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First-person ‘identity’ poetry.

.By Peter Riley.

barbed ruleUs
Zaffar Kunial.
Faber 2018 | 64pp paperback | £7.87 $14.50


House of Lords and Commons
Ishion Hutchinson.
Faber 2017 | 70pp paperback | £11.34 $15.63

barbed rule

ON PAGE 5 OF Us there is a poem called “Prayer” which concerns words spoken at times of birth and death. Starting from Allah hu Ahbar (“God is great”), spoken by his father at Kunial’s birth (he is British-born of Pakistani and English parents), it goes on via George Herbert’s “Prayer”, (where birth “chimes with heav’n and earth”) to his mother lying dying in a hospital bed, and ends —

……………………………I stayed on. At her bed
Earlier, time and rhythm flatlining, I whispered
Thank you___I love you___thank you
…………………………………….mouth at her ear.
She stared on, ahead.  I won’t know if she heard.

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(flatlining is what a heart monitor does as the heart progressively weakens, the final flat line indicating death). This calm and moving ending might seem a little bare if it didn’t come after a whole process of transition. Terms are at first large-scale: “God is great” – “Queen Elizabeth maternity ward” – “God’s breath in man” (Herbert: God breathing life into Adam) — “heav’n and earth . . . ” The expanded tone is brought carefully down step by step through Herbert’s intimate devotional phrases, as forms of prayer. The next step down is to “a Hereford hospital bed” –and the poem’s descent then reaches its crisis, where prayer is cancelled in his reaction to news of his mother’s cancer: “ . . . an animal noise, hurled language’s hurt”. But the movement continues irrevocably: “her rings were off” and we reach the still, small voice, his, at the end, the smallest prayer of them all. These are not events, but words, contemplated in a meaningful succession. They are not symbols and the poem is not an emblematic narrative of birth and death; they are the vocabulary of the actuality, which gains a resonance through its very accuracy. And the poem’s coherence, or, if you like, its form, is produced by the mental calm with which it is told. Nor is it a statement of religious belief; “mouth at her ear” is the phrase which coheres the whole poem, because it completes an elliptical course from separation to coming-together where the pain of distance is all the more sharp at the settlement, the contract fulfilled, and because it stands as sentinel over the closure as a human act performed perfectly.

Zaffar Kunial (Image Source: Author's Twitter)

Most of Kunial’s poems are directly personal, first-person accounts of the experience of facing difficulties and they are addressed, either to an identified person or straightforwardly to the reader.

Most of Kunial’s poems are directly personal, first-person accounts of the experience of facing difficulties and they are addressed, either to an identified person or straightforwardly to the reader. Most of the difficulties he faces are linguistic, and involve the Pakistani languages his father speaks but he doesn’t know, encountered one word at a time. Slowly and painstakingly he narrates his confrontation with these foreign but paternal words and their renderings, true or false, in English. One of them is his own surname, which is followed through its meanings and variants, the correct sounding of the first a, and his namesake, an Indian king-poet. Another is the moment when his father tells him he should get up in the morning and “enjoy the life”— “I heard a wrongness in putting a the before life. In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.” and he is left with “…that sticking word, that definite article, half right, half wrong, still present between enjoy and life.” So these difficulties can be represented as a permanent impediment, to be acted out on other occasions whether language-centred or not. They are told as progressions through word, language, place and self, and tend to show at the end a displacement, hesitation or conflict in the self which corresponds to an inner division of the two origins, which hinders comprehension and produces a sense of displacement — “half cast, at a loss”. The poem “Hill Speak” ends

or, theven at the rare moment I get towards —
or, thank God, even getting to —
my point, I can’t put into words
where I’ve arrived.

One commenter puts this as “it only serves to remind him of his own inarticulacy. English, the language of the poem, cannot serve him, and can only serve to half-capture the meanings of his own life.” And yet the whole book shows a perfect command of English including English as a language for poetry — after all, he did get there in the end, as he says. “Inarticulate” would be the last word you’d want to use to describe his writing. Here I begin to suspect some play-acting.

