Should a stranger arrive

Various – Wretched Strangers (eds. J.T. Welsch and Agnes Lehoczky, Boiler House Press)

‘Should a stranger arrive, who speaks in a language sounding a bit like a whinnying mare, or a chirruping blackbird, or even a grinding saw that threatens to slice whatever comes near… Should a stranger arrive disturbing the dog and maybe also the rats and it’s winter – give him warm clothes. It could be that his feet are on fire underneath. Say he’s been riding a comet. Therefore don’t blame him if then your poor carpet complains. A refugee carries his home in his arms like an orphan for whom he perhaps needs no more than a grave…’

– Nelly Sachs, translated by Andrew Shanks

This poetry collection, published by UEAs Boiler House Press, is an outstanding contribution to the literature of our time. By ‘our time’ I mean the early millennial period of upheaval, middle eastern war and migration, and our current hideous swing towards populist rightwing demagogues. In Britain, the island has been very seriously torn down the middle by something with a comical name, ‘Brexit’.

One of the key debates following the EU referendum results centred on whether or not Brexit was the ‘revolt of the dispossessed’, a post-industrial rebellion against mainstream politics, bound up with whiteness and identity, racism and resentment, whether Brexit was a generational schism, or a rural revolt against urban cosmopolitanism viewed to operate with disproportionate powers to the small-scale, the regional and the local.

However, the way the referendum results map onto English-identifying citizens suggests that xenophobia was and is present. The spike in hate crimes after the results say it plain. Unfortunately, racism is part of this picture and some of that is definitely coming out of disenfranchised post-industrial places.

Yasmin Gunaratnam et al (2017) began a collaborative analysis of the ‘Go Home vans’ which – as Mark Rainey explains-  ‘were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, “In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest.”‘ The text ‘was accompanied by an image of handcuffs.’

‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’ (Gunaratnam et al 2017).

Rainey explains that tabloidesque phrases such as ‘Go Home’ are not just ‘located on government-sponsored billboards’ but ‘are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse.’ Here there is ‘no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism.’

Rainey’s own work with stateless migrants underscores any request for the full complexity of any situation to be at the surface. Rainey found in his own research that:

‘The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive.’

For him, all of this ‘is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.’ The best work in this volume, Wretched Strangers, speaks to that messy, unclear place, where the truth bends like light through a prism because the subject is caught in it, is unable to stand outside it.

In Wretched Strangers, Rachel Blu Dupleiss’s Draft 112: Verge is an extremely powerful polemic regarding – among many other things – the lack of meaningful communication in a world saturated by communication devices. Spivak’s subaltern other is here.

But there are the places in this book where it also becomes clear how poetry can cut to the chase in a way that prose or a research file cannot. It can bring you closer to the real, how it feels, its sweaty, compromised, bleak grey intensities, by making things feel less real. For Derrida – whom Spivak translated – language was the place where things could happen.

The greatest example of this is perhaps Ghazal Mosadeq’s ‘Time Is Of the Essence’, which really gets into the migrant soul – or psyche – the helicopter airlift in the living room, the sea in the living room, nothing is walled off from the experience of total uprooting, nobody and nothing is stable, even in the places where stability is temporarily offered.

James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar’s ‘Myth of the Savage Tribes, Myth of Civilised Nations’ really fuses the history of imperialism and racism with the up-to-date and the near: A visceral raging series of blocks of verse; Prince Phillip watching a native dance, torture, everyday racist commentary on television, Uncle Tom songs, they all build into an utterly damning image of the white western world over hundreds of years.

Fawzi Karim’s excerpt from the Empty Quarter shows the joys and the pains of the migrant city, and the migrant voice – a familiar place rendered unfamiliar to the reader. Khairani Barokka writes of ‘doctors inspecting our bodies as curios’ and ‘laws stamping ancient wisdom as buffoonery’, of ‘languages earmarked for oral extinction’ and ‘ships bearing rape marks on the stern…’

Barokka writes out:

‘bruised boys, labour that made your
sheeted beds, laid down your cobblestones…’

And then:

‘re-taxonomised and thefted ojects de vertue…’

Between these lines lie the sheer abrasive tensions between the collectors of ‘curios’ and their market values and the simultaneous denigration of ‘the primitive’. Don’t forget that one of the centres of Nazi power in Berlin was very close to the museum of ethnography. Not only did its existence not stop anything, but its bad epistemologies aided racism and then genocide. The great power of the work in this volume is often due to the conjunction of the history of imperialism – and its horrors – alongside contemporary migration. Barokka again:

‘incineration of communal safety; a quietude now
when the boats come in with their last-hour eyes
for whom this beacon continent disappears with
raging engulfment, above the waves that built it.’

However, Monika Genova shows the other side we must not forget and that is how hope is always tangled up with the messiness and sinister forces:

‘Beyond the fear and the exhaustion
my dream is right there, waiting…’

How the fragility of the human body is overcome by a robust tenacity:

‘There is really no other way to find out
How much weight my bones can carry
I only have this fragile human body
To make my mortal life extraordinary…’

Kapka Kassabova’s piece is extremely moving. The details shift the emotions somehow, an elastic band around a wad is all that is required to make the place come alive:

‘I pretended it was no big deal to see smugglers sealing deadly deals with the already-robbed of this world by robbing them further. The money came in bundles tied with elastic bands, in exchange for the promise of a lorry ride across the border…’

Ethel Maqueda’s piece ‘Mushrooms for my Mother’ is similarly potent. These two pieces are prose-poems and suggest that form as a very apt vehicle for this subject. But taken as a whole this book should act as a wake-up call for those still slumbering, that the rise of fascism is real and the dangers clear.

More recently, Les Back and Shamser Sinha have described how until recently ‘the question of the “Windrush Generation” was considered resolved.’ The people:

‘…who sailed from the Caribbean to Britain 70 years ago were not migrants. Rather, they were citizens returning to the Empire’s motherland. As the UK cut its ties with former colonies, they were made first into “immigrants”, and then “ethnic minorities”’

This scandal, they say, is ‘indicative of a long-term trend to stem postcolonial movement.’

The thing is, racism is everyday and the power that polices the ‘alien’ body has seeped into all layers of society:

‘Checks no longer only happen at Heathrow or Calais when we fumble for the passport in our bags. Rather, border control is being in-sourced. Landlords, doctors, health visitors, teachers, university lecturers and more are all being asked to pass on information, through monitoring student attendance or documenting home visits. Willingly or not, they are enlisted as affiliates of border control, which is is moving into the heart of our social and professional life.’

Poetry – so often dismissed as fluff in an ani-intellectual and utilitarian England – can get to this place where everyone is complicit, although only those considered ‘alien’ are implicit.

This book, then, is essential, because it gives a series of views from outside this emerging ‘natural, naturalised and not’ taxonomy. You already know it, you already feel it; how many times do you produce your passport now? When going for jobs it is often routine to copy the passports of all the interviewees. I have mine in my bag a lot these days, I never used to.

Here, Aodan McCardle makes good use of that world of filing and stamping. He employs the redaction in his contribution, the black line through an official document, and Stephen Mooney uses the official form answer box. These pieces sing of censorship and the reduction of a complex needful human being to the brute grids of officialdom they are forced down, just by including these ciphers. They have taken form literally as in ‘forms’.

There is beauty here, though, even if it is properly sublime. Luna Montenegro’s ‘Everything in the universe is moving in this (in)exact second’, a poem for several voices, using just that text, shows the bigger truth, that we live in a massive explosion and it isn’t going to stop for anyone. An essential book.

– Steve Hanson

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