Steven Lovatt reviews Mother of Flip-Flops by Mukahang Limbu (Out-Spoken Press, 2022)
The sixteen poems in this debut pamphlet are open-hearted, image-rich and tender – so tender that they’re sometimes a little undercooked in the centre. But we’ll come to that, and anyway it’s neither a unique nor a fatal flaw, and there’s much here to enjoy.
The blurb says that Mother of Flip-Flops is “a queering of the migrant experience”, and “defiant and shifting”. I’ve no idea what any of this means, though I daresay you could infer a lot about the youth market for contemporary poetry if you knew who wrote it, and for what imagined audience. I’d say rather that these poems are mostly a portrait series of Limbu’s mother (who works as a cleaner in Oxford) and of Mukahang Limbu himself, a young man who is sensitive, sociable and observant, more than decent at writing poetry, and out for a good time.
Limbu’s parents are Nepalese, and Mukahang seems to have moved to Britain with his mother when he was a boy. The father, who was an alcoholic and abusive towards his wife, remains in Nepal. He is referred to in one poem as “unfortunately / still alive”, a rare grim note in a collection whose shadows relieve but never obscure its basically sunny disposition. I’d go so far to say that Mother of Flip-Flops doesn’t seem too troubled by thought, intending nothing snide by this but only noting its emphasis on the body generally and the neglected senses of taste and touch in particular. There’s a lot of sweat in here, and stickiness and fledgeling pubes (his word).
The best poems abound in sensuous, unavoidably ‘exotic’ detail:
Mother of flip-flops, of
chipped nail polish on ginger fingers — always
with warm hands, your smile
the largest room in this house where
we kill cockroaches with bay leaf
you boil in your chai.
This, the opening stanza of the title poem, gives an excellent idea of the overall flavour. Elsewhere we have “a / woman whose skin will taste of lychee” and “the giggle of naughty fingers poked into bronze pots”. ‘Giggle’, in a dead heat with the above-mentioned pubes, is the collection’s most representative word. I hope mentioning this will save time for any fans of Geoffrey Hill or Alice Oswald who may have daydreamed this far down the review.
‘Giggle’, in a dead heat with the above-mentioned pubes, is the collection’s most representative word. I hope mentioning this will save time for any fans of Geoffrey Hill or Alice Oswald who may have daydreamed this far down the review
Limbu has sometimes been corralled into a group of young contemporary poets criticised by standard-bearers of ‘serious’ poetry for being narcissistic and formally slapdash, but wise judges will ignore the generational labelling and take it case by case. While Mother of Flip-Flops is ingenuous and undemanding, emotionally straightforward and keen on transient pleasure, to dislike it for this reason is just a proxy admission that you dislike youth itself. And as poetry it hits more often than misses, Limbu experimenting confidently and (mostly) enjoyably with line length, enjambment and eloquent white space. The assertive voice in ‘where all the Nepalese gay boys at’ is of a piece with the smartly turned couplets:
to shame your family is to cut your mother’s nose, so
all the Nepalese gay boys are adrift in a world where
Asian mothers sport cocktail dresses on ladies’ night
with the tips of their noses missing, knowing we exist
Perhaps on reflection it is the other way around, and it is the strength of feeling and rhetorical purposefulness of this poem that gives the lines their muscularity. Formal rigour seems harder to maintain in poems where less is at stake emotionally: both ‘The Cleaner’s Wedding’ and ‘Mirror’ contain flabby patches in which a pleasant-enough lightness deteriorates rapidly through whimsy to plain silliness:
The new tooth has started
to peek through. But where is
the wisdom? I thought it
would grow, like pubes, on its own.
Can it bloom here in the overfilled
laundry basket, like a rare
muscular orchid that smells of socks?
Elsewhere, misplaced punctuation snags the momentum of ‘On Cowley Road’ and two or three poems contain distractingly imprecise or overcrowded images – “slippers squelching like slaps”. But more often Limbu’s hearing is sharp, and when sound-play is disciplined to the line the poetry gains authority, as in this very satisfying little haiku-thing, with its tripping middle line and sober comedown:
in the hours of a power cut
even fruit flies singing
their monsoon night-song
cry for their mothers
It shouldn’t need saying that poetry is a broad church, and that sometimes a church can enjoy a more interesting afterlife as a gay bar. Nor should one need to plead patience on behalf of a young poet so evidently in love with life and language. If the unbearable lightness of flip-flops isn’t your thing, then god knows there’s plenty of heavier stuff out there. Myself, I’ll come back to read four or five of these poems in summer, when the beach here is warm again and I can ease down on the sand and watch the students volleyballing, gawping and mooning – pretending scorn, suppressing envy, reflecting that this is all as it probably should be.
Steven Lovatt is a writer based in Swansea. He is a member of the International Literature Showcase, run by the British Council and the UK National Writing Centre, and his book Birdsong in a Time of Silence has been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize.