The Wisdom of Questions – The Yak Dilemma by Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal

Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s first collection, The Yak Dilemma (Makina Books) provides wonderful evidence that Dhaliwal is a poet who understands instinctively that poems make sense of the world through asking questions which neither provide nor expect answers. The speaker of Dhaliwal’s poems asks question after question; in fact she says herself in the title poem that she stands “in a labyrinth of questions”. Some are rhetorical (“What month do sunflowers die? September”), some genuine (“…was this Indian lady sitting cross-legged in front  of me really Jemdanee?), some pointed (“where have I truly come to?”), while others feel like stop-offs on unfinished philosophical journeys (“In a city where desire is sold as livestock, / does it become the currency of lust?”), or ways-in to the internal monologue of an un-made-up mind (“Was it solitude’s better byword / for a happier state of mind? Was it a watchword / for failed solitude, the worst of all our fears?”). Even when questions are not asked directly, expressions of non-comprehension point towards a question just over the horizon (“I never understand the geometry of a mountain – the minute and vast distances between its several folds”), and some of the poems simply seem to stand where a surfeit of questions and dearth of answers has left an empty hole. This last is exemplified best by the first poem in the collection ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’, where, in two prose columns of three stanzas each, facing each other on opposite sides of the page, the speaker proposes a dream-like space where two can come together in all the freshness and hope connoted by ‘morning’, where all the world’s solidity and division disappears into a place “where our heads float and so do our hearts” and where “we will create a daisy chain of ampersands”. Far from coming over as callow or naïve, though, there is a knowing strength at the centre of this beautiful poem – for one thing, the claim that in such a place of unity “we are not white nor brown or black but just the shade of our most loved colour” and that “Everyone will qualify to be a person of colour” strikes me in the current climate as a very brave claim to make, and one which shows great understanding of the enormous leap we as a society need to make to overcome the divisions between us – a poet’s understanding, dare I say? But the solid core of the poem is in its central conceit or wordplay of ‘no man’s land: is this a land that is not owned by men, or one where men are not admitted, or one which, to give it its prosaic Wikipedia definition, is “land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties who leave it unoccupied out of fear or uncertainty”, indeed is the poem referring to man as a gender, or Man as a species? Dhaliwal does not answer these questions, and neither should she – the poem stands in place of the questions and the answers.

The poems take us from “Punjab’s fewer than five rivers” to “the weightlessness of the sea” in Istanbul, to “the seven hills of Edinburgh” to “the correct blue // of the Dublin sky” and the constant jumping between countries causes the reader to sense the disorientation that the poems are negotiating, descriptions like those above adding to this feeling of dislocation, almost to the point where immigration and emigration come closer to transmigration. The speaker is a homeless soul and the “‘bulldozed dreams’”, “rubble” and “peeling paint” of the K-25 area of Hauz Khas in Delhi, the naked men she sees from her apartment window in Antwerp and the “four rented walls” of a hotel in Cairo where she rests “like animals forced in jars of formaldehyde” only accentuate the sensation that the speaker is like a bird looking in vain for somewhere suitable to perch.

So these are poems that work alongside each other to create a steadying sense that the speaker is working towards a new kind of understanding in a globalised world where the idea of ‘home’ has become detached from its moorings. She is feeling her way through the world as  a constant outsider, as she points out in ‘Poem in which I am an Interloper in an Art Gallery’, cannily picking up on and adapting Theresa May’s infamous 2016 phrase “if you are a citizen of everywhere, you are a citizen of nowhere; or just foreign”. Even when she returns to northern India – saying, perhaps provocatively, that she is “Dressed in black from head to toe / (to look as white as I could)” to learn more about the Irish actress Norah Richards, she discovers that something indefinable has changed: “I came looking for someone else, for something else // But who is it? What is it? // I have come here as an intruder”. With her sense of home, her sense of identity is slipping away – and it is no coincidence that in the following poem, “Drinking Coffee Together”, the speaker is in the middle of splitting up with her lover; the waning of a love affair having been working concurrently with a building sense of wider psychological loss throughout the first three quarters of the book, it now breaks, with restraint and kindness but decisively (“It matters / what we tell each other. / I do not tell you I do / not love you nor / do you.”). Restraint, in fact, and the thoughtfulness and dignity that go with it, mark the collection from beginning to end, although a sense of frustration builds subtly, only poking through the surface at the very end of the final poem, ‘What Jasmine Said’, where the speaker breaks a toenail while visiting Giza and feels “like a princess who is not a princess // because she is wearing boots / and they are so fucking tight.” The constricting footwear here takes the reader back to earlier poems, particularly ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’ where shoes, old and new, seem to stand for comfort or lack of it within a language (“Words fail me often” she says “and so do shoes”). I’m not sure if there is link I’m missing between the antifascist writer Ginzburg and shoes per se, but it may be the speaker is reading in the original Italian rather than in translation and that her Italian is not as expert as her English so the text highlights to her the way exploring a writer’s work is like exploring a new city and the language(s) you have available to you, like footwear, affect your journey: those we have had longest will help us in our encounters with with subtleties and “little virtues”. It is not a straightforward poem and I’m not sure I am doing it justice with this reading, but Dhaliwal’s fascination with words, translations, and living between languages, is beyond doubt; it is if anything the central question in The Yak Dilemma – yak of course not only being an animal but a synonym for chatting, and so the dilemma here is about what words do to us, and what we do with words.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions but I guess, being from Palampur originally, Dhaliwal’s mother tongue is likely to have been Punjabi, but she probably learned English from a very early age, and her original language began to slip away (or perhaps her parents spoke English and she was raised as a second-generation English speaker?). But anyway, this bifurcation of her language makes its political parallel in the Punjab region almost impossible to avoid, with the India-Pakistan border running right through it, and all the horrific Imperial baggage that comes with it. (The border is treated most directly in the haunting ghazal ‘your bird/my bird’, which also brings a more overtly political dimension to the previously mentioned “no man’s land” of the book’s first poem, and of which “The bulbul on the barbed wire knows nothing”.) The speaker wishes to learn Arabic, we discover in ‘Arabic Lessons’, in order to connect with the Arabic-speaking world, hoping that the Urdu which had surrounded her growing up might be a way in. For all of her good intentions, it does not seem to have been a success, although it does perhaps signify a moving on to somewhere new: “Nothing came more naturally than the phrase / for bidding farewell, our minds ready to depart / wherever we had come from. // Ma-Issalama.”

Dhaliwal’s relationship with languages finds its way into most of the poems in the collection, but nowhere more beautifully and poignantly than in the brilliant villanelle ‘Migrant Words’ where she expresses “a vain hope” that the “buried…words” of her ancestral tongue “will grow / into a dialect of some hybrid descent” and that her Punjabi vowels “will plough / a cadence that my anglophone tongue could not invent”. It could not be a lovelier, sadder poem, which I think could stand as a fine representative of the collection as a whole.

On the evidence of this work, we have in Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal a poet who sees complexity with great clarity, and who does not allow her sadness to turn to rage. She writes with genuine lyrical beauty and while she has surely benefited from the several top-level Irish lyric poet teachers and mentors she lists in the acknowledgements, there is a sure-footed handling of cadence and rhyme, and a fluidity to both the stricter closed forms and the prose poems, which indicates that the heart of a natural poet beats inside her. As with much diasporic poetry (that I have read anyway), the work itself seems to become something not entirely unlike the hoped-for, intangible and perhaps impossible home whose absence drives the lyric – and this prompts me to ask the question (it seems appropriate to end this review on a question): where, I wonder, will this remarkable poet’s journey lead her next?

You can pre-order The Yak Dilemma from Makina Books here.

You can hear Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal reading three of her poems, including ‘Meet me in the  morning on no man’s land’, at The Lonely Crowd, here.

You can read ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’, at the Irish Times, here.

You can read another poem from The Yak Dilemma, ‘Women who dine alone, dine alone’, at RTE, here.

In Aeternum


You were the between-people
before there was anything to be between,
broth of hunters and textures,
fragments of migratory deer,
eyes on a dark sea, sniffing air,
rooting, scuttling, scuffling.

We look down on you
through Time’s backward telescope
and a hundred feet of sea,
domesticating your memory,
overlaying you with race,
displacing you with purity.

Ab Origine

Let’s call them a family
and imagine them close up,
give them faces and dreams,

assume they laughed, argued,
slit fish, held as we do
wood smoke in their hair.

Let’s follow their eyes
across the marsh, towards
a low, dark line of trees

and wonder with them
what the great red and silver
discs above will bring.

As they walk along the seabed,
carrying their ancestors,
let’s say they lack, like us,

understanding beyond their horizon,
compassion beyond their reach,
language beyond their need.

In Aeternum

The dinghy is halfway
between the seafloor
and the sky.


The refugees are caught
between going
and arriving.


Eternity is on an axis –
it can be vertical
or horizontal:


Gas giants and death
above, death and
mud below…


Prevented from arriving,
still compelled
to go.

‘I would have made myself remember’d’: Why Poets ♥ Keats

Everyone loves John Keats.  

I’ve looked for #KeatsHate online just to see if it exists – there is hate for everything else after all – but as far as I can discover there is nothing in the modern world but love for this particular JK, love for the poetry and love for the man*. If the haters are there, they’re keeping very quiet. My conclusion is this: those who love poetry love Keats, and those who don’t love poetry don’t care enough about Keats to hate him. Perhaps now, 200 years since his death, is the wrong moment to be looking for criticism of the man and his work, but thinking back I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone express serious reservations – not unless you go right back to the classist snobbery of Yeats. And I’m not about to set a precedent, but I am interested in why his stock remains so high, particularly amongst poets themselves.  

It is a paradox, but true I think, that one of the reasons he remains so well remembered and so well loved is exactly because he is so well remembered and so well loved. Even for those whose tastes do not run to the Romantic, Keats represents the kind of poetic longevity every poet hankers after, whether they admit it or not. All literary writing is a bid for immortality, even the ancient Egyptians sensed something along these lines. Keats was intensely aware of this, and the cynic in me is tempted to read his final request of Joseph Severn to have ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ inscribed on his gravestone as one last, slightly duplicitous but nonetheless genius attempt to make such a bid. Like Shakespeare, Keats is living the kind of literary afterlife we all aspire to but which none of us will achieve (and yes, that includes you, 99.99% of published poets). Poets love Keats, in part at least, because they want to be him. They want to be one of the tiny fraction of poets who poets and readers will still be admiring and taking inspiration from in 200 years’ time, and that Keats did it means they can do it too.

It might also be worth noting that the suffering artist who was not properly recognised until after their premature death is a seductive cliché, and one which strikes a deep and resonant chord with poets’ Inner Bohemian. Often the origin of this cliché is located with the Romantics themselves, but I find it tempting to look back 2,000 rather than just 200 years to that other great and noble sufferer, Jesus Christ, whose torment on the cross still inspires more than any other, whose struggles and early death point towards greater, more permanent truths. The poetic ego internalises Christ’s pain and appropriates his immortality, and by extension that of the Christ-like Keats. ‘If I am nothing today’, the poet tells themself, ‘what does it matter when I am to be a God in 200 years?’ 

Too much? Maybe. 

At any rate, unlike Christ, or Shakespeare, the details of Keats’ life are more than hearsay, guesswork and legend. His medical training, his literary friendships, his contemporary reviews, his tragic “family disease”, and more than anything his intense love for Fanny Brawne are well documented by both Keats himself and by those who knew him. FR Leavis thought that Keats the man disappeared entirely from his verse, and this may once have been so, but in this Age of Celebrity I don’t think it is any longer. The facts of his life are like accessories that hang from his poems, decorating and complimenting them. This is where Keats differs from other poets of two centuries ago who are also still remembered, read and valued. There are no others whose lives so perfectly enhance the tone of their poetry – Wordsworth’s move from revolutionary to reactionary, for example, has the opposite effect, as does Byron’s lordly philandering and arrogance.  

To modern sensibilities, Keats’ life has the benefit of not being overly-privileged (unlike most of his contemporary poets he was from the lower end of the middle class), of being short (he did not have a chance to grow old and give us cause to dislike him, á la Wordsworth), and of being a gratifying confluence of misfortunes which give his 25 years an attractively readable narrative (the death of his father, then his mother, then his brother; the debts; the hurtful reviews; and finally his own death from tuberculosis). And then there are those letters. Oh… (or perhaps I should say ‘O…’) those letters! The intelligence, the searching curiosity, the pain, the vulnerability, the embarrassment (thank you Christopher Ricks) and the sheer humanity that comes through them like a great highlighter pen emphasising those qualities in his poetry. They are there in the poetry anyway, but how much more do we notice them as a result of knowing his letters? And how many, I wonder, have fallen for the letters first, only subsequently becoming enraptured by his verse? 

His poetry too, it goes without saying, is rather good. And I don’t mean to disparage it by saying that like Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson, Keats is extremely ‘readable out-loud’; in terms of a writer’s ability to remain in the public consciousness this is no small thing – Eliot and Homer have the same quality. The luxuriance of its sensuality that plays in the mouth so satisfyingly is its key strength in this respect (and the means by which Keats elevated the Romantic project, then in its second generation, to new heights, pushing it towards the Victorian era that would both consolidate and clog it up). And so we can add to his misfortunes the extraordinary and intense quality of his work – distilled, again satisfyingly, in that one almost impossibly creative year of 1819 – and again it is hard to avoid the religious connotations of an individual being touched by a genius which, if not quite divine, certainly feels almost visited upon his tormented young soul from some mysterious Elsewhere. 

But what does Keats have to offer today’s poets in particular? Well, his particular strand of Romantic introspection may speak to the  identities-centred worldviews that shape so much public discourse at the moment. The external becomes the internal, and the internal becomes the eternal. Truth, for Keats, is not to be discovered by the scientist ‘unweaving the rainbow’ with their ‘cold philosophy’ but by the poet imagining a silent voice in the designs engraved on a Grecian urn. What is true, then, is mediated through the individual consciousness rather than dictated by the tenets of logic and empiricism. This seems to chime at least with many contemporary perspectives on  literature, history, gender and race. If Keats continues to resonate with a new generation of younger poets, could this be part of the reason? 

Linked to this might also be the fact that the Romanticism Keats represents is emphatically ‘not Modernism’, which developed as a reaction against it, and whose Big Name Poet practitioners (Pound, Eliot, Stevens) are seen by many as supporters of a conservative and in some cases fascist politics which is anathema to liberal contemporary poets.

This brings me to me to one final possible reason for Keats’ longevity: that his poetry is a looking rather than a finding, a question rather than an answer, it is the journey to a place rather than the arrival at that place. His idea of Negative Capability (that someone might be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) reminds us of a fundamental quality of the human condition, which is easy to forget when almost everything we do is geared around making ourselves feel like we understand what we are and what surrounds us, that is: we don’t understand.  

It is deeply consoling, I think, particularly at this point in time, as social media boxes us in, monetises our hopes and fears, and streams us along tracks of entrenched opinion, that John Keats is still there, still making his “awkward bow”, and still looking for truth, of all things, in, of all things, beauty. 

*Actually, this is not entirely true, I found one negative assessment of Keats, here, but as sophisticated as it is, I’d be surprised if it’s written by a poet so I’ve decided not to let it interrupt my take. 

