- Look We Have Coming to Dover! by Daljit Nagra
Faber, 55 pp, £8.99, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23122 5
At the end of David Dabydeen’s poem ‘Coolie Odyssey’ (1988), the poet, deracinated by education, distance and time from the dirt-poor ancestors he is elegising, considers his British audience:
congregations of the educated
Sipping wine, attentive between courses –
See the applause fluttering from their white hands
Like so many messy table napkins.
The poem’s skill is part of its predicament. It raises a question that has preoccupied not only writers from Britain’s former colonies, but many of Britain’s native writers. How can a literary art, with its highly developed codes, language, conventions and traditions, do justice to those excluded (often deliberately) by those codes? And how can the applause of the self-styled owners of those conventions and traditions be other than condescending and self-congratulatory?
‘Coolie Odyssey’ begins:
Now that peasantry is in vogue
Poetry bubbles from peat bogs,
People strain for the old folk’s fatal gobs
Coughed up in grates North or North-East
’Tween bouts o’ livin dialect . . .
Dabydeen’s tacit questions – about dialect, exclusion, preservation, authenticity and vogueishness – have been dealt with explicitly by other writers: Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard, Grace Nichols and Tom Leonard, to name a few. For some, ‘literary art’ is a territory to be attained (Harrison’s ‘we’ll occupy/ your lousy leasehold, poetry’), in others a rule-book to be torn up (Agard’s ‘mugging de Queen’s English’), in others again a privilege to be deconstructed (Leonard’s ‘yooz doant no/thi trooth/yirsellz cawz/yi canny talk/right’). But for all of them, the concept of the ‘literary’ is itself part of the problem.
Some twenty years later, the questions persist. Daljit Nagra’s first full-length collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, was greeted by an unusual degree of media attention, including a thrilled appraisal by Newsnight Review, a programme which tends to restrict its poetry discussions to the likes of Seamus Heaney. One well-meaning, napkin-fluttering commentator described Nagra as ‘the voice of British Asian poetry’. But given that his collection works pretty hard to make that epithet impossible, it is worth thinking about what is happening here.
Nagra is only Faber’s second poet of colour (the other is the Nobel prize-winner Derek Walcott). His book has been published just as the ‘under-representation’ of ‘black and ethnic minority’ poets (BEMs, in the unlovely acronym of arts workers) has occasioned a publicly financed, expensive-looking and statistically illiterate report from Arts Council England, and a new arrangement that makes Arts Council funding – of magazines and organisations – dependent on BEM representation. Nagra’s work has excited attention because he deals with the experiences of, for the most part, the British Asian working class, specifically Punjabis, and employs both standard and non-standard English to do so. He is, as one sympathetic blogger recently wrote, ‘ethnic, proud, intelligent, multicultural, sarcastic, witty and everyone’s favourite non-majority poster boy’.
But Nagra employs a self-critical metacommentary across the collection which anticipates and argues with these reactions, while deliberately not resolving them. In ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’, for example, he directly asks the audience whose applause he seeks: ‘Did you make me for the gap in the market/Did I make me for the gap in the market . . . Can I cream off awards from your melting-pot phase . . . Do you medal yourselves when you meddle with my type.’ There is a tart honesty here about the opportunities for a poet who can turn racial difference into entertainment: who can, so to speak, make the right noises. And while the questions asked are sarcastic, even angry, the conclusion offers a regretful confession: ‘More than your shell-like, your clack applause/What bothers is whether you’ll boo me if I balls . . .’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.