Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

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

The State of Poetry Criticism

Disclosure: These numbers have been presented in earlier forms at a panel at The Business, organised by Sam Riviere at the University of Edinburgh, and at Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000, a symposium at the University of Oxford. All my thanks to Muireann Crowley for being a sounding board and strengthening this article’s argumentative structure; to the Scottish Poetry Library for keeping a well-stocked and accessible magazine archive; to all folks at the symposium for their questions and inquiries about the project.

The figures cover a period of 24 months from April/Spring 2015 to May 2017 – while they do not account for every poetry review published in these islands, it certainly accounts for some of the most prestigious publishers of criticism, over a substantial period of time. Please note that these numbers do not refer to interviews, features, reports or other prose works, only what each magazine refers to in its contents as reviews.

Edit: Regarding the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, I somehow overlooked Tishani Doshi and Daljit Nagra’s wins in 2006 & 2007 respectively. Sincere apologies to Tishani, Daljit and the Forwards for this error.

Click the images below for a larger version of the data collected for this article.

Data:

Essay: In the past few years, it seems like poetry culture in these islands has been making small positive steps towards greater inclusivity – women of colour won both Forward Prizes in 2015 and 2016, and the 2014 anthology of new black, Asian and minority ethnic poets, Ten: The New Wave, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, has proven a successful springboard for its poets, eight out of ten of whom have since published pamphlets or full collections. Literary journals and magazines have been less encouraging, if not downright antagonistic: Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize win was met with evidence-free claims of nepotism from Private Eye; TS Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe was described by her Sunday Times interviewer as having ‘sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence’ before admitting he just didn’t understand the work; Oxford professor emeritus Craig Raine accused Claudia Rankine of ‘moral narcissism’ in her Forward Prize-winning book Citizen. Prize culture, at least in the past few years, seems somewhat more advanced in its discourse around work by poets of colour than the critical culture surrounding it.

From this starting point I wanted to investigate a possible disconnect between prize culture and literary review culture. While not all critical responses have been as hostile as those above, the most common response to work by poets of colour has been total silence.

I decided to conduct a basic survey of poetry criticism and prize culture. I identified seven magazines which most regularly print a substantial amount of poetry criticism, and started counting. The questions this research asks are simple: whose poetry is reviewed? and who is commissioned to review it? Those publications are: The Guardian, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland Review and Magma. In each case I studied issues dating from April/Spring 2015 to the present day (May 29 2017).

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. These figures cover gender and racial/ethnic distribution. They do not cover other intersections of cultural exclusion like class, disability, access to education, or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. For instance, unless a poet or critic identified as non-binary gender in their bio, I could not collect that data.

The racial categories I have used are also unsatisfactorily binary: ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’. The decision to assign a particular category to an individual was based on available biographical information and the individual’s self-description. This reductive binary is also a matter of expedience: so few poets and critics of colour are published that by grouping them together the overwhelming whiteness of British and Irish poetry criticism becomes impossible to ignore.

Finally, one additional side note on terminology: ‘articles’ refers to a full piece by a critic, which may criticise more than one book. “Critic Z reviews Poet A, Poet B and Poet C”, for example, is one article by one critic covering three books by three poets. You may also notice that in the final columns some of the percentages don’t add up to a hundred – this was when anthologies were being reviewed.

Let’s start by looking at race. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9% of the total UK population, 5.7% in Ireland. While I do not believe that simply meeting this arbitrary quota will necessarily produce radical change within poetry culture, it is, at the very least, a useful, basic benchmark for what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.

Of all seven magazines, only Poetry London and The Poetry Review meet this most basic figure. In this data set, only twenty articles were written by just twelve critics of colour. For comparison, 18 articles were written by white critics named David, and 39 articles were written by white women named Katherine. It’s worth noting, however, that women aren’t being adequately represented either.

The Guardian: until the past few weeks, in which Kate Kellaway reviewed Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Ben Wilkinson reviewed Daljit Nagra’s British Museum, The Guardian had not published a review of a poet of colour in four hundred and forty six days, when Sandeep Parmar reviewed Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize-winning Measures of Expatriation on February 19 2016. Incidentally, Parmar’s article was also the last time The Guardian published a review by a critic of colour, a run which is currently ongoing at four hundred and sixty-five days. It is also the first time The Guardian has reviewed a poet of colour who has not won a national prize since Kellaway covered Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds on November 23 2014. You’ll remember Woolf as the editor of Ten: The New Wave. For reference, the last time this happened for a white poet was two weeks ago, when Nicholas Lezard reviewed Bethany W Pope.

PN Review’s poor showing of just ten reviews of books by poets of colour is somewhat misleading. Of these ten, five were pamphlets covered in Alison Brackenbury’s round-up articles, in which each book is lucky to receive more than a few sentences of critical attention. Of the five full collections, only one was given its own solo review, Alex Wong’s Poems Without Irony, published by Carcanet, where PN Review editor Michael Schmidt works as Publisher. In two years’ worth of criticism – 138 articles totalling around 140,000 words, at a conservative estimate – PN Review dedicated roughly 2,500 words to poets of colour, about 1.5% of its review space.

The Poetry Review boasts some relatively positive statistics. A major factor in these unusually high numbers is Kayo Chingonyi. Chingonyi is a British-Zambian poet and critic who co-edited the Autumn 2016 issue of The Poetry Review, commissioning 2 of its seven total critics of colour, and 7 of its 23 reviews of poets of colour; in the following issue, Chingonyi himself reviewed two more poets of colour. Across the board, Chingonyi wrote or comissioned 30% of all articles by people of colour in the UK and Ireland in the past two years. This is an unreasonable burden to place on one individual.

Poetry London’s positive statistics are also a result of a temporary change in editorship. The Summer 2017 issue, published last week, was edited by Martha Kapos and Sam Buchan-Watts, and featured five reviews by critics of colour, and reviews of nine books by poets of colour; this single issue accounts for 38% of Poetry London‘s reviews by critics of colour in the past two years, and 36% of its reviews of poets of colour.

It’s also worth noting that the twelve critics of colour who did achieve publication are exceptionally qualified: these writers have a disproportionately high number of literary prizes, lectureships, editorships, academic and artistic residencies behind them for their career stage. Dzifa Benson’s background offers a small variation on this trend: her residencies at Tate Britain, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts were for performance theatre, not poetry. Again, she was commissioned by Kayo Chingonyi. It is an observable fact that white editors do not open doors for critics of colour unless they have already been institutionally verified several times over.

This is what I mean when I say just hitting quotas is not enough. A quota will not tell you when poets of colour are included as an afterthought or a token gesture. It will not ensure that the attention given to poets of colour is in any way a sustained, committed endeavour. If people of colour are not included at vital, decision-making positions, the systematic exclusion of people of colour in poetry criticism will not change, not least because white critics and editors are not sharing the burden of responsibility.

On gender, things are relatively encouraging. Aside from the PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review, most publications are approaching a basic level of gender parity, with Poetry Wales, Poetry Review and The Guardian leaning marginally in favour of female critics. All three are edited by women, and the Poetry Review‘s editorial practice has changed markedly since Emily Berry’s tenure began last year. In almost every case, however, female critics review more books per article than their male counterparts, and men disproportionately review other men.

As a poetry critic, being given space to review a single book is a chance to make a significant contribution to a critical conversation. These reviews are overwhelmingly commissioned to men, a total of 157 compared to just 72 by women across all platforms. Even more intriguingly, while women review male and female poets about equally (33 women to 34 men, with 5 anthologies), men almost exclusively review other men, by 128 to 22. Simply put, male critics and poets alike are routinely given more space and prestige than their female colleagues.

This is most starkly illustrated by Alison Brackenbury’s role as resident pamphlet reviewer at PN Review, where she accounts for ten of the thirty-five total articles by women and seventy of the one hundred books reviewed by a female critic. There is a gendered labour gap at work at the magazine which aptly matches its apathy towards poets of colour. PN Review is by white men, for white men.

At the outset of this paper I mentioned how recent victories for poets of colour might be seen as a sign of positive change. It is, however, vital to put these results into historical context. I studied four major poetry prizes: The Forward Prize (established 1992); The TS Eliot Prize (established 1993); The Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize, which has been running a poetry award since 1985); and the Ted Hughes Prize (established 2009). To give an idea of the resources awarded by each: the TS Eliot awards £20,000 to its winner; The Forward Prize £10,000 for Best Collection and £5,000 for Best First Collection; the Costa Prize awards £5,000 with a possible £30,000 if the book also wins Book of the Year; the Ted Hughes Prize awards £5,000.

