Amaan Hyder – At Hajj

Disclosure: Have not met Hyder. The book discusses several aspects of Islam including the eponymous pilgrimage, and the experiences of moving to a hostile new country, of which I have no experience, and many nuances of which I’ve probably missed. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. Huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

The old man has fallen over. He runs over to him and lifts him and the old man holds onto his arm and takes hold of his stick and he tries to sit the old man down but in his position it is more comfortable for him to lean on the cane. It is easier standing up. Sitting down, the man would be dependent on him completely.’ (‘At Hajj’)

Review: At Hajj is Amaan Hyder’s first collection. It’s comprised of a series of narrative scenes from the eponymous pilgrimage to Mecca woven among more traditionally lyric pieces, most, if not all, of which are set in an unspecified British space. The book’s twin threads are not connected explicitly (bar one poem which discusses trans-generational attitudes to religious traditions), and it’s reasonable to believe they may be enacted by different characters, the various scenes at Mecca told from the point of view of at least one man and at least one woman, and all in third person. Certainly the self at the heart of the book’s lyric poems is notable by their relative absence, performing fascinating acts of narrative positioning to keep the poem’s focus on the lives of others; the speaker’s parents, brother, friends, neighbours and neighbourhood:

‘You’re going to look back and

I’m going to look back and
there’s been this van up and down
past the shop really slow.’

The first instalment of the ‘At Hajj’ sequence, meanwhile, introduces a book-long quiet attentiveness to the thoughts and actions of others:

He sees people standing to pray, putting their hands on their knees and drawing up and going down to touch their foreheads to the ground. These are the movements his thoughts make. […] They sit long after the prayers are over and ask what they have to ask for.’

The ‘At Hajj’ poems are all printed in italics, a typographic convention that usually indicates quotation, emphasis, or voices-off. Here, it seems to act as the introduction to a special world, or an alternate form of address, a different frame of mind. The language is plain and spare and methodical. Its painstaking, precise description of the body and its motions feel strange on a first read; it is unusual to be asked to spend so much thought on so ordinary a motion. The passage of time in this scene is key: the ‘he’ doing the watching has clearly been doing so for a substantial span of time, watching the prayers without praying himself. There’s a kind of mirroring between how carefully Hyder has crafted the passage, in its precise ambiguity, and the attention the figure in the poem gives to the worshippers; there is more than one level in ‘the movements his thoughts make’. The last line pushed me gently off-balance too: are they asking for advice on what to ask for, or is this an elegant way of describing the manifold things people request in prayer? Perhaps this careful observation of the everyday, this dedicated, time-consuming attentiveness to the bodies and thoughts of others is the poet’s own act of worship.

The spiritual and the profane are blended and combined throughout the book. In two poems, ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ and ‘Calling Mohammed’ Hyder imagines the prophet as a contemporary, partly filtered through the speaker’s brother of the same name. The former begins:

‘I think Mohammed peace be upon him would have had one of those phones that aren’t big or black like you sometimes get in old TV programmes. […] I feel that he would have written his name on the back of his phone because he was a good man. […] I am certain that he would have kept his phone switched off so that he would not disturb other people.’

As in ‘At Hajj’, the most prominent note in both the poems’ atmosphere and its subject matter is this openness, this willingness to speak simply and invite understanding. The opening lines of ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ enthusiastically inhabit this sincere subjectivity (‘I think…’, ‘I feel…’), lending the speaker a kind of moral certitude  which compliments the casual confidence of their imaginative leaps. The whole poem might well be in a child’s voice, the way children, faced with difficult and alien ideas, attempt to draw them nearer to their own experiences, like asking why there are no dinosaurs in the Bible. The second half of the poem expresses this tone formally, as the prose gives way to ballad meter, with its rumbling, uncomplicated rhythms:

‘My brother’s called Mohammed.
He’s always in our room.
He’s stopped watching TV
and he hates middle school. […]

‘To make my brother happy
we go out on our bikes.
We stay away from others,
eat Bountys in the night.’

