Recent Reading July 2021 Part 1

Fetch Your Mother’s Heart, lisa luxx, Out Spoken Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781838021177, £10.00

The Yak Dilemma, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal, Makina Books, 2021, ISBN: 9781527271654, £10.00

Affiliation, Mira Mattar, Sad Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1912802395, £6.00

Notes on Sanskrit and Correspondences, by Nisha Ramayya, Oystercatcher Press, 2015 and 2016, £5.00 each

Heredity/Astynome by Naush Sabah, Broken Sleep/Legitimate Snack, 2020, No price given, possibly out of print

Fetch Your Mother’s Heart by lisa luxx, a poet whose work is completely new to me, is a study in the relationship between desire and violence, and the possibility of community in the point of intersection. The source moments are outlined in an introduction, and range from the suicide of a close friend to the Lebanese October Revolution, in which luxx seems to have been a participant. Organised in chapters, each one circling around a central theme, the book draws on both her British and Syrian/Arabic heritages as a way of interrogating the sufficiency of language as a medium.

In interesting example of this interrogation is the poem ‘for a subculture to resist capitalist co-opting it must remain impossible to define’ which is an extended reclaiming and de-defining of the word ‘Dyke’ as being central to luxx’s subcultural belonging. The title, and the whole desire/violence binary, is reminiscent of some of the most interesting poetry of the 1960s, particularly the work of Denise Levertov and Diane diPrima. In fact, the list poem ‘what you learn in the aftermath’ reads like an updated addition to DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters.

4. ‘How are you?’ is a thesis, not a greeting.

7. Who is stubborn to withstand a military raid for the sake of aircon.

6. That diapers come according to weight & mothers need mothers.

The question of mothers, and grandmothers, is also central to the book, which is partly a celebration of female ancestors, the tetas who build community by their caring presence; sisterhood depends on motherhood and the female tradition.

In the acknowledgements luxx thanks the poet Rewa Zeinati for ‘mentoring the spoken word artist to a page poet’ and ‘pointing me in the direction of craft’. It appears that the mentoring paid off, as the technique on display here is very well honed. Take, as an example, the opening lines of ‘on things we can’t let go of’:

8 months ago: blood fingerprints
still on my phone & on my clothes.

define hope? a stale prayer
we hold in our mouths

while pretending to be adults.
on the bed you paint my toes,

a howling outside turns over fruit boxes
searching for its mother’s heart.

brush sweeping over nail, nail. you bent in,
use your thumb to wipe paint off my skin.

wax drips from candelabra onto polaroid:
me dancing. define war?

With its starting point in one of the incidents mentioned in the introduction, this passage weaves together most of luxx’s main concerns: home, mothers, the need for and difficulty of definition, desire and violence are all here. What binds them are patterns of sound and image. On a simple level, there is a warp of assonantal short ‘o’ and long ‘a’ sounds running through the entire passage. This underpins the analogical relationships between blood/violence and nail varnish/intimacy, child and mother, what can and cannot be erased. It’s a fine example of how technique can turn raw experience into verbal art while enhancing rather than losing the immediacy of the experience from an interesting, accomplished writer.

Questions of displacement and belonging run through Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s The Yak Dilemma, too. Born in the Indian Himalayas, Dhaliwal studied in Dublin and Belfast and is currently based at the University of Kent and, on the evidence of her poems, has travelled widely. Underlining these explorations outwards is the eternal pull of home:

As a child, I wanted to venture out as far West

as I could. As an adult, I have come crawling

back to the mountains.

[from ‘Appointment with Norah Richards’]

The choice of crawling here is interesting, reflecting as it does a kind of reluctant return that chimes with the warm celebration of ‘the West’ in many of the other poems. There’s a sense, throughout the book, of being caught between two (or more) worlds, not quite belonging in any of them. To quote the closing of the title poem:

Like the snowflakes from colourless skies

that fall like bullets ricocheting in a war

zone, kissing February’s hopeless

ground, I often wonder –

Where have I truly come to?

This is echoed in the excellent ‘Ghazal on Living in a Hotel in Downtown Cairo’, for me the standout poem in the collection. The repeated final question of the couplet takes on new shades and implications with each repetition:

Four walls don’t make a home or a house—it takes some doing

Cocooned among four rented walls, I try to assume, how am I doing?

This sense that being at home is work, is not something that can be assumed without effort, is the central theme in the book, and many of the poems can be read as addressing aslant that repeated question.

Dhaliwal is clearly engaged with Western art and writing, with Van Gogh Edward Hopper, Patrick Kavanagh and others featuring. There’s also an interesting poem on the Repeal of the 8th Amendment, a movement that  gained momentum from the tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar, who is remembered in the poem:

Monday morning. Hordes of people wearing

badges. REPEAL jumpers and Together for Yes

merchandise chanting Savita! Savita! Savita!

This neatly captures the atmosphere of the day, perhaps too neatly. There’s a point at which the writing veers a bit too close to reportage, with too many words to achieve the tension that marks out poetry at its very best. Another example would be in the Norah Jones poem where the parallels between visiting the home of the ‘Lady Gregory of the Punjab’ while living near the home of the original Lady Gregory are perhaps too explicitly drawn.

This said, Dhaliwal is clearly a talented writer with an eye for telling details, and a good command of both verse and prose-poem forms. This is her first book publication, so I look forward to seeing where her writing takes her, and us. It should also be said that the production of the book, with an eye-catching cover and lots of white space to give the poems room to breathe, is excellent.

Mira Mattar is a London-based Palestinian/Jordanian novelist and poet whose work is also new to me. The writing in Affiliations also circles around desire and violence, with specific reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The book comprises to parts, the first being four poems called ‘Letters from Amman I, II, III and IV’ and the second the 24-page title poem. The writing is dense and ambitious, with a kind of jump-cut quality of juxtaposed images and registers that keeps the reader guessing and engaged:

The reference to Allen Ginsberg here is telling, being both a critique of his limited view of the world and an acknowledgement of his availability as a model for a poet who wants to engage with the public and private spheres, the worlds of the news report and the home, personal and societal trauma, allowing equal importance to each. While the Amman poems are interesting, the book really comes alive with ‘Affirmations’, which is, on one level, The Fall of America reimagined as The Fall of Ramallah as witnessed from a self-satisfied Brexit Britain where anti-Arab hate is normalised but which also presents the possibility of a kind of freedom.

The poem is pretty much impossible to quote from satisfactorily, the flow from image to image, idea to idea, phrase to phrase is so intertwined that extracting feels like an act of aggression. Mattar takes academic research (there are a handful of end notes, one of which, delightfully, points to Lorine Niedecker as a source), personal experience, ‘the news’ and weaves them into patterns of dynamic sound that push the reader on. This is poetry that is both deeply engaged and refreshingly experimental, using what we have to call modernist technique to map a world, to create an anti-paean to the impossible necessity of place. Here’s what the final page looks like, just to give a sense of this astounding, important work. Read it.

In this passage we can see, in part at least, how Mattar constructs the flow of her writing. The repetitions and near repetitions of ‘glimpsed/glimpsed’ echoed later in ‘glimmers’, the proliferation of -ing words set up by the reference to the ‘present continuous’, of ‘like’ where any idea of simile is truncated, above all the repeated ‘between us’ that links the multiple ‘I’s to the ‘we’ that marks the affiliation, the acknowledgement both of shared positions and of paternity, of that ‘I’ of the poem and the father to whom it is dedicated and addressed. This is verbal music of the highest order, with the sound patterns an integral underpinning of the logical and rhetorical flow of the poem, sense and sound inseparable. It doesn’t get much better than this.

