Swelling the Flock with Voice

Becky Varley-Winter reads six groundbreaking new pamphlets

Anita Pati
Dodo Provocateur
The Rialto £6

Arji Manuelpillai
Mutton Rolls
Out-Spoken £7

Jennifer Lee Tsai
Kismet
Ignition Press £5

Lauren Garland
Darling
Broken Sleep £6

Miranda Peake
Yellow
Live Canon £7

Suna Afshan
Belladonna
Legitimate Snack £8

In summer 2020, in the constricted atmosphere of lockdown, I tweeted a call for debut pamphlets for review. The response was like a window cracked open – many poets offered assured, impressive debuts, mostly published by small independent presses. The six poets here were each characterised by a certain vocal energy; their poems speak distinctively.

In Dodo Provocateur, Anita Pati reflects on this ability to speak, ‘swelling the flock with voice’, when others are ‘too wounded to squawk: / earth tamps down their song’ (‘Ornithology’). Pati therefore offers a postcolonial, critical lyricism; the dodos of her title were famously hunted to extinction by Western settlers. Birds are a familiar presence in poetry, but Pati’s birds are earthbound rather than ethereal, found pressed into mossy rocks and cliff faces. Her lines are percussive and woven thick, as in her expert twist on a Shakespearean sonnet, ‘’Twixt’:

Call this love? I’m whacked and dainty over u – 
that pigeon heart has pestered me all year.
You Twitter in my ears a mating coo
and digitise your Rati everywhere.

Unexpected juxtapositions – both ‘whacked’ and ‘dainty’ – intensify this poem’s drama, in which ‘that pigeon heart’ gathers a bizarrely detached energy, escaping its owner’s ribcage. The mating pigeon is a vivid, clownlike pest, as Rati, the Hindu goddess of lust, spreads her seed over online platforms.

Alongside this comic energy, Dodo Provocateur contains movingly vulnerable poems of blocked or disrupted bodies, such as ‘Janis Joplin Robs My Drink’ (‘she’s swimming up my oesophagus / with red-rimmed irises / from all that crying’) and ‘Black Holes and Stars’, which addresses a mortally sick child: ‘Once, aged three, you quizzed me on God. I would skewer / the ones that harmed you this way.’ Pati’s visceral word-choices – ‘skewer’ rather than ‘kill’ – evoke the body’s nervy sinew, and its soul.

Arji Manuelpillai’s Mutton Rolls similarly combines knowing humour with hurt. In ‘Monkey’, he parodies racist stereotypes:

        look at me
     flying through the window so the whole pub screams
             smashing the bottles off the back of the bar
scattering pork scratchings on your good ol’ days

This wry style misses nothing, least of all the speaker’s own repressions. ‘Cecilia says we’re all fucked up’ describes a therapy session as a performance. ‘I can see her reading me like a public toilet door’, Manuelpillai writes. Like Hamlet saying ‘though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me’, the patient pretends to open up – feeling inwardly detached – until their session ends. Playing a sad clown, they ‘wipe / the tears away like face paint’, before asking themselves ‘how long before I’m wandering / drunk down the Old Kent Road not knowing how I got there’.

Manuelpillai can offer quick punchlines, but his work is most interesting in this expansive dissonance or discomfort, such as in ‘half catholic’, which prays ‘not to want / a man again’. The speaker becomes a melting candle, trying to resist flickering desires, which still emerge in furtive gestures:

candles burn out
wax crumbles off my body

like paint off the feet of Jesus
Amen

after the tsunami 
I watch a man

pickpocket a corpse
quietly as though hiding it from the sky

Jennifer Lee Tsai’s Kismet (meaning destiny or fate) is also concerned with half-hidden truths. She mixes an airy lightness of touch with matter-of-fact grit: ‘shit storms and hailstones’ collide with ‘damned and wild beauty’ (‘Love Token’). Tsai is especially good at tense, evocative narrative poems: ‘You Said’, ‘Why’ and ‘The Age of Innocence’ convey whole histories in a breathless space, including fleeting allusions to abuse. Her poems are subtly but vitally angry, capturing both the seeming delicacy of girlhood, and the rage pulsing inside its betrayal:

This October morning is white
as it curdles its fury.
                (‘A Certain Purity of Light’).