The questions this data set asked were also very simple: who is shortlisted for these prizes, and who wins them?

Only the newly created Ted Hughes Prize has awarded more women than men, by 6 to 2, and no poet of colour has ever won.

Between 1985 and 2000, the Costa Prize was won only once by a woman, Carol Ann Duffy in 1993. Jane Yeh was the first poet of colour whose work featured on the shortlist in 2005, its twenty-first year. In its thirty-one year history, no poet of colour has ever won the Costa Prize.

In its twenty-four years, the TS Eliot Prize has been won only twice by poets of colour, and only seven times by female poets. Its first eight winners were white men, and Derek Walcott was the first poet of colour to win, in the 18th year of the prize’s operation.

In a similar vein, only three of the first twenty Forward Prize winners were women, and only in 2014, its twenty-third year, was the prize awarded to a poet of colour, Kei Miller. The Forward Prize for Best First Collection is slightly different, in that Kwame Dawes won in 1994. Between 1995 and 2004, the First Collection Prize had all-white shortlists until Jane Yeh was shortlisted in 2005.

It may also be worth noting that of the ten poets of colour to have won one of these five prizes, only three self-define as British: Daljit Nagra, Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe, both of whom won their prizes in 2015.

Since 1985, thirty poets of colour have been shortlisted for awards a total of forty-one times, with ten wins. To put this into context, in the same time period six white male poets – namely, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien, Robin Robertson and David Harsent – account for fifty-three shortlistings and twenty-one wins. Poets of colour were also disproportionately awarded the Forward Best First Collection, twelve out of the total of forty-one shortlistings and five of ten wins.

If encouragement can be taken anywhere, it is in the fact that of these forty-one shortlistings, twenty-two of them came in the past four years; while that does indeed mean that in the twenty-seven years from 1985 to 2012 only nineteen poets of colour were shortlisted for anything, it does suggest things are changing. If we take data from only the years 2013-2016, the percentage of poets of colour shortlisted rises to 18.6, and a remarkable 30% of all winners; likewise, the gender proportion is flipped, with 54.2% of female shortlistees and 55% of winners.

The idea that poetry prizes might be awarded to women is a relatively new one; that people of colour might also be rewarded for their work is newer still, and it is too early to say whether these changes mark a meaningful departure from the dominance of white male poets. Without a concordant commitment to the hiring of critics of colour and the reviewing of poets of colour, these islands lack the diverse critical culture necessary to understand in complex or nuanced terms the work of poets of colour. I fear that after these few positive years we – white critics and scholars – may consider the job done and turn a blind eye to the 100% white editors commissioning 96% white critics to write about 91% white poets. Prizes are a proven, if limited, antidote: of the eighty-five books by poets of colour reviewed in the featured data set, twenty-one were by prizewinners; indeed in The Guardian’s case, this is all but the only guarantee of critical attention.

As Sandeep Parmar notes in her seminal essay ‘Not A British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’: ‘Mechanisms in place systematically reward poets of color who conform to particular modes of self-foreignizing, leaving the white voice of mainstream and avant-garde poetries in the United Kingdom intact and untroubled by the difficult responsibilities attached to both racism and nationalism.’ Kate Kellaway’s review of Ocean Vuong, for example, invokes troubling cultural and racial clichés and stereotypes by introducing the poet as ‘born on a rice farm’ in her first sentence, and indebted to a white male mentor, Ben Lerner, in her second. This impulse to deliberately other poets of colour is precisely why the dire lack of critics of colour is such an urgent issue.

Earlier I mentioned the backlash against poets of colour in the literary press; when white male poet Jacob Polley won the TS Eliot prize this year, not only was there a distinct lack of outrage, The Guardian reviewed his collection, featured ‘Every Creeping Thing’ as Poem of the Day, and commissioned him three times to talk about his life and work, with such softball questions as ‘One review described what Polley does as a calling, “a kind of secular transubstantiation”. Would he agree?’ Where poets of colour like Vuong and Sarah Howe have orientalising narratives imposed upon them, white poets are commissioned to write their own stories on national platforms.

The scholar Sara Ahmed notes in the conclusion of her book On Being Included: ‘When a category allows us to pass into the world, we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped or held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us.’ As white poets, critics and scholars, we must acknowledge how centralising and normalising whiteness makes our creative communities exclusive by design. We must demand not just token inclusion of poets and critics of colour but that they be given equal space, resources and agency to direct critical and creative discourses. In short, writers of colour should not be compelled to spend their careers talking about nothing but race.

The work of a poetry book is only partly within its covers; the conversation, argument or statement it proposes is maintained or denied by the attendant critical community. In malicious hands, a book may be mocked or dismissed or simply ignored if that book does not behave itself as the reader demands, if it does not reinforce a given critic’s prejudices. It doesn’t take much searching to find reviews that misread or misrepresent a book’s intentions, intentionally or otherwise, coercing it into a state of palatability, or silence.

Even a preliminary study of British and Irish poetry magazines and prizes shows how ingrained is the culture of structural racism and misogyny. I hope these figures may be useful, and that knowing the true nature of our community is the first step toward changing it. Thank you for reading.

PS: At the time of writing, the figures I am working from are in a somewhat scrappy form; I am working to make this project into a fully searchable database using Google spreadsheets; this process is turning up small discrepancies in the raw data (mostly regarding anthologies and pamphlets), and once I have complete statistics I will update this article. I also plan on keeping these facts regularly updated, and investigating up to five years’ worth of material for a clearer view of poetry criticism’s recent history in these islands, perhaps expanding the number of featured platforms.

If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Disclosure: Haven’t met the poet, follow each other on Twitter/FB. The poems in Savage deal particularly with female sexuality and alterity, which are outwith my experiences and for which i am not the target audience. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: Savage is nine poems divided into two sections: three standalone pieces – ‘BDSM’, ‘Volcano’ and ‘Penis Hex’ – and a series of six titled after female Christian mystics. The book centres specifically female bodily experiences while arguing, in the book’s second half particularly, for the spiritual aspect of these physical phenomena. The book is tightly conceptually focused and discusses explicitly its philosophical concerns, but little more than a passing familiarity with the latter section’s protagonists is enough to illuminate the poems’ deeper layers. Suffice to say Savage is a bit of an adventure. A pugnacious, bawdy sense of humour drives the poems, alongside a persistent loyalty to the realm of the physical: food, sex and comfort underpin the book’s larger ideas. Whatever the book’s philosophical ambitions, and i do believe Savage has plenty on its mind, they are located first and foremost in real, tangible, living bodies.

All that said, Savage places as much importance on scenes of softness and stillness as the more ubiquitous ‘hot death’ and ‘acid arousal’ elsewhere. These disarmingly, almost shockingly careful moments recur throughout, even in poems that as a whole tend toward disturbance or disjunction:

‘your soft under the breath singing’ (‘Penis Hex’)

‘She fastens milky attachments to your sleep’ (‘Julian of Norwich’)

‘people talking in the dusk, their quiet speech’ (‘Simone Weil’)

These poems aim for as keenly felt and deftly articulated a sense of care, closeness and vulnerability as they do their brash, chest-thumping extravagances, and it’s extremely rare to see a collection of poems so evidently comfortable in such starkly contrasting moods. The opening poem, ‘BDSM’, toes a fine line between a delightful matter-of-factness and a sober analysis of sexual politics, crediting the reader with the ability to consider both at once:

‘i asked to be hurt
time team was on
there was so much beautiful
potential in both the past
and the future’

This combination of the corporeal, the enigmatic and the banal makes it difficult to say exactly whether the poem is joy laced with anxiety – the poem makes abundantly clear that the socio-economic is absolutely in play in the sexual and vice versa (‘toys can be useful / anything from an eye mask / to a tank’) – or the other way round. The poem seems perfectly comfortable to pitch its key arguments in the midst of this ambiguity:

‘your ‘first time’ does not exist
but is a state of mind

for example

it can happen with a slice of orange
finding your open gap

or with a horse

a train to the cold sea’

Caroline Bird’s aphoristic ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’ feels close to the point here. Attempting to riddle out a logical, prosaic answer to these lines misses the impression they leave as primarily emotional/irrational arguments. Maybe the joy in reading this poetic treatise on joy is in negotiating the particulars for oneself. The poem’s not quite final words are, ‘telling is a careful / dance of pleasures’, and ‘BDSM’ is that rather rare thing, a poem about sex that finds humour in its subject matter without belittling or dismissing its gravity. The poem is that dance, comfortable in its dialogue with complex systems of power and careful of how it offers these systems to the reader.

