Surfacings (review: An Ocean of Static)


An Ocean of Static (Penned in the Margins) by JR Carpenter has already been ably reviewed several times (among others, by Alison Graham, Jade Cuttle, Mary Paterson, Tom Jeffreys, and Steve Spence – links to which reviews, along with some interesting interviews with the poet, can be found on Carpenter’s webpage) so I will try in this post to make some observations and connections about this very good experimental book of poetry that have not yet been made, rather than simply saying again, less well, what the above reviewers have already said.

What occurred to me first was that this is a book not about ocean depths but about ocean surfaces (there is proportionately little that happens in as opposed to on the ocean), and of course by extension it is about those scraps and fragments, partially hidden, random, and drifting, that are visible because they have floated up from the metaphorical blackness below. If the ocean is ‘us’ in all our unknowable complexity, then the surface is what we can see of ourselves. If the ocean is Meaning, the surface is Words. If, conversely, what happens on the ocean’s surface is political – and it is – then the depths are where history’s dark and powerful hegemonic-patriarchal forces reside.

Computer code becomes the flip-side of the book’s dual ‘depth’ metaphor – the frequent use of elements of coding language (//, [ ], # etc.) highlights the ‘background’ depth of everything we look at on the screen (the screen being where Carpenter’s work is most at home). They are flotsam and jetsam broken off and risen from a programming world that is usually completely hidden from view.

Many of the poems offer the reader ‘alternatives’ of language (the online version of the first poem of the book – ‘Once upon a tide’ – shows different versions of the same lines appearing and vanishing before our eyes) in a way that also reminds us that the language we use and the stories we tell each other are ever-changing – untethered and directed by forces out of our control. This element of constant change reveals an irony in the ‘static’ of the book’s multi-levelled title. In fact, nothing here is static: the jumble of ‘found’ words, the pages of repeated lines which lead to individual letters forming their own cross-currents, the disintegrated grammar and syntax, the indentations, they all build towards a sense of movement, slow, powerful, and quite frightening.

And there is no escaping the ecological aspect of the unease that this powerful sense of movement evokes: in a world where we know ice-caps are melting and sea-levels are rising, the great blocks of repeated language, the fragmentation and break-up of language, the drowning of poems in alternate meanings, could all be read as parts of a diluvial disaster. And this being so, we might read the confusion of messages and measurements and reports and journal entries as the tiny, lost voices of a species way, way out of its depth.

I’ve mentioned the language alternatives offered in many of the poems both as being symbolic of computer code and as ‘drowning’ the poems in meanings; another effect of Carpenter’s technique is to turn the poems into amalgams of differing perspectives, much in the way that cubist art offers various viewpoints of the same object. One thing in these poems can be many things, with different associations, working off each other in multiple ways so the poem as a whole becomes a complex (if unwieldy when first encountered) artwork, glinting with alternate readings and shifting perspectives. And of course, because there are usually three or four alternatives on offer, the reader can (in the paper book version at least) choose from a huge variety of word combinations and in principal at least and create their own ‘do-it-yourself’ poem:

“An owl and a girl most [‘adventurous’, ‘curious’, ‘studious’] [‘set out’, ‘set sail’, ‘sailed away’] in a [‘bottle-green’, ‘pea-green’] [‘boat’, ‘sieve’, ‘skiff’, ‘vessel’]; a [‘beautiful’, ‘shipshape’, ‘sea worthy’] [‘craft’, ‘raft’, ‘wooden shoe’]”

(‘Notes on the Voyage of the Owl and the Girl – // The Voyage’ p.23)

Here, the owl is the only fixed element in a poetic structure that contains multiple existences at the same time, but we must work hard as readers to piece together the various parts of the whole. Every reading could yield a different girl, a different boat, a different poem. It’s good value for money, if nothing else; but it is of course much more than that.