It is mainly the poems focused on racial mixing that bear this kind of negative diagnosis. In “Self Portrait as Bottom” he takes a genetics test with the result “50% Europe. 50% Asia” but insists on considering the finer detail of the test result, which involves him in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Finland, Caucasus . . . and settles on a mere 1% “Italy. Greece” where his mother and father could almost meet.

And this bit, the almost meeting,
I’ve felt at some level,
a low level, mutteringly,
a kind of abysmal underneathness
or usness, under the heights
of language, which, ridiculously,
I looked to see in that U-
shaped test tube . . .
and not only in part,
or passing, or past.

REVIEWS AND AWARD comments directed at him have emphasised race almost exclusively. But it is not simply the cliché of “searching for his roots”. I don’t think it is even “his mixed race identity” and I certainly don’t think he portrays himself as victim of a “sincere identity conflict”, or no more so than any citizen of this deeply divided country on the edge of a continent and a vast spread of culture far beyond the borders of Europe, which we are about to abandon. Whether they start from a word in Pahari-Potwali or not, Kunial’s philological (or not) meditations as they progress through the process of word and poem engage with Herbert, Donne, Shakespeare, Austen, Coleridge, Dickens and more. One stanza begins in Old English – “Hwaer cwom mearg? Hwaercwom mago / “Where is the horse gone? Where is the young man?” and leaps through Middle English (“Uuere beþ þey biforen vs weren”) reaching his present tense where the child asks the mother, Where’s gone Daddy? Daddy is in the country called Back Home.

The implications of Kunial’s poetry, I feel, do not exactly belong in the “identity” department, in which “we” can refresh our guilt. He does not ask who or what am I; he asks Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt which is a collective question. In the important poem “You”, which begins with the bomb that fell on his father’s school and ended his education at the age of seven, his father, “lit with drink” challenges his mother for her Britishness:

After you their Tempest planes bombed my school
or You are always king of divide and rule
or My hands are tied. My tongue can’t make a good fist
of speech like you. Because of you. You. The English
second-person plural. Or singular.

The as-if last-minute appending of that question, plural or singular, makes the whole issue more complicated and subtle as against such alternatives as the easy invocation of the word “white” to cover the harm of centuries, regardless of persons.

Kunial’s whole manner of poetical writing is mostly very straightforward, saying exactly what it says, with a constant sense of calm reasoning.

As well as in the resolutions of many of the poems, this pact is given us in Kunial’s whole manner of poetical writing, mostly very straightforward, saying exactly what it says, with a constant sense of calm reasoning. It is consistently “measured” in the popular sense, though the longer lines (such as the second and last of the above excerpt) are rarely entirely free of the hint of the pentameter. Even the pieces in prose seem to have a prosody behind them which assures a steady and deliberate movement, a lyrical calm at every step. Rhyme, word-play, phonetics, are all handled pointedly as well as subtly. The avoidance of emphasis at “won’t know” rather than “shall never know” is typical.

There are also short-line poems which are less explicative and handle words as if each one is itself an item in his quest, and the words themselves are allowed to lead the poem’s discourse onwards. The one called “W*nd” starts from —

When I arrived
I didn’t know
the word
for what I was.

and goes on to—

And one dayless day, I
heard, or it heard
that what I was
was wind. The one

w•nd I was
the rumour of my own being.

Later this word with a missing vowel is reduced to the one letter W, and in the final section of the poem this searching among words and letters restores the missing vowel and agrees that the divided language is a damage, but a damage which is immediately healed.

West, west.

Wis, wis. In the beginning
w, w, w It’s the was
not the Word I stutter at, before I
arrive, in w and s

at the aleph, or alif
that blows me into being.
To the in of the in. The black
of the star, reversed to when all that

was began, before solar w*nd,
interstellar w*nd,
a first breath from beyond
my bond, my vowel.

A wavering oneness
or wand. One’s shyest
earliest wound

It’s all there, in a way which won’t allow us to read it as a recognised generality. The language elements tangling with each other, and the work of locating them, are the resolution.

His poem facing the portrait of Shakespeare, wittily entitled “The Lyric Eye”, a near-sonnet, ends:

But when I stand, here, almost in a blink
I can place my eyes – glazed over your stare;
let you lend me your ear, your famous cheek,
let the flame of your nostril stretch thin air;
even try on your earring, from five feet,
four centuries apart. I swear by this lapse
the light on your mouth seems cast
the light on your mouth seems cast half on mine
when I borrow the line between your lips.

Anger is not to the forefront in this writing, neither is self-pity, and the poet does not mount a platform on behalf of whole nations. It is an entirely different form of foreignness which translates the difficulties into the inner healing properties of words from anywhere in the world. The tenor of the writing is constantly calm and contemplative however worried, and the divided condition which causes the worry also provides the opportunities and occasions for the poems, like sudden oriental gems.

IN 2012 I HEARD part of a reading by Ishion Hutchinson
and at once bought his book (Far District, Peepal Tree Press 2010). I didn’t hear much, but it struck me as a kind of writing which I constantly watch out for and recognise instantly, something that strikes a chord. This could be a manifestation of “craft” in modern poetry, meaning a practised human skill in renewing the structures of language, until they begin to relinquish their obduracy, and cracks appear in them through which you begin to see glimpses of the opposing world. A quest for hope which can be felt in the very sound of the words, the weight, swiftness and continuity and free range of the thought that pushes the poetry forward.

Ishion Hutchinson. (Image Source: Cornell University English Department.)That first book is much concerned with scenes and events of unprotected poverty in his past in a rural “Outer Eden”, seen at a distance which allows a gloss of comedy and irony. They are set against a whole world of learning, poetry, literature, antiquity, mythology which is his escape route and in which his distinctly modern handling of language is formed. The title sequence is a particularly telling and absorbing theatre of this distant paradise in a state of distress.

In Hutchinson’s second book, his resources are wider and more varied, both as a field of reference and in the workings of language.

House of Lords and Commons continues this quest, but the resources are wider and more varied, both as a field of reference and in the workings of language. He faces a much more extensive confrontation with “Western” poetry, art, and culture and has gained a great facility in turning the conflicts, tensions and harmonies involved into a drama of real extent and relevance. He likes to write in long sentences, one of which may sometimes occupy an entire page-length poem, in which he presses on relentlessly with an account which is liable to end as a question and a challenge.

There is an important feature which he retains from the earlier book, concerning the way into the poem. However, Modernism (not the Pound one, more like the Stevens one or the British one) charges through the text in long strides; each poem bears a familiarity of genre: there is an evident subject from the start and the poems offer to do what poems of that kind are normally expected to do. Familiarity or verbal comfort may end with the first word, but still the poem, or the poem’s skeleton, performs the actions expected of it, which will usually take the form of an account or an address.

So what you start in you stay in, meaning there is a limit to the disruption the poet inflicts on the reader, and what he does inflict is as much a matter of a shared delight before the flexibility of language as depth wisdom. In fact the “serious” side of things is more political, in referencing a long history of disadvantaged living. And whatever is radical in the writing co-exists with a determination not to let go, of local affection or of classical completion.

Not that the Modernism is ubiquitous. There is a range of manners, including something quite close to ordinary, but with poetry sitting in the middle of it and refusing to budge. Here is one of his long sentences, part of an elegiac sequence:

I must not be too surprised at the sudden
rain while writing to you, crisply departed,
for no matter how far I have moved from home,
this always reigns me in, the sight of rain
and sunlight together, childhood’s leavened joy
back-spinning as fast downhill after
stuffing ourselves with my granny’s cakes
and ginger beer, and you, ever the fleet-foot
playfield king, always ahead, so far ahead
a cloud has eaten your voice and I your dust;
yes, you weigh heavily on me, friend,
who no longer knows the way to die.

Of course it is not without unanswered questions, occurring mainly as the intrusion of single unpredicated words, from the first rather laboured pun on rain/reign to the apocalyptic event at the end, which is neither surrealism nor symbolism, but, I think, simply an authentic enhancement of resource brought out by a climactic narrative.

