Faber, £14.99 (hardback)
Karen McCarthy Woolf
Where can we search for words that embody hope and resistance for troubled times? Poetry may be one answer, but poems often either promise more than they deliver or have marginal effect against institutions of power and violence. In the current UK climate, they are dismissed, ignored and mainly unread. Daljit Nagra, aware of this apathy, remains optimistic, the “you” of ‘He Do the Foreign Voices’ driving away with tempestuous “pretty airs”:
that speak to power and fear,
whether they’re heard or not, they’ll say, head on,
before family and blood and wealth
our hoard of words must cleanse the world.
His third collection, British Museum, may be an attempt to do that. Nagra deals in big themes: heritage, history, prejudice, language, power, how the past impacts on personal, social and political reality. So, we have ‘Naugaja’ in which “uneducated tribesmen”, seemingly locked in their traditions, become pioneers in emigration with massive impact on generations to come. Nagra claims for them more than courage and perseverance:
I declare their earthly values, all they grafted on this soil
with honest toil, with communal love,
with the dignity of Jinnah and Gandhi
are the enriched values of Britain.
In similar mode, ‘The Dream of Mr Bulram’s English’ portrays a teacher’s wish to inspire his teenage students by the English poetry canon, “to bless them/ the passion of Wordsworth who saved and saved/ simply to behold a canvas-bound Arabian Nights.” He wants the students to claim this heritage to inform and inflame their own multifaceted experiences and voices. The aim is laudable, its expression sometimes slapdash. The teacher’s canon includes:
the spellbound shores of our tongue Shakespearean,
rousing oration into stately cadence till it one day
fight on the beaches in that tongue Churchillian.
That sounds awkward and somewhat pointless, even given that the stanza begins with the “tongue William dared/ never to conquer”. In the fourth stanza, the teacher has the speeches of Martin Luther King steer a “course through the ruling demesne/ to imply this lingua franca has become our lineage”. I can’t see how “imply” here can be precisely what Nagra means, and precision is all important in poetry. It’s also hard to know when Nagra means to be ironic and when serious, and it’s surely important, given the subject matter, that this be clear.
Elsewhere, Nagra piles up questions, one after the other, like a politician drunk on his own rhetoric. It gets wearing after even a short burst, but that doesn’t stop Nagra from repeating the technique. ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei’ contains sixteen questions, all asking “Who are we at root?” What historical characters do we, or should we, seek inspiration from “so we’re bold as Boudica, noble as Livingstone and Bevan?” I was bored long before it finished. In ‘Broadcasting House’, however, Nagra declares the question the BBC’s greatest weapon and shows how questions can be used more judiciously:
Could we shed Bias, armed with Knowledge,
Conscience, to fight for a steadfast voice?
And accept that to stay at sea is to stay at home?
And not bully for John Bull
or the teacake vistas of Betjeman? Straddle the centre
and not become anodyne?
Despite forays into garrulousness and over-elaboration, Nagra often succeeds in imposing a measure of genuine complexity and no one could accuse him of being anodyne. I doubt anyone will make that accusation of Karen McCarthy Woolf either. Her second collection, Seasonal Disturbances, explores migration, environmental catastrophe and the the city. Like Nagra’s book, it has a political edge, but the style is far sparser, more fragmented. It is a masterclass in structure: there is a long poem, ‘Conversation, with Water’, a “disrupted zuihitsu”, after Sei Shōnogan’s Pillow Book. It is dispersed gradually in small chunks, as is a series of found poems, The Science of Life, derived from an eponymous 1930s encyclopaedia. A third stream of poems is more conventional in structure, even when employing unusual forms (such as Terrance Hayes’s ‘golden shovel’ and Woolf’s own ‘couplings’). By mixing streams together, the poems interact thematically and verbally.
‘Conversation, with Water’ concerns a woman who has gone through a time of trouble, and her relationship with a river. The river is metaphorical, a shifting metaphor, refusing to define itself too clearly, and the woman clings to it:
O River, here I am, riding on your back in a little dinghy they call a rib.
It’s like clinging to a grizzly by the scruff of the neck.
Who knows what the water might shake out of me.