Picasso was, therefore, one creative mind that I thought about as I was reading this book; another was the poet Kei Miller, whose ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’ seems to open up a similar idea of unmappable space to the one Carpenter works with, though to different ends. Miller sets up his cartographer, his “frustrated” mapper of measurable “lengths and breadths”, in opposition to the Rastaman, who knows “Neither low nor high science will get you through / Jah’s impressive door”. And at the same time Miller both sings “In Praise of Maps” and “hail” to the 28,000 rubber ducks lost from a sunken container vessel in 1992 and which “pass in and out of salty vortexes”. The cartographer and the rubber ducks both came into my mind as I was reading about Carpenter’s 2,340 years’ worth of terribly small-seeming human voyagers bobbing about, calling to each other, searching and surviving (barely) in the North Atlantic. And although the reader may feel like they need a map at times, what Carpenter provides is far less tangible – not the spirituality of Rastafarianism but the transience and power of our planet. Some passages provide us with the solid and the political (signalled of course in repetitions, one of Carpenter’s key strategies; for example, in ‘Instructions and Notes Very Necessary and Needful to Be Observed in the Purposed Voyage for Discovery of Cathay Eastwards’ there are two pages of part-phrases all of which include the words England and English – “returned to England”, “under English colours”, “property of the English”) but these ‘locatable’ or ‘mappable’ (indeed, colonial) moments soon dissipate into the language of ocean movements (in this case a further almost-two pages of phrases which use the word tide – “the tide near the head, “as the tide falls”, “at lower-water spring-tides”). Thus Carpenter’s voyagers, like Miller’s Cartographer, must ultimately give themselves up to something greater, more mysterious, and un-pin-downable than themselves if they are to find what they are looking for.

Another name I could not shake from my head while reading An Ocean of Static was Alice Oswald, whose Dart I have always loved. Oswald’s book struck me as both different and similar to this one. Different because Dart is all about river-movement: trickle and ripple and flow and surge – movements that all exist within the greater, purposeful movement towards the sea; while Carpenter’s movement is all directionless, invisible power that can by no means be trusted to take you where you want to go. The two books seem to talk to two different parts of us – that which needs to be elsewhere, and that which is lost and adrift. But there are similarities; one, the way they evoke human lives living on and by the water; and two, the way the water becomes a character in itself – in Dart, this comes through in the voices given to the river and is personified in the Dartmoor rivergod Jan Coo. In An Ocean of Static, it is more cumulative and, I think, less deliberate (I may be wrong) but nonetheless, if there is a central character that emerges, it is the ocean itself – an effect heightened by the abstracted voices building on and reacting to each other in, again, ‘Instructions and Notes Very Necessary and Needful to Be Observed in the Purposed Voyage for Discovery of Cathay Eastwards’: these may be voices that have been harvested from historical documentation (“This book is made of other book” Carpenter tells us) but in their isolation, spaced and indented, and not always – if ever – following on from each other conversationally, just tonally, they begin to feel, to me anyway, as though they are the voice of the ocean itself recalling the voices of those who once braved its cold, dangerous north-west regions.

Oswald also uses the visual shape of her poem to symbolise the shape and movement of the river water in its various states as it travels towards the sea; and Carpenter does something similar throughout, and this reaches a zenith in “TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE]”, which presents a double-page of computer code (which I imagine is JavaScript of something interesting, and I only wish I knew what it was!) – here, to one who does not understand the coding, we have the conjoining of the static of communication (or lack of it), the hush of white noise perhaps, and a visual sense of ‘ocean noise’ – the plus-signs, and brackets, and semi-colons look something like bubbles and the two pages together as a great block of encoded language makes you feel lost, as a diver might feel lost just beneath the crash of waves, perhaps they themselves just another surfacing fragment.

I would recommend An Ocean of Static to anyone who is interested in questioning what a book of poems is and can be.

An Ocean of Static is published by Penned in the Margins, and available here.