Everything Rhymes: In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

When Maria Stepanova was fifteen, her mother showed her a small lace purse which had belonged to her grandmother Lyolya and which contained an old, small piece of paper “beginning to tear at the folds”; on the paper was written a single name: Victor Pavlovish Nelidov. The name was a mystery to her mother, and it remained one to Maria despite her searching; and a mystery it remains – as far as the reader of In Memory of Memory knows – to this day. The purse, the folded piece of paper, and the ‘invisible Nelidov’ are a potent symbol of the hopeless yet meaning-rich search which has clearly obsessed Stepanova for years and to which this book is an outstanding testament.  

I have had no success, only the feeling of walking into yet another empty green field and realizing once again that the absence of an answer was the answer, and that upset me, I just had to get over it. As soon as I appeared, the past immediately declined to make anything useful of itself, or to weave itself into a narrative of seeking and finding, of breakthroughs and revelations. 

This lack of success is localised though. On the wider scale Stepanova’s investigations in this work, which has been described (not completely satisfactorily) as a ‘documentary novel’, do bear fruit and the author’s family becomes, to use the hackneyed phrase, a lens through which we view the past; in this case, early to mid- twentieth century, Russian-European, Jewish history. But it is the sense of reaching out into an eternity of darkness, and the compulsion towards narrative (Graham Swift once offered a definition of the human as ‘a story-telling animal’) which pervade the book. It is not actually about the past at all, in fact, but about how far the past is to be found in the present; in family stories, diaries, photographs, letters, postcards, places (e.g. Pochinky, Odessa, Paris), objects (e.g. the tiny white figurine which Stepanova calls her aleph, and which I shall come back to), and in an ongoing engagement with writers and artists such as Marina Tsvetaeva, W.G. Sebald, Charlotte Salomon and Francesca Woodman, among many others.  

There is much to be learned, therefore, in the sense of ‘objects to be found’, but what sense is to be made of the past? Narrative is the search for order, but this proves elusive; instead, Stepanova reaches out for a different kind of sense, one which begins to explain why her prose cannot be completely separated from her poetry (her first full English language collection War of the Beasts and the Animals is forthcoming from Bloodaxe). At one point, Stepanova quotes Karl Krauss, “‘Immer passt alles zu allem’ (‘Everything fits with everything else’)” which she then refines in Tsvetaeva’s words to: “Everything rhymes”. So, we do not find stories in the past, but rhymes in memory. 

There is no escaping the Proustian comparisons with aspects of Stepanova’s project, the title itself nods towards them, at least in Sasha Dugdale’s translation of it (Memory as both a ‘search’ and as ‘lost time’), but the ‘invisible Nelidov’ is evidence of how we are denied the satisfaction of a ‘madeleine moment’, and the writer/narrator is denied that easy, sense-triggered slide into clarity and focus. For Stepanova, making sense of memory (perhaps we could call it the search for lost rhyme) is deliberate, difficult, and frustrating. Towards the end of the book, Stepanova visits an overgrown Jewish cemetery in Kherson, one of her family’s ancestral towns, to look for the graves of relatives, and she finds herself fighting through the brambles between the tombstones with increasing fury before giving up. 

The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery. 

There is a layering here: the past is a dangerous place to wander, somewhere the unwary, careless traveller might get lost or worse; but it is also a dangerous animal guarding and protecting those who are dead from those who are living. There is certainly a sense, here and elsewhere, that the dead are in need of such protection because of the need the living feel to take possession of the past for their own purposes. Stepanova notes at one point “This was all about her (Stepanova) and not about them (her ancestors)”, and at another she confesses to being “horrified and offended” at her father for not allowing her to quote from his letters in her book. Her ruminations on her father’s refusal are a good example, not only of Stepanova’s remarkable self-awareness and clarity of thought, but also of her ‘poet’s sense’ for metaphor which runs through and enhances the book. Considering her evolving relationship with her father’s letters, she says 

Without being aware of it, I had internalized the logic of ownership. Not in the sense of a tyrant, lording it over his hundreds of enslaved peasants, but perhaps like the tyrant’s enlightened neighbour, with a landscaped park and a theatre in which his serfs acted and sang.

And with this understanding of the power the present has over the past, we also come to realise our ancestors’ inherent vulnerability (“The dead have no rights”), because whether the tyrant is enlightened or not is entirely a question for the living. What comes through Stepanova’s problematising of history and cultural memory most clearly is that they are both open to abuse. So the writer/narrator’s difficult (and ultimately incomplete) attempts to find a path through her own family’s past are a symbol of the enormous job of work which needs to be done at the individual level if the ‘official’ version of history (i.e. at a national, state level) is to be prevented from picking and choosing what is included and excluded from cultural memory for its own political ends. And with the Holocaust at the centre of twentieth century Jewish history, and global politics veering to the right, the stakes could not be higher. 

That Stepanova at times finds her search for sense exhausting is clear. On the train to Paris from London to look for clues to her great-grandmother Sarra’s time in 1912 as a student at the Sorbonne, she reflects: 

Looking out of the window, I thought how terribly tired I was of family. I couldn’t look away from it, I saw nothing else. Like the wrought iron fence of the Summer Gardens, I couldn’t see beyond the captivating design and into the space within. Every past and present phenomenon had been tied to my indistinct relatives, I had rhymed it all, emphasised the simultaneity between them and me, or the lack of it. I’d had to learn to put off my own relations with the world for later, just as truffle pigs are trained to ensure they don’t eat their precious findings.

It’s worth taking a moment to step back and notice how carefully chosen, and astounding, that word ‘simultaneity’is. It is easy to bunny-hop over individual words in novels – even documentary novels – but Stepanova is a poet, as is her translator Sasha Dugdale, and I feel both have brought their powers of poetic focus to bear throughout In Memory of Memory

What is so exhausting for Stepanova is the Tsvetaevan ‘rhyming’ of ‘it all’, the emphasising of simultaneity, or its absence, between her ancestors and herself, which at this point has become less clarifying than obscuring of her view on the past. Her almost desperate search is not only for ‘likeness’ or some vague sense of ‘connection’, but for the actual ‘simultaneity’ of bringing together temporally separate lives, through the study of places and objects and language, into concurrent existence – and it is a relativistic impossibility. But her struggle is important, and as an individual person locating meaning in individual objects she ascribes a value to them which is both outside any commodity value and which works in resistance to hegemonic ‘big’ history.  

One of the ways that Stepanova find symbolic simultaneity is through her focus on the small china figurines, apparently used for packaging in Germany in the late 1800s, one of which she carries with her and calls “the aleph of (her) story”. By attaching this word, which represents both the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets among others, and the Hebrew number one, and by attaching it to these tiny, broken (seemingly worthless) figurines, Stepanova is utilising its mystic associations with primoridial oneness – the number which contains all other numbers – and by extension its symbolic bringing together of all things in one point in space and time (as Borges used it in his short story of the same name). It is interesting to note that the the aleph also represents a glottal stop or hiatus in modern Israeli Hebrew speech, thus perhaps also representing a pause, or silence – a rest – for Stepanova in her ongoing search for meaning in her family’s past. 

The china alephs are transfigured later in the book as ‘frozen Charlottes’, the small porcelain dolls also originating in Germany but named gruesomely in the US after a supposedly true story of an unfortunate girl who froze to death on the way to a ball. The frozen Charlottes themselves become an echo of Stepanova’s fascinating rumination on the life and work of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who left her entire oeuvre of autobiographical and quite unique art in the hands of her friend, a local doctor in Nice, before being arrested by the Gestapo and murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The vocal hiatus of the aleph perhaps also returns here as a catch in the throat, an inability to speak and a silence that cannot be filled. Everything rhymes. 

There is another reason that the little broken dolls are important as objects, and that is in the extent to which, imperfect and injured as they are, they are survivors. Stepanova expands Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory beyond the families of those who lived through the Holocaust, saying  

Because twentieth century history spread its cataclysms liberally around the globe, most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent, the result of some traumatic shift, its victims and the bearers of its legacy, people with something to remember and to call back to life at the expense of their own today. 