She seeks a place of solidity while the river currents “take our emotional detritus and wash it out to sea.” The river, therefore, is a difficult place to be, but also healing. The most “frayed rope” can help to hold a boat in place: a fragile human being is at the mercy of fate, its currents and winds, the river’s “ruthless, expansionist acts”, but has an unseen strength (recall Nagra’s “to stay at sea is to stay at home”). My favourite section was the enigmatic:
There are many thicknesses of rope.
Or, woodsmoke drifts from the chimney like breath. A knife
in its sheaf on the window ledge.
The success of this poem relies on making connections between disparate words and images, evoking feelings as much as sense. The same is true of The Science of Life’s found sonnets, written in response to a sailing mission investigating “micro-plastic pollution on human and marine life”. The poems don’t tackle this subject head-on, but instead evoke dis-ease and suspicion regarding people’s actions in the world. Human conquest crawls with:
a mythical cold
sliminess, partly from forgetfulness
but mainly from the fact
that the lie and its most remarkable products
must be continually lubricated
and kept moist.
Any investigation of breakdown in the relationship between humanity and the world needs to be as discomfiting and sinister as this.
The third stream of poems tend to be less ‘mysterious’, although that’s no negative criticism. Some are more successful than others. ‘On the Thames’ finishes with “the Shard/ shooting up to the light like a foxglove”, which felt like a tired image. But I won’t remember this book for its few weaker poems. I will remember the opening lines, “Underwater, sun flickers like/ a conversation we’re yet to have” (from ‘The Island’), and this collection, I am certain, will impact on anyone who reads it carefully.
Chrissy Williams’s first full collection, Bear, contains bears but nowhere near as many as the back cover implies (“on every page”!). That isn’t a problem. The contents split into seven short sections, each headed by epigraphs from writers as diverse as Herman Hesse and Kate Bush. Williams blends tradition and innovation: repetition, punctuation mark games, surrealism, straight narrative etc, infused with a hefty dose of humour. Dark undercurrents render the humour effectively uneasy. ‘Sheep’ might initially appear like mild, surreal fun, but its dark turn is without the earnestly manipulative stretch for significance of many lesser contemporary poems. One minute the sheep are “wearing short pink diner uniforms, serving coffee,/ startling easy.” Before long, they are “being taught to make household bombs, to fire guns,/ weave steel wool”, before being left “nosing their lover’s limp body.”
One of my favourites is ‘Moorhens’, which juxtaposes the birds with reeds, screams, Punch & Judy, clowns, men in masks and the famous “sausages” dog from TV’s That’s Life, to unparaphrasable and unsettling effect. The final stanza might not admit conventional meaning but gets beneath the skin:
But riverbanks know no sausages
and you will not suffer this derangement.
That’s the way to do it. Breathe. Scream.
Stray feathers drift along the surface.
The water floods black with your joy.
The poems shape something undeclared and disconcertingly present. Williams blurs fact and fiction, reality and the virtual world, in excellent poems like ‘Reading Your Comics in Eype’ and ‘The Burning of the Houses’. From the latter:
He stopes working. He tweets that he can see
people smashing up a bus. He says there is a car
being soaked in petrol.
Riots rage throughout London while kitten videos are posted on Facebook and the poet remembers a show she saw with a friend, before a return to prescient horror:
This is London. It is on fire.
I go to bed while it is burning. I wake up
and parts of it are still burning.
The best poems in this book fall slantwise with their humour, sadness and emotional drama. Seven short prose poems in one section felt inconsequential and not funny enough for me to overlook their slightness, other than the sharp ‘Four Hours Away’. A few other poems elicited only a shrug, but this is an exciting collection, displaying great creativity and empathy. The opener, ‘Bear of the Artist’, ends disappointingly on a threefold repetition (this usually means an unfavourable comparison to Robert Hass’s ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’, which finishes “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” to devastating effect), but it is good until that final line, the bear an uncontainable creative drive and impulse: “we’re all so tired, and everyone could use a bear sometimes,// everyone could use a wild bear, though they can be dangerous”. Everyone could certainly use a copy of Chrissy Williams’s Bear.