The poem’s objects are beautiful in their specificity, ‘The [phone] I mean is the one Faraan my cousin has’, the Bounty bars, their very singularity giving them radiance. The final stanza becomes its own sacred space for the two brothers, safe with the explicit treasure of sweets and the unspoken one of familial solidarity. Where, exactly, the historical-religious figure of Mohammed fits in this scene is hazy, as the poem is definitively rooted in earthly concerns, contemporary consumer society and family politics. The speaker’s imaginative lens provides space for what might be a deeply personal, immediately present interpretation of the prophet, somewhat at odds with the book’s frank, straightforwardly realist presentation of religious acts in its central sequence.

Few of the collection’s lyrics are so readily unpacked, however, and Hyder’s ability to convey meaning tonally and atmospherically is truly remarkable (presuming that I’m picking it up as intended). Many of these short poems create a sensory space for the reader to inhabit, by way of brief snatches of conventional syntax among ostensibly disconnected ideas or images. Here’s the opening section, Alif, from ‘The Clot’:

‘What is a fit?
A holy thing is a fit.
A life is a fit.

I hear fifty machines stitching,
inking a grip.
Someone came to the door.

Someone was listening to us.
When I wake I am told what happened.
I pressed eject, mouths my father.

I pressed enough, mouths my mother.
She leaves in a car that shoots light.’

The drama conveyed in a few dozen words is incredible. The haiku-like opening stanza is a formula one could spend hours exploring, the vital qualities of ‘holy’ and ‘life’ left tantalisingly undefined. The following stanzas’ combination of autonomous machines with human listeners creates a kind of dread that could not have been rationally expressed; the fact that the father and mother cannot physically speak, and communicate only in the low-tech language of magnetic tape, is deeply unsettling. That last line makes my hair stand on end, the passive verb, the supernatural vehicle.

Using similar techniques for near-opposite purposes, the opening lines from ‘Wet Collected’:

‘Dancers stamp
Earth! Earth!

Coy Beau, not gym,
don’t bury him in muscle.

The way of flightless birds.
Emerging first,

a drip diving hairs in a beard.’

Who the dancers are, whether they are vocalising ‘earth’ or whether this is the message their dancing bodies convey, is less important than the atmosphere those lines suggest, their notes of physical action, communal movement, joy in the sensory. Whether ‘Beau’ moves like a flightless bird, is a flightless bird, or the moisture in his beard is redolent of flightless birds is less important than the sensation of thinking all these things (probably more) at once. It’s a unique poem in At Hajj, a dreamy interlude in a book in which sensual pleasures are rare.

Bodies, as noted already, are in focus throughout the collection. ‘Sleeves’ is a gorgeous, playful poem about gift-giving and emotional labour. The poem closes as the speaker and his friend share a secret, intimate moment: ‘I put my hands in the pockets with his and our fingers overlapping go in and press and circle and out like zigzags snug-tight hot and the heat is another layer around us too’. The precision, again, is part of the way the poem expresses love. Even ‘What Were Giraffes?’, with its weird, catastrophically suggestive opening line, ‘Remember horses? They were like horses’, keeps the animal’s body at the centre of its thinking: ‘a tough skin / patterned like baked earth’, ‘They had thick eyelashes, Mohawk mane hair’. ‘What Were Giraffes?’ is partly, I think, an attempt to reconcile an unusual body with the human observer’s impulse to impose on the body the category ‘comic / gold’. The poem defends giraffes’ innate worth in a world where they are gone for good, closing on a note both defiant and accusatory, ‘Those were giraffes.’ However ludic its terms, the poem asks the reader how one considers the living worthy or unworthy of respect and survival, what it is about giraffes’ outlandishness that makes their destruction acceptable.

To return to the book’s central sequence, ‘At Hajj’, it’s remarkable how ordinary it often feels. These passages, as noted above, are at times both highly specific – in terms of the physical movement of bodies, the interpersonal dynamics of the pilgrims, the behaviour of a dog – and notably unfixed – there are at most a handful of proper nouns, and although it is heavily suggested that a multitude of peoples and tongues are present, the text denotes them only as speaking ‘in his/her language’. There is no attempt, in other words, to provide ‘local colour’, the market-friendly mangoes demanded by Western publishers and editors, as critiqued in Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation. Perhaps, then, this is one meaning of the italics; a typographical note that readers such as myself have been provided only conditional access to these scenes by narrators who themselves may be working by interpretation. Body language, as in ‘The old man motions that he will wait and gives him stones and tells him to throw them for him’, seems to operate on an equal footing to the spoken.

