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.