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.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

Disclosure: Have not met the poet, did the door at one of her gigs in Edinburgh though. Review copy provided by Picador. Reviewed her first collection, Hold Your Own, positively. Thanks to Harry Giles and Sophie Collins for advice and permission to quote from their work.

Discussions of Tempest’s poetry are almost always obscured by discussions about Tempest the icon, most commonly – and deeply unfairly, I think – projected as a golden goose of arts orgs or as a preacher of the kind of morals we (if by we we mean the white middle class liberals who consider the British poetry scene our birthright) used to assume everyone holds. This impulse deserves unpacking, so if you’re just here to read what I think of Let Them Eat Chaos, please skip to the section marked ‘Review’. Until then I’m going to argue that the fact a metaconversation exists at all is largely down to a deeply rooted conservatism about the kind of artist we’re comfortable hearing.

Tempest is wildly successful. Those who’ve been paying attention to Tempest’s career from the outset (my source is Harry Giles, I’m sure you can find others) attest to years of extremely hard work combined with an arts industry eager for her particular brand of hiphop-inflected literature / literature-inflected hiphop, combined with the fact that she’s a damn good writer. In an enlightening facebook thread, Giles argued that Tempest ‘fulfils very well a specific niche which bourgeois art ideologically requires,’ and that her palatability to white audiences, ‘hiphop enough to give theatre audiences a thrill, poetic enough to make her unthreatening to a white gig audience unsure about hiphop,’ has also played an important role. It is utterly vital to note that a) these are notes about the culture in which Tempest’s work is located, not the work, and b) this isn’t what her detractors detract her for, given that arguing for a greater integration of spoken word, hip-hop or any other kind of predominantly BAME poetry tradition into traditionally white poetry communities, platforms, publishers or funding pots is not in the white liberal poet’s best interest.

Even the journalism that affects to give Tempest a fair hearing is unwilling to take her at face value. There are constant references to her age (young!), her appearance (even younger! leonine! cherubic!), and it’s hard not to read the evergreen reporting of her father’s night school law degree as some kind of capitalist-friendly lore imposed over a deeply anti-capitalist oeuvre. Reading these features en masse since 2009, it’s possible to track Tempest’s growing distaste for an arts culture that appears to have neither the will nor inclination to engage with someone who seems genuinely more interested in making art than selling it. I suspect that a small part of the anger in Let Them Eat Chaos is the absurdity that even with access to the nation’s arts media, there is no guarantee of her message being faithfully communicated. Simply put, Tempest is a poet, not a celebrity, and the perpetual coverage is a (perhaps purposeful) distraction from the work; only by aggressively co-opting her art into the culture industry mainstream can it be successfully untoothed.

These might seem first world problems in an environment in which few poets are written about at all, but it’s worth questioning why Tempest is so endlessly interviewed or featured (narratives constructed around/over her) and so rarely commissioned to write features herself (constructing her own narrative). It’s worth questioning why the year after prizewinning poets Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and Sarah Howe had their ability to self-present quashed by a malignant arts press that Jacob Polley was immediately commissioned by the Guardian to compose his own ars poetica, on his own terms. This is not a criticism of Polley either (though his piece was unsatisfying, perhaps due to the rapid editorial turnaround), but of a culture that refuses to give space or agency to marginalised people, but will trip over itself to present white male excellence completely unfiltered.

Sophie Collins recently performed a piece titled ‘Who is Mary Sue?’ at a reading in Edinburgh, exploring the gender politics surrounding fanfic. The fact Mary Sue exists as a trope at all, Collins suggests, is tied to assumptions about the seriousness and legitimacy of women’s writing, even the capacity of women to write ‘real’ fiction. Collins quotes Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing: ‘she wrote it, but look what she wrote about […] she wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art’. Again, Jackself is a pertinent case study. The book’s protagonist is almost explicitly the fictionalised poet (a Mary Sue? His first name is a variation on the poet’s first name suffixed with ‘self’), but the reviewsinterviews and celebration of the book has focused on formal expertise, conceptual innovation, the artist’s work. No one has asked him to reveal the identity of Jeremy Wren, or even talk about how the experiences the book describes have affected him; the private world that occasioned the public work has remained private, in a way Tempest is often aggressively disallowed.