Truth and Honesty in Poetry (mini-essay)

As much as he enjoyed Homer, Plato did not want poets anywhere near his ideal State – not only were they a bad influence on the minds of the citizenry, making everything they said seem attractive through such devious means as melody and rhythm, they were also mere imitators, fakers, as opposed to the real makers and doers who made things tick. They were not capable of truth, only a shadowy semblance of it, and this for the purpose of arousing the passions rather than encouraging reason. So, out they must go, and out they must stay, said Plato half reluctantly, unless someone could give a jolly good reason for allowing them back in.
Not a popular view today, it seems, with 2018 poetry sales at an all-time high of £12.3m (almost doubling over the last six years). These days, we are not only allowing poets in, we are, after 2,500 years, embracing them and commodifying them as a fully-fledged part of popular culture. New, living poets too; not just the old, dead ones. But our idea of what poetry is is very different to Plato’s. A recent Poetry Society Twitter poll showed that 48% of us (those of us who care enough to respond to Poetry Society Twitter polls anyway) agree with the statement: ‘If it’s presented as a poem, it’s a poem’. Epic-and-lyric-loving Plato would have frowned, I suspect; and possibly tsked, along with 2,500 years-worth of poets.
Reading chapters III and X from The Republic did make me think, though, about his objection to poetry in relation to its role in society, and about whether there is anything to his charge that poetry’s imitative nature means it is incapable of generating ‘truth’. His worries about poetry influencing the young are less interesting simply because we would be likely to agree that poetry does indeed have the effect on the young he claims it to have, but we would see that as a good thing – inspiring and broadening minds etc. But the ‘truth’ charge still resonates and is worth pausing over. I guess our conception of truth has also changed, but even without the lens of Platonic Forms to look through, it does seem quite a high-flown claim that a poetic work might access something ‘truthful’ which, say, philosophers (with whom Plato felt poets had a distinct and ancient ‘quarrel’) could not. And it also seems fair to say that sometimes the ‘truth’ we glean from a poem is somewhat nebulous, a bit un-pin-downable, more of a feeling than anything else. This is that thing we call ‘Poetic Truth’. Oh, come on! says Plato, wtf?
The charge is a serious one, because the implication is if a poet is not saying something actually true then s/he is not saying anything at all (but saying it prettily). And the gap between saying something that is true for some and not for others and saying something that just kind of sounds like it could be true if you did but ‘get it’, is a narrow one. And besides, when something evoked in a poem strikes us as ‘true’, is it in fact not just highlighting a shared experience? We might argue that there is nothing universally ‘true’ about it at all, it’s more like a stand up comic pointing out something amusing that we both recognise – the meme-line “It’s funny because it’s true” from The Simpsons doesn’t really cover it, more like “It’s funny because we both recognise it from the part of society we both belong to even though a third person may not”. But if enough people do recognise it then you get your laugh and so have your joke (or get to your ‘truth’ and so have your anthology-ready poem). Can we conclude then that a poet is just a stand-up comedian who is packaged as intelligent but who is only intermittently funny (if at all). Should we throw them all out, as Plato suggests?
This problem of truth is highlighted by poets who look back with a frown and a tsk at their own work and go about amending it. One example is WH Auden, who famously changed the final line of the penultimate stanza of ‘September 1, 1939’ (below) from “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die” because the original line, he came to feel, was “a damned lie”, and the poem a whole “was infected with an incurable dishonesty” (John Fuller quoting Bloomfield’s Bibliography).
Auden’s use of the word ‘lie’ suggests (obvs…) that he felt the original line was ‘not true’ in that there is no ‘or’ about it, we will die whether we love one another or not. The literal meaning of ‘or’ in this line can only be read as ‘if we love each other, we will not die’ – a blatant falsehood. So, taken as a prosaic statement of fact, Auden’s right, and if it was a statement of fact he intended (and quite a bland one, because to say ‘we must love one another and die’ is to do nothing more than make an unremarkable suggestion and then state an equally unremarkable fact of life) then the change was fully justified. A reader who is open to the slightly vaguer but still fairly clear ‘Poetic Truth’ understanding of the original line will add their own internal ‘translation’, which will be something like “We should be nice to each other, otherwise we’ll all end up killing each other – and that would be bad”. Plato would no doubt prefer this as a clear and philosophically sound alternative (though written uninterestingly) and agree with Auden that his original line was untruthful nonsense (though attractively succinct in its anapaestic trimeter). As poetry, then, it is a lie but translated into prose it is capable of expressing a truth that could potentially be helpful to the ‘State’. Auden clearly hoped (for a while anyway) that he could maintain the poetry of the line and its prosaic truth by swapping ‘or’ for ‘and’; but he came to realise that this put the line at odds with the ‘sense we get’ (a phrase, woolly as it is, that we often here in poetry reviews) from the rest of the poem and decided the whole thing should “be scrapped” – though it has been reinstated in his collected work since.
The problem was, of course, not with the poem but with Auden, whose politics had shifted since he wrote the original work and later in life wanted it to reflect truths it had not been written to reflect. The Poetic Truth of the ‘or’ line requires the reader to do some of the work for themself, to make a leap in order to ‘translate’ the line in a way that is not ‘untruthful’ in the context of the rest of the poem. This, perhaps, is the difference between poetic and philosophical truths: the latter are clearly laid out and delineated by their writer, the reader intended as a passive recipient; the former, in contrast, invite more active participation from the reader, attractively packaged and embedded in metaphor, they ask the reader if they are willing to follow and even invite some participation in determining their final destination. Maybe Auden forgot this in his severer later years.