Here is another, from “The Wanderer”:

Still clear from its very first shout, ‘Thalatta! Thalatta!’
is the clamour every wave brings, 10,000 voices
arched into one, shaking the mountain clouds down

to mist, power they sing, spitting salt into flames, to outlast
the memory of those who toiled with the mongoose
and snake, never to sit like a colossal Memnon as his songs

turns into brass croaks, language reentering the guttural
cave before the first spark of flint.

This lofty tone is new and he takes it on with ease, opening up distant large-scale history as subject-matter. So off we go with our classical dictionaries, but that is hardly to begin and remains subject to the more real understanding which offers itself to the text rather than demands one of it.

Most of the poems are accounts of various recognised kinds, such as elegy and legend; also story, tale, anecdote, dream story . . .

Most of the poems are accounts of various recognised kinds, such as elegy and legend; also story, tale, anecdote, dream story, historical scene, local crisis, reminiscence . . . and all of these pass through image-rich discourse in various degrees of opacity on their way to an ending which is always assured but not necessarily transgressive. There are also homages or pacts with figures signalling his horizon: Vallejo, Debussy/Mallarmé, St.-Jean Perse and others. All these recourses retain their evident purpose throughout, transcending it only in the determination to make a poem out of it all. There are also three or four short poems which seem set aside from his personal / public narratives, such as this —

Girl at Christmas

For all she’s gladdened: milk
dreaming love in one hand;
cleft of clementine stain

the other. They cannot die;
the coral joy and battering
ceramic, the peach bones

and scotch bonnet seeds;
the sorrel, and foil mask she then puts
on to belt her savage choir.

in which small units of language are disjointed and cannot be merged by circumvention or paraphrase, but the whole coheres as a lyric, not without possible touches of comedy. For a long time in the West any writing which is close to this in its “impenetrability” has been popularly despised as elitist. Yet taken the right way, as Hutchinson’s touches of playfulness encourage, it is so easeful.

House of Lords and Commons was reviewed in The Guardian 9th December 2017, by Sandeep Parmar and if what she says is right I have missed the whole point. It would not be the first time. Her claim is that the colonial history of Jamaica, which is a matter principally of conqueror and victim, slavery and sugar cane plantations, informs and motivates all Hutchinson’s poetry, without displacing any of the evident subject matter.

I THINK THIS IS not a question of composition, but of interpretation. How far is interpretation willing to go in drawing a line round the poem or the entire oeuvre which cannot be transgressed, and declaring that the harm of colonisation is not merely its only concern, but, given the poet’s position, its only possible concern. And that as a first-person poetry it will always represent the poet’s quest for a personal identity in conditions of society and language which make that especially difficult through cultural dominance. It may even go so far as to define the poetry in this way whether the poet likes it or not: whatever he writes will agree to these readings not because of what he writes so much as of what he is: a Jamaican black. This is made easier, of course, by the techniques of poetical subversion so well developed now in the younger academy, where the strategy with any poem is to dive immediately to what it does not say, but “is there”, proven by recourse to etymology, psychology, imagery or other arts of subversion.

Does every poem, whatever its subject, become an attack on the whole “white” world…and on every citizen thereof individually?

It would be strange if these histories were not present, the question being if they are there, why are they concealed and from whom? (or you might ask why are they still concealed as they would have been in the original colonial society). And if Parmar is right to see “a map of a cultural [i.e. Western] dominance” in all Hutchinson’s dealings with social unrest and injustice (including the title of the book) how does this fit with his hungry quest to seek out and meet on equal terms the “Western” poets, dramas, and myths he needs (a purpose he seems to share with Zaffar Kunial)? Does the eighteenth-century transatlantic slave trade, one of many, really strike through to the soul of the Jamaican poet as no other history can, creating a permanent and specific victimhood, anger or resentment? And does every poem, whatever its subject, become an attack on the whole “white” world, specifically on Britain and its Empire, and on every citizen thereof individually? I can’t say that it doesn’t, and the work of important Jamaican or Anglo-Jamaican poets insists that it does.1

But Hutchinson’s poetry seems not to stress it so strongly and uniformly, and does not so comprehensively project the field of perception as a haunted house.