And she goes further  

Each of us is in fact a witness to and participant of a lasting catastrophe..

As she thinks her way down her chosen route, as so often in this book teasing meaning from her metaphor, we all become not only survivors but refugees, and the past becomes the suitcase we carry with us “in which the dearest items of a life have been lovingly packed away”. The past, then, is not something we are travelling away from, but something we are forever carrying with us, until we ourselves become the past and our descendants carry us. 

This idea of carrying a small selection of “the dearest items” is at the centre of Stepanova’s project because it represents the need to make choices. Some objects, some people, are selected, others are not – or as she puts it “those who are fit for retelling, and those who are only fit for oblivion”. Here we see why cemeteries are so important on her journeys; it is not because they bring her closer to the dead, but because they are democratic, and inclusive:  

A cemetery doesn’t make that choice: it attempts to remember everyone.  

It is mildly frustrating that no family trees and only one photograph accompany this deep dive into a family filled with so many intriguing and striking characters. But it is clear why Stepanova has chosen not to include such visual aids. It comes back to inclusion. Portraits should, she says 

…draw together and condense everything that makes you what you are now and will become, your past and future, and to sort all this into a fixed shape that is no longer subject to the laws of time. 

There is, again, an echo of the aleph here. But there is always something left out of a portrait, whether endlessly repeated like a selfie, or brilliantly executed with “a disrespect for borders” like a Rembrandt – Stepanova turns to Foucault on this, who, she reports, observes that “a person is imprisoned and limited by the parameters that describe her borders and leave the centre untouched”. The problem is what the portrait cannot reach. 

So, can language reach the untouched centre and represent the full lives lived by Galya, Sarra, Lyodik, Lyolya, Misha and all the others? This is what history so often tries to persuade us is possible, that we can know, that we can see and make sense of the past. But Stepanova’s journey into cultural memory tells a different, more complicated story: “Nothing ever comes to an end” she remarks, before finishing (if not ending) on a note of almost Wittgensteinian acceptance, as she ponders once again the flawed, dented frozen Charlottes:  

… representatives of the population of survivors; they seem like family to me – and the less I can say about them, the closer they come.  

Stepanova has rightly been compared to W.G. Sebald in her quietly serious and unsentimental dealings with memory and history, but the writer who came most often to my mind while reading In Memory of Memory was Olga Tokarczuk, whose Flights is further to the ‘novel’ end of what Stepanova has called the “documentary novel spectrum”, but whose narrator is similarly blurred with the main protagonist, I think, and whose search (which also draws inspiration from objects, or curiosities, though with a more fleshly, corporeal theme) also takes her on a journey around the spatial and temporal worlds. The two writers share another similarity in that there are sections of their narratives which feel almost like they occupy some indefinable ground between the prose paragraph and the prose poem. Many of the effects of their prose in English may be down to skillful translations from the Russian and Polish; but in Stepanova there are lists which almost seem like poems, there is a chapter of numbered descriptions of photographs, and there is a chapter in which each short section is labelled ‘obverse’ or ‘reverse’, as though a coin is spinning though the air in slow motion; and Tokarczuk focuses her writing intensely at some moments to similar effect. But above these resemblances, I mention Tokarczuk by way of finishing this review only really to make the point that as a Nobel Prize winner, she and Maria Stepanova are in the same literary class. 

You can buy In Memory of Memory here (from 17th February 2021)

You can buy Flights here.

You can buy War of the Beasts and the Animals here (from 25th March 2021)

Interview with Maria Stepanova, Punctured Lines, Feb 2021.

Interview with Maria Stepanova, LARB, June 2017

Article by Sasha Dugdale on translating In Memory of Memory, KLN, Sept 2020

Fifty-One Questions For All Readers And Writers Of Poetry

The following questions have escaped the Creative Writing courses which gave them life then left them lying uselessly on the floor, and each one now urgently demands to be answered by everyone everywhere who claims any interest in poetry whatsoever, in no more than five hundred words and no fewer than fifty. Lives depend on this, along with your share of £15.26 prize money. Email answers to

  1. Why do we ask what poetry ‘is’?
  2. Is poetry supposed to help?
  3. Who is poetry for?
  4. What happens to the language of the past?
  5. Is poetry lost?
  6. Does it hurt you to write poetry? If not, why not?
  7. Are you willing to be hurt by the poetry of others? If not, why not?
  8. Can poetry reach outside ideology?
  9. What has poetry in common with archaeology?
  10. What do you know about language and memory?
  11. Can you love a poem that says what you don’t want to hear?
  12. Could you write a poem that says what you would prefer not to say?
  13. Have your (favourite) poems arrived, or are they still on their way?
  14. Is performance about the poem or the poet?
  15. What have your face and name to do with your poem?
  16. When you create something new, what are you doing?
  17. Is the author dead or living?
  18. Can poetry be popular while saying something unpopular?
  19. What relationship do you have with your poetic mistakes?
  20. Do poems change colour in certain lights?
  21. To what extent, precisely, is any poem a woman’s or a man’s?
  22. Is a poet a teacher? If so, by what right?
  23. Is the writer to blame, or the reader?
  24. What happens in your brain when a line scans? Or fails to?
  25. What if poetry is just veneer?
  26. Are you having a conversation when you read or write poetry? If so, with whom?
  27. How privileged is poetry?
  28. Who are poetry’s dependents?
  29. What is poetry’s day job?
  30. Do you fantasise about winning competitions? If so, why? If not, why not?
  31. Does publication terrify you? If so, why? If not, why not?
  32. Is there an argument against metaphor?
  33. How important is a dance?
  34. How liberal is a question?
  35. When is your audience?
  36. What is past poetry, or past a poem?
  37. What are all the arguments in favour of rhyme?
  38. Who could a poem not exist without?
  39. What is the poem you are really writing, time after time?
  40. What do you make of the poem which hangs between the poem and its translation?
  41. How do you speed-read a form that is impossible to skim?
  42. How important is it that a poem has bounce?
  43. Can poetry slow the spin?
  44. How does your (favourite) poetry fit in with poetry trends?
  45. Where does a poem leave you?
  46. How far is a poem a false friend?
  47. Where does your poetic doubt begin, and where does it end?
  48. What else does a poem mean?
  49. Is a poem letting your guard down or building a wall?
  50. What is the difference between a poem and a question?
  51. Do you care, poetry lover, about any of this, at all?

Leaving the gloves on: Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts

What I like about Rebecca Watts is that she is a poet who just gets on with being a poet. She eschews social media, refusing to join in the 24/7 clamour for attention in which so many let themselves down so regularly; she rarely gives interviews; she chose not to respond (in public anyway) to the many and vitriolic critics of her article, which appeared in PN Review, ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’; and her poetry, most of all, does not go out of its way to draw attention to itself but with consummate wit and skill takes the reader on unexpected and often profound journeys. It’s surprising how much poetry doesn’t do this; but with Watts it was evident in her first collection The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcanet) and in Red Gloves (also Carcanet) she consolidates her style and develops her themes: nature, art, science, and the human intersection of all three. 

At the forefront of these themes – or perhaps the theme that runs through them all – is Watts’ expression of feminism as a rejection of the dull and deadening conformities of marriage and child-bearing. The first poem of the collection, ‘Economics’, is an amusing reductionist description-in-numbers of all the rural reasons to turn down the offer of a move “to the city to be with you”: “five swans in formation”, “three horses in maroon jackets”, “a greenfinch and thirty-nine / cows” and so on, with the poem finishing “I’m telling you what I saw; you do the maths”. The Watts ‘speaker’ is fiercely independent; she not only gives husbands short shrift, she also has harsh words for friends (“lame word” – ‘Definitions’) and the irritating children of friends (“In the future…you…won’t recall the past in which I punched your daughter” – ‘Barbecues’) and her Bridget Jonesian dislike of smug newly-weds, young parents, and their offspring is one of many welcome bridges between this new work and The Met Office Advises Caution (as I’ll come back to later).  

It is in the title poem that Watts’ unusually individualist-spirited brand of feminism makes itself most overtly felt: “The women are carrying the coffin. Under the fear / of slippage they make small steps. / We cannot say that they advance.” Here the dead weight of the ‘movement’ relies for any actual forward progression on the strength of the individual women carrying it. But these are fallible humans (“How awkward we are.”) who may or may not be up to the challenge, many will “go to ground” themselves, and still more will be “tugged / otherwards. Husbands and Children”, but advancing the cause, or at least holding up even the idea of a cause, is a matter of sheer, dogged, determination: “One [woman] is wearing red woollen gloves. She is pressing them / to the wicker as though without her hands’ small force / the entire construction would fold.” The intensity of the self-belief contained in that “small force” extends well beyond the confines of the poem and infuses much of the rest of the collection, where the speaker/poet finds herself by necessity on the outside of both the social institutions she refuses to accept and the natural and artistic worlds she observes. Watts the poet and/or her speaker must, it seems, be apart and alone – and this requires grim, quiet, determination. It is not necessarily clear that the woman in the “red woollen gloves” is intended to stand for the poet and her approach, but she certainly seems to stand for resolve in strange and unprecedented times (“Today is not a normal day”). And at the poem’s, indeed the collection’s, epicentre are those “red woollen gloves”, which themselves carry a mysterious and weighty symbolic burden in a way that can’t help but recall William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow. The ‘red’ motif is a minor strand, but an important one that runs through a collection rich with whites, pinks, blacks, greens and yellows. Bodily red is picked up in the smeared blood of ‘Having Bled on a Library Book’ (“You’ll be inclined / to regret the body”), obliquely in the “breaching of skin” in ‘Admission’, and then as a more obvious sign of lust (albeit fading) in ‘The Desire Path’ (“The river curls / round on itself. Someone // has knotted a scraggy / red ribbon // to a stick.”); and all these references lead, like the red dotted line on a treasure map, to a poem towards the end of the collection (‘That Sort of Note’), where we read: “We need more inner red, my friend said. / Show us your inner red.”. Is this the red of courage? Or of anger? Or is there something more sinister and sexual going on? Either way, the speaker in this poem rather coyly has none of it: “Oh, but / my eyes are a hazel branch snapped in two / and my body’s a hollow the wind blows through / and the blood in my veins is Polar Sea blue”. The full, high-poetic rhyming and its unexpectedly anachronistic tone (is the title playing with an anagram?) leave us a little off-kilter but we are sure that the speaker’s ‘friend’ is wrong in accusing her of being in denial – the Watts speaker, whether it she is intended to be the poet herself or not, sees clearly, is denying nothing, and is in complete control.  

The red of the gloves then, for me, remain somewhat mysterious, but perhaps the important thing is that the gloves are being worn at all. Red woollen gloves, at a funeral? How disrespectful! This stubborn pallbearer refuses to observe conventions, and in the end this is what makes her the strongest of the four. Sometimes, the secret to winning the fight is leaving your gloves on. 

In many ways, Red Gloves is not a separate collection to The Met Office Advises Caution, but a continuation, a refinement, perhaps to some extent a restatement of the same work. Watts’ eye falls once again on Charles Darwin, but now also on Emily Dickinson (a homage to a hero of hers I suspect, as to Emmeline Pankhurst in the first book). She expands her earlier observations of and mediations on individual objects such as the Wordsworths’ tinder box to much fuller and more ambitious (and wonderfully successful) contemplations of music and faith in ‘Music in Four Parts’ and ‘Worship Not The Object But The Thing It Represents’. And she returns to some of her favourite animals, amongst which, for me, the birds of prey stand out: the Ted Hughes pastiche ‘Hawk-Eye’ of The Met Office’ (“My feet are golden. They catch me / anything”) is replaced by the more distinctly Wattsian ‘Glamour’ here (“Life isn’t glamorous // for the hawk employed to circle landfill”), and elsewhere ‘At the Sanctuary’ gives a nice spiritual twist to the classic Tennyson eagle: (“a Zen / Buddhist on a rock in a high place”). But my favourite ‘bridge’ between the two volumes is the delightful shift in focus and tone as the poet’s admiration in the first collection’s ‘Linda at Swanfield’ of a woman’s hanging portrait (“your framed presence was a welcome reprieve / from the wallpaper’s massive flowers”) turns to frustration with paintings of male grandees in the present volume’s ‘The Drawing Room’ (“Another lovely, dark-green, papered wall…has been spoiled by having to bear / portraits of gilded men.”). Such deliberate and careful contrariness is Watts all over, and it is, I think, unique in contemporary poetry. 

Red Gloves is available from Carcanet, here.

Twins, Orphans, Angels: on the work of Don Mee Choi

I. Introduction

It has taken me a number of months to work out how to write about Don Mee Choi’s two works of poetry and poetic translation Hardly War and DMZ Colony (Wave Books), and I should say at the outset that, as a white, English, male non-translator with only a smattering of a couple of European languages and someone whose awareness of Korean history is, or was, negligible, I have approached them first and foremost from the perspective of a student. There was reading I needed to do before I was able to write anything about these works, and this reading has led to more reading and a journey which as I write is anything but over. I knew I needed to write about the two books together from a point a while back when I asked the poet in a brief tweet if the second, DMZ Colony, was intended as a sequel to the first, Hardly War; her response was that the two volumes were more like sisters. Given the metaphorical importance of the twin and the orphan to Choi’s work, splitting the two up didn’t seem right. I think they belong together and should be commented on as such. As I realised that it was impossible to engage with these works without also engaging with Choi’s theory of translation, I have also included her short essay-pamphlet Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (Ugly Duckling Presse) as part of this review.

There are two more things to say by way of introduction before getting the review/essay underway. The first is an apology to readers for its length: in effect this is two or three blogposts in one as it’s based on three texts and various background works, so I’ve divided it into five sections to keep it feeling organised. The second is an admission of guilt, itself a partial explanation for the post’s length I think: I taught English as a foreign language to learners from around the world for nearly twenty years at a private langauge school in Cambridge, England; a good proportion of them were Korean, and in all that time I have somehow managed to remain almost completely ignorant of Korean history and culture (outside of an awareness of the tastiness of kimchi, the desirability of Jeju island as a holiday resort, and the fact that Korean and Japanese students would occasionally feel uncomfortable talking to each other about certain subjects – although this last was rare). That I have not been more interested over these years in the history and culture of my students says something about me and my context as ‘teacher of English’ that I don’t much like. Don Mee Choi’s work is allowing me to focus on and work through that.

II. ‘to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry’

Hardly War and DMZ Colony are difficult to pigeonhole – they are at the same time translation, memoir, poetry, reportage, photo essay, polemic, experiment in radical translation, and an expression of both Choi’s own translation theory and those of others – notably Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and more contemporary theorists Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson. Choi’s project is political, but she sees clearly that the political, the racial and the poetic are all bundled together in language. As a translator, she is perfectly positioned, where one of the languages is of the dominant global power and one is of a people dominated by that power, to create a new and itself powerful voice which is able to destabilize the power imbalance, to create a rift or, as McSweeney & Göransson call it, a ‘deformation zone’ which “makes impossible connections… unsettling stable ideas of language”.

