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Tara Bergin’s poetry is a perfect guide to these frightened, frightening times

The NS reviews Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, along with collections by Nick Makoha and Stephen Romer.

Tara Bergin’s first book of poems, This Is Yarrow, was one of the strangest and most assured debuts of recent years. It introduced the reader to an uncanny world we almost recognised, or almost wanted to recognise. Refreshingly, and sometimes unnervingly, Bergin didn’t seem to expect the reader to identify with her. Her new collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, pushes further into this territory.

The opening poem, “The True Story of Eleanor Marx”, begins with a riddling promise both to say and not to say: “I’m not going to tell you anything/That my psychoanalyst wouldn’t tell you.” Eleanor was Karl’s daughter and, having translated Madame Bovary, she committed suicide, apparently in imitation of the novel’s heroine.

Her identity in life and death seems alienated and overdetermined, making her an apt subject for Bergin, whose poems often seem poised between lyric and dramatic monologue. Several are occasioned by the horror of enforced sociability, such as a visit to the hairdresser (“I… listen with great care/to all the things she has to tell me”), but even intimate exchanges are laced with weird imperatives. “Strange Courtship” begins,

These are the rules.

White lilac means: “I am falling in love with you.”
Mauve lilac means: “Are your feelings still the same?”

In these examples, it is the performance of gender, with all its attendant anxieties, that drives Bergin to write. Other politically loaded relationships are examined in “In Memory of My Lack of Feelings”, which begins by noting drily: “What the Landlady says is that the pilot light has gone out./Do you know what that means?/It means the whole building is freezing.” The poem’s scope widens with the lines, “Society has gone out, do you know what that means?/It means we all work here in the cold.” (Margaret Thatcher as the landlady from hell? Sounds about right: it’s still her country, even if she doesn’t live in it.) Bergin’s Gothic imagination – precise, claustrophobic, yet full of vertiginous perspectives – makes her a perfect guide to these frightened, frightening times.

One of the poems in Kingdom of Gravity, Nick Makoha’s ambitious, powerful debut collection, begins: “Sad is the man who is asked for a story/and can’t come up with one…” Makoha, who was born and raised in Idi Amin’s Uganda, has plenty of stories, but having something important to say can be a curse for a writer – if the content overpowers the attempt to shape it, the work will feel, at best, like a commentary. This never happens in Kingdom of Gravity.

First, Makoha’s gifts for phrase-making and sound-patterning (“An Acholi soldier laughs/in hyena soliloquy”) assert the value of poetry by ensuring memorability. Second, and more important, the poems convey the immediacy of having been formed by the same pressures that occasioned them. The book is full of references to passports, visas, tickets and tax cards, and the poems are vital documents, as well: responses, interventions, or transactions, produced by necessity, as proof.

Makoha’s imagery is vivid (men who “hold a rifle/as they would a woman”), and he demonstrates a mastery of tone and line. He can write with aphoristic concision, something he may have learned from his mother, who, in “Stone”, coins a phrase for the culture of bribery: “In Uganda, a bribe stops men/doing nothing. It rolls away the stone.” And he can strike an expansive note just as convincingly:

When the hills were on fire,
there were no angels to guide us.

Only the equator was able to divide
the land equally. Even the night took sides.

Elsewhere, brutal content and formal delicacy are combined to great effect, as in this half-rhyming couplet: “From the clays of the body, blood now blossoms./The ruins of our land have become your museums.”

Stephen Romer, whose Set Thy Love in Order: New and Selected Poems brings together three decades of work, is an altogether different kind of poet, but the half-rhymed couplet was once one of his staple forms, too, as here in “Adult Single”:

As if a diary redeemed the time
I bring it up to date in a solemn

trivial rite, as if the recent past
were mastered like the latest

headlines, as if, once and for all,
I could get things under control

by jotting them down on this hurtling train…

The poem offers a characteristic blend of self-examination and what feels like a classically trained sense of beauty, clarity and proportion. There is something Bergman-esque about Romer’s work, though we’re talking Wild Strawberries rather than The Seventh Seal: the poems often seem mysteriously imbued with a sense of existential angst that never fully declares itself.

Romer is a master at capturing the bitter­sweet, rueful glance over the shoulder. “Suddenly” is about finally pulling free of a painful break-up – until the ending makes us suspect that this is wishful thinking: “I am no longer waiting. I could greet you,/and go about my business,/now that I have some business./We could even reminisce. A breeze!”

The book’s 13 new poems show Romer’s work growing more subtly and mysteriously affecting as his subjects become more elegiac: “The gardens, bereaved of our mothers/breathe gently under grey in the sadness/of the morning, and tranquilly they overrun/bounds of the former dispensation.” With the lightest of touches, Romer sounds out the language, matching music and association. 

Paul Batchelor is the author of the poetry collections “The Sinking Road” (Bloodaxe) and “The Love Darg” (Clutag Press) 

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Tara Bergin
Carcanet, 88pp, £9.99

Kingdom of Gravity
Nick Makoha
Peepal Tree, 82pp, £8.99

Set Thy Love in Order: New and Selected Poems
Stephen Romer
Carcanet, 168pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist