in their logical force as conjoined thoughts, in this case the idea that ‘joy’ as an experience is also a kind of recklessness, a conscious rejection of security and stability. These could be read as speech acts by the witch herself, a shift from third to first person and an outlet from the boundaries of being narrativized. Although a very different experience to the acts of readerly empathy required in the witch poems, the experience of digesting:

‘I see a shaking which is total and absolute fear

one day yr gonna die!

the hot impossible apple of
your perfection’

is a little unsettling, but has a weird carefulness to it, a camaraderie, and there is unmistakable love in those last lines. I keep hearing ‘one day yr gonna die!’ while going about my business over the past few days, a chipper, ominous earworm.

This positive estrangement is perhaps most powerfully articulated in ‘spell for reality’, a poem that stands out among the spells for its calm and thoughtful pacing, the relatively clear provocation in the first lines, ‘what do you do when the answer to / too much is absolutely nothing?’ The poem carries echoes of MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, which Tamás studies in her White Review essay, in its worrying around the edges of perception, of accepting that the ‘more’ between MacNeice’s ‘snow and huge roses’ might be ultimately unsayable, but no less real for it. ‘spell for reality’ continues:

‘sometimes the ashy body in the ground seems
to have all the answers
ultimate realness             nasty truth as the final only truth
why then             this stupid relentless yearning for snow
why the                honey   and talking’

What Tamás and MacNeice seem to agree upon is that human beings are, finally, as subject to the whims of nature as any other creature. By exploring these fundamental questions about the nature and sanctity of living things, their inscrutable yearnings, the fire and the honey, they also recognise that there is something more to it than meets the eye, and that wondering about what that more might be is a fine way to spend what life we have.


*             *             *


WITCH feels like the right book at the right time. It’s a book that valorises political literacy, and figures its own feminist and socialist beliefs as inextricable from its aesthetics. What comes across most clearly is that this collection is, at heart, a gift. The witch is constantly mindful of who might need her strength, who might need her understanding, who deserves either or both. Tamás and Sarah Shin’s anthology, Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry, demonstrated the appetite for an approach to ritual, spirituality, and philosophical inquiry. It is clear that ‘witch’ means a great many different things to a great many different people, and WITCH opens those possibilities ever further.


Further reading: Rebecca Tamás – “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and Occult Language”, The White Review

Alice Hiller – “I Wanted to Think About the Possibility of a Revolution Based on Female Principles: Interview with Rebecca Tamás”

Rebecca Tamás – “The Enchantment of Disenchantment: Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’ & Ecopoetic Potential”, Wild Court

Patricia Ferguson – “Filth and Glory: Review of WITCH by Rebecca Tamás”, EcoTheo Review

Silvia Federici – Caliban and the Witch: The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia)

Sarah Shin & Rebecca Tamás, eds. – Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry (Ignota Press)

Katie West & Jasmine Elliott, eds. – Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels (Fiction & Feeling)

Fiona Benson – Vertigo & Ghost

Some disclosures: Haven’t met the poet; saw her read at StAnza Poetry Festival a few years ago, she is an incredible performer. A general heads-up that the book depicts and strongly critiques abuses of power, particularly sexual violence, in very direct ways. I wouldn’t recommend reading it all in one sitting, at least not without planning some downtime afterwards. I’m grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this piece.

Review: Vertigo & Ghost (2014) is Fiona Benson’s second collection, after the highly acclaimed Bright Travellers in 2014. Vertigo & Ghost builds on a lot from that first collection, particularly its explorations of the physical and emotional tolls exacted by motherhood, and speakers in both books are saturated by a pervasive feeling of embattled psychological isolation, a lyric self pitted against the world. What was ever-present but manageable in Bright Travellers has intensified here, becoming something remorseless, all-devouring, a corrupted force of nature.

What the few reviews of Vertigo & Ghost to date have focused on and most enthusiastically praised, with good reason, is the book’s opening sequence, ‘Zeus’, with a strong focus on the title character’s charisma, self-involvement and infantile, murderous sociopathy. Positioning Zeus as main character and focal point, however, might run counter to the sequence’s intentions. The sequence feels like a struggle for expression between the halting, affectively flat, painstaking speech of the unnamed narrator (and often what feels like a distinct omniscient narrator who shares similar intonations) and the blithe, trumpeting self-congratulation of the title character; it feels like a true depiction of the unfair power structures within the narrative that Zeus’ name overwrites everything.

It’s worth looking closely at the poem that precedes all of this, ‘Ace of Bass’ (the poem is spelled differently to the 90s pop group), which stands alone both formally and tonally. The poem inhabits in earthy detail a summer in the speaker’s adolescence at boarding school, the retrospective cheesiness and gaudiness that characterised the cultural moment, perhaps epitomised by Ace of Base’s Swede-reggae single ‘The Sign’, which spent the entire summer of 1994 on UK radio. The speaker’s self-image uses the same palette, her ‘teenage heart / [like] a glossy, maraschino cherry’, as ‘hormones poured into me / like an incredible chemical cocktail / into a tall iced glass’. The poem itself is a single, unstoppable sentence, its grammatical and substantial meanings meeting at its conclusion:

‘and we talked about who’d done what with whom
and how it felt, all of us quickening,
and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist;
pushing into our own starved bodies at night
for relief, like the after-calm might last,
like there was a deep well of love on the other side.’

This friction between past naivety and present wisdom make a heartbreaking conditional in the final line, the tension between the imagined continuity of love, pop music and playground solidarity and reality. The double meaning of ‘deep well’, as a plentiful resource when full and a dangerous hazard when empty, encapsulates this turn with terrible precision.