But what is more – or at least equally – interesting to me is that Auden repeatedly referred to the poem as “dishonest”, which is not, of course, the same as ‘untrue’. It’s an interesting charge and one to which only Auden himself would be in a position to ascribe substance. You can’t really back-fill honesty, or a lack of it. You either state something in an ‘honest way’ or you don’t; it may be incidentally true or false, and the (dis)honesty of the statement may remain with it, but this particular quality can only ever be injected at the original point of production. So, whether Auden injected his poem with honesty or dishonesty only he knew. I suspect that the fact he came to use the phrase later in life indicates either he knew he had not truly believed what he was writing originally, or that later in life he wanted people to think that he hadn’t – his older self rather patronisingly using his younger self as an example to others of how the young do not really mean what they say – if only they had the wisdom to know it.

An earlier line in ‘September 1, 1939’ exemplifies both poetic truth and honesty quite nicely. The 1930s are referred to as “a low dishonest decade” and it strikes me that a reader on the hunt for hard facts could also accuse this line of being a “damned lie” – decades can be neither low/high nor honest/dishonest. These are both attributes that decades are factually incapable of exhibiting. In order to access any truth that may be encoded within the line, we must make a leap, on the back of our metaphorical understanding of those adjectives, into a world of associations that are likely to be different for all of us, but which we can link to other words and images in the poem to build a Poetic Truth that, while nebulous, carries meanings outside the factual truthfulness of the line. “Low” for example takes us back to the “dives” of the first line and collocates in our minds with phrases like “low-down dirty, lying cheat” and though decades are incapable of dishonesty, we make the leap to understand that Auden means the people who lived through the decade, and at the same time hinting at so much individual dishonesty combining to form something greater and more sinister than dishonesty alone – and we may make a further leap to associate that with the rise of European Fascism. So the line is no more a lie than it is dishonest.

But the way Auden imbues ‘decades’ with the quality of dishonesty suggests he is using ‘dishonest’ to evoke ‘a thing capable of imparting dishonesty’ (as though they speak to us, and in doing so they display dishonesty) as opposed to ‘a thing which was created in a spirit of dishonesty’. If this is the case, it is possible he was doing the same in his subsequent description of the poem as a whole. Was he therefore falling into the pathetic fallacy? Or – a poet speaking metaphorically about their poem – was Auden speaking meta-metaphorically? Perhaps this is one way of reading his reading of the poem.

I often think of Auden when I read critics and poets accusing others of ‘bad faith’, which seems to happen quite a lot. How do they know, I wonder, what level of (dis)honesty – if this is what they mean by ‘bad faith’, and I can think of no other synonym – has been injected into a poem by any given poet? Meta-metaphorics notwithstanding, the ‘truth’ of a poem is one thing (or perhaps many things) but only one person knows about its honesty: the poet.


September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

The Ivory Tower and the Gatekeeper (mini-essay)

ivory-towerI’ve read a lot of references recently to Gatekeepers being at work in British poetry; editors blocking voices they deem ‘unworthy’ of entry into their ivory tower and ushering in swiftly the Chosen Few. As a poet who has been pestering editors for the last ten years with my (admittedly hit-and-miss) poems, but who has over this time had a few significant successes along with the usual countless rejections, I find this Gatekeeper talk troubling. I want to try and set down why.

