In the shadow of Brexit:’Wretched Strangers’ edited byAgnes Lehoczky and J.T.Welsch

wretched strangers

When I went to a launch reading of the anthology, Wretched Strangers, I was a little puzzled by the title. This is a collection, mainly of poetry, of work, mainly in English, by people who have been displaced or who live away from their countries of origin. However, when I looked at the readers, all very estimable poets, I saw people who were far from wretched, mostly with established or budding academic careers, winners of awards, fellowships, university posts. As one of the editors, J.T. Welsch, explained, and I read later in the introduction, the title comes from a speech, apparently by Shakespeare, in which Thomas More makes a plea on behalf of immigrants persecuted by xenophobic Londoners who felt the foreigners threatened their jobs.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise


Hath chid down all the majesty of England;


Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,


Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,


Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,


And that you sit as kings in your desires,


Authority quite silent by your brawl,

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;


What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught


How insolence and strong hand should prevail,


How order should be quelled; and by this pattern


Not one of you should live an aged man,


For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,


With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,


Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes


Would feed on one another….

http://theshakespeareblog.com/2015/09/shakespeare-sir-thomas-more-and-the-immigrants/

 

The opportune relevance of this speech is irresistible and if you follow the link you will see that Sir Ian McKellan has not resisted it. Nevertheless, I still feel that it misrepresents the nature and quality of this anthology. Although many of the poems draw attention to the plight of those forced to flee their own countries, the overall effect of the collection is to open a window to the world, particularly necessary in these isolationist Brexit days. The book was not originally intended as a reaction to Brexit, but it is impossible to read it now except in that shadow. This writing, which includes contributions from established poets such as Sujata Bhatt, Mimi Khalvati and George Szirtes as well as rising stars like Mary Jean Chan and many others I have never encountered before, ranges from fairly traditional forms to experimental avant-garde work veering between boundary breaking and self-indulgence. Some of the poems are slight, some are unreadable; yet they force the reader to engage with a literary and political reality which fizzes with life and which represents the fluidity and uncertainty of a world beyond national borders.

Borders, in fact, are a recurrent image in the anthology, whether as barriers or in the process of breaking down. For example, Draft 112: Verge by Rachel Blau Duplessis explores the concept and effects of border in a poem which references the borders dividing Cyprus and Palestine but can be recognised as relevant to anywhere such lines have been drawn:

 

Everyone, it seemed, had realigned,

criss-crossed

double-crossed.

Maps had scratches, ridges, edges

that they never before,

it seemed, had.

 

In the right –hand margin of the poem there is a column of significant single words in italics. Close to this extract appear the words borders, atrocities, crossed.

 

Astrid Alben also explores the idea of border in a dream poem where the imagery of flight and migration becomes perhaps the transition between life and death:

 

Across the border one foot easily

Forgets the other but that’s neither here nor there.

It isn’t one thing or the other.

 

Remember

B says

The border is just a line.

 

The notion that borders are a paper-based colonial imposition emerges also in Seni Seneviratne’s poem:

Some maps

            tell us nothing about the lies

of the land or how straight lines

 

came to be drawn in places where

once, contours marked out borders

 

so that the land and its people curved

into each other like sleeping lovers.

 

The challenge of crossing a border carries with it the theme of transition, of moving from one place to the other. This anthology opens our minds to the possibility of transition, of being between places, ‘in transit’ as a mode of being. This is explored wittily in the (I think) slightly tongue-in-cheek essay, The Right to be transplace by Lisa Samuels. She criticises the commonly held assumption that everyone must be from somewhere, and argues that ‘transplace’ people should be thought of as ‘being from movement’: ‘transplace as movement states that when movement happens between one body/place and another, the movement itself is a real condition of being.’ Thus it resists, among other things, nation-state identification. This idea of being ‘transplace’ which must be recognisable to many of the writers in this book, is the very opposite of Theresa May’s assertion that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.   Moreover, the anthology reveals how this ‘transplace’ identity has become increasingly common. Sometimes, a person may have such a mixed heritage that none seems particularly theirs; sometimes, a person may have travelled around so much in childhood and/ or adulthood that nowhere ever seems to be ‘home’, the place of origin; sometimes, people may have been driven out of their place of origin with no hope of ever returning but with no particular feeling of belonging to the place where they have ended up. These writers are showing us identity in flux, but it is not a flux which should terrify us, or which we should regard as some kind of tabula rasa on which we must impose ‘British values’, as the Government has tried to do in its education and citizenship policies. To be ‘from movement’, ‘transplace’, is a 21st century reality and an enriching reality which is the antithesis of Brexit. However, the recognition of such a ‘transplace’ identity should not be considered to undermine the value of local culture and sense of place, but rather to combat the destructive force of nationalism.