After the fireworks of ‘Ace of Bass’, the first poem in ‘Zeus’ is painfully stark. Its speaker is vulnerable, chastened, and smaller, and the two narrators could be considered as the same character in different moments. Where in ‘Ace of Bass’ there was ‘colour streaming from my iridescent body’, ‘Zeus’ begins:

‘days I talked with Zeus
I ate only ice
felt the blood trouble and burn
under my skin […]

bullet-proof glass
and a speaker-phone between us
and still I wasn’t safe’

The sequence begins with Zeus in custody, and apparently convicted. The poem seems to question how, even from this statistically unlikely starting point, Zeus might be held accountable, or what would constitute justice or even closure under the circumstances. The sequence plays as a gruelling, episodic series of witness statements and evidence records. With their incorporation of supernatural elements, however, the poems are far more unconventional and generically fraught than their popular forerunners. There is no struggle between equally brilliant representatives of good and evil: the sequence’s foundation is the understanding not only the vast differences in power between perpetrator and survivor, but the narrative frames naturally predisposed to his version of events. Among the evidence presented are versions of the Metamorphoses, which locate their depictions of trauma within broader contexts of the women’s families. ‘[transformation: Io]’ and ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ both include the attempts of Io and Callisto’s parents to heal their children, and, as poems, feel like pointed rebuttals to the tradition of Ovidian versions that treat violence and suffering primarily as spectacle, and have no interest in real-world implications for protagonist or reader. ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ concludes, ‘Go ahead, Zeus. Constellate this’, perhaps implicating the tellers of Ovidian stories into the systems of violence as Zeus himself.

As the sequence progresses, the narrative fact of Zeus’ omnipotence becomes an irreconcilable obstacle: he is imprisoned, drugged, thrown in an oubliette (the bleak inverse of the ‘deep well’ in ‘Ace of Bass’), and electrocuted, to no avail. The final poem is removed from the narrative proper, as signalled by its title: ‘[translation from the annals: Ganymede]’, a category which has not appeared to this point, and is the weirdest poem in the book. The sequence has previously depicted the casual presence of the mythical in the mundane; this poem is from another world entirely, in which the speaker (implicitly not the one we have travelled with thus far) is on an interstellar spacecraft with quasi-angelic beings known as the Powers:

‘I had not been in proximity with the Powers before,
and was afraid of their full-skin tattoos and body-jewels
and their ease with weapons. I did not fully understand
their dialect, and between themselves they talked
in an ancient language of the seraphim. […]

Sometimes I’d wake
soaked in sweat and hear the Powers singing
on a scale other than our own, high and screeching,
vibrating in a way that made me heave up yellow bile.’

Nothing in the book prepared me for this blend of biblical, science-fictional and Lovecraftian notes. Perhaps this poem is a grim reflection of the book’s first, the rhetorical energy of ‘Ace of Bass’ converted into this poem’s startling imagination; both feel breathless, high-speed and doomed. The Powers have been tending to Zeus’ dismembered corpse, scattered across the cosmos – a gruesome mirror of Zeus’ own murder of the eponymous prince – its various organs still alive and ‘whistl[ing] to each other’. The mission to extract information from Zeus about the location of Ganymede’s body is a failure, and worse:

‘The pieces would not yield
the boy’s location, though the synapses of the brain
lit up like a firework display when questioned.
The parts whistled to one another
like abusive masters to their kicked-in, wary dogs,
some ‘come-to-heel’, some barely stifled threat
and the cages themselves began to agitate and sing
and I became something beyond afraid.’

Benson’s carefully crafted Zeus is obsessed by the minutiae of his own interests – see his childishly repeated list of things he ‘likes’, their cruel tedium – and interested in nothing but his ability to exercise power. No punishment will change the fact of his godhood, which has corrupted him absolutely: the events of ‘[Ganymede]’, for all their hopelessness, seem to represent a best-case scenario. The haunting closing lines, ‘And still the cables rattled and shook, and still I am afraid’, are a reminder that this poem is not a conclusion to the narrative proper, which ended with ‘[votive]’, a forlorn prayer to Hera to ‘Keep him in the prison of your vigilance’; the sequence’s action comes after ‘[Ganymede]’, the terrible implication that not even this prison will hold forever. ‘Zeus’ is a remarkable work, walking a difficult line between its harsh critique of aestheticized violence and reproducing its effects, a fully realised portrait of abuse and manipulation.


*             *             *


Vertigo & Ghost’s second half is a very different proposition, more in keeping with the short lyrics that constitute Bright Travellers. A comparative study could be made between the long sequence in Benson’s debut, ‘Love Letter to Vincent’ and ‘Zeus’ here, in particular the depiction of Van Gogh as self-interested, petty and careless, and the intensification embodied by Zeus. In ‘Sunflowers’, the speaker describes how: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn’; this is echoed in how the speaker feels her blood ‘trouble and burn’ in the opening poem of ‘Zeus’. If there are shared roots between the two sequences, a major point of divergence is in the narrator’s affective response, the turn from desire to fury. Though the poems in the second half of Vertigo & Ghost are drawn together thematically rather than dramatically, questions of isolation, escape, familial care and physical autonomy still feel prime in Benson’s thinking. The most obvious connective tissue between the book’s two parts is in the repeated presence of stars and the night sky, everything that seems to represent an otherworld to the poems’ immediate settings. ‘Two Sparrows’, the second poem in the book’s second half, talks about its subjects in spiritual terms – ‘already elect, condemned’, ‘a spirit at play’, ‘his heart’s […] true empyrean’ – and ‘Marcela Sonnets 3 & 4’ set more soul-swallows ‘moving their tents between the constellations’; in ‘Fly’, the speaker draws these ideas into a more human meditation on spiritual escape and self-destruction:

‘I wanted to take myself off like a misshapen jumper,
a badly fitting frock. I wanted
to peel it off and burn it in the garden
with the rubbish […] And what sliver
of my stripped and pelted soul there still remained,
I’d have it gone, smoked out, shunned,
fled not into the Milky Way,
that shining path of souls, but the in-between,
the nothing.’

