Isabelle Thompson reviews three new pamphlets from ignitionpress
The latest offering from ignitionpress comes in the form of three pamphlets: radical pairings by Clementine E. Burnley, when the flies come by Fahad Al-Amoudi, and trimming the wick by Laboni Islam. These are varied and polyphonous collections which nevertheless share one common preoccupation – the relationship between movement and entrapment or inevitability.
radical pairings demonstrates this preoccupation in its title, which Burnley explains in a note at the end. “Radical pairings”, she tells us, refers to “the mechanism by which water soluble proteins, known as cryptochromes, in the retinas of migratory songbirds may help them detect the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field.” Migration is linked to something fundamentally biological; movement and entrapment are intrinsically intertwined.
This idea is explored in the poem ‘The Origins of Birds’. It opens with a stanza exploring how songbirds make their migrations:
The first migration serves
to build an internal map
from remembered scents, and star charts.
Night-time summons Polaris.
A sun compass,
quantum effects, the short-lived pairings
of molecules in eyes
helps voyagers chart magnetic field lines.
Migration, Burnley implies, is something inherited, so instinctive that it doesn’t even need to be learnt. She goes on to reference the challenges of human migration, noting that “The caress of darker hands on pale forearms / still sparks uproar.” Movement can lead to entrapment by societal prejudices and discrimination.
These concerns are explored further in poems such as ‘My cousin after many rounds of chemotherapy’, where the speaker’s unwell cousin is told by Immigration that:
she need not concern herself
her leave to remain
can be awarded posthumously
Meanwhile, ‘Thaw’ examines the way in which our human histories are defined by our migrations:
Inside me generations
pocket one-way tickets,
ride in caravans,
stride across tundra,
step off trains,
scramble across barricades.
Their small boats greet the tide.
The poem notes that:
The interview panels are always white.
People and cars go back and forth,
in the end islands dissolve.
Burnley’s poem suggests that movement is essential to human nature, but that society does not recognise this and instead treats travellers as Other.
It is not only geographical movement which Burnley explores, but also the act of passing things down from one generation to another
It is not only geographical movement which Burnley explores, but also the act of passing things – culture, habits, mannerisms – down from one generation to another. In the poem titled ‘a night-migrating songbird travels great / distances alone’ the speaker remembers her late mother and looks at how she manifests her mother’s behaviours: “there’s an echo of my mother // in the way my small talk turns awkward.”
This is even more evident in ‘Matryoshka: Russian dolls’, which opens:
When a mother’s body unzips, there’s a parliament inside
where great-grandmothers and grandmothers convene.
A child can take its mother home. They say,
to live in a body is to submit to its laws.
Burnley seems to be implying that we may move through time, yet we inherit the past and remain stuck in it. Another poem, ‘Protectorates’, takes this concept and shows it writ large on an entire nation in the aftermath of empire. “How to wipe clean the axe / after the edge cuts through?” asks the poem – history remains with us even as the years pass. However, this poem, which ends the book, is not without hope. There is, perhaps, a way to move forward without remaining trapped in what has come before. A nation can rise from the ashes:
After slash burning, a host of coppice shoots
rallies from the trunks. The unsung
is always trying to have the last word.
trimming the wick
‘Salt’, the brilliant opening poem in Laboni Islam’s trimming the wick, plays with the story of Shakespeare’s Lear and Cordelia, with an “old king” asking his daughters “How do you love me?”. Two daughters respond “Like sugar”, but the third replies “Like salt”. The father is angered, but the daughter then has the cook remove all salt from their food: “My father learned salt’s worth by its absence.” What makes the poem so powerful is that it then goes on to complicate the story:
But these days, the sea adds salt to everything —
mangroves standing sentry at the coastline know the sea
is moving inland, salting the fields so rice stops growing,
salting the wells, so water is undrinkable.
I would take salt out of the wells, the fields.
And if the old king asked again: How do you love me?
I would say my love is a complicated country, barely above sea level.
This is a poem about the complexity of what we pass down to our children, including the emotions that our children might feel about us as a result. The climate crisis is a moving, volatile thing which traps us in the mistakes of our ancestors, and takes away our ability to move forward.