Choi examplifies this in Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (from here on Translation) where she builds on Walter Benjamin’s Brot and pain as two words meaning ‘bread’ but which also (in my translation anyway) “strive to exclude each other” because they have different “ways of meaning” (Choi’s translation has this as “modes of intention” but pausing over the different translations of a theory of translation is way too meta for this essay!). Choi relates this to the Korean word for ‘cornbread’, oksusuppang, which combines the French pain with the Japanese oksusu to signify the food that was given to Korean schoolchildren after the Korean War as aid from the US. Here she shows us how the very language spoken strains against Korean sense of identity, nationality and race: a European word (Old Empires), a Japanese word (interim Empire) and a word which symbolises current US hegemony (contemporary Empire). “(M)y tongue”, she tells us “even before it had ever encountered the English language was a site of power takeover, war, wound, deformation, and, ultimately and already, motherless” and at this same level, the tongue level, she says the “seemingly benign humanitarian intention” behind the cornbread handed out by the US “creates involuntary longing, a life-long craving, which could easily be translated as a desire to be colonized”. We begin to understand the potential, the latent power of the translator who works with translation as an “anti-neocolonial mode” when she says “But my tongue deforms, it disobeys. I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity.”

This strategy of opening up language at a base level to uncover the “wound” of the “deformation zone” is taken up right at the beginning of Hardly War, where Choi renames the US in its literal Korean language form as Beauty=Nation, (and by the same token she labels herself ironically Me=Gook). Here again politics and language come slamming up against each other. She points out in Translation that Korea is a country a quarter of the size of California with almost one hundred US bases, reasonably therefore relabelling Korea as a ‘neocolony’ of the US: a dependency in all but official designation whose military would revert to complete US control in time of war. What we are reading, then, is an expression of “geopolitical poetics”, which “involves disobeying history” and is where the Korean identity (what Choi calls “race=nation”) “gets to speak it’s own faint history in its own faint language”.

The geopolitical split between north and south is, of course, the ideological split between communism and capitalism. The rift in language that Choi opens up allows an escape for the reader able and willing to follow her from the dominant western placing of Korea as a metaphor of [north=commies=bad] versus [south=neolibs=good] to create a more complex and ideologically transgressive picture of a people’s oppression from the level of the individual identity up.

The notion of “disobeying history” and whispering a “faint language” remains throughout both books and is intimately connected to ideas around the potential of creativity for giving voice to those who have been silenced either by death or powerlessness. A good example is ‘The Orphans’ sequence of prose poems at the centre of DMZ Colony, in which Choi creates the voices of imaginary orphaned survivors of the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre of civilians by the South Korean army in 1951. As the symbolic voices of all the children who really existed and really died in the massacre, these poems feel like they are whispered by ghosts, who speak in honour of all the children who suffer in the world. “History is ever arriving”, Choi tells us in an introduction to the sequence, highlighting that all language and therefore all translation is part of the “collective consciousness” and implying that these imaginary voices have a genuine claim to be part of the ‘real’ world (and they feel harrowingly genuine) an implication given emphasis by the inclusion of sketches by Ahn-Kim Jeong-Ae, a feminist scholar and activist who provided Choi with detailed information about the massacres. Translation is not mediation, then, but creation; and it is key to this sequence that Choi wrote each of ‘The Orphans’’ voices first in Korean, in her own handwriting (shown in the book on the left-hand page) and then translated this into English (shown opposite the Korean). The faint language which disobeys history comes from neither the ‘translated from’ or the ‘translated into’ but from somewhere in between the two.

Immediately before ‘The Orphans’ comes Choi’s rendering of her interview with octogenarian North Korea sympathiser Ahn Hak-sǒp who was a political prisoner for many years and suffered torture at the hands of the south korean army. His voice comes through in the juxtaposition of the actual notes taken by Choi during their interview with the stoccato bursts of her transcribed translation, in a sequence which includes stream of consciousness, the repetition of words, the intrusion of handwriting, the breaking down of spoken language into poetic lineation and fragmentation, and even the opening up of ideas that come from Choi’s mis-readings of her own handwriting, suggesting new creative directions (“Toward Global Humanity”) almost like a form of (not-quite)-automatic writing which takes the writer and reader towards some metaphorical spirituality within the “deformation zone”. An old man’s voice transforms before our eyes into something which, like the orphans, takes on a higher level of symbolic power than it could have had without this poeticised translation.

It is, I think, impossible to locate the depth of meaning in Choi’s work without engaging sympathetically with the political thinkers who have influenced her. The trajectory down from Marx is clear from both her content and quotations and one of the places this is most manifest is in DMZ Colony’s ‘The Apparatus’. Here the philosophy of Louis Althusser combines with Kafka’s imagery from The Penal Colony and the poet’s own experience going through immigration into the US. Choi takes the sadistic horror of Kafka’s torture device and puts it into a dialogue with a distillation of Althusser’s repressive and ideological state apparatuses to create a powerful impression of them as equally violent, equally current, and equally to do with the domination of one language over another. Here translated quotations from fiction are elided with quotations from ideology theory, both of which are elided with the memories of the translator and the words of torture victim Mr Ahn, until the language becomes broken down into parentheses, split apart almost the way the prisoner was set to be cut into in Kafka’s short story (a fate which ultimately, and tellingly in this context, awaited the officer). There is violence being done to language in this section; this is more than a disturbance in meaning, it is the breaking of a symbolic system, or perhaps the symbolic breaking of a system. This is translation as insurrection.

III. ‘the eternal twoness’

As I mentioned above, Choi takes many of her cues from translation theorists Benjamin, Deleuze & Guattari, and McSweeney & Göransson and forges from their ideas a new aesthetic which as far as I know is hers alone. Translation is not the passing of a message from one who knows to one who doesn’t know, but a “map”, an area in which endless crossings are possible between the parties. The crossings are both ways, goings and returnings; and it is this notion of ‘return’ which is fundamental to an understanding of Choi’s work because it ties together her radical politics and poetics. Repetition and motif are used throughout Hardly War from the outset: the repetition of the same or similar images, and of words and phrases (a nice example comes from an unnamed poem in which official war narratives impose themselves on the strange, quiet, child language of a young Korean’s consciousness: “narrowly narrator”, “superbly so” and “the naturally convincing BBC” are repeated in words superimposed on an image of Choi as a child carrying her little brother on her back, which itself is in ‘slant-rhyme’ with a previous image of another Korean girl carrying her brother on her back in front of a tank in the Korea war). These motifs come and go, some returning later in the book, as they simultaneously fragment the narrative and provide it with cohesion (although narrative is probably the wrong word, progression of thought would be a better way of putting it). This idea is broadened out in DMZ Colony in the first section ‘Sky Translation’ when migrating snow geese inspire Choi to make the return to Korea both physically and as a creative project of translation. This brings us back to the longing of homesickness (home + sickness) that Choi translates from the internally-culturally-oppressed nature of the Korean language. It also evokes return in the sense of Korea returning to being a single country, to a position where the south is no longer a neocolony of the US and the north is no longer an ‘othered’ state.

The theme of twoness returning to oneness, or at least twoness existing singly, finds expression in the ‘twin’ motif, from which extends the doubleness implicit in the idea of repetition and return: “I come from a land where we are taught that the US saved us from Commies and that North Korea is our enemy. I come from a land of neocolonial fratricide. I come from such twoness. I speak as a twin” (Translation) But this is also the “eternal twoness” of (non-identical) twinhood that insists Benjamin’s “Translation is a mode” is paired with “Translation is an anti-neocolonial mode”, and which places the handwritten Korean notes of ‘The Orphans’ next to their typed English counterparts.

Choi’s father was a war photographer and her relationship with him and his photos is another central theme – daughter and father becoming yet another ‘twoness’. Uncovering the mysteries of her father’s absence when he was away in war zones and investigating the history he caught with his camera is one of the ways Choi explores the violence of the Korean War and the extended period of US-backed authoritarianism which followed it. The Hardly War sequence entitled ‘Hardly Opera’ surreally runs with ideas from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (‘opera’ here being a pun on ‘operator’) and anecdotes from an interview with her father, as the translator becomes “the daughter of the Operator living inside the camera with Spectrum, with History. Everything and everyone inside the camera are mad. They also enact their wish, the wish to return to the world.” So return is again the key, the driving theme; but the flowers that her father now photographs in his old age become characters in a bizarre incanted world. They combine with the horrors and political turbulence the same camera saw, to be interpreted by the daughter, who perhaps also wishes for that part of the relationship with her father which was lost to his career, to be returned to her.