Though the following lines self-deprecate this passage as ‘so Wagnerian’, it’s hard to miss its dramatic flourishes moving from the everyday of jumpers and frocks into an ecstatic void: the poem feels sad, worn down, but unafraid. This draw toward oblivion, or something like it, animates two more poems in this section:

‘And here is that storm again,

wrenching at your roots,
insisting that you fly now
little horse, little flower,

into the dark,
its million
whistling stars’ (‘Ectopic / Yellow Seahorse’)

‘should the blue heron lift
from the tightening shallows
there will be love, release;
look now at the white stars falling,
the night-sky-blue of heron, rising.’ (‘Blue Heron’)

However compromised a resolution the final poem in ‘Zeus’ offered, it feels significant that it happened among the stars, and that the Powers are one among many flighted creatures in the book, from termites to bats to swans: the book’s thoughts about stargazing and flight, both avian and metaphysical, seem bound up with its meditations on freedom and death. It feels like the poems cannot quite put their faith a place of peace and safety (or freedom from earthly commitments) without rendering it as a no-place where life is untenable, nor do they shy from imagining the voyage there in consistently gentle and wistful terms. Perhaps the Powers are the amalgamation of all these imaginative processes: they viscerally terrify the speaker, their bodies ‘infected / and larval’, but, as wardens of Zeus, they are clearly a force of justice, speakers of angelic tongues, though the book has little time for religious convention, and little surety of ‘benevolence, or God’.

Though not explicitly a sequence, the poems in the second section feel very much in conversation, a long subtextual narrative in which preoccupations flow into and through one another. In ‘Wildebeest’, the metaphysical takes a back seat to the immediately embodied, and the proceeding poems on motherhood are intensely graphic achievements. ‘Wildebeest’ is set during childbirth, and Benson again uses a single, long, syntactically complex sentence to propel a poem in which the body becomes part-object, part-instinctual creature. ‘Wildebeest’ feels eager to immerse itself in its linguistic work:

‘and I was both the flood
and the furious corral
from which you were expelled –
trampled and pressed
and hammered like metal, […]

as if I were giving birth
to some fierce, Taurean star
spoked at the rim,
thorned like the sun’

The poem confronts and foregrounds the physical toll of childbirth and ends with the briefest moment of calm, as the baby is ‘brought from water / now ruddled with blood […] dark-haired like your sister, / incarnate, loved.’, as the astrological once again sneaks into the poem’s thinking. A page later, however, ‘Afterbirth’ takes pains to complicate the relationship between speaker and newborn, again using the blunt reality of the speaker’s body as a focal point, again in a single, multifaceted sentence. The pyrotechnics of ‘Wildebeest’, however, are curtailed and leaden:

‘sweet stink
of torn labia
under warm water […]

its acid sting.
Ragged animal
I stagger back

to my bed –
smell of blood
all over the ward’

Benson’s skill with conveying sense with sound alone is a true wonder. The poems in this section are compelling in how they dramatize the nervous, frantic energy they describe – a fall into a swimming pool, the threat of illness, the joy and exhaustion of chasing after ‘our glorious, stampeding daughters’ –  alongside a deep cognizance of pervasive gendered violence so vividly rendered in ‘Zeus’, which hovers around the margins of these poems every bit as much as the stars and their deathly quietude. A few poems in this passage, as Alexa Winik noted in the most recent Poetry Review, fall short in leaving too little room to explore the details of violence worldwide: the image of ‘the tribesman carrying your husband’s genitals / and a bloody machete’ in ‘Hide and Seek’ may be a stylised nightmare, but it appears beside more plainspoken references to the Holocaust and contemporary human trafficking, and its colonialist overtones are uncomfortable. As Winik argues, ‘That Benson attempts a self-critique here only seems to strengthen the impression of a missed opportunity, namely for a robust acknowledgement of the speaker’s own positionality […] in relation to the pain of others’. Vertigo & Ghost is immensely rich in its capacity to convey difficult interpersonal relationships without judgement, particularly between the speaker and her family, and the relative paucity of nuance in a few poems set far from home is all the more noticeable for it.

Vertigo & Ghost ends strongly with ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’, named after a military jet designed for air-to-ground strikes, of which the Royal Air Force owns 160. The poem does excellent work in figuring many of the book’s recurring thoughts in a deceptively straightforward scene, told with Benson’s characteristic flair for rendering raw, nervous energy through sound and syntax alone. Thinking back to the ‘Zeus’ sequence, the Eurofighter is presented as an unholy, apocalyptic beast, as one of the speaker’s children runs for safety, leaving the baby outside:

‘all this in the odd, dead pause of the lag –
then sound catches up with the plane
and now its grey belly’s right over our house
with a metallic, grinding scream
like the sky’s being chainsawed open
and the baby’s face drops to a square of pure fear’

The poem’s conclusion, in which the poet imaginatively connects the jet overhead to the people killed by it, is more affecting than the example above for remaining grounded in its emotional moment:

‘and it’s all right now I tell her again and again,
but it’s never all right now […]
my daughter in my arms can’t steady me –
always some woman is running to catch up her children,
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plaster dolls –
Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all.’

The poem seems to have ‘Zeus’ in mind: the invocation of Mary recalling of Hera in ‘[votive]’, Ganymede’s mother’s search for her son, the image of women running from danger. ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ might be a coda to the sequence, a reminder that the god’s violence is not merely interpersonal, but part of a system of national and international power whose origins lie uncomfortably close to home. Vertigo & Ghost is a powerfully discomforting book, its poems knotted and uncompromising, all harsh self-critique and virtuosic fury. This review could’ve been twice as long to give space for exceptional poems like ‘Haruspex’ (‘It is true, / I hear voices / and talk to myself. / I am done with shame.’) and ‘Village’ (‘And I felt love for my small and human life down there, / its tenderness’), every bit as impressive as the work of the spectacular first half.

Further Reading: Alexa Winik’s review in Poetry Review 109:1 (Spring 2019, contents page here)

Benson in conversation with Daisy Johnson on the London Review Bookshop podcast

Benson in conversation with Emily Berry on the Poetry Review podcast

Declan Ryan’s review in The White Review

Tristram Fane Saunders’ review in The Telegraph

Kate Kellaway’s review in The Observer

Nat Raha – Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines

Some disclosures: Nat is a friend, and a fellow resident in Edinburgh. Raha’s poetry and criticism are grounded in radical transfeminism and Marxist theory, about which i know relatively little, and reference transphobia, misogyny and racism, of which i have no personal experience. Please note that due to wordpress’ limited formatting options, the quoted poems are not exactly as they appear in the book. Gratitude, as ever, is due to Muireann Crowley for significant edits to this review.

Review: Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines (2018) is an unusual book. It is Raha’s first full collection, but strictly speaking it is an assembly of five of the poet’s zines, pamphlets and one-off projects, each written and published between 2012 and 2017. Through dedications to and epigraphs from Vahni Capildeo, mendoza and Sean Bonney, the book situates itself within its immediate literary contexts, alongside contemporary poets whose work similarly worries at the seams of language and its relationship to cultural and political power. On the page, the poems shift unpredictably through the white space, often leaving words or phrases crossed out or marginalised, marked with non-standard punctuation, or with ambiguous relation to the main text, as in the frequent use of cut-and-pasted newsprint and archive photography. The poems’ typography often seems to deny the reader the opportunity to slow down or decompress by leaving precious little blank space on the page. As a book deeply invested in questioning how political noise often drowns out sincere discourse, it’s a highly effective strategy. (Her publication in the magazine EOAGH shows some of these effects in action: the magazine publishes a jpeg file rather than attempt to reproduce the effects of the typesetting.) It’s worth noting that this is musical as well as visual notation: in the video above, Raha translates the poems’ idiosyncratic punctuation into sound, sometimes as a sharp inhale, deliberate stutter or recorded loop.

It’s worth noting that Boiler House’s beautiful production is not exactly how the original poems appeared, though there are signs that fidelity to the original publications was a high priority: looking between my copy of Raha’s pamphlet, de/compositions, and its reproduction in Of Sirens, precious little has been altered. It feels consistent with the book’s sharp attention to local and historical contexts that a concerted effort has been made to retain the materiality of Raha’s original works; ‘The Marriage of George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith (Epithalamion)’, for example, was originally a flyer distributed during London Pride 2013. The conditions under which these poems were written and published are presented as a core aspect of their meaning and expression, making Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines, alongside its literary strengths, a fascinating historical document.

Examining the book’s structure and themes as a unity, then, is a little more difficult than usual. In recent years, collections by debut or early-career poets are often arranged around a central theme or subject, a single metaphorical domain around which the smaller domains of their individual poems orbit. I’m thinking of language in Harry Josephine Giles’ Tonguit (2015), shame in Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit (2018), or articulating the self in Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), for example; though admittedly broad categories, the extent to which individual poems consistently touch on these central thoughts feels deeply purposeful, as the collection is shaped by rhetorical argument rather than Raha’s chronicles and archives. The five discrete sections of Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines are arranged chronologically, and many poems carry dates, times, and places as part of the text: the book is at pains to locate itself in time and place; the names of companies, Acts of Parliament, activists and writers abound. The book is not the pristine proof of a lyric vision, but a detailed journal of an artist’s evolutions and aesthetic experimentation over the course of several years. The themes and recurring images across these sequences, then, are the consequence of the poet’s sustained engagement with questions of government, culture and citizenship.


*             *             *


Raha’s rendering of myriad political actions into an aesthetic domain is difficult to articulate prosaically, and near impossible to quote without reproducing the entire piece. The poems are often possessed of alarming velocity, each phrase or image charging or melding into the next, an accumulating residue of meaning that often wrongfoots the reader or removes the grammatical tissue one might expect to logically connect the poem’s ideas. For example, from the book’s first section, here’s the closing passage of ‘the modern legal system is not for saving you’:

‘trans* collective global loss / break
the pillars / amnesiac /
burying the ribbon & its referents
/ deviance struck off the // official
history of civil rights according us freed –
compelled through the prohibitions’

The poem seems to alternate between richly suggestive, if oblique, allusion (‘burying the ribbon & its referents’) and deceptively straightforward, if grammatically off-kilter, statement (‘the sanction / of good / of / socially-necessary incarceration’). The poem’s purpose is clear enough – its subtitle is ‘in absolute solidarity with CeCe McDonald’, a Black trans woman and civil rights activist incarcerated in a men’s prison at the time of the poem’s composition – but its ideas do not unfold neatly; to think of one issue at a time is not an option, and Raha’s poem seems to embody the act of holding many concurrent threads simultaneously, not least the difficulty of the task. The closing lines draw together the social-historical trend of dominant cultures sanitising official histories and ‘compelled through the prohibitions’, an ambiguous statement that feels heavy with frustration. In ‘(shoes, danube)’, the book’s recurring concern with the recording and relating of history – both as social narrative about the past and as personal experience of an event or moment – plays out, specifically in terms of the body and physical space:

‘,, my eyeslide and accumulate /
laid ‘cross generations we are
retelling to days of us, arms as

wrapped quiet / ‘til we
instigate politics

echo out immediate universe

/ its frail coherences. grasped
for preservation / memory ground out

, churning
emotives :: what we can

gain in space & archive / #
amnesiac quotidian & demolition’

On the page, these lines are interpolated with fragments of photocopied words and newsprint, which literally undercut what appears to be the poem’s primary text. The words ‘poverty […] of future wealth / abolition’ are obscured or upside-down, but legible, and their relationship to the poem’s ‘frail coherences’, ‘memory’, or ‘churning / emotives’, and their intended impact on the reader, are open to interpretation. The poem’s generationally long view, made faintly parodic by its archaic abbreviation of ‘across’, is countered by the poem’s awareness of how individual and collective narratives are maintained and destroyed: by things as banal as physical archives and a personal will to forget.