The implication is, I think, that white, male editors of (probably) over a certain age, are by rejecting work they don’t like maintaining their own cultural dominance and that of those who share their aesthetic tastes. The further implication is that these tastes represent and reflect white, male social/political domination in general and its continued suppression and repression of the ‘the other’. Perhaps those who make the Gatekeeper allegation would argue also that the problem is that editors are rejecting work they don’t understand (which by this argument is presumably why they don’t like it) because it reflects a racial or social aesthetic outside their known critical parameters. **I hope I am not misrepresenting the Gatekeeper allegation here, if I am, I would welcome comments below**

The problem with this is that it only looks at the situation from one perspective – the Macro. Looked at from the individual perspective of the editor, things seem very different; an observation illustrated perfectly by Michael Schmidt of PN Review in a recent interview in which he told of his exasperated reaction to these sorts of allegations: “I built the fucking gates!”. When someone has spent a lifetime creating a cultural repository and not only put their energy and creative spirit into it but quite possibly gambled with their own capital and livelihood to keep a magazine going for ten, twenty, thirty years it seems like a reasonable thing to a) protect, and b) claim some ownership of. Requesting that an editor forego the right to include in a magazine only those poems they feel meet their personal criteria for ‘good enough’ is like asking someone to relinquish the right to allow or deny entry into their house.

The idea of an ivory tower from the perspective of its gatekeeper, then, takes on a different aspect – not to keep out but to keep in, to maintain and protect. There is, after all, a huge amount of poetry out there, and if it were up to the poets themselves whose work got into magazines it would all get in and there would be no magazine.

That is not where it ends though, because poetry, perhaps more than any other single cultural sphere is the preserve of educated middle classes – and until fairly recently that meant white, relatively well-off and (probably) within the ‘liberal’ range in one direction or another of the political left-right nexus. To that extent the whole medium of expression is an ivory tower. I’m not saying that every poet fits neatly into this ‘educated middle class’ mould, just that those who don’t are exceptions rather than the rule. This has, of course, changed because the social demographics of the country have changed. But my feeling is that social changes hit poetry a little later than other cultural spheres simply because it is so much (traditionally at least) the domain of the ‘comfortable’. Most poets who have found themselves published have not had any particularly strong impetus to support a structural change within poetry because they have succeeded under just those existing structures.

We now find ourselves at a point where the social and ethnic identities of poets are changing – often but not always as a result of the increased influence of social media – but the social and ethnic identities of the editors of established publishing presses and magazines have not yet caught up – there has simply not yet been enough time.

We do ourselves and existing editors a disservice if we lambast them for not being what we would like them to be – we should be celebrating what they have achieved and appreciating the benefit we can gain from their experience. Every rejection after all causes (or provides the opportunity for) reflection on the quality, style etc. of our work. I’m not the only poet presumably who returns to rejected work often only to wonder what possessed me to submit it in the first place!

We need more editors of colour, more female editors, more LBGT editors, and we need those editors to be accepting work that fits with their ideas of what constitutes good poetry – but I don’t see why that also means we need to criticise current editors for successfully establishing and maintaining their businesses.

Precious Mother (review: The Heart of the Run)