In ‘The Age of Innocence’, she compares womanhood to a forbidden room. Aged six and eight, two children fly ‘up / and down those stairs’ and, discovering a room with a glitterball inside along with makeup and costumes, they apply lipstick, in a half-unknowing mimicry of adult glamour:

They say that geishas inhabit another realm, 
a flower and willow world. It’s so cold.

Opposed to these alienated realms, Tsai describes the muse of her poems as a figure whose sexuality is all her own, full of verve and grace:

Twilight, she comes alive,

hips spiralling like fire.
In the morning she leaves.
She comes and goes as she pleases.
                                    ('Muse')

I first heard Lauren Garland’s poems in a workshop three years ago, and her voice has stayed with me since. Like Tsai, she thrives at night; several of her poems are set after dark, or show people resting and waking. Her debut pamphlet, Darling, opens with ‘Boy is it good to see you, Alicia’, an ode to the main character from The Good Wife, whose hair fits her head ‘exactly / like auburn Lego.’ After a long day at work, the speaker fantasises both about being like Alicia, and being nurtured by her:

did I mention you’re a window 
flung back on its hinges?

Oh, if you’re ever in town
could you hold your heels in your hands, 
softly climb the stairs at night,
push the hair back from my face
like you do your darling daughter?

The quasi-maternal relationship here, and Garland’s vivid description of comfort TV as a surrogate parent, makes this unlike any other ode I’ve read.

Darling often captures the electric, unsettling edges of intimacy. In ‘Scrambling Eggs’, cooking is an act of (perhaps sinister, perhaps anxious) control:

He can’t be with you every morning
so he tells you it’s time you learn for yourself.
He hangs at your shoulder. You reach for the milk – 
no he says, and remember to whisk

a breeze through the bowl, it’s not a tornado.

Following this urging, Garland’s style is more breeze than storm. Reading her poems feels like looking into lit windows, onto a Hopper-like tableau in which gestures predominate, expressing meaning through movement and scene. At times I wanted her to push further into a poem, rather than stepping lightly off the page, but like Elizabeth Bishop, she is primarily a poet of close observation. ‘Latrigg’ reflects on leanings between people, and their overlapping lives:

A half mile higher we stop again
to look at a young silver birch sloped
sideways but caught, on its way to the ground, 
in the crook of a neighbour’s branches.
There’s tenderness in that, the kind of comfort 
you only get from spending the night
in a schoolfriend’s bed.

Darling, with its intimacies and intrigues set in lonesome yet tender landscapes, resembles one of those nights.

Miranda Peake’s Yellow has a similarly visual sensibility. Peake is an artist as well as a poet, and her titles often consist of first lines, drawing no boundary between poem and frame. ‘I took my hands from your pockets and walked here’ is set in an art gallery. The speaker leaves her group and searches until she finds a scene she knows:

[...] Vermeer – closed in and lovely, 
women doing things I might do, 
alone and quiet in their houses.

The full arc of Yellow wrestles with the challenges and compromises of lasting love. In ‘Though we know they are there’, she asks ‘how could I tell you / I have only loved the ones I can’t control’, and in ‘Are you feeling ok?’ she captures the addictive nature of passion:

You said we’d drink a lot of wine, you said the shirt was a gift, but no mention of the whole high
stoop of you bent over me, the red
and all the yellow moving in my careful body.