*             *             *


Throughout the collection, there is a constant awareness of the fragility of Raha’s own place within a national culture, and the means by which queer, trans and BAME people are excluded from who counts as a citizen, either legally or culturally. In ‘(society will execute itself)’, a poem which begins, ‘we have already lost the 2015 general / vows austere realpolitik blessed’, are the following lines, italicised and in the margins:

traumas of hunger
& work
& hetcultures
bleaching the minds
our history

Meanwhile, in what appears to be the main body of the poem – it’s significant that throughout the book, such categories are largely unfit for purpose – reads ‘the formations of life we have been inventing since / every decade / shackled us closer’. The poem holds in tension this pairing of ideas, between the relationship of the poem’s speaker to ‘het’ culture, and the unspecified ‘our/us’ that the poem returns to. The dramatic movement, as far as one can be unequivocally defined, shifts from the seats of political power, to the personal adaptability necessary for simple survival, to the poem’s imagining of what might be possible in a world free from the dehumanising bottom lines of capitalism, ‘<< our possible beyond / << value’s conceptions and births’. It’s a movement that recurs throughout the book’s sections, across its years of thought: understanding the past is what enables any viable conception of the future.

The poem seems to hold several trains of thought in concert, as Raha’s analysis of late capitalism harmonises with queer theories about the strangeness of the experience of time. In “Queerness and Translation: From Linear Time to Playtime”, an essay in Modern Poetry in Translation (2018:2), Mary Jean Chan describes a very similar process of resisting social norms in favour of a truer experience of reality, in the present, in memory and in imagining the future:

‘I am eager to re-read and re-write my life as an ongoing poem, but no longer in linear time. Linear time suffocates; it forces the now into the future and refuses any meaningful engagement with the past. I want, instead, to inhabit a state of play – a form of playtime – where time dissolves’

What Chan formulates personally, Raha seems to explore socially: if widespread and radical social change is not immediately realisable, then let us be playful; under such conditions the imagination is a powerful tool. Of Sirens’ penultimate section, £/€xctinctions, is aware of its standing at a precipice; its foreword from the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James reads, ‘mankind has obviously reached the end of something. the crisis is absolute.’ The book’s most intense passage of political anxiety and critique works in tandem with its most strident attempts at envisioning a viable future. Where the majority of the poems in this section are densely woven and finely focused, ‘of future’s england / its stratifications’ is a remarkable rhetorical and tonal shift, as waves of data are let loose. Where other poems’ logic is traceable, however obliquely, ‘of future’s england’ momentarily dispenses with the need to connect its vast number of urgent nodes:

‘of future’s england / its stratifications
& the economic,
of the economic &
sarah reed
, of sanctioned benefits & health blackouts
& the economic
of sectioned nerves & muscles & the mental health act 2007
& the economic, of the economic / remedial productivity
& demands on all bodies &

psychologically sanctioned work, of
sectors glowing eviscerate working  &
the economic

of terror’s industry & the safety
of europe from itself’

The poem’s exaggeration of refrain and repetition highlight how much the book employs these tactics more subtly throughout, how despite the unconventional typography and grammar, these poems are designed to be spoken aloud. ‘of future’s england’ seems to enact the speaker’s attempts to remain forewarned and forearmed and retain their sanity, as a list of radical authors and activists occasions:

‘momentary reprieve & laughter & hands &

carnivals & the economic, of love’s purr here &

the economic’

As the poem’s conclusion suggests, even these brief interludes, these recovery periods, cannot quite expel the ‘quotidian terror & the conservative party / & the dismayed capital of the economic’. The crisis is absolute.


*             *             *


In their original incarnations, each of the sections of Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines stood alone as its own entity, and so it’s not quite a criticism that on my first reading, a sense of fatigue set in toward the end of £/€xctinctions: the imposition of fatigue as a means of social control is a key theme in Raha’s work, and it’s not wild to suggest that my experience may have been sympathetic. In any case, the movement from this atmosphere into the warmer, more careful, but no less impassioned de/compositions would have been far less affecting if not for the grimmer, bleaker poems that went before. The section begins with ‘[strid manig nines]’, dedicated to fellow experimentalist poet mendoza, the first of several pieces foregrounding friendship, love and physical intimacy in a time of nationalist crisis and authoritarian creep. It’s followed by ‘(after Vahni’s reading)’, a poem that stands out in the section for being relatively forthright and strident in its emotional expression:

‘the scope of purity & such myths / your

aggression utterly
entrancing to
-night, –

think the trails of roving & vicious girls
most detested & what we’ve been dreaming for

The tonal contrast to £/€xctinctions is fairly stark, even if the subject is familiar. Previously, the work performed by Raha’s poems was in naming and detailing the exact means by which the state and its cultural agents enforced their will; now that there seems to be little good in repeating oneself, it feels as though the poems have license to come much closer to home. ‘(after Vahni’s reading)‘ shifts from social panorama to the intimacy of a poetry reading, a specific, charged emotional experience from which the poem draws its hope and energy. There’s something of a nostalgic tone about many of the poems in the final section, as if its lattermost position within the book has also occasioned a time for taking inventory, to understand its own aesthetic past alongside its other histories. Spotters’ badge, meanwhile, to one of the book’s very few full stops:

‘our softsteel english
shoes / beauty potent in cobble
/ fend off all satistics / a

book of ourselves, in living.’