A great way to guarantee the dominance of conservative art, artists and artistic forms is to make the centre so narrow that an essay’s worth of criticism is necessary just to reach a starting point for anything else.

3 PF

Review: Let Them Eat Chaos is a long poem (perhaps a poetic sequence) touching on the lives of seven people in one street in London who find themselves awake at 4.18am. An audience-addressing narrator guides the reader though each character’s psychological and/or socio-economic situation, from a careworker coming home after a double shift to an insomniac advertising officer. In the live performance recorded by the BBC each monologue is a separate track, and the characters’ personalities are as much brought to life by the music as by Tempest’s skill with exploring complex inner realities, often at breakneck speed. The following is from Jemma, the book’s first speaker:

‘It might be fun
just for a while,
to go back where
my hurt is from

And rinse myself
to emptiness
and push
my body close

To any body
that can recognise
the presence
of my ghosts’

The rhythm is part of the meaning. It’s a series of harsh, mechanical pulses (it might be fun just for a while), running headlong towards the climactic ‘ghosts’. If the speaker believes there is joy to be had in her old life, these lines formally suggest otherwise. Jemma’s section might come first because it grounds the book in recognisable emotional reality after an introduction that begins with the dance of the celestial spheres and ends in London in 2016. The book’s stakes might be our society’s soul, but they begin at ground level, a moment of self-reflection in the middle of the night.

Tempest’s critics will almost certainly pick out the second monologue – released as a single, ‘Europe is Lost’ – as evidence supporting the prevailing narratives about her work. If, like many critics I’ve seen, one objects to ‘didactic’ or ‘hectoring’ art there’s plenty of ammunition here. The poem is direct to a fault, a sweeping look at the state of the nation, like MacNeice’s Autumn Journal squeezed into a three-minute track. What deflates such a reading, however, is the local context in which the poem occurs. It is, like every other piece in the book, a dramatic monologue, in persona; the fact it fits snugly over commonly held prejudices about Tempest’s political ‘moralism’ makes it no less a work of fiction. As in Collins’ essay on fanfic, such a literalist reading wilfully bypasses the poet’s very explicit signals that Let Them Eat Chaos is art and not autobiography. She is no more Pete the stoned sound tech than she is Esther the careworker, the speaker in ‘Europe is Lost’. In her brief, Canterbury Tales-esque intro, Esther is described as exhausted, sleep deprived, ‘worried all the time’, in a flat with ‘a black and white picture / of swallows in flight’. All of these details inform the reader about the kind of mind at work in ‘Europe is Lost’, the context in which the poem wants to be read, and any reading that ignores this is incomplete at best.

‘Europe is Lost’ is the second monologue, having this panoramic critique so early on in the book functions as emotional set dressing for the other more intimate stories. One might argue that this doesn’t excuse the broad-brush analysis of selfies (‘here’s me outside the palace of ME’), and facebook activism (‘some of them noticed / you can tell by the emoji they posted’), and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. As I argued in my review of Hold Your Own, Tempest is at her devastating best when bringing to life a single character or inner situation. My last thought on ‘Europe is Lost’, however, is that it is fucking incredible to see an artist flip a table and say this is fucked up, this violates even basic conceptions of the inherent value of human life. As political analysis, it’s not a nuanced document, but that’s not what the poem is for. In a time when ‘political’ is a dirty word in artistic discussion, it’s kind of thrilling to see the gauntlet thrown down with such righteous fury.

3 JP

The other monologues in Let Them Eat Chaos retain a tight, precise focus; Zoe’s rent has been tripled and she thinks of the history held in her boxed-up possessions and the gentrification of the place she’s lived her whole life; Bradley has a dream job but feels purposeless. The book threads the experiences of its characters together in subtle and not-so subtle ways, the most obvious being the several times various characters ask ‘what am I gonna do to wake up?’, indicating both literal and political awakenings, which could be a subtitle to the whole book. But on deeper thematic levels the book ties these seven people together. Alicia, Pete and Bradley make art that no-one sees: Alicia ‘spits bars to the grass’, Pete writes poems he can’t get his friends to read, Bradley ‘shoot[s] films on [his] phone’. They’re unobtrusive and natural details, but they seem purposeful, moments of talking back to a world that won’t listen. Jemma, Pete and Pious keep returning to self-destructive habits, in full awareness of their emotional wheel-spinning; part of the tension in their monologues is between their capacity for personal change and the systemic oppression that makes such change unattainable, ‘even if he never splashed out / he still couldn’t make the rent on his own place’. Let Them Eat Chaos is up front about its political stances, and the message that loving our neighbours (read also: organising with them politically) is the best means of effecting substantial change underpins it all. What’s left a little below the surface are the potential points of commonality that pre-exist the book’s climactic storm that draws them physically into the street. The book’s dramatic arc is hard-fought and well earned, and I kinda wish it spent a bit more time with all these characters finally interacting (however logistically confusing that might be).

