Mat Riches reviews You have no normal country to return to by Tom Sastry (Nine Arches, 2022)
Tom Sastry’s new collection, You have no normal country to return to, opens with an amuse bouche of a poem called ‘A short history of The End of History’ which offers a loose idea of his themes – politics, colonialism, the British Empire, Western liberalism, Sastry’s dual heritage, a feeling of alienation, and the challenge of finding one’s place in the world. The poem is split into three parts echoing the three main sections in the collection – ‘Be your own witness’, ‘Enchantments collapsing on themselves’, and ‘You have no normal country to return to’. Each of the three parts of the poem is a short prose paragraph. The ‘Be your own witness’ paragraph reads:
The winner of the last news cycle declares eternal victory.
All remaining difficulties are local. Your life proceeds in
lonely chaos, part of no story bigger than itself. You feel
nostalgic for horrors you have never known. On your
worst day, you are no-one’s cause.
The ‘Be your own witness’ section of the book demonstrates Sastry’s interest in history – general, personal and geo-political – and explores issues raised by Sastry’s dual heritage (he has a father from India and an English mother). It opens with ‘Queen Victoria demands to be made Empress of India’. Is hers a life that “proceeds in / lonely chaos” as mentioned in ‘A short history…’? There are no easy or neat summaries or conclusions in these poems. Sastry continually treads a line between questioning something, finding an answer and then questioning that answer – often in the same poem.
For example, in ‘Jagannadha’, a poem ostensibly about his father’s first name but actually more about a man struggling to find his place in this world, taxi drivers correct his pronunciation of his own surname, and question his experience of India. The poem ends on a moment of either deeper doubt or possibility – it could easily be both.
Taxi drivers will correct me
in the pronunciation of my surname, say
you’ve never been to India?
as if India was part of my soul.
If it isn’t
I am the end of history.
All I begin is myself.
This feeling of ambivalence connects with a later poem, ‘Two Tigers’. Here Sastry describes a time at a university when he is told he doesn’t “know my own history” by “this prince of a young republic” whose “grandfather helped break an empire”. Sastry struggles with his response to this empire:
I, a nobody of the diaspora
tell him about growing up
in a frightened country
that wants to keep the world out.
Nothing is wrapped up neatly. History doesn’t end, despite the repeated references to such a thing. In the poem ‘The end of history (1) after Francis Fukuyama’ Sastry responds to the philosophy at the heart of Fukuyama’s first book, The End of History and the Last Man. The central tenet of that book is that we have reached the end of history – that Western liberal democracy has taken over for good. Sastry’s poem describes a lack of satisfaction with this. If a relative sense of calm has taken over (and this is of course highly debatable) then genuine hope is impossible to have – a ‘devil’ is required to make this ‘god’ believable. I won’t reveal the end of the poem, but the first stanza does suggests this:
I wanted a world I could find
beautiful on its own, without any
particular good news.
In a later poem in this section, ‘At home with the first Gulf War’, that sense of questioning and lack of neatness appears again. The poem describes a time at sixth form in a discussion about the impact of the Gulf war with fellow students from around the globe. The cast list includes a “girl from a country she called Rhodesia“. Her use of the name ‘Rhodesia’ is notable given that the discussion takes place at least a decade after the country became Zimbabwe – she is clearly holding onto a former colonial name. However, her experiences and point of view also cause our young Sastry some pause for thought. In a discussion about oil, she notes:
[…] you can’t be a passenger and protest against the train.
Our lives were built on oil, so we should fight for it
or run to the hills and join some revolution.
We never knew a choice like that. We wanted peace
like our parents looked for a good price at the pump
but even when the oil wells burned
and the dictator’s enemies were abandoned
our allowances still bought shoes, records
We couldn’t see in ourselves
the carelessness that sets the world on fire.
There are no easy or neat summaries or conclusions in these poems. Sastry continually treads a line between questioning something, finding an answer and then questioning that answer – often in the same poem
The second main section of this collection, ‘Enchantments collapsing on themselves’, feels less thematic but still uses repeated motifs – religion, myths, and the moon, in fact the moon and space are almost omnipresent in this section, seen in six of the section’s 17 poems, most notably in ‘The moon people explain the stars’, where Sastry uses the imagined occupants of the moon to take a look at ourselves as a species.
The Man in The Earth came here:
a skinless visor in a bouncing sack of bubbles
unbuoyed by slab-boots and scientific theories.
As always, we made a mess of the place, in heaven as it is on earth, leaving “bags of his waste and a wind-catcher”.
The poem ‘The contract cleaners prepare Flat 64 for the next tenant’, discusses the death of a man, his passing unnoticed for ten days. The poem describes a cleaner “scouring and bleaching away his clues” and how the “woman works / pushing out effort like hope from a lung”. The poem ‘May you live’ manages to tee up both the small section ‘Interlude’ – with eight pandemic poems – but also the ‘Brexit-tinge’ of the final section, with:
We stockpile toilet paper.
The Caucasians among us
boast of their new Irish passports.
The final section of the book, ‘You have no normal country to return to’, opens with the poem ‘England says yes’. The first stanza begins “You’ll know someone like England / who knows what they don’t like when they see it.” and it ends “How you mock them and fear them / and are them, sometimes.” While we may laugh at the idea, now, of stockpiling loo roll, many of us did it. Many of us are these ‘people like England’ and this is a frightening and alarming prospect. This poem could be about jubilee-type celebrations but, while it doesn’t speak its name, it feels more like the day after the Brexit vote. Later in the section, ‘Conservatism’ opens with:
My country is exhausted.
It craves boredom, wants to rest
digest its history
live, in the meantime, off its myth
and continues to provide a potted history of England, or at least one version of this history, that ends with what I take to be a damning summation of both large and small C conservatism:
Finally, its prospects drained
it welcomed its quiet night
and when the night was not quiet
it cursed those who spoke up, wore earplugs.
The sense of wilfully ignoring those who spoke up and offered warning signs for where Brexit was heading is echoed in ‘The end of history (2)’:
Demons find their boots when you bring shame
on the house. They tell you gently – don’t say that.
As you remember more it gets harder
to see as they see, be as they are:
explained. But where could your knowledge take them?
In the acknowledgements section of You have no normal country to return to Tom Sastry notes that “these poems were not honed in public readings. The opportunity to take them to an open mic for instant validation was not there … with this book I had to do what many less fortunate poets have always done – sustain my belief in my work for years, without regular doses of encouragement’. Well, I think his belief in his work is validated by this collection, and that he should keep on keeping on.
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (they don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for SphinxReview, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Mat Riches blog Wear the Fox Hat is here.