Even if punctuation is unconventional in Of Sirens, its deployment here feels purposeful, permitting itself to reach toward a note of optimism in a collection in which such notes are few and far between. The collection’s final poem, ‘on the vision of yur futures, ruptured isles…’ ensures the book finishes in a stance of looking into an imagined future, inhabiting a state of possibility, however remote, of radical change. Again, the poem grounds itself first in the here and now, ‘the / gems of our arms & care’, its sine qua non of political thought; the collection repeatedly mentions arms at points of both emotional and political intensity, and it’s no surprise to see the image here. The book closes with a gorgeous coalescence of utopianism and lyricism, and i think it would be a shame to spoil it here, or take it out of its proper context, looking grim-hopefully towards ‘all foreseeable days’.


*             *             *


The question of how, or even whether, art and poetry should interact directly with political practicalities is unlikely to ever be resolved, but Of Sirens takes up the challenge with all due gravity, and kudos are due to Boiler House for the obvious care and attention that allowed the book to appear as an industry-standard first collection without sacrificing its diy origins. It’s testament to the weight of the work represented by Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines that this review only touches the surface of a variety of topics the poems contend with; ten other readers could write ten other reviews without crossing paths, and that’s before locating Raha’s work within its multiple poetic traditions. As mentioned earlier, the book is an unusual document, but this is also one of its great strengths, a work that strives to preserve what dominant historical narratives overlook, embodying an archive and record all of its own.


Further Reading:

Nat Raha – “Radical Transfeminism, Transfeminine Brokenness”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 116:3 (2017)

Nat Raha – “The Limits of Trans Liberalism”, Verso, (September 2015)

Mary Jean Chan – “Queerness as Translation: From Linear Time to Playtime”, Modern Poetry in Translation (2018:2)

Garry Mac – Introduction to We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology (404 Ink)

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury); see also Eddo-Lodge’s About Race podcast



I know a few people are hoping for a follow-up from me regarding my last essay: this is not it, nor will one be forthcoming here. For those seeking related reading, i recommend Jack Belloli’s generous and thoughtful essay, “Owning the Post-Libs: On Toby Martinez de las Rivas”, on his blog, or Helen Charman’s insightful review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament and Martinez de las Rivas’ Black Sun, “Communality and Consequence” in the most recent Poetry London. Thank you for reading, and death to fascism.

On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Before approaching the subject of this essay, I want to say first that every member of the 2018 Forward Prize judging panel is a professional I respect. Their job is unenviable, given how much time deliberating on the 100+ entries must take, the visibility of the task and the inevitably large number of disappointed parties. It’s also worth noting that this is possibly the most challenging, exciting, ambitious group of books I’ve ever seen on a UK prize list, and I tweeted at the time how much good news it embodied.

What this essay critiques is our (white, influential, safe members of the community) collective willingness to overlook the exclusionary politics and destructive behaviours of poetry’s leading lights. This year has been an object lesson on how the abusive-but-powerful face few consequences, and those solely from grass roots activism. It would be fitting, then, that a poet pushing nakedly fascist ideology should gain the highest honour in our community. I hope beyond reason he does not.

I don’t say any of what follows lightly, and I should have spoken sooner. I write this late in the day because I selfishly feared for the professional and personal relationships it might jeopardise. The Forward Arts Foundation have supported my work with books, invitations to award ceremonies, and financially through my Patreon campaign. I write this in haste because Martinez de las Rivas is a tendentious and damaging thinker, his presence on the shortlist is diametrically opposed to the Foundation’s principles, and I fear what he might do with the international platform a victory would provide.

In his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini narrated his own version of the contexts of Italian fascism, and how his fascism must operate:

‘Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right’, a Fascist century. If the 19th century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective’ century, and therefore the century of the State.

The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.

…everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state.’

First, a falsehood is established: in the nineteenth century, left-wing or liberal thinking went too far. Fascism is, by its nature, a response to an invented threat; the brutality European fascism aspired toward required a vast fiction to justify itself. These acts are explicitly embodied in the all-powerful State, the ‘spiritual values’ of the Church, and the body of a single, anti-democratic leader. Nothing outside this narrow definition of nationhood has worth; the nation’s acts of genocide, therefore, are not only justifiable but an inevitable conclusion.

Fascism places at the heart of its ideology a lie from which all else follows. No good faith discussion can be had against fascism, as it does not care for truth, only power. The possibility of good faith discussion is what is at stake. The specifically British incarnation of this ideology is founded on the myth of benevolent empire, and the god-given superiority of the white men who operated its vast mechanisms. The recorded facts, that generations of our ancestors willingly committed atrocities to fuel centuries of global dominion, and maintained our control of imperial benefits when empire was supposedly over, are aggressively denied; see the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, or the various European leaders who have told former colonial subjects to simply ‘move on’ from their centuries of suffering.

In an interview with Lucy Mercer for the LA Review of Books, Martinez de las Rivas makes his dedication to instilling his poetry with his politics explicit:

‘In part, it’s a book that attempts to come to terms with the intense fear of disintegration that drove Terror – the fear of nothingness. There are many poems about the dead or dying, so the idea of the body that suffers is important, as well as the body that might be consoled through care, through physical love — ultimately, through divine love. Other poems are concerned with the larger body of the state, and the importance to me of the coherence of that body, so readers might detect positions that are, perhaps, monarchist, Unionist, and Anglican.’ [emphasis mine]

I keenly await critiques from those conservative critics who complain of there being excessive ‘politics’ in the poetry of marginalised authors denouncing Martinez de las Rivas’ explicitly ideological agenda. Here, Martinez de las Rivas muddies the water of Christian compassion by erasing the poor and outcast for whom Christ’s consolation was primarily reserved. Bizarrely, given the anti-imperial, anti-establishment consistencies in Jesus of Nazareth’s thinking, Martinez de las Rivas draws a straight line between the physical body of the holy individual and the symbolic body of a national culture and State. He prompts the reader to ‘detect’ his own submission to crown, Church and State because his creative work is a vehicle for these positions, a means to a political end.