AW2

Let Them Eat Chaos feels like a live show that’s been converted to book format after the fact. A full performance with backing band and stagecraft was recorded by the BBC (see the video at the top), and is very much required viewing for a full experience of the book; I watched it with the text in front of me, and it seems clear in which medium the piece is most effective. The book clearly wants to capture the intricacy and agility of the work, but too often the page is formatted apparently at random, landing heavily on phrases or ideas that in performance are given no special emphasis, to the point where more traditional left-aligned blocks of text might have been a more faithful and legible rendering. In performance there is a far more explicit tonal difference between the narrative sections and the parts spoken by the seven protagonists, while in the book there is often little more than an extra line of white space or a shift to the left margin.

I don’t pretend to have any good solution. Simplified musical notation (something like Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’) might be a more articulate way to render Tempest’s speech rhythms, but almost certainly at the cost of being more visually busy or distracting. Where this impacts the reading experience is in how the book fails to capture Tempest’s willingness to prioritise sound over sense; a long run of deft, meaningful, exhilarating speech in performance may read as clunky or clichéd on the page, given that poetry readers will naturally read much slower than the poet recites, placing a heavier burden on individual words or phrases than they are designed for. Part of the pleasure of her work is in the skill and charisma with which it’s performed, the alchemy of turning stock phrases or images into a bigger soundscape that’s as much part of the poem’s fundamental meaning as its component parts. Tempest builds some of her most important arguments by creating repeated tiny moments of tension, building and rejecting the listener’s expectations, and these are desperately difficult to represent visually. Maybe until there’s some standardised notation for spoken word, the conversion to print will lose something (perhaps that’s inevitable, but I’m an optimist).

Let Them Eat Chaos is an atypical poetry book, as much a playscript as a lyric sheet as a collection, and not an easy one to talk about. It has its flaws, but in a poetry culture in which ‘apolitical’ lyric niceties tend to reap the greatest rewards I’m content to substitute mannerly, break-the-rules-but-not-like-that books for work that forcefully states a philosophical case for love and solidarity, even if nuance is sacrificed in the process. My hope for the book is that it opens up some new space to bring activism into art (if not into our daily experience), for poetry – which remains stubbornly white, male and conservative – to be as apt a space for political advocacy as any other genre of the arts. It’s easy to get frustrated with ideas like ‘the personal is political’ and that ‘writing a poem at all is a political gesture’ when the unarticulated subtext is ‘it’s fine to be me, and so anyone who raises their voice in dissent is tedious, deluded or attention-seeking’. Perhaps I’m being naïve, and I’m aware that there are significant gaps in my reading of Let Them Eat Chaos, particularly regards the hiphop tradition, that might undercut some of what I argue here. I hope the conversation continues. But I genuinely think this is a great piece of art delivered by a talented and powerful performer, one of the finest in these islands, and I sorely wish there was more like it, maybe by BAME artists or artists on other intersections of oppression. As the book argues, we’re currently facing the greatest existential threats to our democracy in our lifetime. If silence or compliance will not save us, it certainly will not save those more vulnerable than ourselves, and those people are our responsibility. I guess it’s weirdly heartening to read a book that not only recognises that fact, but takes it to the heart of its artistic enterprise.

Further Reading: Let Them Eat Chaos Live Performance on BBC

Harry Giles suggests Kate Tempest is a modern-day Chaucer, with hilarious consequences

Alex Clark – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Observer

Alexis Petridis – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Guardian

Feature on Tempest in the Financial Times

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.

3 DRJ

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

‘I was born to love / a megalomaniac or an addict, and all I got was this t-shirt’ (‘Hella’)

Mephistopheles: Isn’t the real problem that this poetry scares you, because what it describes is so far out of your field of experience? You don’t have any authority over it, so you’re trying to abrogate authority through criticism.’ (John Clegg, ‘I’ll Find You’ – Essay’, Prac Crit 3)

‘We can all be kind to each other and can all love each other. It’s the pinnacle of human endeavour – everything that we strive for, everything that we do, is about the pursuit of love.’ (Melissa Lee-Houghton, interview with Michael Conley, Prac Crit 3)

Disclosure: Have not met the poet, friends on FB; review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. As with Clegg in his essay, much of the matter of Sunshine is outwith my experiences. While this is almost always the case, it’s more starkly so with Sunshine. In the linked interview Lee-Houghton states, ‘it’s an art form too. And a performance. It isn’t just me voicing my experience like a journalist or an autobiography’: the poet’s life and the reader’s encounter with the poem are not continuous, and the literary artefact should not be mistaken for historical fact. It would also be a mistake to assume a merely lit-crit approach would be a sufficient means toward a full understanding of the book.

I think this book is special, I’m not the best person to talk about it, I’m talking about it because I think it’s special; I hope this is worth something to you.

Review: In her keynote speech to TIFF a few months ago, Transparent creator Jill Solloway argued that at some level, almost all art contains the message ‘it is okay to be me’. From the endless superhero movies propagating white male saviourhood to the trans characters in her own tv show, art may be understood as, in Solloway’s words, ‘propaganda of the self’, which can preserve existing social hierarchies or challenge them, merely by presenting a particular way of being a body in that society. By doing so without passing judgement the artist challenges (or reinforces) what is acceptable, what is ‘normal’; as writer and critic Saladin Ahmed recently tweeted, if artists want to make a difference about Islamophobia, include Muslim characters in stories that aren’t about terrorism.

Sunshine is a difficult book to read. I read it more or less in one sitting a few months ago, and struggled to will myself to read it again for review. To be blunt, I’m attached to my sense of comfort, and Sunshine has no time for it. Its much-cited first line, ‘If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble’, is typical of the book in that its ostensible brashness gives way to something more nuanced with repeated reading. These poems ask the reader (this reader, more to the point) to acclimatise, to keep responding beyond whatever initial shock one might experience, to allow each scene’s emotional complications to percolate. As ‘Video’, the book’s second poem, asserts, ‘There’s nothing final when you can play it again’; this opening tableau of a couple having apparently passionless sex in the bath is worth thinking over, and seems to shift on repeated reading:

‘we used to talk but now I just pull sad faces and you sympathise.
I was thinking about abstract things, like what distance means to lovers […]

I fit inside love like the breath in a flute. I will escape
at the slightest pause or hesitation. You need to clasp me.
You need to tie me down. Please. I want to go nowhere.’

What on first exposure might feel simply detached or affectless (‘[you] watched me clean / my pussy, and dry my body, and grow cold and silent again.’), emerges as one of its quieter, more peaceful moments after reading the whole book. The invocation of Disney (‘Immediately, a dozen bluebirds flew in and tidied your hair, / a gentle and spritely music soothed your brow’) exposes an unattainable, naïvely simplistic set of values; the poem seems to imply that there are other ways of loving and being loved, and sometimes the best case scenario is not the culturally affirmed, Disneyfied norm about romance. This is also okay. It is okay to be me. The speaker can be clasped. The speaker can go nowhere. Sometimes this is what love looks like, and it’s not necessary to understand it completely.

sr31

The opening poem is titled ‘And All the Things That We Do I Could Face Today’; it implicitly focuses on what can be faced, while that ‘and’ gives the impression that the reader has been abruptly included in a private moment, one that was happening before we arrived and will continue after we’re gone. It’s difficult to know to what degree the reader is being addressed in the lines:

‘I love you baby. I love all of you and I will never love myself.
This book is gonna be a killer. It’s gonna suck me dry,
suck me white, suck my insides out and leave me hollow and high.’

Those ‘gonna’s give me the impression what in pop music is merely read as highly marketable bravado is being harnessed here to the poem’s emotional reality. There is plenty of textual evidence in Sunshine to suggest its production was not a pleasant experience. Lee-Houghton seems to be couching this fear or anticipation in the familiar idiom of rock stardom, maybe in self-parody, maybe suggesting that such sentiments have been co-opted for mass consumption. This may also suggest that our position as readers is not innocent. It seems to me that unlike art in which our awareness of the artist’s real-world suffering is hidden or disguised, there is some kind of responsibility to be taken in how we read work like Sunshine. Not to treat it with kid gloves, but to witness it to the fullness of our abilities, to read as if the stakes were our own, to read as empathetically as we do critically.