heart of the run

My friend the Scottish poet Maggie Mackay has written a pamphlet (The Heart of the Run, Picaroon poetry) which is both moving and thoughtful. Mackay places her deceased mother at the centre of the collection, but it is maternal presence rather than absence that dominates; she – the poet’s mother – sits beside the poems like a ghost, in fact she enfolds them the way the dressing gown enfolds the poet in the opening ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’: “Wrap yourself in Mum’s dressing gown, its envelope-hug.” So the reader is left with a sense that the poems themselves are evoking (we might almost say ‘summoning’ as ‘The Glaistig’ is almost summoned in the poem of that name) a departed and much-missed presence for Mackay. These elegiac poems bookend the collection (the final ‘Ghazal’ builds hauntingly with the repetition of “precious mother” but ultimately becomes an expression of the acceptance of mortality as much as a lament: “as you call from the edge of my bed, fly to me, Margaret.”) and the mother figure punctuates the poems throughout, but this is by no means a single-theme collection. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the pamphlet is the unexpected directions it takes. Having started off strongly with two initial poems of Scottish whiskey and myth, the reader might expect the Gaelic motifs to continue, but instead we are whisked off to Tsovkra-1, a Russian village where everyone can walk the tightrope (‘We are Tightrope Walkers from Tsovkra-1’), and then straight away at another tangent to the 16th century and Hernan Cortés twisting a flamenco out of the heat of a chilli (in the wonderfully effective ‘Chilli Peppers’). But as surprising and delightful as these shifts of direction are, they are always linked (Cortés’s “full circle skirt spins” bring him back to the “peppers of the Caucasus”, and the rope image flows through to the subsequent ‘Rope Walk’, a brief but heady evocation of early 1800s Edinburgh and the “stramash of creameries”, the “Rough language” and the “filthy / demonstrations of tumultuous joy” at the Grassmarket Ball. The cumulative effect is of being on a mystery tour in space and time with a guide who knows exactly what they want to show you and why.

Sometimes these ‘linked leaps’ between juxtaposed poems are gentle, and they click into place like the pieces of a jigsaw (I notice especially the lovely, quiet rumination on genetic inheritance and social class that runs between ‘Gardener Grafting on the Estate’: “Gran lives on in the bairn”; and ‘Paisley Pattern’: “A man dies in 1943, gifting prewired traces of movement / to his great granddaughter… // enduring past tuberculosis, factory smoke, malnutrition”). But equally there are occasions when the leap is far more jolting, and sometimes shocking. Immediately after the previously quoted poems we find a peaceful though emotionally loaded moment between sisters beside a loch in ‘this place is everything but dull’ (portraying microcosmic moments from larger unseen dramas and tragedies is one of Mackay’s strengths because she succeeds in the difficult skill of allowing the reader to fill in the ‘macro’ for themselves – providing just enough but not too much information). Then the subsequent poem (‘It’s like being thrown in the washing machine again’) takes the water theme and spins it into the violent and almost surreal image of a child being trapped in a washing machine by his mother. Whether the image is intended purely metaphorically or based in literal truth is unclear, but the appalling power of the image remains, unforgettably conjuring familial fear, disturbed mental health and a sickening sense of betrayal and bullying.  The violence here is actually unrepresentative of a very peaceful collection, but it is all the starker (and becomes all the more central to the pamphlet as a body of poetry) as a result.

Another poem, ‘Fitch’, evokes not so much the threat of violence as a latent and potentially difficult feminine strength represented by the disciplinary possessiveness of the nominally ‘browbeating’ mid-twentieth-century ‘wife’. Mackay’s mother (I assume I am correct in interpreting the mother in all these poems as the poet’s actual mother – and I think from what I know of Maggie that I am) is transformed into the eponymous ‘fitch’ or polecat, “our solitary hunter” who prowls angrily through the poem “…returned to seek out / her ghost husband”, and who “drags” her spouse back home from the library “by the scruff of his neck, / flicking her tail in the scramble over rockery and log pile”. The imagery here is inspired, demolishing the comic stereotype of a ‘battleaxe’ and replacing it (we might even say liberating it) with an intensely powerful sense of female territorialism. “Musk charges the room”, indeed. And when she returns to the kitchen “as a wife might, pressing office shirts”, she is not just ‘doing the ironing’ but “wielding an iron” and there is a world of difference in this wording.

For its clashes and threads, its rich, unexpected imagery and not least for the dazzling colours that run through it (which I have not even mentioned but do so now to tantalise the potential reader) this is a great read, and I would encourage anyone to pick up a copy. I very much look forward to a longer collection in the future.

The Heart of the Run from Picaroon Poetry is available to buy here.

The Windbreaks (poem)

monet clifftopa

The Windbreaks

The beach that day could have been a Monet,
the way the wind brushed the high dune grasses
and clouds daubed the sky.
All space and light.

The people on the beach, among them you and I,
are just people-shaped holes in a painting now –
nonsensical blobs of white weave.
But the windbreaks

still move with brighter yellows and bloodier reds
than even Monet would have mixed. And more
than that, they breathe and tremble,
they speak

of tickling and wagging; straining, they sing
with their secret in-out language, moved by the wind,
about the mysterious sifting and glistening
of sand.



This poem was published in Magma, in 2014.

The illustration above is from one of Monet’s various clifftop scenes, I’m not sure which one…


Where Rivers End (review: The Displaced Children of Displaced Children)

displaced children

The Displaced Children of Displaced Children by Faisal Mohyuddin had a lot to live up to from the word go simply because of its spellbinding front cover. I usually try actively to ignore front covers in order to resist their influence on my reading, but this is impossible of course and sometimes you just want to cut them off the book and stick them on your wall. This one by Edwin Smet for Eyewear is one of those, and it leaps out from everything else published this year in its simplicity, mystery and beauty. Whatever lies behind this battered and torn sepia image of a young woman (I assume Pakistani or Indian) with her young child and overlaid with the startling red title and author’s name in white, had better be good.

Luckily, what lies behind the front cover in this case is better than just good.

Faisal Mohyuddin, the son of Pakistani refugees to the USA, has written a collection of meditations on his physical, political, and spiritual origins; and further meditations on how they relate to his present and his future. On one level it is (with the Partition of India, his parents’ emigration from Pakistan, the death of his father, and the birth of his son) a journey through loss and grief towards an equivocal but clearly defined sense of hope. Ultimately, though, the journey is one towards an understanding or acceptance of the forces that created the poet, an immigrant in an often-hostile country. But Mohyuddin is wise enough not to try and provide answers to the difficult and complex questions his family’s history presents; instead, the book is intended, we learn in his lengthy and generous list of thanks at the back, as a gift for his son, to “help illuminate the stories of those who came before you and guide you forward.”

I could select literally any poem in the book to illustrate Mohyuddin’s process of working through his understanding of characters both public (Bhagat Singh, Jinna) and private (his parents, childhood friends) from the last fifty to a hundred years, his own relationship with his religion, and his present-day working life. But what would be harder to show would be the overall rhythm that the poems achieve as they are read one after the other, the emotional shifts and changes of pacing that keep the reader moving through the collection like the rivers that are so central to its imagery.

I’ll pick out two or three example poems to illustrate some of the book’s particular strengths.

The collection begins and ends (almost) with two ghazals, ‘Ghazal for the Diaspora’ and ‘Ghazal for the lost’. The form is apt as it is itself a relatively recent immigrant to English language poetry, and Mohyuddin uses them to illustrate the progression of thought from near despair at the beginning of the collection (“Tell me, Faisal, with what new surrender can you evade deeper damnation? / Whatever it is, hack away, before your children too become the Lost.”) to something closer to hope at the end (“Do you remember, Faisal, what the elders preached about forgetting? Centuries of grief / Had made them wise, taught them to seek the mercy and goodness of mystery.”). ‘Hope’ may be the wrong word here, but the switch from ‘lost’ to ‘mystery’ as the end-word in the second line of each couplet of the ghazals suggests reorientation, recalibration and ownership (if not acceptance) of the inexplicable.