The fiction of a simpler, purer Britain appears repeatedly in Martinez de las Rivas’ framing of the degraded, incoherent, post-modern ‘urban’ and the regal, paradisal ‘rural’. Later in the same interview with Mercer:

‘As you suggest, there is a certain notion of England that is important, too. Hostile to the metropolis, hostile to a particular kind of urbane sophistication, loyal to a kind of Blakean vision of the English countryside as a precursor to, or allegory of, paradise.’

Given that the English countryside is heaven, what does that make the metropolis, and the people who live in each? Martinez de las Rivas continues:

‘Some time after Terror went to press I was toying around with images and motifs. I sketched a much larger circle into a document and infilled it with black, and I was suddenly aware of it as a presence separate from me; or as the objective expression of something intimately mine. […] And I can only conclude, from the text, that it means many things. In one poem it is a symbol of vengeance rising over London’ [emphasis mine]

Black Sun is titled after a figure which stands, most prominently in the poet’s mind, as a symbol of divine retribution against the country’s biggest and most racially diverse city; in the book, a solid black circle appears several times, most forcefully in the end matter, where the word ‘Judgement’ is repeated dozens of times behind it, before turning white on the opposite page. Given the appropriation by many conservatives of Blake’s Jerusalem, along with its myth of an English nation graced by Christ himself, it is no surprise to see him invoked here. Martinez de las Rivas embraces a myth of English purity and simplicity, ignoring the historical facts illuminated by Jay Bernard, for example, that England (and Europe at large) has never been purely white. Black Britons existed long before the modern conception of the term, Blake’s paradise was made possible by outsourcing its horrors to the victims of empire, Britain exported a vision of itself as true home to some of its colonial subjects as a means of cultural control. Martinez de las Rivas’ vision of his homeland is built around a vast fiction that centres white bodies and erases all else. Finally in the interview, he explains his reasons for so intensely imagining an England returned to a state of prelapsarian purity:

‘All of which — as much as I love Spain — has only served to intensify a kind of longing in me for an England that I remember and love intensely, but to which I have no real recourse now. So if that vision is overdone, there are good reasons for it.’

Again, the fiction that such a pure nation ever existed is necessary to justify his thinking. Martinez de las Rivas frames himself has the real victim: of modernity, of urbanity, of diversity, brought low by loving his nation too much. The violence his vision would necessarily entail – cultural cleansing, mass deportation, genocide, the return of the strong body of the imperial State – is erased by his one and only recourse to emotion. Either the cultural complexity of the ‘urban’ or the coherent national body may be preserved, and Martinez de las Rivas is clear which he would prefer. What exists outside his ideal State cannot exist, much less have value.


*             *             *


This line of thinking is nothing new for Martinez de las Rivas. Here is the first sentence of his essay ‘Conflict and Change in the Poetic Theologies of C.H. Sisson and Jack Clemo’, published in PN Review, issue 217 (May-June 2014):

‘In the last few years, ‘radical’ as an epithet in poetry has come to be shorthand for a very particular kind of writing: politically submissive to Marxist dogma, syntactically committed to what is now termed the ‘interrupted lyric’, historically associated in the UK with the Cambridge School, and metaphysically derived from a range of post-structuralist continental thinkers.’

As with Mussolini’s rendering of ‘socialism’ and ‘liberalism’, there is no substance to his definitions, no solid referent, though it presents itself very correctly and properly and would absolutely pass in polite conversation. Missing from Martinez de las Rivas’ opening thesis is the following: who uses ‘radical’ in this way, who is writing this kind of poetry, what evidence he has that they are Marxist, what being ‘politically submissive’ to Marxism means in practice, which Marxist ‘dogma’ in particular they are submissive to, what it means to be ‘syntactically committed’ to anything, who has used the term ‘interrupted lyric’ and about whom, how they are associated with the Cambridge School, who exactly the Cambridge School is, how these historical associations manifest, who the range of post-structuralist thinkers are, what the post-structuralist thinkers think regarding poetry, and how the poets’ writing is derived from those thinkers. And yet, for all the worthlessness of this sentence as a critical thought, a) you, and most certainly subscribers to PN Review, probably know exactly who he’s talking about; b) it takes far longer to break down and critique the vast number of fallacies he has committed than to commit them in the first place; c) in trying to understand what he means on a clause by clause basis, I have completely missed its substance and purpose: Martinez de las Rivas wants right wing politics in poetry, needs a strawman to justify it, and so has created one. While I sit here puzzling through his word salad, he and those sympathic to his airy generalities have already won. Here’s the next passage:

‘But postmodern theories of text and analysis have long since become commonplace in the discourse both of the academy and wider culture, and perhaps the truly radical now would be to see a deep political shift from the left to the right, or the substitution of a committed neo-­Georgian ruralism for a (de)constructivist urbanism in the halls of innovative poetics. The fact that such unbreakable taboos exist reveals the limited aspirations of the so-called radicalism of the recent avant-garde, if, by that, we mean an art which might genuinely shake itself, and, as a consequence, us.’ [emphasis mine]