The alternative interpretative approach is one which is probably frowned upon in some quarters — to release the poem from any boundaries and let its transgressions of the rational and the specific (which any poetry even without Modernist features will have) become, however hesitantly and fragmentarily, gestures towards the sight of, and existence of, a larger apprehension of humanity, approaching (traditionally, through theology rather than commerce) the possible sighting of a common humanity. Kunial’s several meetings with George Herbert and John Donne might suggest this, and Hutchinson’s front blurb, which is unsigned, seems to agree:

The poems convey the complex allure of Hutchison’s native Jamaican landscape, and the violent forces that shaped its history, with remarkable lyric precision. But they speak far beyond Caribbean experience, thanks to the author’s uncanny ability to reach the universal within the local.

There are at least two poems in the book which have overtly political content (in the widest sense). One is ”The Ark by ‘Scratch’”, a remarkable poem in which the musician Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, building his studio, “The Ark”, is creating a whole world, or the world itself, but with answers to power built in—

The genie says build a studio. I build
a studio from ash. I make it out of peril and slum
things. I alone when blood and bullet and all
Christ-fucking- ‘Merican-dollar politicians talk
the pressure down to nothing, when the equator’s
confused and coke bubbles on tinfoil to cemented wreath.
. . .
And in the circuit breaker, the red switch is for death
and the black switch is for death, and the master switch
is black and red, so if US, Russia, China, Israel talk
missiles talk, I talk that switch I call Melchizedek . . .

The message here is explicit, written with the materials of the place itself. It also moves the whole thing out of the post-colonial obsession into the present tense as a full-blown head-on rhetorical confrontation with the forces of harm, rejoicing in its own strength, the strength to speak distinctly in this way, and construct this Ark

The other is “A Burnt Ship”, a calm string of couplets (one sentence in 22 lines) which, after a rather mysterious start in Sumer, becomes a list of things, entities, properties, and perceptions which increasingly feel like a cargo of both material and immaterial “finds” exported from east and south to west, perhaps a sunken cargo, turning at the end to —

seahorse, half man, sunken masks,
god’s horn, perfume, ivory tusks,

market dust, vine pillars, batter-ram
sound, orange-light caravan, wheels

of water spinning industry, whipped
backs, shock foil, the galvanised wax

congealed dreams of a burnt ship;
all were lost all were drowned.

I immediately took that ending as a reference to the infamous event of 1781 when the crew of the slave ship “Zong” murdered more then 130 African slaves by throwing them into the sea, to lessen the demand for fresh water which they were running out of, and in order to be able to claim insurance. It was the basis of Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” of 1840. I still think this is right, in spite of the isolation of the last line from the rest of the poem, and even though the “Zong” was not on fire, and neither was the ship in Turner’s painting. But holding this history surely does not prevent the poem’s ending from holding other histories or conditions which neither poet nor reader necessarily recognise.

Similarly, Sandeep Parmar is surely right to say, “’A Burnt Ship’ illustrates the poet’s range of linguistic possibility. In a single dreamlike list the reader is transported from ancient Mesopotamia to the horrors of the ‘whipped backs’ of slaves.” This was exactly how I read it at first sight, but without wanting to fuss about small details, I also have to notice that the poem says “whipped backs” but does not say “of slaves”. Of course if you put “whipped backs” and “Jamaica” together you get slaves. I like to think that by avoiding a fully specific notation the poet, intentionally or not, leaves a small crack of daylight open to anywhere else in the world.

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.


  1. See particularly the recent work of D.S. Marriott where it seems that personal, psychological, social, political and many other forms of damage are owed principally to the eighteenth-century transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath, fundamentally the reduction of the entire person to a sellable and negotiable object, amounting to a complete image transformation of the space inhabited. Reviewed, unfortunately rather naïvely, by me, here.

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