I don’t often review work that’s half a decade old, but I’m happy to make an exception for these two interlocking pamphlets by Nisha Ramayya. The first, Notes on Sanskrit concerns the process of learning Sanskrit from Monier Williams’ 19th century Sanskrit-English dictionary, a work compiled for the distinctly colonial job of helping translate the Christian mythos as a tool for converting Indian Hindus. The work proceeds by way of textual collage, drawing on the dictionary, on Dr Johnson’s Preface to his dictionary, and various scholarly works on Sanskrit literature and Hindu myth and a set of steatite carvings featuring Sanskrit accompanied by texts that recall the didactic cards you see in museum display cases.

On one level, the writing is a critique of the colonial project, turning the tools of the missionary back on themselves by using the dictionary to explore Sanskrit as a cultural nexus at least as important as its Christian would-be ‘improvers’. But that is only one level. Ramayya reflects on the move of Sanskrit from oral to written, a development that opened the language up to more people, specifically women who were excluded from the exclusively male Brahmin guardians of the oral tradition. Colonialism isn’t always a foreign import. From this develops a focus on goddesses, especially Vāc, the goddess of ‘voice, speech language and sound’.  We are invited to meditate, and I use that word deliberately, on the nature of nature as mediated through language:

The laws of this language reflect the laws of the universe, we might never come closer to the truth. This language does things to me, this language that speaks you more than you know. This is me putting you into practice. The linguistic and grammatical sequence parallels spiritual progression.

This paragraph leads into a section in which the units of Sanskrit, from phoneme through letters, words, sentences and so on lead to a contemplation of love as expressed as ‘the sound between them’.

In this system, the dictionary compiler becomes a kind of democratic Brahmin, opening up the mysteries of Sanskrit (or any language) to anyone with an interest in exploring them. in fact, there’s a poem here called ‘The Lexicographer-Priest, containing the lines:

these are monuments to fragility

in an ambiguous resting ground

words show through the page where they should not

Ambiguity is central here. If you can use the works of the Imperial lexicographer to question the Imperial project then you may well come to respect the works, if not the intentions, of that person. The idea of words showing through the thin paper pages of the dictionary folds into that unexpected respect, grudging, unexpected, a faded presence behind the façade of the intention.

The pamphlet closes with a passage in which is sitting at her desk reading ‘H.D. and Freud and Tantric philosophy’, a neat segue into Correspondences, a meditation on Tantra in all its aspects.

Tantra is the practice of extending, of stretching to make connections, of creating something from those connections. Tantra is the weaving of multiple threads and the extrication of one essential part from the whole.

A description that could equally apply to Ramayya’s writing here.

 The epigraph to the booklet is a quote from a song made famous by Fats Waller: ‘I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter/And make believe it came from you’. It’s a quote that’s doubly relevant to the contents; they can be read as letters from and to Ramayya, and the role of make believe is important to her linking of Tantra, Vāc-as-language praxis, and mantra:

Correspondence is make believe is sacrifice is practising a falling exchange: which parts of yourself to which soft curses?

At the core of this pamphlet is a long section called ‘Her Voice as instrument of Thought’ that circles around the idea of mantra as being pre-linguistic, a sound (the famous example being Om or Aum) that is not so much without as before meaning, with a reminder that Vāc is concerned with animal as well as human speech, and that the mantra connects the meditating human with the animal world through a shared focus on sound in and of itself.

The booklet ends with two Postscripts, one long, the second short. This second one is a fitting ending to a body of work that works to extend our understanding of what poetry might be, not just because of what it’s ‘about’ but by the way in which it’s made:

Now that you are here, you are in the space: what will you do, now that you are here?

Naush Sabah’s Heredity/Astynome are also a pair of pamphlets from the ever-interesting Legitimate Snack series, though the link between them is not as immediately apparent. The first, Heredity, is a single longish poem in three sections which as, as a headnote, the second stanza of Thomas Hardy’s poem of the same name. Hardy wrote of the genetic inheritance that outlives the individual, and Sabah focuses on much the same thing, but with more of a sense of what’s lost than what’s retained.