Even if it were not the case, even if I was reading Sunshine like any other book, the quality of the literary work here is outstanding. Lee-Houghton writes at a level of emotional intensity that few single poems maintain, let alone entire collections. What’s striking about Sunshine is how little space it has for downtime, for moments of peace – how that opening poem starts to seem such an island of calm. These poems are repeatedly marked by moments of stunning lyric clarity:

‘The White Path was where the suicides went and where we sat on benches to get incredibly stoned and see through the history and the fog and the debris, the death that will come for us all in its most imaginative ways.’ (‘Hangings’)

‘From the hospital you watched the sun come up and I watched it break
its Day-Glo light on our half-empty bed. It was beautiful, you said –
it told me your shadow fell somewhere else; it consoled me
because it lent a colour to your bright and sincere absence.’ (‘Cobra’)

‘Give me hope, because hope will undo the eye-hooks and lay down
its black lace. Give me hope, because love aims always above our heads:

at sunshine.’ (‘Mad Girl in Love’)

I could go on. The book is full of these sudden, beautiful, unsettling flourishes, and a dozen readers could likely choose a dozen such passages without overlap. Perhaps the book’s most salient quality is not so much its urgency as this fullness, this tension between being overwhelmed by sensation or sensitivity on one hand and the poem’s attempts to maintain formal or narrative control on the other. It’s a powerful dynamic, and nowhere is it better exemplified than by ‘i am very precious’. In an interview at Prac Crit, Lee-Houghton described how ‘the poem is about men and women and the tensions between them and men being dominant,’ and how ‘In real life, these things are hard to put into words, but when I do it in poetry I build and create a safe haven for it to exist.’ As the poet also notes, ‘i am very precious’ inhabits a near-ecstatic state: ‘it’s wild and it doesn’t go any quieter’. The poem perhaps dramatizes the lengths necessary to create context for such a discussion to happen at all; if ‘rational’ discourse precludes our ability to say that ‘rationality’ is irreparably formed of dysfunctional gender biases, then other rhetorical forms must take over. Which is an inaptly dry way of noting that ‘i am very precious’, even in its title, goes to extraordinary lengths to assert its right to cultural space, its right to be heard, to be considered whole and valuable.

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The poem itself navigates a series of sexual questions about the speaker and the culture in which she speaks, the poem’s ‘I’ and its ‘some people’:

‘Some people don’t actually want to be wanted.
Some people actually want to be harmed. I used to fantasize
about being annihilated.’

This easy movement between the personal and the general sets the speaker in the middle of her cultural moment, not an outlier or fluke but a logical conclusion. The poem plays out how that same culture (the one we’re sitting in right now) has deeply unhealthy attitudes to sexual desire, and how those attitudes diverge along strict gender binaries. The men in the poem are violent, numb and limited: the poem’s ‘you’ tells the speaker not to talk about her trauma, which she interprets as a kind of solidarity, but in context it reads as unwillingness to perform emotional labour. Men’s sexual advice to her extends as far as ‘pace [your]self’, ‘it’s easy to get consumed and the main thing is to hold out’. The recurring pornographic images are prompted by the speaker’s boyfriend, and are marked by an unflagging opposition to sincerity: ‘it’s the lack of perceived sensation, / their bodies just seem numb’. These figures stand in opposition to the dynamic, creative, often grimly hilarious narrative voice (‘Handjobs just don’t do it for me, I’m sorry – / maybe if I really like you, you can tell me about it’), whose will to communicate her needs and desires truthfully, however culturally stigmatised, form the heart of the poem’s rhetorical achievement.

