Jane Routh reviews three new pamphlets from Verve Poetry Press – Nemidoonam by Nasim Rebecca Asl, Bird Cherry by Roshni Gallagher and Tapping at Glass by Tim Tim Cheng
Verve Press grew from Birmingham’s Verve Poetry Festival in 2018 – initially for Birmingham authors – and was quickly recognised, winning the Michael Marks Publisher’s Award in 2019. It is now drawing writers from elsewhere, with this trio of debut pamplets by writers supported by the Scottish BPoC Writers’ Network. All three have awards to their name. All three address language as part of their subject matter, and took part in a discussion about ‘Language, Distance and Lost Selves’ during this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival.
I say ‘pamphlets’ but, at 50 pages, Nemidoonam by Nasim Rebecca Asl is almost a book. She speaks of herself as juggling three languages – Geordie, ‘proper’ English, and Persian, though she lost much of her Persian after she was a small child, and took an online course during the pandemic to try to recover it. Poetry gives her a way to look for “what it means to belong”. Her title poem addresses this directly when, alone at home, she answers the telephone to a “torrent of Farsi”:
I pretend to consider her reply, before I tell her:
Okay she says. Okay
khodahafez I offer
she tells me. I say sorry to the dial tone. I know
she will try again later. Tonight, I will practice
my greetings again and one day, I think,
Yes, there’s a glossary at the end of the book, but of course this poem works by making the reader share the experience of not knowing the words: “My father’s language is a house / I cannot enter”, she writes in her opening poem, though she does an excellent job of exploring the word for father in ‘Translating بابا’, with nine stanzas riffing on translating the word in its condition as simply a noun (meaning father), then as a beginning, as assimilation, as sound and so on, or, here:
As affection: بابا is not only used for باباs. As a term of endearment, it’s not uncommon to hear friends call each other بابا or for parents to بابا their own children. We’re all fathering each other. بابا here is a less scary word for love. In Iran my بابا باباs without abandon, baptises a battalion of باباs, summoning his image in everyone he meets.
She writes family poems, memories of playing with her young brother, of being nine, and more recently of her mother’s Mackem accent in ‘Across from me, my Mam’ as well as of the way Mam “pecked // at Persian books” to choose her name when she was a new baby.
Poetry gives her a way to look for “what it means to belong”
Among her more striking poems from adult life is ‘As we depart my fatherland’, which begins:
the unveiling begins. A tidal wave of hands cascades through the cabin,
stretching to the ceiling. Manicured fingers held to foreheads,
just like dua. Just like farewell. Scarves slip from scalps.
That image of women uncovering heads is almost enough in itself, so the poem perhaps risks over-elaborating as it extends.
Nasim Rebecca Asl won the Scottish Book Trust Writers Award in 2021 and was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award in 2022 — which was won by Roshni Gallagher, who also won the Scottish Book Trust Writers Award in the same year. Roshni Gallagher acknowledges she is regarded as quiet, both as a person and as a poet, but feels a necessity and a form of being in quietness. There’s no extraneous detail to the poems in her Bird Cherry; the lines move slowly and exactly for the atmosphere at her grandmother’s funeral in ‘Parting’:
and later at the church no one knew
how I was related to you.
Your secular, brown grandchild.
Now living in Edinburgh, Roshni Gallagher is from Leeds. She considers her earlier heritage in her title poem ‘Bird Cherry’ as she writes about that early-leafing and flowering tree whose name she didn’t know, then quietly slips this sentence into the poem:
If I met my great-great grandmother
I wouldn’t know the name
of the language she spoke.
Back to the tree whose “petals fall in drifts / like sea foam” and the poem pulls its strands together with “The soil remembers / everything it used to be”, lending an implication of inherent bodily memory. Another poem, ‘When you called out my name’, is built around some of the things that would be lost without a grandmotherly inheritance. It opens “Because of you I twist my cauliflower in turmeric”. (Interestingly, in discussion, she remarked that there are other ways to lose a language than losing inheritance, such as dementia; loss through stroke is also touched on in the next pamphlet reviewed here.)