IV. ‘what moves across the mirror’

Yet another way in which ‘twoness’ or ‘return’ manifests in Choi’s work is in her treatment of mirrors. This is not ‘return’ in the sense of ‘reflection’, however, but “mirrors as sites of translation, deformation zones” (Translation), inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), by Korean poet Kim Hyesoon (whom I’ll come back to in a moment), and by their use in Korean shamanic tradition. In DMZ Colony, mirrors are primarily a tool for the creation of ‘Mirror Words’, backwardly-formed nonsense words of the ‘Erewhon’ variety. But they are not intended satirically as Samuel Butler’s was, rather, Choi tells us beautifully: “Mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance. Mirror words defy neocolonial borders, blockades. Mirror words flutter along borders and are often in flight across oceans, even galaxies. Mirror words are homesick. Mirror words are halo. Mirror words are orphaned words.” The English-speaking reader is disturbed by this, having to do some translation for themselves, they are made foreign by the words, the translator is not providing a finished product as expected, she is requiring the reader’s engagement, attention, action. “Ruoy Ycnellecxe, / Si ti Laitram Wal? // Laturb Eripme!” As she says in Translation, something “miraculous” happens within the mirror; and Choi turns this zone of miracles on the South Korean regimes the late twentieth century.

Kim Hyesoon, whose work Choi translates, also make use of mirrors, and in Translation Choi quotes from Kim’s poem ‘Memories of Giving Birth to a Daughter’: “I open a mirror and enter, / mother is inside a mirror, sitting / I open a mirror and enter again, / grandmother is inside a mirror, sitting.” Here the mirror represents the oral tradition in shamanic tradition, which was the only place “women were free to express and explore their identities” because in their performance of rites, songs and stories they “were not subservient to men”, so Kim Hyesoon’s use of mirrors “derive from a historically and linguistically expelled zone” or, as Kim herself says: “…that place patriarchy, that male-centred thing breaks, the universality of all things breaks” (Translation). So, it is clear that the “disobedience” that mirror words compel is as applicable to patriarchy as it is to autocracy, and indeed the suggestion is that in terms of twentieth-century political history, the two are inextricable – another ‘eternal twoness’ perhaps. I’m not sure whether the centrality of Choi’s father to her work is ironic in this respect, but the internal dialogue she has with her memories and his photos in, for example, ‘Hardly Opera’ suggests that she is negotiating ideas of filial piety and family dynamics in Korean society (I’ve read a little on this in Bruce Cumings’s Korea’s Place in the Sun, which I got hold of to inform my understanding of Choi’s work) but if Choi is commenting on or subverting Korean patriarchy, it is at a level deeper than I have yet been able to reach!

It seems to me that an “expelled zone” of sorts is set up in the final section of DMZ Colony ‘(NEO) (=) (ANGELS)’ which compliments Choi’s father’s photographs with short prose poems, and which brings together many of Choi’s ideas, metaphors and concerns: fathers, mothers, children, orphans, cameras, martial law, birds, homesickness, colony, eternity. And it distills these themes, creating from them a voice which speaks with great clarity (all the clearer from coming straight after the mirror words section) of an identity for a unified Korean people, like the voices of ghosts from a twentieth century of domination, war and massacre, one which takes us right back to the first piece in Hardly War, ‘Race=Nation’, a new formulation of the “uri minjok” – the pre-war sense of Korean national identity which was, Choi tells us, an important factor in galvanising the anti-colonial independence movement during the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945: “Who are we really?” this voice asks, “Are we orphans of beauty? Are we angels of eternity?” These are questions late in the piece, which complicate statements made at the beginning: “In reality, we were all angels…orphans who aren’t orphans,. Angels who aren’t angels”.

Angels are in important image to end on: both ethereal and earthly, at once dead and living, here and not here. Where ghosts are passive, angels are active. They also take our minds back to the migrating birds, sharing with them both wings and the habit of crossing and returning between realms – the wings also represent twoness, twins or two mirrored halves. It is astonishing that Choi is able to combine so many of the complex strands of these books in a single symbolic figure, but in the figure of the angel she achieves just that.

V. Conclusion

This essay/review is incomplete, as they always are; it is one of the wonders of literary works that no attempt to encapsulate them will ever end in success – reading a review can never stand in for reading the actual text, only ever conveying a rudimentary picture of what it contains. What I have written here will seem uninformed and perhaps naïve to those more expert in the field of translation theory, and Korean culture and history, but as I said at the beginning Choi’s work is part of a journey I am still on and intending to continue.

I will have been successful as a reader and a reviewer if I have been able to convince even one of you who were not intending to do so, to take a good long, careful look at Hardly War and DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi; in the finest Marxist tradition, she is creating work which is not satisfied to ponder and reflect the world but wants to change it.

You can buy Hardly War here.

You can buy DMZ Colony here.

You can buy Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode here.

You can read the New York Times review of Hardly War here.

You can read the Chicago Review of Books review of DMZ Colony here.

The Poem as (in a Pig’s Arse) Friend

I’ve liked The Poetry Exchange’s regular podcast project Poems as Friends since I heard John Prebble and Andrea Witzke Slot’s conversation with Nicholas Laughlin the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books about the Martin Carter poem ‘Proem’. Laughlin’s disarming reading of this difficult-to-pin-down poem as he and his hosts notice things about it which have not struck him previously, his openness in accepting a level of non-understanding (“not an irresolute but not a resolved poem”) along with his insights into individual lines and a positioning of the poem in its political context struck me as a very healthy approach to poetry, and one which comes through in all these Poems as Friends episodes (there are more than fifty of them now). The idea of embracing a poem as a friend you wish to spend time with as oppose to a trophy you wish to hold aloft on social media as evidence of your great reading fits perfectly with the ideas around Responsibilities of the Reader that I posted about recently. It is also an approach which seems very anti-Cancel Culture to me, and while I think Cancel Culture is in some ways a misnomer for the phenomenon of principled people finding a voice for protest (let’s face it, there are aspects of Culture that can do with being Cancelled), it also has a knee-jerk, baby-out-with-the-bathwater side to it which Poems as Friends resists. The most recent episode, featuring actor, writer and director Stephen Beresford talking to Fiona Bennett and Michael Shaeffer about Larkin’s ‘Vers de Société’, is a very good example of this warts-and-all friendship aspect of The Poetry Exchange’s philosophy.

Stephen Beresford, friend of Larkin’s Vers de Société

Philip Larkin, of course, if he has not already been cancelled is, along with Ted Hughes, ripe for the cancelling. He ticks all the boxes for the problematic dead white male poet category, and it would be silly to deny that there are elements of his writing which are not only out of kilter with contemporary sensibilities but objectively snobbish, racist and sexist. It’s the misogyny, not to mention the intellectual snobbery, as Bennett and Beresford point out, which comes through in ‘Vers de Société’ in the line “…to catch the drivel of some bitch / Who’s read nothing but Which”. But Beresford says at the beginning of this conversation that for him “(this poem) is the friend that most other people don’t like, and they say the wrong thing, and there’s a WhatsApp group where people discuss how terrible they are…and because of their unpopularity, because they’re difficult, I find as I’ve got older I’ve more and more grown to respect them”. This is the real strength of Poems as Friends. Some people will read an article like the one linked above and decide that Larkin lies on the wrong side of the good/bad divide, taking their relationship with him no further than that; but others will recognise the idea of an imperfect friend – one who you know well enough to be able to appreciate their good qualities, which stand side-by-side with their bad ones to make them a fully-rounded person. And it is hard not to acknowledge that sometimes the most difficult individuals can (in spite of and because of that) also be amongst the most talented, creative and profound.