That said, there are several moments at which the speaker’s voice seems to snag on a particular image or phrase:

‘Wanting to be loved is not the same
as wanting to be fucked is not the same as wanting to come last
is not the same as wanting to be married’

‘I want the voice of someone with a heart that knows about hearts
that know about hearts that know’

‘You’ve got to hide the mirror, you’ve got to hide
the mirror. […] and look in the mirror
and in the mirror and in the mirror I saw
a girl, a little younger than me’

The poem incorporates these un-grammatical, almost musical, phrases without breaking stride, rendering their non-verbal meanings as valuable as their more conventional counterparts. The poem’s closing lines seem to confirm a connection between literary expression and expression of desire:

‘Blood pours into all of my poems like it floods
the veins around my clitoris when someone says they like my
name. So please do say it again.’

The poem’s radical act of claiming ownership over her cultural space is here connected to the radical act of claiming ownership over her sexuality, and the final line might refer to the saying of her poems as well the saying of her name. It’s worth noting that this poem is deeper and more complicated than I’m confident about discussing, and I do worry that in trying to make sense of it to myself I’m erasing a lot of the messiness, nuance and compromise that makes this poem what it is. Perhaps, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we can fully or convincingly explain the poem or the book to ourselves; perhaps as important is our ability to read everything Lee-Houghton gives us in Sunshine and acknowledge it as a way of being, as whole and legitimate as any other. To acknowledge that this is okay, without qualification. ‘i am very precious’ deserves a great deal of close attention, hopefully from readers better equipped for the task.

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Perhaps the fact that one can spend so much time unspooling just two of the poems in Sunshine is an indicator of the depth the book holds, just how much it has to tell you. I’ve not even touched on the book’s sensitive, complex handing of mental health and the social structures around it, its discussions about family, about austerity politics and its victims, the heartbreaking hopefulness of ‘Mad Girl in Love’, how ‘sunshine’ appears in all its various guises throughout the book. There’s a lot more to be discussed than what I’ve touched on here.

Sometimes, consciously or not, I treat the writing of criticism ultimately as a capitalist venture, a function of the publishing industry or of an artistic ‘career’ first and foremost, rather than a function of being alive, a function of a need, will, or desire to express one’s self publicly. Sunshine has the feel of a book that was compelled into existence, that would have happened whether or not there was an industry to support its publication. It’s a book unlike any other I’ve read, and as a community of readers we’re far the richer for it.

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.

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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.

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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.

Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

Full Disclosure: None. First encounter with Capildeo.

‘the sense that this incident is one of many, that the personal is historical, that ‘you’ are a stone already worn down by the water-torture drips, is what Rankine seeks to convey about the predicament of the non-‘white’-skinned individual whose daily life cannot be individual, cannot be pure and spontaneous – cannot be lyric – in so far as it is subject to the encasements and flayings of racialised perception.’

– Capildeo, “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review 228.

Review: Right in the middle of Measures of Expatriation, in the fourth of the book’s seven sections, is ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’, a response to an exhibition of the artist’s work. The poem’s first section is titled ‘Felt Pen’ and offers explanations – of varying conviction – for the artist’s iconic choice of instrument:

‘‘Because a red felt pen is Freudian.’
‘Because felt is fuzzy, and she’s female.’
‘Because red is menstrual.’ ‘Labial.’ ‘Dangerous.’ ‘Primal.’’ […]
‘Because a red felt pen is
a substitute for the phallus,
and also an American flag stripe
signifying the absence of France.’

Capildeo offers a further possibility:

‘Because it was bloody well there,
and in a fix or in a fit, the artist
fiercely repurposes whatever is to hand.’

In a state of either pressing necessity or mental unrest, the artist transforms quotidian junk into acts of resistance. Measures of Expatriation aims to unravel some densely knotted and poisonous ideas and manages to do so with wit, patience, and an often bone-dry sense of humour. Underwriting everything, though, is this determination to hook every theoretical abstraction back into the living, breathing world of unstable but powerful signs. It’s noteworthy that in this passage above, Capildeo is not ruling out the possibility that each of the anonymous suggestions might, on its own, contain a nugget of truth; far more important than the pen’s symbolism, however, is the fact that it was used at all, that the threat of silence is far more pressing than the triumph of one theoretical network or another. The fact that those few lines carry so much freight is true of the collection at large, it’s a long read and a dense one, and every word has clearly been agonised over. Just thinking about the mental labour involved to produce this book makes my head hurt. Yet the challenge seems to be part and parcel of the book’s purpose, and it would be naïve to think that its substantial and sustained challenge to the imposition of restrictive identities (racial, national, gendered or otherwise) would be easy reading.