The poems also seem reserved, if not somewhat sceptical, about one’s access to the spiritual plane. Among their accounts of pilgrims’ struggles to move safely through a crowd, journeying in the desert with only a dog for company, and campsite politics, there is only one short section that even mentions divine immanence, and that with heavy irony:

Some onlookers believed that such a spirit was in the mall now, guiding the insiders round, giving them the energy. Yes, and some had their servants carry them the whole Hajj. There was no ghost in the mall but corporate spectre.’

What’s more visible in these narratives than spiritual uplift are physical sacrifices made on the behalf of others. Two separate sections note that their protagonists have hurt their shoulders: a man holds back a crowd to let an elderly man safely use the public toilet; a woman guides an elderly woman get through a bottleneck in the crowd. The narrative voice remains neutral throughout, their suffering simply another fact in an accumulation of facts: ‘What she knows very keenly now is the pain in her shoulder.’, ‘He thinks on what he had done. He puts a hand to his shoulder which aches.

Although these italicised passages in Mecca are more obviously disconnected to the lyrics set in the West, they are strongly connected by their characterisation of society as a great, unfeeling and irresistible threat punctuated by moments of kindness, ‘Save announcements / of change, it has made a mockery of / all of us’ (‘Inheritable Landscape’). The pilgrims risk their bodies to help those who need it, a man hides the flaws in his friend’s gift, or, in one of the most remarkable poems in the book, ‘Grain’, the weary repetitions of the pantoum form converts the opening stanza:

‘We will look back on our time
as ruined lives and think doing
good work will bear some reward,
but it gives only false impression.’

into a final, hopeful, if to some degree ironised, assertion:

‘Good work will bear some reward.’

It only takes the faintest gesture toward the great evils at work in the world to remember how important, and radical, a thought this is, how substantial change begins with kindness for the vulnerable and contempt for the powerful, how one’s body may be a tool for fighting oppression. At Hajj is intelligent, kind and resolute in its politics, curious, precise and inventive in its aesthetics. It’s a book worth spending time over, worth keeping in mind.

Further Reading: “Coats” by Amaan Hyder in The Guardian

Review of At Hajj by Jeremy Noel-Tod in The Times

Review of At Hajj by Richie McCaffery in The Poetry School

PS: If you found this useful or informative 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.

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The State of Poetry Criticism – July 2017 Update

Disclosure: Many thanks to Órla Ní Mhuirí for her advice regarding the ethical questions involved in publishing the data collected here. Thanks to the Association of Internet Researchers for their extremely useful resources, to Muireann Crowley for edits, and to Charles Whalley for advice about data and spreadsheets.

Report: This is a relatively brief update to the data I presented two months ago. As before, this is a purely statistical study, solely of poetry criticism. The data’s limitations, outlined in the previous article, still apply.

In the interests of transparency, I am making the raw data from which these numbers are drawn public. You can view the dataset here, please feel free to share the link.

Some preliminary notes: The names of reviewers have been anonymised. The goal of this project is to illuminate editorial practices, and providing a list of critics’ names felt like a distraction. The problems this project explores are connected to structural matters like editorial practices and the commissioning of critics, not with the individual critics themselves. Although their names are, ultimately, already public, the ethical questions asked by the Association of Internet Researchers advised caution.

The names of poets and their books have been provided, however. As poets are, in theory, a step removed from the editorial process, I felt that they are sufficiently safely removed from the structures under critique in this study. At worst, I think, the data exposes an ongoing fascination with the minor works of Paul Muldoon.

I may have made mistakes, either by accident or ignorance. This is a more or less solo project, and typos, accidental data entries and plain screw-ups are far from impossible. Regarding the gender and race of the poets included here, my resources are contributors’ biographies and search engines. If you notice inaccuracies in the data, please let me know in the comments.

If you would like to use the data collected here, please feel free, just cite the source. If you’re feeling very generous you could link to my Patreon. That would be cool of you.

Updates: The data set now covers eight platforms, adding Modern Poetry in Translation, and expands all records to January 2013. This has more than doubled the size of the data set, and hopefully provides a more robust picture of contemporary mainstream poetry criticism. If you can think of any notable omissions, please let me know in the comments. Criteria for potential additions: the publication must i) regularly publish a significant number of reviews of poetry, ii) either be a poetry-only publication, or have a clearly defined poetry section, iii) have existed since 2013, either online or in print or both. I have so far not included the LRB and TLS, as they are covered by the VIDA Count, but given those numbers are themselves two years old, they are prime candidates.