The poem opens with an image from her mother’s childhood in Pakistan:

This skill of foraging out of necessity becomes, later in this first section, one apparently inherited by the poet’s daughter, but applied out of curiosity and a sense of exploration rather than need when, having made cordial from the elderflowers they picked, she notes ‘I don’t tell her that Naani/picked fruit to quell hunger.’

In the interim, the poem traces an intergenerational journey from village to inner city to suburbs, a tamed version of the point of origin. That which is inherited is also transformed through experience and opportunity. It ends with mother and daughter learning a shared language suited to their new needs.

In the second section, the question of language as unifier and separator is central. It starts with a joke about foreignness: ‘I tell mom/that, not being a gori,/I cannot speak English.’ but as the section proceeds we see the daughter and her children become foreign to the rest of her family through a process of drift away from that central inheritance, the mother tongue.

The non-Urdu speaking reader is brought inside the experience of alienation through passages that are bordering on bilingual, in an effective piece of mimesis:

The third section turns to what we might think of as socio-cultural inheritance, and again links the speaker’s parents and children to enact the change. It opens with an unspoken prohibition ‘They never said I couldn’t/befriend boys but I knew/the forbidden instinctively’. The girl comes up with a simple solution that fits in her inner-city life: ‘So I played with them every day/and never named them friends.’ A situation that was disrupted by school, an all-girls school outside the immediate area and with high expectations which we are shown leads to the speaker feeling ill at ease at ‘home’. The poem cluses by showing us the youngest generation having firmly broken the line of cultural transmission:

Astynomewas, in Greek myth, a Trojan woman captured by Achilles and, after the fall of the city, given to Agamemnon as booty, an action that led to the god Apollo sending a plague on the Greek army until she was returned to her mother Chryses. Her name in the Iliad is Chryseis (daughter of Chryses), a name that is famous in literature as Cressida, and Sabah uses an apposite quote from The Testament of Cresseid by Robert Henrysoun:

Because I knaw the great unstabilness,

Brukkill as glass, into my self I say,

Traisting in uther als greit unfaithfulness,

Als unconstant, and als untrew of fay.

Henrysoun undermines the standard trope of Cressida as the epitome of false womankind by showing her as being the victim of the fickle nature of love, or Venus. It’s an apposite epigraph as Sabah’s poems here circle around ideas of the relationship between love, sex, pain and abandonment. The narrating voice is clear headed in her view of men and their wish to define women to suit their self-image:

Men: their narratives and histories,

the myths that make them heroes or lovers.

I’ve disgorged my witness, liquid ejecta

flung out of the jagged fissure you made.

Oh, you are weaker than a woman’s tears,

the traitor who turned me so treacherous.

[from ‘Holding the Book’]

There’s a sense throughout these poems of love as confinement, a snaring, seductive falsehood:

I’m sick of summer’s oppressive air,

tired of everyone’s lurid happiness,

blind belief in each other’s constancy,

clammy hands entwined as they walk past me,

upturned long gazing in locked embrasures,

soft-lit Instagram pictures of their dates.

I’m not jealous, I’m just disillusioned.

[from ‘In the Park for Daily Exercise’]

I said at the beginning that the link between these two pamphlets is not immediately apparent, but on close reading certain shared concerns emerge. Centrally, Sabah writes about how we become foreign to each other, and that love cannot prevent this. What we share emerges as being no stronger than what separates us. In the end, literally the end of Naush 9b.indd ‘Listening to Little Simz’ “Poison Ivy”’ the last poem here, what matters is the poem:

I have inked you black and me in red,

printed us both into feltmarked paper.

I will close a box upon us at last,

label this hazardous and toxic waste

or call it a poem and end it.

It’s been hugely interesting reading these poets whose work is new to me. It seems the future of poetry is in good hands.