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  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

“Poets are witnesses to the emotive history of humankind,”

Nikita Gill recommends three recent poetry collections

Poets are witnesses to the emotive history of humankind. Where there is no one to remember the infinite gamut of emotions around the events that have shaped humanity, poets immortalise it, and that is precisely why their work is so essential. I start with this as the books I discuss here come from three of the most important poetic voices of this generation. Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi, Rick Dove and Cynthia Rodriguez have this in common: they speak to lyrical experiences so powerful that anyone who reads these books is forever changed.

In [Re:Desire], Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi’s fiery and evocative retelling of the desi woman’s experience, she touches on the distance between mothers and daughters through language, the yearning for love and pleasure, along with the constant pressure that is put on South Asian women. In the section titled Izzat in particular, she unflinchingly explores the way shame is used to define misogynistic thresholds for generations of women that we never agreed to (daughters who live past their first day/are wrapped in izzat and shame). One of the most startlingly beautiful aspects of the book is the hypnotic and rhythmic thirty six times she fell where the poet uses a study of intimacy as a basis for her melodic poem leaving the reader captivated with lines such as “he sang deep vowels of/ wreckage and chaos/ she saw the untruth/ and how hunger kisses his lips”. Structurally magnificent and drawing on the naturally poetic tongue of Urdu, this book is rich in experimental form and harmony.

Rick Dove’s Tales from the Other Box is an explosion of a collection, full of vibrant and symphonic language that will leave anyone reading breathless. I found myself reading sections of this book out loud, the words were deeply musical, all while skilfully harnessing quiet rage, passion, grief. From the very first poem, First Words, Dove captures the effects of both macro and micro racism on the mind, body and soul, specifically anti Blackness that permeates society. Here, we see the silent fury that has been held back for years, culminating in the heart-wrenching lessons learned from deeply resonant lines (“it is not your job to hold the lantern/ to show others out of the dark”.) The poet’s exploration of race, love, tenderness, regret, society and self goes from strength to fierce strength throughout the book with the brilliant Proud Flesh, Lessons on Folded Time, Bucket List, History 101, Soliloquy among so many others I highlighted to return to. Dove also touches on myth in After Sojourner Truth and Ouroboros in such a compelling way adding beautifully to his stunningly constructed narrative, every poem speaking to each other. An incredibly important and splendid work of craft and experience, this book will sing for generations to come.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Rodriguez’s dynamic and fearless collection is a powerful look at Britain through the eyes of a migrant. Her words particularly struck a chord with me as a migrant myself, especially the poem My Kind (“My kind were called names in school/ Now they are have adopted/ these names as their own. Names used for reconstruction/ instead of destruction.”), which uses both repetition and rich imagery to create an anthem for the othered. The five chapters of this book explore identity through a wealth of subjects like citizenship (Naturalisation), the complexity of the body (Spidergirls), imposter syndrome (But is it art?), mental health (How to Leave The House in Times of Trouble),childhood (Becoming), queerness (Recognise) – each poem as much a celebration as it is a reckoning. Rodriguez uses both formidable composition, weaving layer complexity with accessible lyrical language to challenge the approved narrative of what a migrant must do to be accepted, humanising in its approach. Sharp and bright, Meanwhile is a devastatingly moving book I highly recommend.

All three books provided for review by the publisher, Burning Eye Books. The books may be purchased from their website.

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