‘Penis Hex’ continues this joke-but-not-but-actually tone with aplomb. ‘to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk’, it argues, but it’s a laugh like Patricia Lockwood’s ‘Rape Joke’, a mediatory, bleakly playful step between the violence enacted and its public discussion. The poem has some beautifully cathartic and deftly controlled comic moments, from its opening, earnest argument that ‘the hex for a penis isn’t really about / the penis / the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing’ through its several dephalloficatory scenarios. Behind its punchlines and tonal silliness, however, is a hard emotional core, and the poem’s opening lines also function as a reminder that cis men’s bodies and experiences are rather beside the point. With this in mind, the poem appears more like a provision of a space for self-care, and its peaceful moments seem a key element of its strategies:

‘to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there […]

hex with a plate of grilled pears
against cream
a glass of just-pink wine […]

hex it by saying nothing
this is a navy zip-up and scarf that says that i understand comfort
and solidarity’

Solidarity here might be the strength to make these jokes, to make light of emotional heaviness, and to share this ludic space with the reader. The poem’s final, ecstatic stanza is blistering, feral, invoking ‘total and utter glory / your huge red hair reaching up and touching the upper echelons’, the ability to take and remove a penis at will, the wind ‘batter[ing] the tall insane skyscrapers’, before concluding that, mysteriously, ‘it’s changing | you see’. As with ‘BDSM’, it may be less than productive to attempt to boil these lines down, but ‘Penis Hex’ certainly seems to take a turn in its final movement, the comedy stepping aside and letting the poem’s violent, prophetic undercurrents take control. It’s a remarkable poem, a bravura performance.

The book’s second half is Mystics, a series titled after, perhaps in the voices of, female Christian writers. The women in question – Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Ávila, Simone Weil, Marguerite Porete and Joan of Arc – were all significant philosophical authorities of their time, and where their intellectual concerns overlap (to be rather reductive) is in articulating a theology that unites the physical and the spiritual, or locates one within the other. It’s a neat fit for the book’s concerns, and noticeable how the ideas from the first half of the book proliferate through the second. The book’s pace calms significantly from the euphoria of ‘Penis Hex’, as the first in the sequence, ‘Julian of Norwich’, seems to start things over in a domestic setting:

‘Come home if you can bear it, the same divine, familiar beds […]
the same glasses smashing, the same food congealing on the hob’

God in this poem is female, an intrusive, somewhat careless, though passionately loving presence, whose own physical form dominates the space:

‘You know the fresh and bloody pith of her,
the damp redness between her legs […]

[she] reads your diary, leaving subtle and deliberate yellow smudges in the margins’

Yet the relationship does not appear antagonistic, indeed seems almost maternal as God ‘cups your head in her hands and sings softly’, displays her ‘love that’s virulent, ugly, nutshell tight, / love that throws out a tender and extravagant brightness’. The poem invites the reader not necessarily to pass judgement on the speaker’s situation, a speaker who seems remarkably passive throughout, subject to a whimful and powerful presence, but to experience it, to buy into the second person narration that places ‘you’ in the poem’s line of sight. When the final line comes, ‘calling you with torn crying into vision’, spiritual enlightenment and physical birth seem blended together, and the ambiguous, affectless mood at this transformation is unsettling. A radical change has taken place, but how we respond to it is not the poem’s concern.

The sequence seems to re-inscribe Christian theology with pagan symbolism, with recurring images of Green Man-like, bestial male sexuality, ‘fat tongue lolling out, penis with rising heat in it, damp hair’ (‘Hildegard’); ‘Some pseudo-Zeus unbuttoning his flies’ (‘Simone Weil’). It’s perhaps significant then that the final poem in the sequence, ‘Joan of Arc’, once again renders God as a gentle, protective, supportive presence. In Anne Carson’s Float, the poet notes how under interrogation, Joan made clear that the attempt to force her to explain her spiritual experiences was hateful to her, dismissing questions with such inspired responses as ‘I knew that well enough once but I forget’, ‘You asked that before. Go look at the record’ and ‘Ask me next Saturday’. Tamás’ Joan is similarly inscrutable, but in the deeply esoteric tone of the first half of Savage, to the point where the narrative voices seem to meet up once again; perhaps the first poems were narrated by Joan herself. ‘Joan of Arc’ begins with:

‘I saw God in a split yolk.
You won’t like that of course,
why would you?’

And later:

‘When the yellow eye looked at me
it didn’t worry about my breasts,
or my words, which ones I ate […]
It worried if I was ok.

This articulation of divinity as on one hand glorious and terrifying, ‘Her head was sun-dipped / gas and flame’ and concerned friend on the other is maybe the most convincing and appealing I’ve read in a poem. Furthermore, when the speaker describes how ‘You could find me sexy when I’m having sex, / when I’m laughing and coming like laying an egg’, that egg has already been touched with a divine presence; this utterly daft formulation of spiritual and bodily ecstasy is utterly beautiful. The poem has, like ‘Penis Hex’, a deft and ephemeral dramatic structure, in which each section is a discrete movement that ties the whole together. The final note of both poem and book is simple and powerful:

‘Still, stay,
human animals.
Stay so I can smell
your familiar
and tender
human foulness.

In the thunder
and night time
it is just me
and god.’

These lines are both precise summation of the book’s idea and a gorgeously provocative closing thought, fully-formed, belligerent and deeply conscious of the sacred and sacrilegious aspects of being alive.

This, I think, is at the core of Savage. It takes widespread and often internalised cultural messages about body shame and the absence of inherent spirituality and turns these tendencies on their heads, in a way that’s playful and purposeful, ferociously warm and studiously researched. Its argument that human life is essentially sacred, and that sanctity includes bodily realities, feels deeply urgent; that this message is delivered with such joy is a real wonder. Savage is a good book.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Edward Doegar’s For Now.

Further Reading: Buy Savage from Clinic Publishing for £5.

Interview with The Suburban Review

Tamás’ witchcraft poetry at Minerva

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

Edward Doegar – For Now

Disclosure: Have not met the poet. At least one of the poems in For Now discusses racial abuse and structural violence, which are outwith my experiences. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: In physical terms, For Now is much narrower than an average A5 pamphlet, almost pocket-sized, matching the poems’ spare, remarkably economical lines that rarely stretch beyond a few words. This is in contrast to the selection of Doegar’s work in the ever-more-iconic Ten: The New Wave, in which all bar one of his poems are long-lined or conversational, a capacious and discursive lyrical voice. The bar one, however, is ‘April’, a version of the Chinese poet Li Po, a tiny, delicate piece about waking up to rainfall in the spring, with deep emotional resonance woven into its opening line, ‘God has forgiven me again’. If the poems of For Now are not always so delicate, they certainly follow ‘April’’s lead aesthetically, their ability to say something which at first appears utterly simple, even flippant, but that opens and opens with closer attention.

One last note before leaving ‘April’ behind: both that poem and this new book capitalise the first word of each line. Perhaps a minor note, but this performs a series of subtle, but important functions: i) it slows the eye, registering each line as its own new sentence or utterance; ii) it encourages the reader to invest additional significance to each capitalised word; iii) it draws attention to the poem’s own formalism, its artificiality, its function as a meaning-generator more than a plain representation of reality; iv) it permits some really lovely enjambment puns. For example, here’s the second poem, ‘High’, in its entirety:

‘Grandiose
And at peace

Patterns
Of solace

Precise
And insignificant

The true
Nutritional

Value
Of a cake

Of soap
Could be

The solution
To something’

It’s a little thing, but a delightful thing, this building and thwarting of expectation in just a few words. I’ve only just now connected that soap, which dissolves in water, is in chemical reaction terms a ‘solution’. My heart. I guess we can add v) allows for some beautiful mock-heroism. What begins airy and satisfied turns to that weird quirk of contemporary middle-class life in which artisan cake and artisan soap are borderline indistinguishable. For Now is full of these minute, quiet observations, but more often than not there is an underlying effort to tie the immediate or anecdotal to larger socio-political systems and mores; this movement, I think, is beautifully abetted by these frugal, enticingly simple lines, their invitation to look more closely, to look again.

This very aesthetic/political impulse comes under scrutiny in ‘Even So’:

‘Even so
The seeming
Sincerity
Of hollow
Sounds
Who listens hears
Profound profound’

Doegar seems to send up his own po-facedness while holding his discursive ground, the poem’s flexible grammar allowing equal weight to the argument and its counterbalance. Again, the deflationary tactic prevents the poem from feeling merely portentous, acknowledges that it’s perfectly natural for a reader to instinctively draw back from the high-flown to the bodily experience, in this case the sense that things are too abstract to remain convincing. Later, ‘seeming / Sincerity’ finds its full rhyme, ‘Austerity’, which ‘Gathers its genitives’ and ‘Can speak […] The inanities / Of forced economy’. In both cases language has been denied its reality-describing capacity, while an actuality of life under late capital comes down to the rather brutal final lines: ‘Artisan bread / Tap water’.

Time and again, the long arm of state violence insinuates itself into what in other books might be plain lyric. ‘A View’ begins with an imagistic mosaic of life in the burbs:

‘The tree opposite
Apposite
Collecting answers

Crows
Ponder the road
The pulsing dose

Of a car’

As an aside, the music of For Now is worth celebrating by itself, not least in the ways Doegar, over the course of a deeply fraught and increasingly agitating book, makes these pleasant chimes (the soft, insistent ‘o’s here) feel unheimlich. With this backdrop comes ‘The noise of people // Cutlery laughter’ and evidence of nightmarish dinner-party-neoliberalism:

‘Iraq is not Vietnam
Thank heaven

For little girls
Pupils
Illegal downloads

Suburban questions
After
The end of history’

The swift and seamless transitions from nice differences in genocidal imperialism to a creepy show tune into an unsettlingly vague connection between young students and internet crime suggest the lightness with which each has been discussed, mere ‘Suburban questions’ for disinterested observers. There’s a bite to the closing line, an ‘end of history’ reserved for the privileged few safe from its effects. For Now excels at these nods and gestures, at highlighting the levels of cultural collusion necessary to produce a society as fundamentally unfeeling and abusive as our own; what’s more, the conclusions we draw from these poems are ultimately – despite the clear, if subtle, intentions of the poet – the reader’s. There’s a major difference between having one’s attention actively drawn towards the point of an argument and arriving there under one’s own steam, and I struggle to think of a book that achieves this more purposefully.

‘Portrayal: A Double Portrait’ ties together these questions of the integrity of the self and oppressive external forces inhibiting the ability to control one’s own selfhood. Which is a long-winded summary of a poem that does incredible work precisely through its lyric economy:

‘Your face is not your face
It is the legend of your mind
Summary and immediate’

‘Legend’ meaning cartography and myth, ‘Summary’ meaning in brief and extrajudicial. The whole poem turns on these deliberate blending of meanings, the extent to which language colludes in the erasure of selfhood, exponentially more so, the poem notes, for people not in the dominant group marked as ‘Empire’. Later, the poem continues:

‘You can’t control your face
The Empire has overreached
Expressions

Have become flags
They serve the dominion
Of expediency and belief’

It’s hard, given the specific political ‘now’ of the book’s title, to argue with this. Again, the punctum is a single word, ‘Expressions’, both verbal and facial: British delusions about Empire have poisoned both our verbal discourse and our ability to ‘read’ faces unlike our own, unless those readings serve the ‘dominion’ (meaning both control over someone and the people/place over which one has control), based on little more than convenience and ‘belief’, as opposed to facts. Before exploring Doegar’s nuanced understanding of national power structures, it’s worth appreciating the linguistic-etymological craft at work here. The poem is, as in ‘Even So’, unsatisfied with a purely abstract argument, and the second half of the poem brings these ideas to bear on what appears to be an intense dialogue between the speaker and ‘you’:

‘You laugh
Without the companionship
Of laughter

You are in no doubt
This is brave
I have no doubts either’

The elusive and multiple nature of the language in ‘Portrayal’ means it’s hard to be sure what precise conclusion the speakers have reached. Earlier lines suggest this is the same ‘you’ who ‘cannot control your face’ and ‘You were saying something / About how it felt / To be subjected to this // To be so vulnerable’. With this in mind the passage above may be about care or solidarity, however compromised, however bitter that laugh. If that is indeed a valid reading, the poem’s closing image feels heartening if you squint a little:

‘I am as unbroken water
Mirror me
Let us be two mirrors

Let no one be left looking
At themselves’

If this is solidarity, it feels like a fragile and disembodied kind. The question of what is being reflected is not resolved, beyond the basic fact, perhaps, of the mutual acknowledgement of suffering. If you hadn’t worked it out, I haven’t worked this poem out. I think it’s incredible though, and it’ll be on my mind for a long time.

For Now does not make things easy for the reader, and deserves praise not just for its principles but for the ability to articulate them in a malleable and challenging aesthetic, a simultaneous theory and critique of theory: ‘Who hears listens / Profound profound’. Its lyrics are expressly opposed to a great many of the prevailing assumptions of our culture, its baseline racism, misogyny and will to exploit the vulnerable; that it achieves this with humour and grace is remarkable. There’s a lot more in this book I haven’t discussed, and I could very happily go through every poem and talk about their dramatic movements, their curiosity about human nature, their clear-sighted opposition to structural inequality and violence. Perhaps the most important thing I could say now, though, is go read it yourself.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Rebecca Tamás’ Savage.

Further Reading: Edward Doegar on Twitter

Doegar on Liz Berry’s ‘The Silver Birch’ at Prac Crit

Buy For Now at Clinic Publishing for £5

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

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Disclosure: Saw the poet read many years ago, don’t know Bernard personally. The book deals with social aggressions over race and gender, and a character in constant negotiation with their identity, or the identity imposed on their body. These are things I’ve tried to educate myself about, but have very much not experienced. It’s also a riff on a medieval text, which is not my specialism. Huge thanks due to Muireann Crowley for editorial advice.

The Red and Yellow Nothing was published over a year ago, and usually I’d take the loss and pay closer attention to pamphlet releases in future, but in part because of its Ted Hughes Prize shortlisting, and in part because I’ve never read anything like it, I want to spend a short time discussing it now.

Review: The Red and Yellow Nothing is a prequel to Moraien, a Middle Dutch poem about a Moorish knight who comes to Camelot to find his white father, Aglovale, who had abandoned him and his mother to continue his quest for the Grail. Bernard provides a brief but invaluable introduction and commentary on the original text:

‘The question of how a Moor, described as being black from head to toe, came to be the child of a knight of the round table is more about textual history than genealogy […] Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years)’

I’ve talked on here about how truly radical texts need an uncommon amount of critical scaffolding to transport the (culturally centred) reader from canon-friendly reading practices to a place where those practices may be effectively criticised. Alongside this introduction Bernard has written two blog posts, at Speaking Volumes and The Poetry School, and they both helped me triangulate things in a book that does very little hand-holding. As Bernard argues, this quest is as much a textual as a physical one, and that requires a lot of lateral thinking, creative reading.

The first lines are not words but punctuation:

‘.
:
;
,
,
.’

Morien ‘enters page left on his horse, Young’Un’, and ‘a bard of indeterminate gender’ sings:

‘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’

The poem’s action literally happens in a book, or a dramatized literary space, where postmodern ideas of text, contemporary slang and understanding of gender fluidity meet folk song and knightly romance. Wherever or whatever this ‘land’ is, it is a contested and uncertain place, and primes the reader to start making themselves uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s useful to visualise the story playing out onstage: The Red and Yellow Nothing regularly calls attention to its own artificiality and breaks the fourth wall, highlighting its episodic structure and the self-conscious humour of its narrative/stage directions. There’s that elongated ‘siiiiing’ that nudges the reader to imagine its vocalisation, the physical body behind the words. Maybe, again, this is a primer to think of Morien (and his dramatic monologue) as embodied also, both textual artefact and physical form; certainly the text and its players alike read his body like an open book. The narrator argues that ‘maybe we can empathise with the frustration one feels when the local people take one look at you, then hurry away from you before you’ve finished your sentence’. The ‘maybe’ seems pointed: as a middle class white reader I certainly cannot – the only thing that ‘maybe’ hinges on is who’s reading it. Morien, in turn, instrumentalises this fear:

‘Tell me where my dad is, or I’ll kill you. Wanna fight?
I’ll fight you. I’ll take this sword and run you through,
I’ll have a disco inside you.’