The pleasure of these slow-paced and pared-back poems is that there is plenty of space for a reader to enter them
Some of Roshni Gallagher’s poems use white space. Most have a slow pace, allowing for pauses and a change of direction — she says of herself that she can hestiate and speak disjointedly, so a poem like ‘Yesterday’s Snow’ (“two days after my granny’s funeral”) will capture a different form of self:
The sea breathes softly.
I imagine yesterday’s snow melting silently into the waves.
Living in Edinburgh, Cramond beach is one of the places she “runs into the water” – but there are several such. Her pamphlet opens with ‘April River’ and her dash away from “too much” because “I wanted to unloosen into the ice // of the April river”. The day is beautifully evoked; the poem’s ending surprises and you re-read. The pleasure of these slow-paced and pared-back poems is that there is plenty of space for a reader to enter them.
Busy and fast-moving, the writing in Tim Tim Cheng’s 31 poems in Tapping at Glass couldn’t be more different. She is a Roddy Lumden Memorial Award mentee, has a Scholarship from Edinburgh University for a Creative Wrting MA and a Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange from Melborne University. She joins what Anthony Huen calls ‘the Hong Kong moment’ – writers with a distanced (often expatriate) vantage point on its politics alongside nostalgia for its cultural life.*
Many of Tim Tim Cheng’s poems tell it straight. The restricted political life: ‘NOTES TO IMPOSSIBILITY’ opens (note the line-breaks) with:
Where I come from, everyone is free
to exercise their freedom loudly
once. I want to do it well.
It’d really suck if bad arts got us
into trouble. Stuck
with a banned thing
that we hated. My friend and I
laugh about this and for a moment,
the walls aren’t listening.
‘Clouds and Clouds’ is a city poem, but the clouds make “bushes smell of smoke / tear gas is an ice-cream flavour” and
everything melts my hands
glass powder burns my throat and eyes
Even a visit by ferry to a tourist atttraction in ‘Topography’ becomes a day to remember those who have disappeared, “The twelve of them […] somewhere over there”
I mouthed their names to myself
out of the fear of forgetting, as I might have
without those clear, vertical name cards
coincidentally released the same day.
Unsurprisingly, writing from this side of the world in English, Tim Tim Cheng says language can become a subject in itself. She demonstrates by splitting ideograms apart, to reveal the “stories” they can hold in ‘How Do You Spell [ ] in Chinese’. She raises questions of how to catch the full implications of intonation in her ‘Ars Poetics with Translations’: “you never learn / object permanence”. And again, here is another poet who looks back not only to her grandmother, but to her great-grandmother too, a woman whose survival, she writes in ‘NO LANGUAGE’, depended on her “mix of Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, Indonesian, and simple English […] not something I was proud of”.
Again, here is another poet who looks back not only to her grandmother, but to her great-grandmother too
I wouldn’t want to call poems about her schooldays a type of Antony Houen’s “expatriate nostalgia” – all three of these poets write about childhood and schooldays, and that’s probably more to do with their age and shifts into adulthood rather than geography. All three write about grandmothers, but again that probably comes with how we re-assess that generation as adults ourselves. What is distinctive is the focus they share on articulating the many and various conundrums of living between languages.
*Anthony Huen ‘The Hong Kong Moment’, pp59-63, PNR 269, Jan/Feb 2023
Jane Routh has published four poetry collections and a prose book, Falling into Place (about rural north Lancashire) with Smith|Doorstop. Circumnavigation (2002) was shortlisted for the Forward prize for Best First Collection, Teach Yourself Mapmaking (2006) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and she has won the Cardiff International and the Strokestown International Poetry Competitions. Jane Routh’s latest book is Listening to the Night (2018) and a new pamphlet, After, is available from Wayleave Press (2021).