‘Lunar Eclipse’ is a prose poem which also examines the paradoxical yet inextricable bond between movement and stasis. The speaker begins, “I audition for the part of the Moon” before going on to explain that “Effort returns me to my starting place” and “I have mixed feelings about gravity: On the one hand, it keeps me here. On the other hand, it keeps me here.” Even though the Moon is constantly changing, Islam seems to say, it is also stuck in an unchangeable cycle.
Poems such as ‘Recolouring the Map’ and ‘The Well’ echo Burnley’s poetry in their focus on political and national inheritance
Poems such as ‘Recolouring the Map’ and ‘The Well’ echo Burnley’s focus on political and national inheritance. ‘Recolouring the Map’ is a celebratory poem about a project to build a school on the banks of a river in Bangladesh, but also uses a map as a symbol of the ways in which a nation can be reduced to lines on a page. It is a static image to represent a moving thing:
[…] My teacher gave me
a map, the kind with contours only
and I coloured the land green and
water blue because I knew nothing
‘The Well’, meanwhile, makes this point more central to its story. A ‘partition’ between two houses becomes symbolic of the partition between India and Pakistan. Two people lived in two houses, divided by a wall but sharing a well. They had to work together to save a cat from drowning. They stood: “on opposite sides of a divided well / but the water drawn was the same.” Here, a line on a static map has real life consequences for individuals and nations.
Islam’s beautiful poem, ‘The Line You Approach Infinitely’, also shares the preoccupations of Burnley’s poetry, exploring issues surrounding migration, both human and animal. The piece begins by explaining the geometrical concept of asymptotes:
Imagine a line, yourself,
one stride away from that line. Take a step.
Another — but each time close
only half the distance. You could journey
It goes on to explore the migration of Monarch butterflies and human migration. Travelling, it suggests, is constant – there is no end point; we can never arrive.
‘The Parrot’ is a cleverly layered poem which is equally driven by the twin pulls of movement and entrapment. It tells the tale of a parrot owned by a writer who is then given to a boy whose sister takes it on a train. The writer’s typewriter, the bird in the cage, and the train on the tracks all become symbols of this relationship between imprisonment and movement. Of the typewriter, the poem tells us: “the ribbon knew infinity while the carriage stopped at the end of the line”.
when the flies come
Of the three pamphlets, when the flies come by Fahad Al-Amoudi is the most varied in its subject matter. In an interview for the press, Al-Amoudi says that he sees this collection as a series of ghost stories. Certainly these are poems preoccupied by grief, and they often centre around dead figures such as Marvin Gaye or people close to the speaker.
In a moving prose poem called ‘Grave Robin’ the speaker visits and tends to his mother’s grave:
In this winter solstice, a burst of daylight, I reclaim my childhood role. I play at being the dutiful son, tending to the memory of my mother like the poets of old. I see her everywhere in this strange ecosystem — the soil machéd into insects, a stalagmite of roses, a hard, enduring metal.
It is possible to glean here a hint of the same interest in generational inheritance that is present in the work by Burnley and Islam. But we see Al-Amoudi’s preoccupation with movement and ensnarement most clearly in the poems which form a sequence threading through the pamphlet. In a note at the start of the collection, Al-Amoudi tells the true story of an Ethiopian prince, Alemayehu, who in 1868 was abducted by British forces and taken back to the UK against the dying wishes of his mother. He was forbidden from communicating with relatives back home, and eventually died aged just 18 from pleurisy. In when the flies come, Al-Amoudi gives this forgotten prince his voice back, offering a series of letters that he might have written to his family had he been given the chance.
These elegiac poems offer some solace to those who have been compelled to leave their homelands
Poems such as the powerful ‘ii Unsorted Extracts of Letters [1874-76]’ explore the nature of forced travel. “The swallow sheds April’s drench. Migrates somewhere only my mind can reach”. Alemayehu, kidnapped and robbed of his inheritance, migrates home in his mind. These elegiac poems offer some solace to those who have been compelled to leave their homelands.
All three pamphlets, then, are driven to differing extents by an interest in the relationship between movement and entrapment. They look at the ways in which time and travel take us away from our roots, and keep us trapped in cycles of inheritance and pain. They are also, though, hopeful and tender works which look to heal generational trauma by giving it a name and a voice, and a space to breathe. These three poets are all deeply original and important writers – together, they sing.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.