The poetry of austerity

A response to the cuts in verse.

Art, relatively speaking, is slow. Representation needs time to mirror real events, and little work has emerged so far in reaction to the coalition government's austerity programme since it took power last June. There was the so-so Theatre Uncut initiative earlier this year, but over the last couple of months another project has emerged out of the unlikely world of innovative poetry to deal with the cuts.

Poet Sam Riviere, winner in 2007 of an Eric Gregory Award and author of a pamphlet in the Faber New Poets series published last year, has been working on a web-published sequence of poems entitled "81 Austerities". It consists of 9 sets of 9 poems each, published on a weekly basis from 12 May. In Riviere's words, "The brief is to publish a passive/aggressive response to the 'austerity measures' implemented by the Coalition government in the UK in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. The collection aims to apply such 'cuts' to poetry itself, experiencing this deprivation primarily on the levels of sentiment, structure, and subject matter."

Riviere trained at the Norwich School of Art and Design, and the conceptual, process-oriented character of art education leaves its mark in the work. Each section incorporates photographic materials, and includes a number of visual poems and the use of innovative typography; the Tumblr version includes a number of video-poems assembled from scavenged footage, photographs and collages. The sequence was written systematically, following 8 different and intertwining themes. The overall tone takes its cues from the drollery and deadpan neutrality of internet discourse, the new-bureaucratic language of advertising and PR, the monologues of the bored and perpetually dissatisfied. It follows on from the high-velocity, obscurely logical language of Tom Raworth, the Language poets and the British poets who followed in their wake.

In Riviere's poetry, austerity figures as a revocation of generosity, a violence done to form, a grain to the surface of language that resists easy comprehension. As he writes in "Cuts":

very soon the things we cherish most
will likely be taken from us the wine
from our cellars our silk gowns and opium
but tell me what do you expect Chung Ling Soo
much ridiculed conjurer of the court and last
of the dynasty of brooms to do about it?

The poems, when written as monologues, present difficulties for the usual forms of biographical or dramatic reading. They denaturalise and call attention to, the language that they hoover up from the wider culture - an important gesture when the cuts are justified by the government and media by the neutering and abuse of language into doublespeak. The publishing strategy of "81 Austerities" - publication for free online, although a number of the poems have appeared also in literary journals - presents an obverse to the subject matter: a potlatch, an assurance, when everything is being cut, that some activities free of the suffocating logic of exchange are still possible.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue