Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Look We Have Coming to Dover by Daljit Nagra

Having read Daljit Nagra’s book Look we have Coming to Dover twice now, I would still find it hard to tell you whether or not I liked or disliked it.  In places Nagra has such a freshness of voice it almost took my breath away, in the title poem for instance, which deservedly won The Forward Prize for best poem in 2004:

                Stowed in the sea to invade
                the alfresco lash of a diesel-breeze
                ratcheting speed into the tide, brunt with
                gobfuls of surf phlegmed by cushy
 come –and-go tourists prow’d on the cruisers, lording the waves…

Overall however the collection felt somewhat unsatisfying. From the first poem Nagra acknowledges his difficult place as a second generation in Britain Indian, and indeed one can see his dilemma – should he acknowledge his heritage and risk being labelled an “Asian” poet or try and ignore it and be made to feel like he is sweeping under the carpet? It is a problem that most white British poets don’t have to contend with. The answer one, one would hope, would be to try and strike some kind of tense balance between the two.  Nagra decides to confront his heritage full on and the result is a book that teeters between moments of glorious language (Look We Have Coming to Dover), intimate morsels that left me wanting  more (On the Birth of a Daughter, Karela and In a White Town) and poems written in the voices of Asians new to Britain.

Poems like Karela had a more intimate feel than the rest of the book and this enabled me to engage more with the subject matter – they let the reader in. The poems written in older voices I found to be far less accessible though. The question of voices in poetry is an interesting one. I once read an interview with Vicki Feaver where she said that if she begins to feel that she has found her “voice” then she knows it is time to move onto a new project. Nagra however doesn’t just write in one voice, he uses a variety of voices but all with the same flavour.  Nagra himself has said that he was aware when writing the book that he was writing in “false voices” – the voices of those Asians that come to Britain and speak little or none of the language. 

Maybe it is the falseness of these voices that I found uncomfortable, or maybe it was the subject matter – a mixture of racist anecdote and Punglish dialect.  I did find myself wondering if the collection is deliberately designed to produce a certain amount of discomfort in the reader – and for the reader to therefore get a flavour of what it might feel like to be one of Nagra’s “voices”.   Nagra must, after all, have been very aware that the vast majority of poetry readers in Britain are either white and middle class or high school children. I also found myself increasingly aware as I read that, as a secondary school teacher, Nagra has written the perfect book for the National Curriculum. 

Having said all that – I found moments of pure joy in Nagra’s writing and the book also has elements of clever self-mockery – for instance when he parodies Paul Muldoon in Yobbos and in his slightly uncomfortable homage to Seamus Heaney – Digging. But overall the book felt themed and I can’t help hoping that Nagra’s next collection will be different in its subject matter  otherwise he is in very real danger of being labelled a clever one-trick-pony.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Introduction to the Pack and Legion by David Harsent

One of my Christmas presents this year was a pack of Faber and Faber poetry playing cards. Each card has picture of a different Faber poetry title on it. They are highly desirable and I like them a lot. I have read a few of the titles but I was surprised that there were so many I hadn't read (or even heard of).  With this in mind I decided that it would be a great idea to attempt to read all fifty-two books featured in the pack - and to do it in the next year if I can!  I will also re-read the books that I have already read as it never hurts to read a collection again.  

A good place to start seemed to be with Legion by David Harsent, a book I had coincidently taken out of the library just before Christmas. Legion won the Forward Prize for best poetry collection in 2005. 

David Harsent is a great writer this book left me with no doubts about that, but this collection also left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable and more than a little unsettled.  The title sequence of the book is a series of poems about war. The war is not specific, indeed it is probably more than one war and the poems are not written in one particular voice and I think that this might be where my problems with it stemmed from. 

I am not a big fan of War Poetry in general and somehow feel a kind of ethical discomfort when poets write about wars that they clearly have no actual experience of. What is odd though is that I don't feel the same discomfort when reading fiction. Writer's like Anne Michaels and Louis de Bernières have written graphically about the second world war in their novels and I have not felt the same level of discomfort and I found I was asking myself why this was.  I think that the answer (and especially with this collection) is the lack of a specific voice. A novel gives the reader the space and time to develop a relationship with the characters and the wartime setting,however horrific, is an integral part of their specific story. 

I might have felt more at ease with Harsent's collection if the voice had been a constant that I could build some kind of relationship with.  However what Harsent gives is a series of disjointed and slightly disturbing snapshots of some unspecific conflict which at times felt a little jarring. And perhaps this is deliberate - war is after all an unnerving and uncomfortable experience for everyone involved and these poems certainly give us a glimpse into some darker aspects of the world.  

Harsent has a beautiful mastery of language and there are some breathtaking moments even in the war sequence:

A milky, dead-eye sky. That steel and cordite smell
you get with a lightning strike. Ripples underfoot. A taste
of nickel behind your tongue.

(The Wall)

Harsent has a light and adept touch and there are some glorious descriptive moments that any poet would be envious of.  I am looking forward to reading some of his earlier collections.