The project now covers January 2013 – July 2017, covering 110 issues of seven magazines, and four years’ worth of reviews from The Guardian. All told, 1025 articles have been recorded, reviewing a total of 1943 books. It has revealed the following:

  • Only 4.3% of all articles are written by people of colour, a total of 44. Breaking these down by year: 7 articles by critics of colour were published in 2013; 8 in 2014; 5 in 2015; 9 in 2016; 15 so far in 2017. Of those 15 so far this year, 12 have been published in Poetry London 87Poetry Review 107:1 and Poetry Review 107:2. Three issues of two magazines account for a third of all reviews by critics of colour published since January 2013.
  • The proportion of books by poets of colour reviewed drops from 9.6% (47 books) to 8.1% (156 books) in the extended data set. Again, breaking this number down by year: 24 books by poets of colour were reviewed in 2013; 28 in 2014; 31 in 2015; 38 in 2016; 35 so far in 2017.
  • The proportion of female critics also drops significantly in the extended data set, from 44.8% to 41.5%. Poetry Ireland Review (31.3% female critics) and PN Review (25.7%) show the greatest disparity.
  • Likewise, the proportion of books by female poets reviewed falls from 45.9% to 38.6%. In this case, The Guardian (29.9% of books reviewed are by women), PN Review (28.7%) and Modern Poetry in Translation (20.8%) show the greatest disparity.
  • While female critics review men (427 books) and women (475 books) almost evenly, male critics overwhelmingly review other men (660 books to 270 by women).
  • Men review significantly fewer books per article (1.69) than women (2.16), consistent across almost all platforms.
  • Bloodaxe books have been reviewed 217 times, Faber books 178 times, Carcanet 175, Cape 84, Seren 82, Shearsman 80 and Picador 73. 51 of The Guardian‘s 194 reviews (26.2%) were of Faber books.

Adding only two further years’ worth of data makes a marked difference to the data. On one hand, this indicates rapid change between 2015-17, mostly in positive, inclusive directions; on the other, it should remind us of just how homogeneous this community has been, and how recently.

The tables below show these statistics in full. Note that the second table, in which percentages do not add up to 100, does not include data for anthologies or books with multiple authors.

If you found this useful or informative 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.

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.

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.

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.

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

Disclosure: No personal connection to the poet or publisher that I’m aware of. Yanique’s book features experiences of structural misogyny in the Virgin Islands and the USA, and brings both feminist and post-colonial understandings to her poems’ discussion of marriage and how the institution interacts with conceptions of love and sexuality. It’s worth bearing in mind the obvious point that I have no personal experience of a lot of what Yanique describes, and may be missing a lot of nuance. As ever, I’m operating with what I hope is an open mind.

Review: Right from its opening poem, ‘Dangerous Things’, Wife may be characterised by its ability to express complex power dynamics in more-or-less plain language:

‘This is the island.
It is small and vulnerable,
it is a woman, calling. You love her
until you are a part of her
and then, just like that,
you make her less than she was
before – the space
that you take up
is a space where she cannot exist.’

The poem asserts that critiques of colonialism and of male formulations of desirable femininity are, at their core, inextricable. The following lines, ‘The island / is a woman, therefore / dangerous things live below’, neatly enfold two oppressive schemes of thought that permit dehumanisation and the exercise of control over both colonised land and female body. It also starkly highlights the problem with turning either into a metaphor, in which the particularities of each may be ignored, simplified to the point of violence. The poem concludes:

‘True, we will never be
beyond our histories.
And so I am the island.
And so this is a warning.’

Figuring the poet’s exact position within this system is tricky. The first person hasn’t appeared previously, so the speaker’s taking on of an identity already established as politically restricted feels partly defiant, partly resigned. Maybe only resigned insofar as acknowledging the real and current situation allows a clearer sense of exactly what she is in fact defying, hence the ‘warning’ to the incoming reader. The ‘we’ in the quoted passage feels universal, perhaps not just the speaker and the oppressed people she stands in for, but the predatory ‘you’ from earlier in the poem. History is affirmed as an active force in the present; the poem infers that if the poet/speaker/Yanique is the island, it follows that a white colonist/male reader/addressee may remain the invading force. The poem recognises these as the book’s starting positions, and its ‘warning’ may be its demand not only for close attention but sensitivity to its argument.