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And yet the sum of its dense, allusive and syntactically outlandish linguistic performances is an extremely human book. Even when obscured by layers of persona or dramatic irony, Capildeo is a thoughtful and curious guide through her poems’ ideas; the profusion of prose texts in this collection seems to me to be evidence of a will to empower the reader, to spell out her arguments in much plainer fashion than in the more recognisably ‘lyric’ pieces. Looking back at Capildeo’s 2013 collection Utter shows a far greater faith in the column of left-aligned text most commonly recognised as ‘a lyric poem’, and it may be that the greater reliance on non-traditional poetic forms in the new book is continuous with her strategy of ‘fiercely repurpos[ing] whatever is at hand’.  As in Capildeo’s reading of Rankine, the poet and her writing have been disallowed from comfortably inhabiting what a reader of canonical Anglophone poetry might recognise as lyric. As Capildeo explains, ‘If this is lyric, lyric must rise as a spring which acknowledges sedimentation, an inspiration which knows it breathes in shared, polluted air, which sings its body of ‘you’ because its ‘I’ is treated as an ‘is not’ or a ‘they’’. The knock-on effect, of course, is that talking about the content of the work, its revolutionary substance, is deferred as the form it takes must be scrutinised, must first defend its right to claim lyric space. In other words, instead of getting bogged down in questions of whether this is poetry, ask why poetry needs to take such radical form.

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It’s noticeable how often the book returns to questions of belonging, of feeling at home either in one’s own skin or in the place one lives. In ‘Too Solid Flesh’ (from Hamlet’s soliloquy: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!’), the poet appears to be suffering from an acute bout of depression, one that connects homesickness (‘She four-thousand-miles-away-across-the-ocean hasn’t been herself lately’) with a feeling of physical disconnect:

‘I am feeling out of touch with my body: it feels like something I have been given to look after. When I bathe I feel that I am washing it, not that I am bathing’.’

The poem explores several scenarios in which it is not so much the poet’s inability to ‘acquire weight’ that is at fault, but the world itself fails to fill the gaps in the poet’s perception. A ghoulishly disfigured member of the displaced Arawak people appears in a dream, ‘her flesh no longer covered skull’: ‘‘I’m as solid as you are,’ she said loudly and tonguelessly. […] But I was alive, and she was not.’ As Sandeep Parmar explains, the scene complicates a simplistic power narrative, forcing both poet and reader to locate themselves in a much broader understanding of historical violence. On that note, it’s probably not coincidental that the next figure to beset the poet with social expectations is an ‘Armed Forces man’, someone sitting at the crossroads between social and gendered authority:

‘had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect.’

Like many other figures in the scene, the Armed Forces man is partially disfigured in the poet’s (apparently) malfunctioning perception, ‘His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.’ This inability or refusal to acknowledge him as a full person has the effect of stripping him of his surety, his unquestionable authority: it’s certainly grotesque, but there’s also something funny about him taking on ‘the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten’. The poem also encounters a half-faced literary agent, advising the poet to sell the mangoes, coconuts, yams, rum and ‘a grain of salt’ that fall magically out of her books. Selling images of her assumed Caribbean identity are figured as the only business-friendly means of acquiring literary weight, in a world where women in academic posts:

‘trundle towards the apex of a career, wild for the literature that has been written, for no more need be written, for literature is the province of the dead, and how can I have something to add to it?’

Again, the poet’s capacity to enact significant change, to assert her right to shape her own identity and narrative are circumscribed by the norms of literary culture, which will only let her participate with colonial strings attached, and academic culture, which in its over-emphasis on traditional anglophone literature excludes counter-canonical thinking by design. If it all sounds heavy and worthy in summary, the experience of reading the poem is one of following a sharp and wise observer through a series of experiences so ludicrous that comedy almost feels like a coping strategy as much as a literary one. The sequence’s penultimate tableau is a near-fatal attempt to acquire Tamiflu from a wilfully obstructive health bureaucracy that leaves the ailing poet a ‘childless, no-news nowherian’. And yet it finds something hopeful in ‘An older woman’s voice whispers disapproval in my ear’:

If you see the pictures like Auntie Sati had […] we never covered ourselves up. Covering ourselves up, that is a new thing. Maybe it is a Mulsim thing, maybe it is a Western thing. […] I do not know whether what the older voice says is true.’