 

Moreover, many of the pieces in the anthology reflect loss of place, the impossibility of return. One of the most horrific contributions comes from Zimbabwean writer, Ethel Maqeda. In a prose piece she describes how a young woman attempts to return home:

I had wanted her [her mother] to say ‘I’m glad you came, my child’ and to erase the last ten years into nothing and make it 1997 again. Instead, she just wrenched the small bag I was carrying, almost ripping my shoulder out of its socket, turned away and marched back into the hut. ‘You have to leave tomorrow, first thing,’ she said, not looking at me.

 

Not only does this demonstrate the Heraclitean impossibility of return, the story goes on to show how reality can become too unbearable to inhabit as it recounts the protagonist’s experience of rape by guerrilla militia men:

They roughly pull me back on the ground. One pulls my legs. The other holds my arms. There is more cheering and clapping. I hear roars of laughter. I hear the screams.

 

This time I am going to do something about it. I decide and start to walk away. I have a sudden urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother. I will pick nhedzi, tsuketsuke and even the rare, sweet chikunguwo. I have the time to search for it despite the thickening fog and the approaching darkness. I hear whimpering after they leave to bring the next woman but I keep walking. The urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother grows stronger still.

 

In other poems, ‘being from movement’ seems to bring about an existence which is hallucinatory and unstable. This is Ana Seferovic:

this city is everywhere

its borders fading into

endless now

A City is a Persistent Desire for a Another City

 

and here is Ariadne Radi Cor, somewhere between London and Venice:

 

‘Don’t fear my love”

Should I get shot on Oxford Street, I wouldn’t die

Because this isn’t my life.

 

I’m still living in a Burano glass globe

I twirl and the snow falls.

L’italie L’ondon

 

This condition of betweenness is often represented through language, as in this title and in Mary Jean Chan’s poem Hybridity which, if you don’t know Chinese, reads like a Cloze exercise where the blanks are filled by Chinese characters. As I have no idea how to type Chinese characters, I have used blanks where they would appear. This poem is overtly post-colonial political, hardly surprising considering the history of Britain and Hong Kong:

 

Did you

 

Think it was by chance that I learnt

your ____ _____ for decades, until I knew

 

it better than the ____ ___ I dream in?

 

The use of direct address as well as the veiled accusation of cultural spoliation draws attention to the role of colonialism in bringing ‘trans-place’ people into existence. Other poems are also overtly political in how they present ‘betweenness’. Luna Montenegro’s poem this country is/is not your home is an imaginative representation of a confrontation between a xenophobe/racist and a child on a 355 bus. This poem comes with reading instructions and is clearly intended for performance like another overtly political poem, David Herd’s Prologue. In fact, Herd’s piece declares repeatedly that it is not a poem:

This prologue is not a poem

It is an act of welcome

 

It was written as an introduction to Refugee Tales, a project in which the writer was co-organiser. The first two lines declare it to be performative, as if it were a counter weight to the type of behaviour shown in Luna Montenegro’s poem. Herd weaves in many quotations from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as he details the experiences of refugees arriving in the UK. The ambition of this poem is to create an atmosphere of openness and welcome:

And why we walk is

To make a spectacle of welcome

This political carnival

Across the weald of Kent

People circulating

Making music

Listening to stories

People urgently need said.

 

The reference to The Canterbury Tales serves to remind us that people have always been in motion for whatever reason, that the English of Chaucer was created from a multiplicity of languages and that Chaucer, himself a traveller, was influenced by the literatures and culture of the rest of Europe. Agnes Lehoczky suggests, with many qualifications, that language can become a kind of home, polis or place to belong:

I suspect that perhaps bringing together perspectives, bodies of poetries, and encounters to name, document or take notes of our own collective emotion, triggered by such quests for a home or polis (collective inasmuch as it is a place or a country we have never been before, with country signifying less a specific ‘place’ than a zone of time, thought, desire or experience) does ease one’s misery inasmuch it is a collective misery.

 

Her essay or notes, Endnotes: On Paper Citizens, Disobedient Poetries and Other Agoras is illuminating but very academic. It reminds me of the image of a locked door which I used to find at the end of Andrew Laing Fairy Books which was intended to discourage child readers from looking at the scholarly notes. There is a slight whiff of academic cleverness from the whole collection which can become another boundary that needs to be breached. Other things which bothered me slightly, especially at the beginning, were the number of contributions and the decision to order the collection alphabetically rather than thematically. The size of the collection is quite daunting especially when the print is fairly small. There are also a number of proof-reading errors which become significant in the context of so many different linguistic backgrounds and the experimental nature of much of the writing. We need to know that the inclusion or omission of punctuation or transgressions of conventional English grammar are deliberate. I did, however, change my mind about the order feeling that the decision to go with the random and egalitarian alphabetic listing was the most satisfying. I remember The Rattle Bag:

 

We hope that our decision to impose an arbitrary alphabetical order allows the contents to discover themselves as we ourselves gradually discovered them –each poem full of its singular appeal, transmitting its own signals, taking its chances in a big, voluble world.[1]

 

There is much in this anthology that I don’t understand and quite a lot that I don’t particularly like, but it is doing what poetry needs to do –dragging me out of my comfort zone. It is exciting, challenging, politically relevant and against the current. It should be read.

 

 

 

           

 

 

[1] From the Introduction to The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, 1982.

 

Diversity from Oxford

The TS Eliot prize drew criticism for the lack of diversity in its short list, although it was won by the only poet of colour included, Ocean Vuong, who also happened to be gay. However, at the level of the smaller presses, diversity thrives and younger poets from a range of ethnicities and sexual orientations are producing exciting and innovative collections. Two recent publications from poets with Oxford links exemplifying this trend are a hurry of english by Mary Jean Chan, published by ignition press, which is part of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre, and Five Storms (smith/doorstop) by Theophilus Kwek, who is a former president of the Oxford Poetry Society and, like Chan, a co-editor of Oxford Poetry.

The blurb to Mary Jean Chan’s book describes her as making a ‘significant contribution to poetry and queer writing in the UK’. Certainly, as a young, Hong Kong Chinese, queer woman, she seems to tick all the boxes. However, there is a danger that her PC rating may obscure the power and strength of her poetry. This is a very strong debut collection which explores and exploits some compelling autobiographical detail. In some ways, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which also mines the process of coming-of-age. As Heaney’s book had the presiding figure of the father, so this one is dominated by the presence of the mother, addressed directly in the opening poem, ‘Always’: ‘You are always where I begin’…
Always the lips kissing
they could kiss those mouths
you would approve of.
Throughout the book, the poem addresses the mother’s life as well as her own. Although Chan was brought up in Hong Kong, her mother seems to have lived in mainland China and experienced the tyranny of the Red Guards. The intellectual oppression is presented in the second poem ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ where she represents her mother’s ideas and feelings in lines which are cancelled, so that the only line which stands is the repeated and italicised ‘that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy’. The respect for her mother is shown through the tentative ‘might’ of the title. Aside from the typographical innovation of using the strike-through function, this poem is formally beautifully arranged in a series of couplets where the first line is devoted to the mother’s thoughts about her own life, the second to her thoughts about her daughter. In contrast to the glib facility of the refrain, these lines are uncomfortable, acknowledging the complexity of the mother’s character and of the relationship she has with her daughter:
that she dreams about seeing her father’s heart in the doctor’s fist
that I must only write about flowers
Another formally innovative poem is ‘At the Castro’ with the dedication ‘for Orlando’ which I choose to read as an allusion to the bisexual, gender-shifting eponymous protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Whatever it may be, the poem itself is set out in two columns which may be a visual representation of two lovers, the space down the centre of the page showing the difficulty of same-sex relationships in a hostile society. The poem celebrates the freedom of self-realisation and ‘coming-out’ possible in a gay club:

the first time you stepped into a gay bar
was the first time you danced

The ‘you’ addressed shifts into third person:
the girl who thought she had to sit down
for the rest of her life broke all the rules
became the wind

and then back into second:

you drank
till you became sober enough not to be
ashamed the boy you never were
smiled kissed
another girl

