I mistrust anything which comes with a media frenzy attached, so I was apprehensive about actually reading Daljit Nagra's first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover! Stupid me for judging the book by its cover.
Pentagram are the professional designers behind Faber's poetry series. No images, large text, mostly bright colours, with subtle hint of relevance in the colour choices. Nagra's book is pink, with a saffron title and his name in lavender. I think - the pink is quite bright. And that's it.
It's a savvy approach to making sales: eye-catching, visible from the darkest recesses of the retail industry, all it takes is a flat facing on a bookshelf and you'll see it as you walk past on the other side of the street. That said, cap in hand to the retail industry means less interesting to me the poetry consumer, after a couple of minutes. I'm used to hunting for books I like, not being assaulted by them.
But this is Faber's, what, third new poet in ten years? So hip hip hooray, the independent publishing saviours of contemporary UK poetry are back with another offering! And what do we have here? Ethnic, proud, intelligent, multicultural, sarcastic, witty and everyone's favourite non-majority poster boy, finally in print. Three years of build up, a few prizes and pamphlets and positive reviews, finally culminating in 55 pages of verse. Well, more precisely, 51 pages, excluding blanks, title, glossary (!): pushing Faber's new poetry average up by 5.2 pages per year. All bow to Stephen Page's miracle cure for Faber's failing sales. The simple solutions are often the most commercial: kick out poetry.
But enough whining about the publishers and the way they've marketed the book. What I really want to whine about is the media. Unable to handle more than a handful of poets at any one time anyway, this becomes even more restrictive when it comes to 'ethnic' or, to give them the government's terminology, 'BME' poets. (Why give them names when an acronym can be usefully employed to deny people proper identification?) So Daljit is the Indian boy done good (i.e. white) du jour, stepping up to displace Monica Ali, begat by Zadie Smith, etc. I can't remember a poet getting as many column inches since 'Sylvia' the movie came out. And I can't remember a non-white poet get as many since.....
It's not a bad thing if it brings good writing into the public eye and then springboards readers into new areas of writing. But where are the articles about his influences, his contemporaries, the contexts of who he resists? What is it that drives him to kick against ethnic stereotyping? Does he have writers in mind who play up to type? There's my manifesto then.
Reading his poems, I thought first of Louis MacNeice - and the Midlands crop up here, though Nagra doesn't seem to have lived there himself. MacNeice is there in the jaunty, unique rhythms, the joyful play of language and political undercurrent that sometimes manifests in overt sarcasm.
In the opening poem, 'Darling & Me!': "I giddily / home for Pakeezah record". Is that line break there to help readers spot how he's used an adverb to do the verb's work? Jibing aside, the language use is fresh, cocky and highly entertaining. And then the wordplay stacks up to a strange twist:
We say we would never eat
in publicity like dat, if we did wife
advertisement may need
of solo punch in da smack.
The jaunty, engaging, ethnicised narrator, after endearing himself to me so well with his playful language and love for his new wife, casually throws in some unmediated misogyny. It's a simple trick, but one that created much more complexity of character than I was expecting from the opening style.
Character is a big part of this book. Nagra's done his reading (as expected of an English teacher) and goes through the whole gamut of Asian personae. There are newly weds, schoolchildren, old folks, Brit Asian, Asian Brits, Brit Asians in India, Sikhs, Muslims, men and women, boys and girls. The cast aspire to be white, black, Indian, married to non-whites, blacks, everything. Each voice presents a new argument, a looping back and responding to previous arguments, creating conflict and contradiction. Eventually, in a lovely little bit of silliness, one of the personae even has a go at the poet:
You teachers are like
dis Dalgit-Bulram mickeying
of me as Kabba... too shy to uze
his voice, he plot me
as 'funny', or a type, even vurse -
so hee is uzed in British antologies -
he hide in dis whitey 'fantum' English
(Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the Catch 22 for 'Black' Writers...)
This is good fun, simple, studiable stuff. It seems to aspire to curriculum. It's not a bad thing considering the lack of enjoyable poetry (another target for the same poem) at teenage level. The collection does try a bit too hard to meet this audience at times - the poem titles alone scream 'read me I'm fun' (nine poem titles out of thirty-one end with an exclamation mark) and there's sometimes an easy engagement with intertextuality that leans on dead white middle class men (Arnold, Orwell, Marlowe, Shakespeare), with overt updating for a multicultural society.
But then there's the more subtle updating. In 'The Tree', he takes an axe to the tree his father grew and ends with, "only for ash I grew." It's a complete appropriation of ancestry, of any son-father relationship, of the cultural distance between immigrants and their children in a new culture. It's also reminiscent of Ezra Pound's 'love poem' for Walt Whitman - cutting him down with an axe to provide light for the new generations.
Other references, language-based, are all over the place too with Sugar Puffs, ladoo, KFC, Fanta and a smattering of south Asian words. The glossary at the end reminds once again that this book is being marketed at people who like to 'solve' their poems, rather than enjoy them, but again there's a nice touch when he alliterates the translations of the '5Ks' as "symbols of the Sikh religion: kirpan (blade), kara (bangle), kesh (barnet), kacha (boxers) and kunga (brush)".
Through all this play, this fun, a serious Nagra shows through from time to time. Poetry is also used for the traditional purpose of engaging with, celebrating, or mourning the personal. There's the odd love poem, or a strange but emotionally subtle poem for a new daughter. Some of these are coded in the new languages he has forged for himself. When I encountered it for the first time in Zephaniah I was surprised to find poetry could be so exciting, though you learn quickly that it's been done, and sometimes better, elsewhere. The serious poems seem to sit less well with the word and language play however, and this is often where Nagra becomes most measurable against his contemporaries.
One poem towards the end of the collection really made me sit up. 'My Father's Dream of Return' has echoes in other poems, but seems to be standing alone, opening on a major chord:
Booming the clouded mountains
hurtling around and downwards -
the bird-like, plane-like jet
descent of his car speckling
the slant of goats, fast-brake
at the ceremonial elephants
There's some MacNeice, but more Derek Walcott to my ear - not on par, but struggling for a type of poetry that rolls and narrates, captures history. Perhaps closer to David Dabydeen's softer reminiscences, even. It summed up for me what this collection was doing as whole.
It's a showcase. It's talent on display. There are many things happening here, but the poems don't quite tie together in one direction. The bright pink, the 'look at me!' feel to the design and the poems, they're all signs of a newcomer on the block muscling for space - both from an ethnic perspective and from the perspective of any new voice. What happens next will be the real excitement - there are so many directions here which he could refine towards. Let's hope there's a bit more flesh on the spine and a bit more faith from media and publisher alike in the poetry, instead of the celebrity.