Philip Larkin

The problematic line in this poem stands side-by-side with “Funny how hard it is to be alone”, “…looking out to see the moon thinned / To an air-sharpened blade”, “Too subtle that. Too decent, too. Oh hell.” and “Beyond the light stand failure and remorse” in a tightly-structured rhythmical pattern and fluctuating rhyme scheme. And there is something in knowing that a poet has written bad lines (and bad poems) which makes them seem rather more human and even increases your respect for there good lines and poems.

It is in fact the play of the beautifully expressed melancholy in Larkin against his intense miserablism that makes him the unique poet he is. Measure, for example, the complexity of hope expressed in ‘The Trees’ which caused me to pick that poem to read at my son’s funeral, against the attention-grabbing naughtiness, the ‘sayability’ yet the simple truth, that runs through ‘This be the Verse’ (the first lines of which my own mum happily quoted at me a few years ago).

It’s the latter of these two Larkin voices which brings us the gift of “In a pig’s arse, friend.” in ‘Vers de Société’, and to which Beresford rightly pays tribute. I don’t know whether this would be best formally rendered prosodically as an anapaest followed by a spondee or a pyrrhic followed by a molossus, but either way it is immensely satisfying to say, carrying exactly the right weight of intonation, vulgar imagery and conceptual juxtaposition to raise it from the level of ‘insult’ to ‘poetic insult’, which is itself an under-valued genre of poetry. This is the kind of line, the kind of poetry, which would not be possible without the arrogance and sense of entitled snobbery which also manifests in more seriously ugly ways on occasion. There is no reason for us to ignore or forgive Larkin for his faults in order to celebrate him for his more profound and enjoyable moments. I’m very grateful to The Poetry Exchange for reminding us that poetry, like friendship, doesn’t always have exist on a good-bad spectrum.

The conversation here is amusing and intelligent, and the readings are very well done (as always in these podcasts); Beresford’s comments on writing and loneliness are particularly apposite: “There are two massive things that if you want to be a human being and alive in the world you have to negotiate, and they are being alone and being with other people”.

If you haven’t come across The Poetry Exchange yet, I would recommend taking a look and having a listen.

The Responsibility of the Reader

I came across a Twitter exchange recently on the subject of poetry editors’ sometimes harsh indictments of poet’s work and also the fragile reactions of some poets to having work rejected. This made me think a couple of things which I’d like to share here for anyone who’s interested.

One is the sheer confidence, the chutzpah we might almost say, of editors who are able find it in themselves to say ‘See this? This is a good poem. This one? Average. And this one here is complete rubbish’. This is worth spending a moment thinking about, because to an extent I can relate to poets who react in sobs to having their submission rejected and/or ripped into; there is no use pretending that when you criticise a poem you are not criticising the poet, you are, and so if you destroy a poem…well, let’s say there is at least a moral responsibility on editors to be kind in tone if not in content – this is why I baulk a little at the amusing rudeness of editor-critic-poets like Ian Hamilton and Craig Raine (although I have to say, the baulking does not diminish the amusement). However, my own experience of editorial comments has been extremely positive, rejections being either short and sweet, short and neutral, or short and constructive – all of which seem reasonable. And let’s face it, an editor should not be made to feel bad for rejecting a poem and saying why – in fact there is no reason why they should even give a reason – after all poems take up space in magazines; if someone turned up at my front door with a giant panda asking if they could leave it with me, I would like to feel I could turn them away without explaining why I didn’t want it in my house. Equally it would seem like an odd reaction on the part of the panda’s owner if they burst into tears on being asked to find somewhere else to keep their pet. But back to this editor chutzpah. First of all, I suspect you have to be a certain type of person to be an effective editor, constant and acute poetic doubt is surely inefficient if nothing else in the day-to-day running of a literary journal; but it is also likely that one of the reasons you set up your magazine in the first place is that you didn’t think that there was enough of the kind of poetry you liked out there and you wanted to help enable more poets who did produce the kind of material you like. Part of establishing a poetry magazine is, I imagine, setting out in your mind a fairly robust set of personal criteria for what constitutes ‘good’ poetry; this is subjective of course, but you’re not going to get far as an editor without it. You probably have a pretty good poetic education to start you off, either formal or informal, and it will not take long for the submissions to start rolling in and you will soon become one of the most prolific poetry readers in the country. You will have seen far more poetry by people of far more levels of experience and technical ability than almost any poets out there writing. You will become for want of another word, an expert – within the context of your criteria and your magazine, but an expert nonetheless. And this is when your confidence (chutzpah is unfairly pejorative) will start to build and you might sometimes find it hard to rein in the off-hand slights when writing rejection emails. As I say, my experience is that editors mange this pretty well.

Considering all this, I remember why I get frustrated with the label ‘gatekeepers’. Editors aren’t gatekeepers, they’re housekeepers, and they know what they want their house to look like inside, I don’t. Having said that, they are also the most valuable enablers that the poetry community has, and of course they have a responsibility towards our shared cultural space, as we all do; but that doesn’t mean accepting my poem just because I happen to think it’s the best thing ever written.

Thinking about the responsibilities of editors made me think too about ours as readers of poetry. It seems to me that there are two sets of responsibilities involved in the process of mediation which takes place in and through a poem. The poet has a responsibility to transfer a set of meanings-as-they-see-them out onto a piece of paper (or similar), once they have done that, their responsibility is over – their responsibility to the poem, that is – the poem is out there and a larger, more diffuse and difficult set of responsibilities take over, that is to say, the responsibilities of the reader(s) of the poem. In some ways it seems odd that the focus generally seems to be on the poet’s responsibility, as it is so soon over and represents such a tiny part of the life of the poem. I mean, granted without the poet’s discharging of their responsibilities no other would be possible, but this shouldn’t blind us to subsequent responsibilities. These are, I think, some of our responsibilities as readers of a poem:

To read the poem carefully (not skim online and take to the socials)

To read the poem carefully again numerous times

To consider when the poem was written

To consider who the poem was written by

To consider the context the poem was written in

To assume the poet was not an ill-intentioned, mendacious imbecile

To consider what the difficult bits might mean

To consider what presuppositions and prejudices we bring to the poem as readers

To consider that we ourselves might be the imbecile and the poet actually quite clever

To consider how the context in which we are reading the poem may affect our understanding

To try not to feel belittled by words/lines/stanzas we don’t immediately understand

To fight back irritation with a poet for writing something we do not immediately understand

To consider that the poet might be trying to do something different to what we think they are trying to do

To ask others what they think about the poem (and what they think the poem is about)

To reject or accept what the other person may say about the poem on a basis other than their status as a valued legitimising voice

To consider that we might learn from the poem

To be open to the idea that the poem might change the way we look a the world if we let it

To remember that poetry is not prose

Barthe’s Death of the Author surely has a concomitant Responsibility of the Reader, but while it seems that many are happy to agree meaning is constructed solely by the reader of a text – or that there is at least some kind of contract between writer and reader – they are also keen to point blame directly at a writer the  moment the constructed meaning doesn’t fit entirely and immediately with their already-complete-and-unshakeable worldview. Others claim, for example, that literature should be critiqued as a product of the social forces that gave rise to it, but they also seem ready to denounce writers whose (perceived) meanings refuse to dovetail with the reader’s understanding of the world.

I’m not saying that a poet should not be taken to task for homophobia, racism, sexism, fascism or whatever, but I am saying that any critic (editor, professional critic, student or general reader of poetry) should tick off an internal list similar to the one above before they get about their criticising. Most editors and professional critics are likely to do this already (I suspect that fewer students and general readers do). Just as the conversational onus should not always be on a speaker to speak in a certain way but also on a listener to upskill in order to be able to listen clearly to a variety of accents, dialects and languages, so the poetic onus should not lay solely with the writer of a poem but equally with its reader.