Desire tugs against measured restraint, as the word ‘careful’ or ‘carefully’ repeats itself throughout the pamphlet. At times Yellow feels like a Virginia Woolf novel in vignettes, featuring recurring characters named Catherine, Meryl, and Immie alongside the main speaker, in a world where difficulties are buttoned up or buttoned over. Peake anatomises, with unsparing precision, moments in which polite middle-class lives lose their composure. She reflects on unexpected, taboo moods of grief, such as suddenly laughing at a funeral, or admitting selfish, detached thoughts: ‘You text me to say that in retrospect you like Edward / more since he’s been dead, and you wonder who’s next’ (‘Room 19’). In the final poem, this debate between self-control and tenderness, coolness and heat, still wavers in yellow suspense:

Meryl lowers the diamond of her face and tries
not to know about the music in her sister’s voice, the heat

and the sugar in the fruit, the fact that there was fruit at all. 
                 (‘Catherine telephones from Tangier’)

Without the satirical tone, this could feel coy or mannered, but it’s clear that Peake is seeking out ambivalent human truths, their heat enclosed inside ‘the complicated mechanism of the house’.

Finally, Suna Afshan’s Belladonna is a micro-pamphlet consisting of a single long poem in parts, like The Waste Land for the twenty-first century. Belladonna is one of the invented tarot cards of T S Eliot’s poem, and Afshan consciously echoes Eliot in her opening lines. Despite its brevity, Belladonna has the horizons of a major work, and is one of the most ambitious debuts I’ve ever read.

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, is poisonous, and causes pupils to dilate, which suits the wide-eyed gaze of this poem. Bella donna also means ‘beautiful woman’, and Afshan uses this character to evoke both sexuality and death. As in The Waste Land, Afshan laces her imagery of fertility and flight with fears of sexual violence. The first part, ‘Soothsayers’, features schoolgirls leaving a paper shop, carrying stolen sweets and a packet of seeds to feed the birds:

Jogging in the gossamer smog watching
Men watching them feed the passing pigeons 
Bella yelling, ‘I dreamt I worked a brothel 
And in the brothel Dad came!’
  Stuck in the free-fall
Between nightmare and waking I reach 
Out to read her palm, divine some change: 
‘One day Bella will lay back and –’

From this moment of imagined penetration, the poem unfurls themes of thwarted growth, stuck in time like a gossamer spiderweb. Rather than moving forwards, the speaker looks back, caught in the past, struggling to live in the present, and asking for help to foresee the future:

Why can’t I feel my way out of yesterday’s embrace? 
  ‘See, the worms in my pocket have frozen
Time’s turned the earth I pilfered to dust’
– In the meadow behind my comprehensive 
I swapped it for the eye of a moth
The snout of a fox, three daisies with petals 
So crisp they didn’t survive the pluck [...]

Here the speaker collects pieces of animals and plants, like a medieval fortune-teller, trying to divine her future by dissecting nature. However, rather than finding a path forward, she’s entangled in erotic stasis. Throughout Belladonna, Afshan describes nature as a place of fertile decay, with rotten daffodils and crisp packets floating in its swampy ooze. She creates the poem as a sensual event or immersive landscape to inhabit, rather than immediately decoding its meanings. However, one of Belladonna’s central, troubled realisations is the fact that nurturing is not endlessly caring or soft. ‘I have milked life out of the living’, Afshan writes in ‘Twilight Sleep’; ‘I have drawn labyrinths of salt / Around fat, burnished slugs’. Gardening figures throughout as a way of grappling with these truths, with the gardener playing the role of Atropos, the third of the Fates, as they sever the thread of each life with gardening shears. By the poem’s end, death reaches fruition:

And I bit into Belladonna’s dark 
Pebbled heart, and cried out
For that blind clairvoyant
Forever tending her garden:
‘Pick up your shears, love! 
I’ve had my fill.’

In fact, Belladonna created a huge appetite. I turned straight back to the beginning to read again. It could stand alongside the visionary, myth-tinged poetries of Fran Lock and Sumita Chakraborty, but the style is Afshan’s own, and extraordinary.

Becky Varley-Winter’s debut poetry pamphlet Heroines: On the Blue Peninsula (2019) is available from V. Press. She was longlisted in the National Poetry Competition 2019.