‘Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment’, edited by Ian Duhig – Forward Arts Foundation/Strix Leeds

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Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment was launched for National Poetry Day and its theme of ‘Change’ in October, 2018, and I acquired the anthology in January, aware at the time – obviously – that it’s title was ironic, the Windrush ‘scandal’ having dominated previous and still then widespread media coverage, so here was immediate proof; but also aware of – obviously – its sadly timeless and universal rhetorical questioning. I think I had ordered my copy in May 2018, one month after Theresa May as Prime Minister had confirmed at PMQs that another key aspect of the book’s title ‘Hostile Environment’ [a term and practice she introduced when previously Home Secretary] would continue as that malicious exercise under her leadership.

In these few months of having and reading, the answer to the title’s questioning [I know…] seems even more prominently and permanently replied to here in the UK, racism simply endemic and/or crystallised, for example, in highly politicised expositions of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The other realities of its poems’ explorations – social care, for which I have recent, direct experience; homelessness; mental health issues; poverty, and [and so on, etc, and the rest as expressions quite despairingly inadequate, I know again…] – are pervasive and continuing too. Clearly, the book’s title was chosen not in expectations of having its irony undermined by mutability. However, as I write, the Extinction Rebellion is in full flow and indicative once more of how fundamentally unfair the world is: the rich/poor dichotomy evident in this case in the mirror bifurcation of producers/inflicted, so disenfranchisement, alienation and blame [a further irony] are suffered by those with the least means to defend and protect themselves.

So what can/do these poems achieve in such a weary, tragic perpetuation in time and place? Is it remotely possible there is promise of optimism, either in uplifting narrative or an inherent transcendental hope offered through their art? Or is it more likely a channel for our own readers’ anger and despair [in my case and many others, I’m sure, one of remove from immediate and actual experience] to be absorbed in the articulation of such from those with the voice of suffrage?

The opening poem Union Jack by Khadijah Ibrahiim presents one of the commonest examples of sardonic alienation [I was going to adjective this as ‘cruel’ but it is always this] and that is of the British Citizen told to ‘go’, or actually sent ‘home’, in other words elsewhere. Recalling a mother who references and therefore invokes Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood diatribe, the poem ends with a corrupt dilemma experienced by a UK citizen, here I suspect as a child/young person,

But unoo barn hyah, Mum said.
I sweep the Union Jack
under the bed.’

A collective, workshopped [?] poem Dynamic Elements from the Leeds DynaMix presents plenty of expected anger but also defiance. It begins with a litany of nasty-to-prescriptive name-calling of ‘outsiders’ [and writing this forces me to highlight/accentuate terms by way of explication, but in doing so seeming to reinforce the very notions/labelling being criticised…] and this is followed by examples of ironic reality linking such demonising and dehumanising,

‘You laugh at my heritage?
But still you pay to visit our lands.
You call me terrorist? But your policies,
systems and labels terrorise my humanity.’

This is defiance by exposing such contradictions, but only to those who will listen, so the defiance has to be more direct,

‘I am not an object to be displayed,
I am not a trophy to be won,
I am not makeup or hair I wear,
I am not, I am not for sale,
I am not, I am not made of brick,
I am not, I am not a failure.’

This collective poem is therefore a mix of its own defiant rhetoric, of direct argument, of natural speech, of robust questioning [so transactional in this sense] and the poetic comes through sudden lines like ‘I am the stardust and earth and skin’ as well as more mixed imagism and emotive combinations,

‘I am the Bedouin Prince
Descendant of Adam and the Iceni
A dash of Helsinki, a Pinch of Surrey

I am the sand travelled from Egypt
to show the power of a raped continent
small grains that can blind your eyes’

What I am feelings/seeing when reading this is the effect of both the sharing in expression of anger and defiance as well as image and figurative descriptions. And of course, this is a performance piece so to see and hear it delivered would convey so much more than on the page, effective as this is.

There are tender anecdotes of family like the poem Mr Carnival by Halima France where

‘Mr Carnival
Her grandad’

is a poem of history and remembering and transmitting this, so an expression of another kind of defiance as well as hopefulness; another fond remembrance is My Grandad by Saju Ahmed who as the writer/grandchild wants to be like him,

‘My grandad is the man I’m slowly becoming’:

another sense of defiance as survival and lineage and pride.

Sincerely by Linda France is a carefully crafted and chiming poem which haunts and hounds underneath its polite and formal soundings, asking of those in power/authority how people can be treated so officiously and dispassionately.

A poem like Rough Sleeper by Ruth Bundey speaks from the street a sense of knowing about mistreatment and the desperate persistence of hope,

‘…to a cardboard colony
careless in its cruelty
Gentle sleeper – not asleep.

But dreaming’

Other poems of loss focus on dementia so the inner and external are being explored/exposed. One poem on Brexit by John Cole asks ‘who’s going to pay?’ and as well as the personalised foreboding of this, time has advanced to make even more caustic a sense of this query over and above the generic of the book’s title as I have already mentioned. And in this respect the timelessness doesn’t just speak to the lasting relevance of these poems but also to their loss in this.