These changes make it unclear whose experience is being addressed in the poem, whether it is the poet, her lover, or both or whether the figures are generic. Celebration changes to horror as ‘a hand pulls a trigger’, destroying the relationship or relationships. Whether this violence is real or metaphorical, it suggests the risks and fears of being gay but nevertheless finishes with a defiant assertion of the importance of love:
skin is never an apology
but always an act of faith

The collection is woven around the relationship with the mother, with the lover and with the desire to reconcile the mother and the lover. Whereas the title phrase for the book is taken from a prose poem where the mother’s influence is felt as oppressive and English is seen as an escape, ‘My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’, in //, short-listed for the 2017 Forward Prize, a poem which is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Chan attempts to construct this reconciliation. The title represents chopsticks: ‘To the Chinese,// you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.’ The poem’s starts with an awkward dinner where the non-Chinese lover is entertained by the hostile family, but moves towards a determination not to be defeated by parental or societal pressure:
Tonight, I am dreaming again
of tomorrow: another chance to eat at the feast of the living

The poem ends by rejecting secrecy and suicide:
I have stopped believing that secrets are a beautiful way

to die. You came home with me for three hundred days –
to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all.

This idea is reprised in “Love for the Living’ near the end of the book, a celebration of society’s recognition and acceptance of same sex love, which is echoed in the changed attitude of the mother, felt as ‘the ache of pleasure when/your mother mentions your lover’s name.’

The final poem, like the first, centres on the poet’s mother, but the balance of power has shifted. Whilst the first poem is addressed directly to the mother, in an agonised plea for approval and acceptance, in this one the mother is spoken of in third person, as if the poet had succeeded in distancing herself and attaining independent adulthood. She speaks here in the first person, as she recognises her mother’s needs and that she must accept the fact that she cannot solve them or make them her burden.
I can only
invite her to the table: Look,

mother, your hands are beautiful.
Look, mother our tea is ready.

Appropriately, the use of pronouns in this last poem is unambiguous and subtle. The “I” of the daughter ‘speaks confidently to the ‘you’ of the mother, bringing them together in the ‘our’ of the closing line.

**********************************************

Theophilus Kwek is both startlingly precocious and astonishingly accomplished. He seems to have published his first book at the age of 17 and this ‘New Poet’s Prize’ Smith/Doorstop pamphlet has appeared when he is still only 24. Kwek is prolific and has the ability to respond to the moment with poems far removed from the agonized moans or enraged rants so often produced after major calamities. At the same time, his style is distinctly reticent or even elliptical and tends to incorporate allusions which may require research. Admittedly, that is not so difficult in the age of Google, but it does impede the first reading, as in ‘The Passenger’ where the references to Izanami and Izanagi enrich the poem if the reader understands them. Incidentally, either Kwek or Wikipedia has got the names of these Japanese gods the wrong way round.

He is particularly skilled at presenting natural and physical detail. The first poem in the collection is written in more-or-less rhymed couplets with some powerful internal sound effects as in the second stanza:
Light sown
As haw, thawed streams like cracks in the bone.
The internal rhyme of ‘haw’ with ‘thawed’ contrasts sharply with the onomatopoeic ‘like cracks’ and is followed by the final shocking long rhyming vowel sound in ‘bone’ which emphasizes the whiteness of the snow. However, I am puzzled by ‘haw’, which should be the red of the hawthorn berry, but seems here to mean something more like the ‘hoar’ of a hoar frost. Nor am I quite sure why the thrush is ‘hurtling’. The mysterious quality of the poem is also apparent in the ambiguity of its setting. It begins as a view ‘From a window’ and this idea is reinforced at the end, ‘That through a window comes’ but we cannot be sure if this is a window which is merely that of an observer, or whether it may be a train window, in which case, the poem’s speaker is also involved in the action. A ‘cabin’ is stirred ‘to praise, or something like praise’ and we are left uncertain of the location of the cabin; is it outside the train, part of the train or a synonym for ‘heart’ in the next line? The many hints that this is more than a nature poem about snow culminate in the portentous last half line ‘The right and the wronged’ –perhaps a little too portentous after the subtle ambiguities of the rest of the poem. Another piece that becomes suddenly and heavily significant at the conclusion is ‘What Follows Deer cull, Wytham Woods, 7th February 2015’.
Again, the observation of natural detail is beautiful and convincing: ‘bounding across seed-rows they are gone,/the cracked frost making an ashen path/to a gap in the horse-wire thorn’. However, the last stanza, which uses multisyllabic and royal rhyme, also becomes suddenly abstract: ‘struck on the flint of that eternity/more alive than in the burnished wood.’ Something very odd is happening: ‘struck on the flint’ has connotations both of shooting and of making light or fire, while the adjective ‘burnished’ transforms the wood from nature into a work of art. The poet is writing about the creation of an image, the image that he missed with his camera, but which has been captured by the eye, memory and the poem.