Given the emphasis in ‘Too Solid Flesh’ on distorted perceptions of reality, it’s possible that the poet’s final scepticism is redundant – how much of any of this is ‘true’? Yet the reminder that behavioural norms are arbitrary, relative, and subject to change permits a note of real hope, so that even the subtly comic wordplay in:

‘‘Black,’ my mother says darkly, ‘is a colour of joy.’ Kali is black. Black contains all the colours; it is the ultimate colour.’

also contains sincere optimism, a reassertion of a meaning that runs contrary to the (Western) norm. The poem’s last word, ‘This has been thought for you’, makes me want to punch the air.

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In the title poem, ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, Capildeo examines how language itself conspires in racism, how the words ‘Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee’ are applied to different bodies with different political goals in mind. As Sophie Collins notes in her review in Poetry Review, ‘colonial forces behind national languages are foregrounded throughout, the pervasive myth of an essential ‘mother tongue’ debunked’. In this poem, Capildeo contrasts the arbitrary, artificially fixed boundaries of political entities with the living realm of language:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. […] Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.’

The collection is full of such moments of rhetorical power, in which Capildeo demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm, for the impassioned and genuine, something like an intellectual call to arms. More often than not, however, such moments are immediately deflated by the mundane or ridiculous, as the impulse to keep a sense of proportion does its work. In ‘Five Measures…’, the next words are the children’s-book-like ‘One day I lost the words wall and floor’, though even these are shot through with the will to overwrite meaningless boundaries, ‘There seemed no reason to conceive of a division’ (noting that the Trinidadian response to the formation of Pakistan referenced in ‘And Also / No Join / Like’ also operated on ‘the lines of what had not been a division’; the linguistic and the political are continuous). Capildeo is extremely careful to never let the messiness of reality be erased for the sake of political cleanliness.

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As Amanda Merritt notes, that same messiness occasionally looks more like plain confusion, and there are certainly times in Measures of Expatriation where I found the poems’ rejection of conventional syntax or deep etymological punning a little too dense to follow. However, where these strategies hit their mark, the book rewards the necessary close readings, including the wonderful ‘Un Furl’, which might be the most heartfelt language-love-poem I’ve ever read, which begins:

‘Any love
meant as equal
is momentary
momentarily unequal
is equal
if love
reckons time
knows not equals’

Given the collection this poem appears in, the sincerity of the quest to formulate a working and positive definition of a healthy romantic partnership is an absolute sucker punch. If any sticklers for formal convention were to read the book’s dreamy and powerful short stories (which Collins beautifully names ‘itinerant prose pieces’) and ask where the poetry is, where, ultimately, is the lyrical work for which all this unlineated writing is trying to create space, one may point right here. It’s a green shoot in a desert, it’s the feathers on the book’s cover flying again. This may be a thoroughly polyanna reading of a collection that is under no illusions about exactly what kind of world it lives in, or about the structures that hold its worst offenses in place. There’s something deeply heartening, however, in the fact that a full half of the book’s poems are dedicated to friends and peers (if Shakespeare’s ‘Weyward Sisters’ count), asserting a community, a federation of individuals where a white-centric culture would see an undifferentiated ‘they’. Measures of Expatriation has an unshakeable grip on what anchors the poet to her humanity in spite of constant dehumanisation.

This is not an easy book by any reckoning; it is long and densely written, it often leaves the reader without footholds and deviates from recognisable tradition. Parmar argues that ‘Capildeo’s integrity and intelligence put her several steps ahead of publishers, academics and critics who might foolishly marginalise her work in Britain’, and I’m pretty darned excited by the idea that this book could open new possibilities in terms of how we read poetry, and what mainstream poetry is capable of discussing. That means pushing readers out of our comfort zone, asking important questions about how such comfort is constructed, who it benefits and who it excludes, questioning the morality of what we (by ‘we’ I mean particularly privileged readers like myself) take for granted every day. I can’t think of a better definition for the work of poetry.

Tl;dr: if you like to have your assumptions challenged, if you enjoy sharing the ideas of a deeply thoughtful, witty and principled writer, read this book.

Further Reading: Sandeep Parmar review, The Guardian.

Amanda Merritt review, London Magazine.

Sophie Collins review, Poetry Review (Summer 2016).