Pandora and alcohol are evoked in other poems – evil released and celebrated [not by the poets] and escape sought through universal means.

Another ensemble poem is The Meaning of Food by the Touchstone Sikh Elders Group. This is a list poem linking beautifully and evocatively the art and function of cooking to creativity in its widest sense,

‘The meaning of food is a feast for all the senses,
not just smell and taste but the sounds, like crispness,
sight of colours subtle and bold, textures of its skin and flesh,

the temperature of the cultured yogurt white as a page
waiting on the pen of the learned, magic finger to know when
then a spell to mature in a flask like a poem in the mind of the poet.’

I like this poem in particular and I’ll end by making a cliché out of a much finer expression in how the food of all these poems becomes a feast of thoughtfulness as well as more basic, direct emotions: they feed the need for sustenance in both rebelling against but also cherishing difference.

A charity project, you can still buy copies here.

‘Message Clear’ by Edwin Morgan

Edwin Message Clear 1

‘Message Clear’ really forced itself on me as an experience. It was almost written involuntarily. That is most unlike the usual method of writing a concrete poem. It came to me in the old sense in which poems were said to be inspired. (…) This poem was written when my father was very ill, dying of cancer, and I was coming home from the hospital. Suddenly this line ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ came into my head and then the poem began to emerge from the line. I think about half of it was in my head going home of the bus and I had to come in and write down as much of it as I could right away before it disappeared.

Edwin Morgan: Nothing Not Giving Messages (1990), pp.59-60

‘Bull’ by James Roome – The Red Ceilings Press

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Bull isn’t a bully, but is bullish. And Bull isn’t full of it either, though doesn’t mind pretending. When Bull winks, it is cheeky and endearing. Bull appeals for many reasons, and these are because we recognise.

Bull dominates and controls the environment with clichéd asides and force of personality. Of course, James Roome does this, but to write about Bull as if, is to acknowledge the huge success of the poetic ruse.

Before engaging with the brilliant narrative, I want to observe the wonderful telling in and about the page. It isn’t enjambment in any traditional sense but the shifts and shunts simply work so well, surprising and emphasising and keeping us as readers and the story alive. Martin Stannard states in his back-cover blurb how Bull can be a ‘quick and enjoyable ten minute read’. I haven’t tried that yet, dipping in and out with the pleasure of [and pausing on] its many momentary delights.

Introduced to Bull, he becomes a quick and immediate focus of attention,

‘Bull and I
were in a café
That one that’s always in films
Go on then
Around us
people
tightened their cores squeezed
their rumps peered
over low-slung glasses
at his bulky form He
bellowed
to the waiter I
wish I could
wolf-whistle’

Bull can balance an e-cig in his muzzle whilst trotting out fake-news maxims as if they are real, and it is the balancing art that mesmerises. How does he do that? Keep us guessing?

In grappling at home with – that’s our persona/James – keeping a loosely fitting dressing gown discrete while at the same time dealing with a visitor who has leather phobia and nowhere to sit, Bull asserts ‘It’s about etiquette’.

No, I don’t know, but if Bull says it, it is.

However, in reading further we move beyond any uncertainty – this playful and engaging – into the lyrical,

‘If you only draw one thing
make it birds
See
the sweep
as I draw my pencil over
this sheet
of paper?
As he sketched
leaves fell
buds appeared
Flowers shot
red
at the window This
is the life
Bull hummed
as he reached
the bird’s taper added
a final wisp of
feather
stood back
and sighed’

This is the whole poem [part of, on a page of its own] – and I won’t spoil the delightful pleasure of reading first time by quoting more like this – and it embraces both the style and substance of how these poems so effortlessly [on the surface] sweep us into the strange joys of this world.

Though I now want to quote the first poem [part of] that follows this immediately ‘II. actually, I am Bull’.

But I won’t.

Bull’s rump is muscular and therefore cumbersome but that doesn’t stop him swaggering it about, a swagger so overpowering it is like dropping acid and watching his swagger-induced world change before our eyes. I don’t mean see the rump in patterns moving on a wall – just many other sudden and unexpected things. Like becoming a bird.

Bull is a painter but this is really Roome too and these finely tuned strokes of words brush page after page of captivating art.

When Bull seduces we aren’t really sure if this too is a painting or in a painting or in an allusion. Being covered in paints takes on all kinds of colourful meanings.

I just shot at but missed hitting a pigeon as I was reading the final pages of Bull, somewhere just after,

‘…I shouted
lifting a sudden
gun
probably
a Smith n’ Wessun’

which seemed to make it OK, my not quite understanding this morph to another story and thus moving outside my comfort zone writing this review. Outdoors. Gun in the conservatory, just in case.

In Ian Seed’s back-cover blurb he writes how Bull ‘reads like Ted Hughes crossed with James Tate’. I had already felt how Bull reads like Crow with a sense of humour, so there you go.

I now have to read it all in that one ten-minute go, and I can’t wait.

You can and really should get it here.