Form is important to Mohyuddin, and more than with many poets it indicates a psychological subtext to the words themselves. For example, in ‘Prayer’, the poem’s short four-line stanzas are split mid-line, creating artificial caesuras, and staggered satisfyingly, aesthetically on the page (prayer mats? thought bubbles? almost, in fact, evocative of the repeated patterns of Islamic art) to evoke a background sense of the calm and order that prayer brings to the faithful, opening up the white space to make it a central part of the words’ meaning rather than existing to one side of it (perhaps reflecting also the way Allah is so much more a part of the constituent grammar of the Arabic of the Koran than God is of the Bible’s English). It also has the effect of splitting the meaning of each line into smaller segments, breaking open the stanzas’ content so that they can only have complete meaning when brought semantically together, again reflecting the Believer’s relationship with God. This form is revisited subtly later in the collection in the sixth part (‘What Burns’) of the long narrative poem ‘Denaturalization: An Elegy for Mr Vaishno Das Bagai, an American’, which relates the tragic suicide of a Hindu immigrant whose American citizenship was revoked as a result of the 1923 Supreme Court ruling that all ‘Asiatics’ be denaturalized. As Bagai slowly comes to realise that he will never be anything in America other than a bird “locked up / in a gilded cage”, the short, split four-line stanzas reflect the earlier ‘Prayer’ but in this case they are regimented in lines rather than staggered and the effect feels forced, awkward – and the two ‘columns’ (as in effect they are) do not fit together harmoniously but stand separate, rigidly separated – and all this of course reflects Bagai’s experience of America following the citizenship ruling. In the seventh part of the poem (‘Moral Gesture’), Bagai’s death is signified with a completely ‘formless’ lineation where nouns, verbs, prepositions and prepositional phrases are split right across the page, filling the paper’s whiteness with small units, like floating molecules, as his spirit “migrates / from / the earthy depths / of his broken / body”. And then in the eighth and final part (‘Restoration’) as Bagai meets his old friend Mohammed in Heaven, form returns as the poem’s lines are split into three, creating staggered stanzas which both recall the harmony of the earlier ‘Prayer’ and resolve the ‘formlessness’ of death into something more cohesive. It’s interesting to hypothesise that this three-line structure could be seen as representing the Christian Holy Trinity, while the ‘Mohammed’ reference (and the line “Let’s surrender // to the perfected / beauty of our inner / light”) surely indicates Mohyuddin’s own Islam, and of course the main character is a Hindu, so this end phase of the poem might be suggesting the unification of the world’s three principal religions (“beneath the burning / gaze of the Almighty”) as well as a personal spiritual resolution for Bagai.

Rivers, as I mentioned earlier, are a central image running through the collection, and towards the beginning they stand as a metaphor for the past: the rivers of the Punjab where Mohyuddin’s ancestors lived and worked and which he lost when his father left Pakistan (“Exile begins where rivers end.”); but they also represent a movement towards the future, and in the final poem of the collection (‘Song of Myself as a Tomorrow’), we hear “But erasure – / what can it do when the blood’s trajectory / has forever been about becoming another river, about winding its way / along some other pathway toward survival?” and “I am that tomorrow, lost within the land / beyond where all rivers end”. So, as well as a metaphor for continuity in the poet’s life and between the generations of his family, the river also becomes a symbol for life itself, and so conversely the absence of rivers become the unknowable zones of both ‘afterlife’ and ‘future’, “the barren vastness of an untethered / darkness” which may be frightening, but into which the immigrant and their children must “(knife) new furrows through which their refugee blood / can flow” by taking an ultimately positive stance and saying “Yes / to exile / Yes / to America”.

The associations of Mohyuddin’s language are strong. The words just quoted are the final ones of the book and they echo the positive message (which now seems so long ago) of Barak Obama in his famous 2008 New Hampshire campaign speech: “Yes we can!”. And for some British readers, the linking of ‘rivers’ with ‘blood’ throughout the book also has political associations, with the Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, in which the Conservative politician used imagery originally from the Aeneid to illustrate his fear that immigrants would overrun and terrorise the nation (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”). This may be unintended, but it could equally be that Mohyuddin is deliberately appropriating the image to keep a sense of unease about the future while transforming its Powellian racism into a powerful metaphor for passing on DNA to the next generation of ‘displaced children’ (the blood in the veins).

Finally, it is in no sense belittling to the collection to say that one of the most moving moments for me was reaching the ‘thanks’ to colleagues, friends, and family (over two pages of them) that the poet includes at the end. I mentioned earlier the message he sends to his son, but it is the note to his wife that really raises the bar for any writer in the future wanting to express familial gratitude with sincerity and eloquence. Tempted as I am to quote it in full, I will resist and simply recommend getting hold of a copy so you can read it for yourself.

For its thoughtfulness, its skill, its originality, its beauty, and ultimately its love, this is a book which deserves the widest possible readership.

The Displaced Children of Displaced Children is available from Eyewear, here.