Monday, February 25, 2008

dajit nagra, look we have coming to dover review

I don't read very much poetry. When I do, I tend to either grind my teeth in concentration or whoop with pleasure; either is fine with me. Difficult poetry burns at my temple but gives me little head-spins of delight, semi-translated insights. When it's good, that is. Daljit Nagra's much praised collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! is certainly that – a rich and heady concoction of complex constructions and tangy, noun-heavy vocabulary.

I don't understand all of it, by any means, but I think I know what it's about and find it fascinating and funny; the drama of being Indian in England, good and bad, the contradictions, the triumphs and the shaming defeats, big or small. The language is plain exquisite (there's a contradiction), swelling with Nagra's "Punglish", which darts from evocation of sugary pomegranate to evocation of sugar-puff. There's lots of food. In 'Karela!' (lots of exclamation marks, too, this is not poetry for whispering), the narrator tries to cook a dish from his past and fails. "My body craves / taste of home but is scolded / by shame of blood-desertion".

In 'Parade's End' the narrator's Dad parks his newly-sprayed "Granada, champagne gold / by our superstore on Blackstock Road", and heads inside to find "council mums at our meat-display" decrying "darkies from down south" and their "flash caahs!". It's believable stuff. When the day is done they return to encounter the sight of "the car-skin pucker, bubbling smarts / of acid". Nagra writes:

In the unstoppable pub-roar
from the John O'Gaunt across the forecourt,
we returned to the shop, lifted a shutter,
queued at the sink, walked down again.
Three of us, each carrying pans of cold-water.
Then we swept away the bonnet-leaves
from gold to the brown of our former colour.
Nagra's writing is full of small humiliations suffered at the hands of the Daily Mail mentality. But his characters come out fighting, too, and then some. "Vy giv my boy dis freebie of a silky blue GCSE antology", one voice demands, with it's Part Two which consists of;

us as a bunch of Gunga Dins ju group, 'Poems
from Udder Cultures
and Traditions'. 'Udder'
is all
vee are to yoo, to dis country –
'Udder?’ To my son's kabbadi posseee, alll
yor poets are 'Udder'!
Before one thinks of pigeonholing Nagra's extraordinary voice, he takes the time to pull off a series of varied literary tricks. 'Sajid Naqvi' is a sober, clear-eyed description of a funeral which fails to sum up the man, and 'On the Birth of a Daughter' a beautiful description of just that. The haunting, Pinter-esque 'X', meanwhile, is just a series of furious, semi-articulate punches:

u hook my arms
u hood my head
u lose my legs

& still u say
I say u harm
There are several poems in Look We Have Coming to Dover which I can't decipher, and plenty more which I need to re-read. Despite the unfamiliar language, however, it's really vibrant, addictive stuff, and makes me swear I'll follow contemporary poetry a bit more closely, if this is the kind of thing I'll find. The closing 'Singh Song!' - which is romantic, lustful, hilarious - might just be the greatest thing I've read all year, a bawdy tale set "in di worst Indian shop / On di whole Indian road", where the narrator keeps locking the door and nipping upstairs:

cos up di stairs is my newly bride
vee share in chapatti
vee share in di chutney
after vee hav made luv
like vee rowing through Putney.
Look We Have Coming to Dover is bursting with life – a magnificent celebration of language, multiculturism, sex and humanity. Here are the final lines of that poem.

Late in di midnight hour
ven yoo shoppers are wrap up quiet
ven di precinct is concrete-cool
vee cum down whispering stairs
and sit on my silver stool,
from behind di chocolate bars
vee stare past di half price window signs
at di beaches ov di UK in di brightey moon –

from di stool each night she say,
How much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?

from di stool each night I say,
Is half di cost ov yoo baby,

from di stool each night she say,
How much does dat come to baby?

from di stool each night I say,
Is priceless baby –
Here's the whole poem.

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