Karen Smith reviews Improvised Explosive Device by Arji Manuelpillai (Penned in the Margins, 2022)
At more than a hundred pages, this is a book-bomb of poetry that unfolds as if it’s happening in real time, frame by frame, slowly enough to see both the expressions on the faces of those imagining their own death and the dilation in the eyes of those to whom it comes as a terrible surprise.
Manuelpillai, who received a Develop Your Creative Practice grant from the Arts Council, is a passionate poet, politically and socially engaged, with colourful attire, a disarming grin, and a website to match. He uses these resources to converse with an impressive range of individuals and social factions, creating a rainbow of perspectives in the stormy wake of prejudice and terrorism. This debut – which he describes as “a retrospective into hate” – was a PBS Recommendation for Winter 2022.
From the off, it’s as if Arji – you’ll soon feel familiar with him – dons the garb of a journalist entering a war zone. Awed by his nerve, we watch from behind the lines, cowering at first. His persistent, unflinching curiosity about human nature is loud and clear in his work. In an interview online he says: “I write for an audience because I want to make a change”. Improvised Explosive Device is a book that seeks not only to achieve righteous exposure of the relational failings spinning the cogs of hate, but also to promote the healing that can happen in the aftermath of ideological conflict. And it draws on the power of writing to underline the undeniable connections between us and the redemptive potential of common empathy and compassion. “What do a teacher from Highgate, a soldier in Afghanistan and a boy from Tower Hamlets have in common?” he asks, in ‘The Calling’.
From the off, it’s as if Arji dons the garb of a journalist entering a war zone
But it’s not just this that makes the collection a courageous (and uncomfortable) one. Other questions work to pull the reader – that’s you and me – out from the shadowy crowd. In ‘have you ever seen …’ he asks , “have you ever / held an axe / and dreamed / of a head it / could fall into / somewhere”. And he extends the spotlight to himself and his personal experience as a British Sri Lankan in ‘Einstein said’, which ends: “My daughter is asking me why we got off the bus early.” Some of the strongest pieces magnify and streamline imagery, voice and political pointedness like a lens (or goldfish bowl), as in ‘After the Prime Minister’s Statement’:
I watch Usman
eat himself to death
white as marble,
I tell my friends
he was depressed
The threadlike gills of the Moby-Dick-inspired dividing poems open up breath for reflection and a literary plumbline. Paradoxically, they mirror an unanchored anxiety the poet himself identifies, as he swims in heavily contemporary currents: “a cliché, I know”. Some readers may be disappointed by this allusive economy, but could that be the market price a poet pays for being thoroughly pioneering? Or for picking up where J.B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole left off? (Perhaps there’s an unconscious inheritance there, after all.) The experimental spectacle of ‘Objects increase their distance at ever-increasing speeds’ fragments the page in a stunning finale to this dynamic dive into the unfathomed depths of “universal cannibalism”.
Hearty, gutsy and inventive throughout
Hearty, gutsy and inventive throughout, certain poems lose momentum, drifting down under the weight of Manuelpillai’s theme. Many of the pieces recreate graphically violent scenes, a case in point being ‘Mortal Kombat’, which opens: “There’s a hell of a lot of blood gushing from an open neck”, and these detonate the poet’s smoky, burning ire (and can we blame him?). This happens often enough to make me worry that the collection may land short of the eyes and ears that the poet surely hopes to startle into wakefulness. In ‘Ways of Being Heard’ he says,
What choice do we have when our voices are quieter than
Britney Spears walking her dog up the Strand?
Ultimately, Arji’s hope prevails in the wondrous moments where beautifully arched phrasemaking transmutes and lifts this lead. ‘Prevent’ ends: “After / the raid he presses a cup to the collective chest of the bloc // and hears the song of an open wound, flowering.” He handles the emotional impact of unspeakable acts with laudable dignity and control: in ‘A Decent Pair of Nikes’ a mother “tries to scream her son to life”. And the poems that reimagine our cannibalism in animal terms, such as ‘Mouse’, nimbly help us overcome the natural urge to avert mind and eye to our unconscionable recesses.
Who’s afraid of Terrorism? Fortified with Arji’s charm offensive – a cracking combination of smile, verve, voice and verse – we can be sure the poem is mightier than the code word.
Karen Smith is a wild swimming enthusiast, librarian and poet from Uckfield, East Sussex. She loves working at the National Poetry Library, on London’s South Bank. Since 2018, she’s been collaborating with Kin’d & Kin’d, an Eco-poetry collective of writers and artists. Her pamphlet Schist was published in 2019 as part of the Laureate’s Choice Series and she is currently working on a first collection inspired by water.