Before either poem or reader meet Morien, or see anything of his inner life, we meet his violent response to the world. Whether this is due to a preternaturally hot temper, a perfectly understandable response to prejudice, or a mix of both is finally unknowable. He is, for now, all exterior.

The following episode is taken up by two perhaps competing exteriors, both unreal in their own ways. The section begins with William Dunbar’s hateful poem ‘Of A Black Moor’, describing a white woman in extreme dishygiene and blackface posing as a black woman for the crowd’s entertainment; Morien spots a woman in the crowd, wearing red and yellow, ‘both cheeks shining black like whorls of wood’, ‘shoulders like a proto-stradivarius / lost to the sea’. She disappears and Morien wakes drunk in a field, ‘the dew that / cradles him finds the word: innocence’, a beautifully poised moment that allows Morien his youth and inexperience, and allows the reader empathy for a character who in this moment is completely lost. It’s possible the idealised and vanishing woman appeared in Morien’s imagination in self-defence against the collective ridicule of blackness, but the gloves left in Morien’s hands seem to suggest otherwise, and the section ends:

‘a red and yellow nothing stands with
her back towards him; red lace
yellow silk, and no-one there.’

The Red and Yellow Nothing is full of these doublings and halvings: Morien and his father dream corresponding parts of the same dream, there is a town split down the middle with one half in summer, one in winter, one character sings a song about promising a song, other examples abound. While a recognisable literary trope, and one that feels right in a medieval romance, its sheer abundance adds to the uncanny sense that the usual relationship between story and protagonist (or even reader and story) has broken down, is in transition to something stranger.

The book doesn’t shy away from the ghoulish. Later, a female convict is ‘hog-tied’, ‘hanging from a pole […] writhing like an errant C’. Though that last simile seems to point to the girl’s existence as a leftover trope of misogynist writing, her fate is still extremely gruesome. A figure called ‘The Something’, which might be the ‘red and yellow nothing’s grim counterpart, emerges from the trees and draws the woman bodily into its anus before releasing her for burial. Bernard’s account is visceral and revolting, giving the whole scene the air of an awful ritual or sacrifice. Like Morien, the woman is painted in innocent tones, ‘She is a child’s finger’, ‘crying for god and her mother’, and their connection seems substantialised by a later, crucial episode in which Morien is transformed and processed (‘Morien is currently a turd.’) by sinking to the lowest point in Earth’s sea and being ‘expelled’ ‘from the slippy slide / of time’. Where the woman’s ordeal is socially inscribed and compulsory, Morien’s seems to be the result of some psychological shift that originates in dreams and comes to reorder reality as Morien perceives it.

If it wasn’t clear, The Red and Yellow Nothing is, by any standard in common currency, extremely weird. But there’s something so clear and graspable and purposeful about that weirdness that has kept hold of my imagination weeks after first reading it. Shortly after the horrific scene discussed above, the whole adventure becomes increasingly surreal, increasingly subject to bizarre and arbitrary laws and rules. And yet those rules are almost followable, the story’s progression right on the brink of logical, while the meanings attached to Morien’s body become increasingly nonsensical, or perhaps their inherent nonsense is revealed.

I can’t help feeling that in someone else’s hands the book and its narrative would have felt pretentious, or merely arbitrary, rather than a faithful account of the odd trajectory needed to get from the book’s start to its finish. Throughout, there’s a wry humour (‘in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah’) that keeps the story grounded, human, and for all its depictions of suffering and brutality, Morien himself (or themself, for a significant passage) is neither the butt of the joke nor a punching bag. The book clearly cares for him, however much it focuses on the change and uncertainty being visited upon him.

Most of all, I think, this is a story about blackness and how the world responds to it. The white people at the fair and the people in the book’s first episode won’t talk to Morien, and the brutal execution scene is implicitly enacted by white society. Darkness appears as a character, and while she doesn’t interact with Morien either, she is invested in his story and knows he is both closer to and further from Camelot than he thinks. Five African soldiers in Scotland speak the book’s most peaceful and mindful sequence, on ‘the strangeness of the land they’re in’, articulating a complex thought about empathy and mutual respect:

‘Their footsteps of mine.
I want to know what people
to whom I give everything
feel when they think they are me.’

The book’s climactic scene has Morien encounter the figure of Saint Maurice, a character who the writer of the Medieval POC tumblr – which Bernard cites as an originary source for the book – argues might be cognate with Morien himself, given the shared linguistic root of their names and the habitual shuffling of characters’ identities in romances of the period. Given this final muddling, the final passage seems deeply significant:

‘The statue stirs, like it’s about
to speak, then of its own accord, blows away.’

This may be the story’s final doubling, or the final doubling’s reconciliation. The canonised Christian martyr Maurice gives way, of his own volition, to the transformed, multi-identitied, genderqueer Morien, to whom Christianity and its official sanctioning have meant nothing. The next moment, Morien finds Camelot, and Moraien begins.

It’s incredible that so much has been fit into about 24 pages, including the handful of full-page illustrations by the poet, without feeling overburdened. The Red and Yellow Nothing has the feel of a heartfelt and intense investigation into something complex and significant, a true poetic quest, and one that has compromised little, if anything at all. It’s confusing, it’s challenging, it’s deeply satisfying, and it would be a real mistake to let such an exciting piece of work pass by uncelebrated.

The Red and Yellow Nothing is available now from Ink, Sweat and Tears Press.

Further Reading: 

Jay Bernard – Breaking Ground – Speaking Volumes

Jay Bernard – How I did it – Poetry School/Ted Hughes Award

Medieval POC tumblr

Review by Theophilus Kwek – The London Magazine

Review by Fiona Moore – Sabotage Reviews

Review by Emma Lee – London Grip

OPOI by Helena Nelson – Sphinx Review

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

Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape [Interview]

Disclosure: Have chatted with Rishi a bunch on Twitter, once in person, and is a supporter of my Patreon. This interview came about from a conversation Rishi and I had when the book was still being written (I think), and facilitated by Julia Forster from Nine Arches Press – they only asked for a wee note at the very end about where to buy the book, which I would have done anyway. For the purposes of the interview Rishi provided me with a proof of Ticker-tape.

Interview:

DC: Ticker-tape is your first full collection, congratulations! Could you tell us a bit about how the book came together? Did you have an idea about what you wanted from the finished article?

RD: Thank you!

The back story is that, towards the end of 2015 the brilliant Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press offered me some mentoring, which coincided with a sense that I had that I thought that I had enough depth and range in my poems that they could start to cohere into something bigger. I cobbled 60-something poems together pretty fast, and sent them to her, with no expectation at all. So I was absolutely gobsmacked when she said she wanted to take them on.

I didn’t have a grand, coherent vision for the book, apart from the sense that a) it had to be a proper calling card and b) ambitious in its own terms. I say that as someone coming to poetry late, and publishing a first book relatively late by current industry standards; so the paranoid bit of me worries that I might only get one shot at this – so to use baseball parlance, I am swinging for the fences here. Hence why the title poem, for example, is as long as it is – why wait to show off when you might not get another chance to?

One thing I should add is that I absolutely knew I had to wait for one final poem to arrive for the book to be finished, ‘These things boys do’. I cannot tell you why, nor how I knew, but I did know that the book would not be complete until there was a working draft of that ready to go, and that poem took the best part of a year to emerge.

What did make things easier is that I absolutely knew what my first poem and last poem would be, and that ‘Ticker-tape’ itself would be the spine of the book. Everything else has had to work within that architecture. And Jane has been brilliant in finding sequences, coincidences and patterns within the poems that I didn’t know were there. I had assumed early on that it might have a relatively traditional romantic arc to it, but she saw that actually that the book is a series of loops, and realising that both unlocked an interesting way of thinking about it, but also gave us permission to be bold when putting it together.

DC: You’ve piqued my curiosity about ‘These things boys do’! What was it that took so long to articulate?