And here’s the payoff. Because contemporary poetry is in thrall to Marx, it follows that the only solution is to make it fascist. The wild conclusion is reached so quickly, and so quickly leads to another wild conclusion, that it is difficult to respond rationally (which postmodern theories? both academic and ‘wider’ culture? which specific aspects of wider culture? where are these ‘halls’ if not in the academy? if desiring right-wing politics in art is an unbreakable taboo, how did you just break it? why is ‘shaking’ desirable? Who is shaking and who is being shaken? etc). Note also how neo-Georgian ruralism (the revival of King and country) sits in opposition to the deconstructed ‘urbanism’; this counterpoint of regal solidity and urban degradation is a recurring theme. Again, Martinez de las Rivas does not define what ‘urbanism’ means, or what the ‘unbreakable taboos’ of the leftist avant garde are, because he knows his readers will make the leap. ‘Urbanism’ is a dog whistle, and it means all the unclean, deconstructed folk who live in cities. And we all know who lives in cities. ‘Unbreakable taboos’, meanwhile, is a very obvious nod toward the fictional narrative of left-wing sensitivity, usually made by people who destroy a country because their passports aren’t blue. This ‘nazis are the real punk rock / socialists are the real fascists’ narrative has been parroted by any number of soft focus profiles of ethnonationalists in national newspapers for years across the anglophone world. Again, these obvious double-standards are features, not flaws; the consistent element is that white men control of the terms of any conversation, and may change the rules as we please.


*             *             *


But Martinez de las Rivas is a poet, and it is only fair to discuss his poetry. Here’s the poem shared on the Forward Arts website, ‘At Lullington Church/To My Daughter’:

‘In my kingdom it is winter forever.
The snow falls & there is no time nor day –
no distinction between things, no compare,
no flaw to taint our rudimentary clay.

The falcon has flown away with history,
the bullfinch sheathed in ice & snow, the bare
branch shall never know its May,
nor husband teach the vanity of despair.

Nothing disturbs its peaceful sleep, no dream
of life, no hope, no falsifying dawn
alleviate the blank space within the frame –
no words to speak, no beauty to adorn.

Until she wakes and finds herself alone,
you are her rock, Lord. Lord, you are stone.
Lully, Lulley, Lully, Lulley.

Martinez de las Rivas is correct: I detect his monarchism, Unionism and Anglicanism quite distinctly: this is a wish for paradise for the poet’s daughter, divinely provided and protected from history. I have no reason to believe he has lied about all his other beliefs about the necessary purity of the body politic. That final turn, in which the daughter wakes, alone but for the Lord’s presence, can only work if what goes previously is considered a positive, desirable space, or at least a safe one. I cannot read this poem critically without acknowledging the poet’s beliefs: it’s what the poet wants me to do, for one thing. I cannot engage with his theoretical dream of a white nation without seeing it in his practice, its ham-fisted reference to the historical falconry of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, another poem written by a high church Protestant with dreams of pure nationhood ruled by aristocracy, who also gravely feared the unclean, unholy masses ‘slouching toward Bethlehem’.

Here are lines from ‘To a Metropolitan Poet’, also from Black Sun:

‘Christ, I can’t stand these popinjays,
so deep in theory, so ostentatiously tolerant.
[…] This is so fucking point-
less, Tobe. You are not theirs, finally, or even
hís, that sees beauty where no other can.’

Martinez de las Rivas violently rejects the idea of sincere ‘tolerance’, the theories (which theories?) of these insubstantial dandies in opposition to his own, rock-solid, faith in a god that ‘holds the rod & sits in judgement’, who may well be a ‘portion of my / self’. The metropolitans stand outside his ideal nation, and barely exist, much less have value.

Here are lines from ‘England’, which opens the book’s middle section, a positioning Andrew Frayn identifies as ‘suggesting its centrality to [Martinez de las Rivas’] identity’:

Hermosa, let me try a final
octave turning south into a wind that stubbornly
flitters through torn pennants of sacking,
purrs in the steel tubes of the gate;
that drives each ponderous & docile cloud
slowly out across the State that is only
an image of the body inviolate,
the nation that extends through all time & space.’

The immaculate body is the nation, the nation is England, England is the eternal nation of heaven. Mussolini: ‘The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist… everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state’. In the poetry of Martinez de las Rivas, Christ’s body is the white nation, a totalising image of purity and political control.


*             *             *


Poetry is not truth. The world is confusing, human bodies are flawed and compromised instruments, and subject to constant, unpredictable change. The theories we construct around or through poetry are subject to constant revision as we attempt to forge better tools for understanding each other and the world we inhabit, in all its messiness and compromise. Fascism, white nationalism, ethnonationalism, totalitarianism all attempt to erase these complications, to reduce life and its value down to a singularity, a uniformity, that which is most easily controlled and exploited. They are marked by their capacity to appear normal, invisible where possible and virtuous where necessary, innocent in the face of imagined threats from within and without.

Martinez de las Rivas’ exaltation alongside three American poets, one Trinidadian poet and one Trinidadian/British poet is bitterly disappointing, and should not be allowed to pass without comment. He is not fit to stand alongside those whose writing has endured and clarified the very conditions his own writing so eagerly espouses. The Forward Prize is not only an award, though the award is substantial; it is an opportunity to become a power player in the poetry community, to headline festivals, feature in national dailies, boost one’s allies and, in however small a way, shape poetry culture in these islands. There is a one-in-five chance that this power will fall to a poet whose politics are violently retrograde and exclusionary by design, whose idea of paradise lies in the racist fantasies of the most reactionary English nationalism.

As I argued earlier, one reason white nationalism has been so successful is plausible deniability, the safety of nods and winks. There will almost certainly be people who read this essay and see nothing but conspiracy theory and speculation, rather than a series of red flags, the visible residue of a totalising ideology. That is fine. If that is where you are right now, I was never going to convince you. But at least, I tell myself as I write this, I have put it where we can both see it. Thank you for reading.


Postscript: it has come to my attention that Martinez de las Rivas wrote and published a poem called ‘elegy for the young hitler’. That feels relevant.

Further postscript: here is a photograph of Taylor Wilson, a neo-nazi convicted of a terrorist attack on an Amtrak train in America. Wilson is carrying the symbol of the Black Sun. The man on the right of the photo is James Fields, a neo-nazi who murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.