Any Change? Poetry In A Hostile Environment Ed. Ian Duhig
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Any Change’s terrain is Leeds, whose cycle of expansion and contraction, and current burgeoning, has brought great wealth, and sometimes great poverty to the city.
From the ‘Famine’ Irish, to the Russian Jewish settlers of the late nineteenth century who fetched up in Leeds’ Leylands, to the West Indian influx in the Chapeltown of the fifties, to the more recent Asian diaspora, to the Eastern European settlers of the present landscape, a cycle of accommodation is as much a part of the prideful fabric of the city as the imperial immensity of the Town Hall.
Except when it isn’t: the process of assimilation has been, continues to be, desperately hard, for newcomers. But it is immanent, it is colourful, and it is teemingly productive. The thriving diaspora helps to shape and define the city’s space, and this timely volume of poetry fills the silent interstices with words.
The urgency of Any Change? is of a piece with the current Zeitgeist. The shameful treatment of some of the original Windrush immigrants, whose descendants are now second and third generation British, has returned the spectre of intolerance to the agenda.
And one of the many qualities of this engrossing collection – Tardis-like, it is more capacious than the sum of its poetic parts – is its self-conscious diversity.
No one is excluded: immigration, in the context of the poems, may be experiential, familial, observed, or rediscovered as an earlier incarnation, and at pre-emigration distance. Laurence O’Hara’s movingly lucid hymn to his Irish great grand maternal line, for example, punctuates the crushing privations of working class Belfast with catchings of unexpected happiness, and the sudden, questionable ‘inclusiveness’ of aerial bombardment, when ‘the Luftwaffe made World War Two local’ (‘Recital’).
For the real beauty of this volume lies in its capacity to foreground an abundance of life-detail from which the reader may construct a coherent mental image of piecemeal, randomly-applied racism, of deracination, of intolerance, of disenfranchisement, and, here and there, of epiphany. The book is a series of ‘witness’ statements whose collective meaning amounts, in places, to an indictment of a system and a culture, and, elsewhere, to a sincere paean to love of place. Like the terrible austerity of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulags, it reveals things about which most of us know very little, but of which knowledge is a key to understanding; the ordinary writers here are telling truth to experience.
If one over-arching sense of purpose unites this fine body of poems, it resides in the searching for a home. And on the evidence of several of the poems here, that search continues. The evidence of the viscera – emblematic of a kind of defiance – animates a short, powerful poem by Ahmed Kaysher, as the world turns beneath an indifferent and cold northern sky (‘Blood-Stirring’), whilst Saju Ahmed’s hymn to the rock-like presence of ‘My Grandad’, looming over the picaresque landscape of what brought him, and by definition, his descendants to this place, reifies his own claim to a home his grandfather ‘sweated’ for. What is interesting is the narrator’s stamp, as certain as it possible to be, except that there is a sense of the conditional in the poem’s very first line:
‘On the streets of Leeds is where I want to be,
Memoirs of immigrants engraved on the tarmac’
Not, significantly, where ‘I am’, but ‘where I want to be’. The volume is infused with the kind of ambiguity you might expect from a relationship that has been characterised by mixed messages of both welcome and thinly-worn abhorrence. Elsewhere, a backward glance into the waters of the colonial past is a means of coming to terms with the present, except that ancestral experience has to be renegotiated as an emollient:
‘ I scour the stony skeletons, bone-grafting
one story with another. It’s no good. I want the journey I never had,
with the old man my father never became.’ (Seni Seneviratne – ‘Where a River Meets the Sea’)
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And it is a huge credit to Ian Duhig’s editorial policy that his pamphlet should encompass every sense of the hostility meted out to those who are, by individual definition, socially marginalised. It is no surprise, in the context of the title, to find Sean McVeigh’s heartfelt and direct poem about homelessness, ‘Don’t Look Away As If I Wasn’t There’. McVeigh nails the passer by’s studied indifference on the back of personal observation, and in doing so shames us all: ‘I’m alright Jack as you walk past, / Injection of pace, not seeing my face’.
And even where the view is at one remove, it may be incisive, as Ruth Bundey’s knowing ‘Rough Sleeper’ indicates. The ordinariness of a man’s desire to escape an urban cycle of despair, to abandon himself to the open road, acts as a figure for the ease of becoming lost to a ‘cardboard colony / careless in its cruelty’ instead of to the intended, Arcadian inducement of youthful idealism.
A sense of dislocation impels Bundey’s idealist towards unintended vagrancy: the dislocation which gives titular meaning to Lydia Kennaway’s collection, from which her wonderful, placeless poem yields a blending of maritime images to underwrite the inherence of lost grip to certain types of experience:
‘I will scrimshaw a comb for a sweetheart
I never had and sing to longfeathered birds
shanties of blood-red roses.’
Kennaway’s métier is reinvented in Adam Lowe’ fine poem of restorative commemoration, ‘Bone Railroad’, whilst renowned poet Vahni Capildeo gives reinvigorated meaning to a process of deracination through the occluding glass of dementia, as though the gradual loss of a sense of self was a metaphor for the alienating monotony of the night shift, and for the depredations of cultural dislocation. The threadbare repetition and conflated imagery underline a frightening incoherence, established in the poem’s title, ‘Which Way Up?’: ‘His factory makes plastic cups. / He’s frightened by memory loss.’
The consolatory catchings of ancestral memory, which almost accumulate to a seductive Irish folk history in the prismatic ‘The Bullies’ by Teresa O’Driscoll – ‘There she is / Gallant and true / Omnipotent as the morning star’ – and ‘The Legends of Leeds’ by Sara Allkins, act, amongst much else of enduring value, to burn the hardship of the early struggles for survival in a strange land into collective perpetuity.
And it is heartening to see a similar sense of pride in other minority communities. The breathless, inclusive and hopeful vigour of Halima France’s ‘Mr Carnival’ is matched by Giulia Artuso’s counter-intuitive hymn to the art of moving house, whose impulse to remain footloose and happy amounts, instead to a poem about love, friendship and continuity. If moving house is a metaphor for ‘moving on’, here, then the Touchstone Sikh Elders Group has found a fitting figure for the sustaining of hope in the joy of food. Their thoughtful and deeply wise poem is a protracted homage to the art of preparation and eating, through which conduits to wider meaning as to the nature of sharing, joy in aesthetic pleasure and empathy for others may be inferred:
‘The meaning of food defies time: childhood is never lost
but always a half-forgotten taste away, a smell in the street
or escaping a kitchen like a snatch of an old song or a new poem.’ (‘The Meaning of Food’)
But it is the lost, the David Oluwales of the city, to whom this collection is indirectly dedicated. A powerful sense of defiance very noticeably animates certain of the poems here, anger at the continued existence of the kind of relentless racist abuse to which Oluwale was subjected until his early death in 1969.
The urgent desire not to be culturally pigeonholed invigorates the self-penned collective, ‘Leeds DynaMix’, whose angry rhetorical chant in ‘Dynamic Elements’ is also an eloquent piece-by-piece examination of the worst of our preconceptions. That we all share the same fundamental DNA structure – ‘Descendant of Adam and of the Iceni / A dash of Helsinki, a pinch of Surrey’ – might, in a non-judgmental world, render the poem’s profound epithet redundant: ‘Enfant de pauvre n’est pas synonyme de malediction’.
The negligent, complicitly racist social landscape of the postwar period, of the sort which more or less overlooked the death of the homeless Nigerian, David Oluwale, in a Leeds canal nearly fifty years ago, is indicted almost by default in a poem whose foregrounding of contemporary images and recognisable geographical markers lends its meaning a greater immediacy. Char March’s ‘Son of the Mother-whose-children-are-like-fish’ is profoundly moving without being sentimental; it engages with the unpalatable facts of a life of racist abuse against the background of significant official players in that life, and measures the linear stages of a decline on an established sociological scale of prejudice. ‘Here he is, age 86’, March reminds us, as though looking at a smiling photograph, ‘And in his garden / we hold him, hear his quick laugh.’
Ian Harker’s peripatetic, impressionistic ‘Aire’ picks over the urban terrain of David Oluwale’s life from the perspective of a similarly attenuated existence, observing the detritic underbelly of the city as surely as survival and endurance demand, and from mean street, to nick, to hospital to canal. Harker’s closing lines are as helpless as Lear’s to restore breath to Cordelia, and they are almost unbearably moving:
‘ Millgarth goes down
in a swirl of brickdust – cell doors,
white tiles, time servers walking
on thin air. The lights go out.
A grave fills with water.’
It is fitting that Ian Duhig’s excerpt From ‘The Walker’s Tale’ should conclude this worthy and open-hearted pamphlet with an act of commemoration. Duhig’s ‘walker’ is an unintentional Flâneur whose search for a home obliges a cross-continental odyssey of extraordinary pain and endurance in relentless cultures of indifference, and mostly on foot. The refugee’s journey is katabatic, a descent into hell by any other imagining.
Duhig’s ‘guide’, the nameless refugee, is ‘barbarian’ in Tony Harrison’s sense, tongue-tied and hamstrung by his native ‘bar bar’, which is what the language of the stateless might sound like to an unsympathetic stranger from Leeds, or anywhere else. That his story is ‘one in millions’ will, it is hoped, shake our ongoing complacency like wind through the trees.
Any Change? Poetry in a Hostile Environment has been funded by the Forward Arts Foundation in relation to National Poetry Day’s theme of Change.
For more information: https://www.strixleeds.com/any-change
Any Change? Poetry In A Hostile Environment Ed. Ian Duhig, 16th August 2018, 7:13 AM