You’ll forgive me if this is an inarticulate response to a question about articulacy, but I suspect it was a couple of things; 1) knowing that it would be one of the keystone poems in the book, one that would be an intersection of the overt and submerged themes of the book and so the idea ‘I must take the time to get this right’; 2) trying to be deft about navigating through topics which it could be very easy to be showy / clod-hoppy and hence tend towards offensiveness; 3) wrestling with a sense that its more personal to me than I might be letting on and indeed telling myself, and that leading to perhaps a state of paralysis / abeyance. There is also 4) I might have just been overthinking it all.

Looking at it again, it strikes me that maybe somewhere in my subconscious I was also aware of: 5) that it would be a poem that’s almost perfectly emblematic of my poetics, and what that is trying to do: shoving too much modernity into older lyric forms that can barely bear what they’re being asked to; letting gods and / or mythic beings rattle on and have their say; geographic yearning; riffs on capitalism, identity and technology; a keening sense of romance; oh and a post punk lyric steal.

DC: The opening poem, “The summers of Camus’ youth”, seems to suggest there’s something rotten under the surface of normative masculinity, the poem’s scene of casual, idyllic harassment concluded by the lines ‘These are healthy pleasures. / They certainly seem ideal to the young men.’ Do you have a sense of what contemporary masculinity is and how it impacts your poems?

RD: I don’t think I am grand enough to claim, or plugged into the relevant political debates, to suggest I have a strong sense of what contemporary masculinity might be right now… I can work outwards from me I suppose; I latched very early on to the idea of alpha vs beta males (viz my Twitter etc being ‘BetaRish’), and I don’t think its a coincidence that I, with little aforethought, have positioned myself towards the latter end of that spectrum. Even before I started writing it was clear to me that the alpha male was a tribe that I could not comfortably inhabit, and any way, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to – if to write is to observe is to be detached, how can you sit within a nexus of power, and not have your judgment corrupted? Better to be on the outside of all these things, as it were.

I didn’t set out to write about this explicitly, but what has become apparent is that I am interested in the codes through which younger men appear to be talking to each other, which is I guess at heart what ‘We Are Premier League’ and ‘Bantz’ revolve around. With the latter – that came from a Ladbible / Unilad piece which crossed my desk and I was just struck by the… ease with which all of what was said – however hateful, hurtful, disrespectful it was – could be washed away by the notion that it ‘wasn’t serious’ or meant seriously. Well, sorry, but get out of jail free cards don’t work like that. Words matter – betray them, and they’ll end up betraying you.

That sounds tremendously po-faced, and no doubt I have laughed along and with tremendously ill-judged, near the knuckle stuff too in my time, but I hope I have enough decency to know I should feel bad about it – and then do so.

One thing that is clear to me is that the level of education that you need to be a (straight) man and not – inadvertently or otherwise – cause offence has drastically increased since I was younger. That’s not a bad thing at all, but I would counsel a wee bit of patience as younger men become woke, as well as feeling bold enough to call themselves feminists. Of course that doesn’t mean one can’t demand higher standards of behaviour immediately.

Can I add one other thing here? A note in defence of Camus, seeing as it’s his words (which I assume are more than 50 years old now) I’m using to convey the idea that there is always ambiguity that surrounds any form of pleasure or hedonism. I hadn’t realised until reading Sarah Bakewell’s ‘At The Existentialist Café’ (which is tremendous and you all should read), how poverty-stricken his upbringing in Algeria had been and the sense that, in Bakewell’s words, he was “lost without the brilliant-white Mediterranean sun that had been the one compensation in his early life.”

DC: You’ve mentioned to me before how you’re cautious about being a man writing hetero love poems, how misogyny tends to be the default. How did you approach your love poems with those concerns in mind? I think poems like “Licking stamps” and “What night is” handle things rather well, for example, in very different ways.

RD: Well, that’s kind of you to say, and I hope that readers do see that the intention behind the majority of my love poems is to celebrate one of the characters, and more often than not cast any male ‘I’ in less flattering terms. And when I say ‘celebrate’, hopefully not just in a ‘they’re beautiful / good-looking / the ‘I’ only wants to sleep with them’ sense.

Was there conscious strategy at play? Perhaps not – but I found that the more that I could give voice, agency to female characters, the more it felt that the poems moved away from any traditional love poem setting or direction, as it were. Plus, candidly, I struggle(d) to see how much newness or innovation I could bring if things just stayed as ‘strong male ‘I’ figure lusting after AN Other’. Let’s say a desire to do things differently helped to lead to a stance where I could feel that the male ‘I’ starts to become a tad more recessive.

There is also hopefully a note of joy in most of the love poems – I mean, I hope that’s where the impulse for most of them started. I know the book has come out as having a sad undertow to it, but in most cases of individual poems there was an upbeat optimistic sense that started the drive to create.

DC: Right, there’s a lot of the book where joy doesn’t seem a possibility, I’d love to pick your brain about that! Before we get there, though, could you tell us a bit about your experiences with The Complete Works? Ten: The New Wave is still one of my favourite books, full stop.

It’s not a bad little book that one, is it? 😉 I vividly remember sitting down to read the proofs when they arrived, finishing them and then just having to stay still for a moment, thinking how lucky I was to be in such a mighty thing, in amongst such mighty, mighty company.

I keep telling people that being selected for The Complete Works is the closest I’m ever going to get to a winning lottery ticket, and I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. So many things about it just make it special. One is obviously the talent you’re around – and then from that comes the knowledge, the expectation, “well lad, you’d better raise your game here”. I didn’t realise it going in, but the unspoken demand for excellence was a really great thing – it made me focus.

Being part of the programme – becoming part of the family – didn’t just help me develop my poetic craft. It made me think harder and much more deeply about being a writer, being an artist and the responsibilities that come with that, especially the political ones. It woke me up to the fact that, coming from the British Asian (for the sake of clarity, here I am very deliberately using the term that I tick most often on the monitoring forms) background I do, my work as a poet can never just be about ‘writing’. And I love the fact that collectively we’ve had such an impact that it would be embarrassing for British poetry now to regress – we’ve comprehensively, concretely proved that the poetry of these isles can or ever should be of one colour ever again.

The memories: one – Bernadine Evaristo at my interview pretty much telling me that, no, I need to be thinking about books 3, 4 and 5 now – that’s the ambition we have to have. And two – I will go to my grave treasuring the moment I was in a room when Warsan Shire read a draft of a poem. You know how people reckon magic doesn’t exist? So so wrong. Oh, and 300 people at Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre for a reading – that were alright. [see video above! – DC]

DC: I sincerely hope you’re right about the permanent change in British poetry. Now and then I have this notion that if we can change things in this small corner of the culture it could be a model for change elsewhere. I’m a natural optimist though. But maybe I’d be right in saying your poems are too? ‘What’s the matter with…’ certainly has a strong faith in human decency, and ‘A man is on the TV, telling me about’ made me want to stand up and punch the air!

RD: Well, I agree with you on that – in whatever way we can, we should be an exemplar when it comes to these things; with my Spread The Word hat on, it is satisfying be able to point publishing people at the progress within the poetry world, and then saying, “Well, if it can be done here, why not in your corner of the literature world?” This of course said with the usual rider that more needs to be done…

And – yes! I think I’m an optimist – not necessarily natural but I tend to a more upbeat, rosier view of things generally, and I think this is – maybe? – one of the things that sets me at a bit of an angle from the wider poetry world, in the UK at least. 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. If we say that we’re looking for transcendence in poems – and why not, sometimes at least? – then I think that means joy, happiness has to be part of the mix. And not just a quiet moment, but a noisy exuberance too. It seems odd to me not to have this emotion reflected in some poems. Of course, what makes me happy and giddy might not make a reader so, hence apologies in advance if no joy is procured from the book; no money back, your statutory rights are not affected etc etc.

It’s interesting you pick up on those two poems in particular, as they both definitely started as things which were not upbeat, from incidences and events which were boluses of irritation. That I have disguised the spasms that led to writing was unintentional, but perhaps useful – certainly in ‘What’s the matter…’ I didn’t want the voice to hector from a gloomy place; as it does hector it might as well be from a place that fundamentally assumes that things can be made better. But it does require some good faith – and I do worry that is getting harder to assume and procure, at least in some recesses of the isles.

As for ‘A man is on TV…’ – I read that a lot more pessimistically than you. It arrived after watching a talking head on Newsnight who, you could tell, really thought he was saying something sophisticated, when it really didn’t amount to much more than “I am intensely relaxed about brown people being tortured”. And the smirk that went with it – ugh. It will be intensely joyous for me when asinine voices like that, who hide behind euphemisms, get watered down in our media culture. Can it happen? I think so – I retain a fundamental belief in the decency of most people, and what they want to hear. It might be thwarted by structural economic issues in the media industry that mean opinions tend towards polarity for commercial reasons, but hey! that wormy can is a wee bit too big to dive into now.

DC: For sure, in poetry too white men with basic opinions get promoted/given benefits of doubts in ways poets of colour, particularly women, never are. The joy/exuberance and NOISE is so heartening to read, feels like there’s a real statement to be made aesthetically (in a world with too many Zach Snyders) and politically, in a world that seems designed to keep vulnerable people in a state of permanent anxiety. Is there a political aspect to the joy in your work? Maybe thinking in those terms takes the joy out of it!

RD: Lots of nodding here at the first part of that… And at the second too; having finished the above-mentioned Bakewell book on the French existentialists, one of the things I was underlining many times in it is the connection between freedom, the potential to live the best life you can and the anxiety that the choices that doing this induces. I think, to some extent, that having collectively valorised ‘freedom’ (or having it valorised for us?) to the heights that we have, we are also now collectively beginning to realise that this good – and it is a good thing – is not without costs, especially if you do not have the *wonkish policy word* capacities to use it to the fullness that you might. And that one of these costs, as you say, is for some people permanent anxiety.

In that context, can joy be political? I think so. It really is interesting, how… radical it appears, just putting those two words together like that, ‘joy’ and ‘politics’. Like we’ve been trained to view it as unlikely or oxymoronic, that the arena for the peaceful discussion and disputation of how power in a society is to be used and dispersed could ever be joyful.

So here then is a thing that I think poetry could do (and hopefully mine is starting to do, at least): not just lament, but actually suggest the new imaginative possibilities, from which we start to reclaim a, let’s say inclusive civic culture, one that looks at least neutrally upon things, doesn’t reach for the negative as a default. There has to be a middle way between being a cheerleader or a Cassandra…

A poem is never going to become a policy, sure; I don’t want poets to be unacknowledged legislators, but rather, let’s say, practical utopians. Light casters, attention grabbers… Someone has to start building the new shining city on the hill. If it won’t be our politicians or our novelists, it might as well be us.

Look at me, the old romantic. My hard-headed political friends will guffaw at this.

DC: I’m with you. For all WM’s talk of restrictions on their expression (restricted by who? under what authority?) the boundaries that expression conforms to is remarkable. We are not an imaginative people, maybe because we’ve already achieved supremacy. LEADING QUESTION HERE but are you concerned about how Ticker-tape will be received?

RD: Obviously I should say “no”, but I am a writer – hence vain, vulnerable, full of ego and doubt – so the answer is “yes”, to the extent that my vanity will struggle with the book being ignored completely. Though of course, knowing how we are drowning in stuff that is clamouring for attention, the book barely causing a ripple is a perfectly plausible possibility.

Beyond that, I have a latent fear that, if noticed, people won’t know what to do with it, as it doesn’t necessarily cleave to the, shall we say, ‘received’ notions of what a book of poetry by a writer of colour might or should be… I am aware that I don’t have many (if any?) poems that overtly speak to my identity as a British Asian. But I can point you to where my background and some of the experiences I have had are in the poems, just maybe not as obviously as an audience might be used to or expect.

So welcome then an attempt at nuance and doing things differently, and you’ll peel me off the road when I get run over by the discourse that demands I make things more obvious, right? 😉

DC: Every time! I reckon you’ve earned a joyful question to finish on. What’s with all the musical references?

RD: Two things in particular: 1) my starting point is that poetry is sung speech… or a song that one happens to speak, rather than sing. That being the case, it seems to make sense to me to bring obvious musical references in; 2) the fact that, for most of my teens, music – and specifically British independent guitar and house / ambient music between 1991-2000 – was my portal to wider culture and politics.

Basically I came to poetry and literature very late (my degrees were in history, and media regulation), so for me, when going back to the stuff that you need to mine to dredge up the poems, it’s perhaps not surprising in retrospect that I went to the stuff that is my truer emotional hinterland, rather than faking an involvement with a poetic canon that I don’t necessarily feel.

All of which leads to 3) the sense of, well, why ever not? If we’re all comfortable with the idea that poets can write, for example, in response to visual art, draw critical and theoretical frameworks from modern conceptual art, surely we can do so from pop music as well? I do a workshop where I blast songs at participants as their prompts to write… knowing that the emotional associations that people have with music are so strong, why not try to access those feelings through poetry too?

You’ll note that I’m not going anywhere near the hip-hop / rap / spoken word / lyrics stuff, by the way. It’s for me, more elemental than that. If I can transmute into a poem the way a rave song made me feel, for example, so that someone else feels that too, then job done.

DC: Thanks so much for your time Rishi, and good luck with Ticker-tape!

Ticker-tape is available from 24 March from Nine Arches Press.

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Disclosure: I gave Berry’s first collection, Dear Boy, an ignorant as hell review, now deleted. The book explores trauma of which I have very little experience. Have not met the poet.

‘Some people don’t put question marks at the end of questions any more
In case anyone should think they’d be so idealistic as to expect an answer’

(‘Everything Bad Is Permanent’)

Review: Stranger, Baby is a book-length exploration of the emotional fallout from the death of the poet’s mother, an often gut-punching, sometimes remorselessly frank collection. Unlike many elegiac projects, particularly the monumental kind poetry culture has historically adored, Stranger, Baby has an acutely self-critical conscience, persistently adjusting and complicating its narratives and arguments when the ability to speak plainly and sincerely (let alone passionately and grandly) is found wanting. Among this wrangling between speech and silence, sudden, fleeting but painfully moving moments of clarity pierce the darkness:

‘If it was up to me, I would not have her back.

It is not up to me, and she is not coming back.’

(‘Sleeping’)

One of the central questions in Stranger, Baby, which is never quite tethered to a question mark, is not so much how the poet’s mother might be remembered – she appears only briefly, elusively in the book – but how the poet might faithfully make sense of something almost impossible to encompass, how a situation of such unremitting sadness might be survived. It does so with an unflinching, bleak sense of humour and a willingness to investigate the unspectacular, mundane aspects of grief and loss: ‘I feel like that grubby place / beneath the door handle, the place everyone touches / as they leave’ (‘Girl on a Liner’). The book moves with remarkable poise between self-erasing despair and cool distance without falling into either, and the very act of proceeding through the carefully plotted and paced collection is a bold, heartening experience. One thing Stranger, Baby does better than almost any book I’ve read is in its intensity of care for the reader, its careful management of the poems’ often brutal subject matter. The book doesn’t aim primarily to shock or appal the reader with its ideas, but it doesn’t shy away from them either. Rather, it leads the reader through the fine, painful details of a time of massive psychological pain and seems in the end to say look, you made it. It’s a rare and admirable achievement.

One of the book’s recurrent thoughts is how the act of grieving is located physically, an incontestable bodily impulse whose open expression, the book implies, brings shame on the grieving individual. This is tied to the book’s assertion that poetry is a natural facet of existing as a human body, as ‘Part’ argues: ‘I wanted to put my body into these words / I wanted this to be a part of my body / This part of my body’. Several poems render this embodied embarrassment (metaphorically or ironically) as a burden or an endlessly recurring emotional trap:

‘I veiled my tended wound. I veiled my narrative. […] I run out into the street. I find someone. I tell them everything. ‘I have got it in me!’ I shout. ‘Undigested! Whole! The dead body of a woman!’

(‘Tragedy for One Voice’)

‘I stopped agonising because it started to seem as if agonising was hurting me’

(‘The photo that is most troubling is the one I don’t want to show you’)

The irrational blocks against the natural expression of grief are expressed rationally and systematically, often with devastatingly bleak comic effect. It’s worth noting how often the poems seem to critique professionalised care, perhaps how certain modes of thought reinforce harmful mores: ‘They did not ask if it hurt when they did not touch me’ (‘Ghost Dance’); ‘“I am afraid of…”’ they explained, / ‘might be better rendered as “There is a fear of…”’ (‘Girl on a Liner’). These lines might be somewhat ironic, but the pitch feels weary, as if these attempts to help fall some way short of addressing the messy, ugly, unscientific hurt.