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The poems that follow, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Body Logic’, continue the trajectory of ‘Dangerous Things’ in its movement from the political towards the domain of personal experience. The former walks a very fine tonal line, modulating between the dreamy violence of Garcia Lorca’s play of the same name and a deeply morbid turn of humour:

‘A spouse is only a surgeon
passing her own organ through the mirror

dear
beautiful
kidney’

There’s something at once posturing and grounded in these lines, not quite rejecting the doomed love narrative, relishing its visceral imagination while keeping sight of the ‘myth cleaved / from the mirror’, marriage as a culturally sanctioned behavioural control. The best poems in Wife find this place of tension between the poet’s will to artfully and faithfully render her desires, and her awareness of the forces that would punish such forthrightness. As ‘Body Logic’ suggests, those forces are not always external:

‘The body has its own
infant logic.
Its own way to know
if what you speak is true […]
It will open you
and leave you open.
And you’ll have to read it
like a sonogram.’

Again, there’s no straightforward way of rendering the body as hero or villain, and the penultimate sentence is just beautiful in its balance, those reverse angles on ‘open’. Taken together, the poems leave the impression that their speaker is beset on all sides, that even the faithfulness of her own senses cannot be taken as read. Most importantly, I think, ‘Body Logic’ figures an oppositional relationship between bodily instinct and outward expression; its closing line presents the reader with a literal image of the body’s interior to be ‘read’ by the body’s owner, who may or may not be doing so reliably. The poem seems to argue that not even private feelings can be trusted implicitly, that even these deeply intimate moments are subject to the same confusion and frustration as any social moment.

3 JP

In her interview with the Forward Arts Foundation, Yanique notes how Claudia Rankine (named in the book’s notes as a teacher/mentor) ‘screws and bends form to say things that otherwise might be impossible to say’, and Wife is noteworthy for its refusal to speak the same way twice. Zuihitsu is a form of personal essay or fragmentary thought in Japanese literature, literally the words “at will” and “pen”; Yanique’s ‘Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiancé’ explicitly turns the matter of intimate personal relationships into a literary concern. The poem is a complex, often wry exploration of relationships both romantic and familial, those roles often unrecognisably blending:

Queen: The title a husband gives to his wife only after first giving it to his mother.’

‘I will tell Baby [the lover] that I do not want people. I want family. Your husband, he will say, is your family, right? And I cannot tell if he is directing me to remain unattached or if he is pleading with me to adopt him.’

The poem doesn’t necessarily pass judgement on these fusings and echoes, and it treats what might be called infidelity not as a flaw but a feature of the institution of marriage:

‘I wept. Thinking, already, of the day this one would become the lover. Mourning, already, the pummelled beauty of our affair.’

‘Loving a spouse, says my husband who is not yet my husband, is like praising One God, whom you will betray.’

Adultery: a fetish for monogamists.

What the poem seems to argue for, by way of performing it, is the kind of double-edged openness that appeared in ‘Body Logic’, a frank awareness of the price of respecting, or indeed not respecting, one’s own needs. Like ‘Blood Wedding’, it sees perfect fidelity as an unsustainable artifice, a mortally damaging lie compared with the temporarily hurtful truth (‘pummelled beauty’) of the affair.

In ‘Dictionary’, the poet again employs the prose poem, laying out the political connotations and linguistic origins around the word ‘wife’. Again, the tone balances between humour and scathing critique:

wife – (European origins) a married woman. As in slave in the house. As in chef, maid, nanny and prostitute. But unpaid for these services. […] In the colloquial, wife means woman: as in “Old wives’ tale” meaning a story passed down by ignorant old women.’

As in the social-to-personal progression earlier in the book, each paragraph moves towards a more dehumanised understanding of the word, from ‘wifey – (American Negro origins) diminutive of wife but more desireable. Girl who cooks, cleans, fucks and gives back massages’ to ‘get wife – (Caribbean origins) to have sex, to fuck a human female. […] “Wife” is a direct translation of “sex”.’ Though the poem makes clear that both word and institution are colonial imports, it is clear-eyed about its thorough integration into the poet’s home society. The poem is driven by its assertion of the speaker’s agency, fighting back against social stricture by naming it.