There is a wide range of subject matter here, with poems based on anything from biblical themes to newspaper stories. Perhaps it is easiest to engage with the poems which give us more to go on or where there seems to be some kind of personal involvement. For example, in ‘Requiem’/ Grandfather, 1936-2015, although we may not understand exactly what is happening in the funeral ritual, nevertheless we grasp that a family has been brought together in mourning, and recognise the poet’s hope that he can maintain his love for his surviving relatives:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed ends
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.

The language of the previous two lines suggests that these relationships have not always been easy, ‘our sifted, falling silences, the plunge//of numbed hands under frigid water.’

The final group of sonnets, for which the collection is named, ‘The First Five Storms’, appears to be a sequence of love poems, but the reticence mentioned earlier, make this a very different kind of poetry from that of Mary Jean Chan.
It may be instructive to explore the use of pronouns in these poems. The first person plural is dominant. ‘We’ is used in every poem except iv, ‘Desmond’, where it splits into ‘you’ and ‘I’, a split heralded in iii, ‘Clodagh’, ‘I had come here/ to make resolutions, taste the grey/Christmas skies you loved’. In the first two poems, the ‘we’ is unproblematic; it may be the speaker and his friends or his lover, more likely a lover, given the imagery in the first sonnet, ‘the rest of our days reach in to join fingers/ with the season’s slow dusk’. ‘We’ provides a sense of assurance, a platform, ‘safety in numbers’. In ii, ‘Barney’, the ‘we’ becomes exclusive, almost smug, as it celebrates itself and its own escape from the ravages of the storm, with the ‘dog outside’ perhaps symbolising social exclusion.
We stood, then went in our cars to church,
And scraped our shoes, and left the dog outside.
Clodagh describes experiencing the storm on a sea-crossing to Ireland. ‘You’ sleeps through ‘the thick/of it’, leaving the ‘I’ in the sestet, on his own to make new and unexpected discoveries, perhaps about love: ‘but found instead/fine rain, and land underfoot; gold and myrrh’. ‘Desmond’, the fourth sonnet, is a beautiful poem which seems to refer back to ‘The Weaver’ at the beginning of the book. There the bird’s nest-building seems to represent the enduring love of a parent; here, it seems to be a lesson learned by the speaker, again as the beloved sleeps –‘you had gone up to bed’ – about the power of love to endure, through adversity, a lesson which he shares by directly addressing the beloved:
I cannot explain, love, but I knew
how different they seemed, and how they sang
all the louder in the rain, and flew.

Lesson learned, the poet returns confidently to ‘we’ in the last poem ‘Eva’, which, like the first poem in the book, is set in snow. Poet and beloved ‘set out early’ and come upon ‘the scent of January’s mowing/fresh on fallen grass’ which I take to be snow or perhaps frost. It is further significantly described as ‘a season’s dowry’. The melting of the frost is seen as the first stage in the renewal of fertility which ‘ would put dry earth to grass, and then in time/turn road to wood, and sky, and bark, and moss.’ This poem , like the whole sequence, is in many ways very conventional, with its use of the sonnet and natural imagery to celebrate love. Kwek demonstrates his mastery of the poetic tradition while at the same time displaying linguistic invention and an ability to innovate by pushing the forms to their limits so that the apparently naturalistic poem resonates with subtle and often ambiguous meaning.