If it’s not clear already, a major part of the book’s texture is in making clear just how much work it is to address and confront prevailing prejudices regarding grief and mental illness. In similar fashion to Denise Riley’s Say Something Back, Berry’s poems are a kind of defensive action against silence, simultaneously a refusal to fall to the pressures that would silence her writing and a refusal to ignore the force those pressures exert. Also like Riley, these poems do not fear being read as ostensibly ungainly or clumsy (remembering Riley’s ‘one glum mum’) at the expense of giving a faithful voice to their emotional realities. They operate in full awareness of their artifice, remaining sensitive to the unspoken contract between reader and grieving poet: this is a book about mourning, and to some extent, the reader will anticipate some performance of sadness. Standing back and looking with a cold eye at the much-vaunted elegiac tradition in English poetry, being a reader of such work and gaining aesthetic pleasure from others’ suffering is, well, more a bit weird, and Stranger, Baby seems perfectly alert to how grim the whole affair could be without due sensitivity. A few of the early poems address this matter at oblique angles, negotiating this very odd generic arrangement. For example, in ‘Picnic’:

‘I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact’

This correction reverberates throughout the book. The entirety of ‘Tragedy for One Voice’ feels like an attempt to convert some essence of lived experience without inviting reductive terms like ‘confessional’ or ‘autobiographical’. The speakers are very clearly labelled as fictional/dramatic constructs, and, as Ralf Webb points out, directly quote the psychiatrist Sandra L Bloom and the critic Al Alvarez; although their words are not authored exclusively by the poet, the effect their exchanges produces absolutely is. The poem feels self-consciously self-conscious (noting that the poem is anything but for ‘one voice’), as the characters ‘Me One’ and ‘Me Two’ appear, according to the stage direction, ‘Alone on stage with a coffin’, and deflect from the specificity of their story: ‘Day of the week: immaterial. Time of year: immaterial.’ What seems to underwrite the whole process is the sense that telling it straight or making it explicitly personal would be insufficient, even embarrassing. The last spoken line – ‘Me Two + Chorus (of baritones): –SAVE HER’ – feels disarmingly melodramatic, a kind of deflationary tactic in a poem fizzing with tension.

‘Drunken Bellarmine’ takes a different tack, driving headlong into poisonous social tendencies and wearing them as a badge of honour. It asserts that, ‘shame is also revelry, and a body / is a spillage, or an addiction’; drawing attention to the body as the right and natural home of unruly, uncontrollable feeling, the poem is glorious and grotesque, and amid the defiance there’s a powerful celebration of the self, albeit wrapped in the charged language of bodily filth and impropriety:

‘I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,
raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.’

It’s worth noting that these lines are earned off the back of an entire poem’s worth of self-correction and doubt, a full-hearted entanglement in repressive thought processes:

‘Every time I say the word ‘I’
I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply
ashamed. I want my shame to be a kind of proof
that deduces the world, and that’s the worst
shame of all.’

This is an intensely knotted and complex unit of thought. By articulating the circular logic that prevents someone in pain from expressing that pain, the poem makes space to resist it. One of the finest aspects of the collection is how meticulously it leads the reader through these traps, repurposing its logic into something that acknowledges the speaker’s humanity.

As a couple of critics have noted, fire and the sea are powerful, multifaceted symbols in Stranger, Baby. It’s worth exploring how they function throughout the book, hopefully without assigning them to too neat an imaginative system. Many poems deploy a flat or ironic tone, even when the literal action is highly emotionally charged: ‘Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled, white room’ (‘Summer’); ‘her ghost took / many forms […] it was / a lovely sunny day’ (‘Aqua’). At an imaginative stretch, one could map this voice onto the figure of the sea: calm on the surface with destructive faculties only suggested underneath. A handful of times this tone is interrupted by poems or passages of visionary brilliance, a blaze of near-Romantic faith in the power of lyric to contain a true feeling. Again, if you squint a little and are of a generous disposition, you could call this fire; fire imagery often appears during the book’s dreamy, parabolic moments. The sea and fire seem complimentary forces in the book, both capable of destruction (‘Tidal wave don’t sing […] Tidal wave crash’), both capable of arresting beauty:

‘My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
Albeit that in the dark they were the colour of the dark, and on fire’

(‘Picnic’)

The book’s opening poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, is difficult to unravel, and features both these elemental symbols at its climactic moment. It opens with the speaker, ‘at the dangerous shore. / Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders’; she ‘picture[s] my protective symbols’, the eponymous anchor. However:

‘I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.
I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.’

The poem’s loose rhythms become far more purposeful in that last line, the blunt force in ‘looked back’ perhaps speaking to the scene’s finality. The ‘ash rain’ in the penultimate line is a blend of the book’s two core images, and comes directly after the silencing effect the sea has on the speaker; fire/sea again seeming in some way emblematic of unrestrained expression. The collection has only a few of these more identifiably parabolic pieces, ‘Canopy’ (of which more below) and ‘The photo that is most troubling […]’ being examples; the latter contains the lines:

‘Skies suddenly so dark
And the way home on fire
Through the forest, loud and forgetful as a burst of rain
In case you could hear me
On the backs of horses’

It’s probably not coincidental that the moment in which the poem veers away from its internal struggle about speaking with the dead (‘My mouth opened and I breathed flame’), in which the speaker ironizes herself and her attempts to do so (‘Excuse these intense but beautiful bouts of emotion’), once again draws together fire and water. Working in tandem, they seem to underpin the book’s most powerful, image-driven passages, moments in which the poet speaks relatively unburdened by socially inscribed fear or shame. This reading might well underplay the flexibility of both figures in systematising them, however; what I hope it demonstrates is the uncommon intensity of artistic direction evident throughout the book. These extraordinary lines from ‘Procession’, for example:

‘Once I saw my mother rowing

At night across water

I called to her and she looked back

Smiling beautifully’

Or ‘Picnic’, in which the sea is connected directly to feelings which are inarticulable or impossible to faithfully reproduce, again raising the question of the poet’s capacity to do likewise:

‘Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person
I tried to do that
All that year I visited a man in a room
I polished my feelings’

Or the recurring figure of mermaids, figures perfectly at home and comfortable in the sea. Berry  recently interviewed Luna Miguel, a Spanish poet who inspired Berry’s poem ‘Song’, and for whom mermaids are an image that connects her to the memory of her own mother. ‘Freud’s Beautiful Things’, which begins ‘I have some sad news for you / I am just a symbol, a shadow cast on paper’ later asserts, ‘Not a mermaid, but a lovely human being’.  The symbolic afterlife (or the afterlife of symbols) is not free of responsibility to the living. Stranger, Baby is in constant negotiation with the fictional – that is, artful – nature of its work.

I mentioned ‘Canopy’ earlier, an example of the book’s parable-poems. For the first time in Stranger, Baby, I think, the poem’s central symbol is a tree, held up as an exemplary survivor:

‘And the trees shook everything off until they were bare and clean. They held on to the ground with their long feet and leant into the gale and back again.’

Not only that, but an enabling force, a provider of words:

‘They got inside us and made us speak; I said my first word in their language: ‘canopy’.’

The poem’s conclusion is utterly heartbreaking, a perfect resolution and continuation of the book’s concerns, a note of encouragement and, most importantly, a new imaginative realm, a new means of heading out into the world beyond the collection. It’s an incredible gesture, and I don’t want to spoil it here. You’ll have to experience it yourself.

As ever, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this book that I haven’t discussed. Its formal elements are fascinating, there are a bunch of poems one could close read for days, there are tiny, sort of funny, sort of crushing poems like ‘Safe’ and ‘So’, poems like ‘Aura’ which deftly combine form and substance to utterly heartbreaking effect, moments of hard-earned semi-triumph like the all-caps ‘The Whole Show’. It’s an unusual book, and it makes no effort to soften its edges, but it’s glorious in its idiosyncrasies, the dense and intricate language it uses to animate its inner world. Please read it.

Further Reading: Emily Berry interviews Luna Miguel at The Quietus

Charanpreet Khaira reviews Stranger, Baby at The London Magazine

Ralf Webb interviews Emily Berry at The LA Review of Books

Jen Campbell reviews Stranger, Baby on her YouTube channel

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