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Alongside the book’s social realism are several poems in which anxieties about racial and misogynist oppression are given full, uncanny voice. In ‘I try’:

‘In the high branches of a tree
there is a bride’s
veil
swinging
Of course, there is a story
here

Though, perhaps the veil is nothing
more than a white
garbage bag
But I know better
I don’t believe my eyes’

Coming straight after ‘Dictionary’, this is a stark and suggestive piece, leaving ample room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the horrific blanks. Alongside the book’s ongoing consideration of how the body may be enlisted against the individual’s ability to identify her own suffering, the poem ends with intimations of lynch mobs, a history of violence against people of colour:

‘Now we may try the ghost bride
for answers

Such as
what do dead bodies mean
when swaying
from trees?’

Where ‘Dictionary’ may find bleak humour in its exasperation, ‘I try’ reaffirms the lived reality of where such deep-seated cultural bigotry leads. That the poem can only express this understanding through a layer of self-doubt (‘this odd telepathy’) leaves space for the reader to choose whether or not to believe the poet’s testimony, whether we ‘believe [her] eyes’. Among the bolder or more dramatically performed statements in Wife, ‘I try’ stands out among its moments of quiet horror. Likewise, ‘A poem to mark when we were afraid’ draws on imagery of Bible Belt America (‘the RV Park’, ‘the revival’, ‘cattle and Hummers’, ‘bumper stickers that read “Follow me to Christ”’), as the speaker and their partner ‘are received as the representatives / from the Pygmy Goat Association’. Within the dreamy world where people are ‘a sir’ and ‘a ma’am’ – people identified by social honorifics rather than individual, humanising features – the poem takes a turn:

‘From the official pamphlet we learn:
pygmies are black pagans and the goat is a metaphor.
That night, though you sleep beside me, the steers stamp me into meat.’

The book was published in November of 2015, and the poem’s composition predates the recent mainstreaming of white supremacy likely by even longer, but its rendering of the monstrousness of white America’s social adhesives is painfully prescient. Again, the departure from the book’s more prosaic waking world is expertly handled, carefully wrongfooting the reader.

3 JP

The book’s penultimate piece, ‘Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse’ may be read as a kind of coda. The poem’s form requires each verse to contain the word ‘belong’, and once more, the poem shapes away from social duties (‘Before you even know / you are your own, / you know that you are / someone else’s) and towards the interpersonal. The poem adds to the book’s previous formulations, however, by including a sort of intermediary between the arbitrary, somewhat overbearing institutions of family, religion, state and employment on one side and lover on the other:

‘You are part of a tribe,
It is not a shackle. It is the true story
of self-creation.
It is what makes you.
You come to belong to yourself.
You say I am
and call your own name.’

The ‘tribe’ – notably differentiated from family or place – appears as one of the few enabling forces in the collection, one that empowers the individual via communal support. Where the poem ends by somewhat ambiguously describing the married couple as ‘claiming’ each other as in the first stanza their parents ‘claimed’ them, the tribe is allowed to stand as an unfixed and positive space.

A majority of the book’s finest pieces come in its first section, leaving the later stages of the book feeling a little light. ‘The Story of Our Elopement’, for example, while an interesting narrative, doesn’t quite push outwards from the specific moment that occasioned it. ‘Confession of the five foolish brides’ is an interesting re-think of the parable, but feels a little drawn out. Again, these are by no means bad poems, but the sheer quality elsewhere makes these merely adequate pieces feel a little dry, slow down the hectic pace of the collection.

Despite this, Wife is an extraordinary first book, one that demands slow reading and unbroken attention. Yanique’s skill with capturing atmospheres of implicit violence, allied with her ability to make broad societal structures feel human and intimate, allow for some intensely good poems, with impressive artistic range and depth of understanding. Very well worth her Forward Prize victory, and I hope it finds its due readership on this side of the Atlantic.

Further Reading:

Interview with Yanique by Forward Arts Foundation

Review in St Lucia Star

Review by Becky Varley-Winter in Sabotage Reviews

Review by Martyn Crucefix

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