This promising pamphlet showcases a fresh and original voice exploring the self as proud outsider challenged by family, relationships and the world but refusing to compromise. The poet’s biography tells us ‘he thinks that not belonging is more interesting than belonging’ and this is certainly borne out in the poems.
It’s a daring feat indeed to open a collection with the verb ‘I dreamt …’ but Sastry pulls off this time-travelling love poem with great style. The complete phrase is ‘I dreamt that we were older’ and reminds me uncannily of ‘When I’m 64’ by The Beatles. I immediately warm to the ‘I’ of the poem as he invites me into the book with phrases like:
Our voices quavered but when they found clear notes
we felt the magic of it. There was nothing
to be coy about. Sometimes
we broke off, laughing because something ached.
The second stanza brings the speaker to waking in the present with the lover in his bed.
…. My hair
crunches into and you turn
as if you had been waiting
These images are distinctive, and the phrasing is both evocative and unusual. Hair crunching? I know exactly what he means.
If the first poem is about the benefits of connection, ‘Thirty-two lines on loss’ which comes later in the book, is all about the benefits of disconnection. There is a wonderful richness in the exploration of a day in which the speaker loses his glasses and almost enjoys the feeling of helplessness as he goes out ‘into the fog’.
my glasses. I left them on the table
in the café because I was tired
of looking at billboards and wanted some thoughts
of my own and because I liked the fog of it
but when I went to leave, they were gone.
It was Sunday and the opticians
were closed. I soon realised that the world
is full of monsters travelling too fast.
Sastry’s world contains more than its fair share of monsters and life is certainly challenging for this ‘second generational original’. He writes that at the thought of being able to see again:
I cried like a doll. I must have really hated the idea
of functioning again. I hated it so much.
I hated it so much that for a moment
the surprise of how much I hated it
stopped everything. Even the hate.
There’s a lot packed into this thirty-two line poem as it navigates the high street, the café, the dangers of advertising, and above all how difficult it can be to confront the world with clear vision and look at it directly without ‘fog’ to soften it.
And indeed, with a grandmother like the one he describes in two of the poems, life can’t have been easy. One of them is titled ‘I imagine my white grandmother as a colonist stranded by the retreat of the empire’ and another is ‘If my grandmother had had balls’. This is a gutsy title, and the poem is worth quoting in full for its sheer distillation of information and feeling:
If my grandmother had had balls
she would have been a juggler
and joined the circus
where she would have learnt
how to eat fire
and not get burnt.
Instead, she kept house
with the violence
of a perfectionist
and left bruises
and is not missed.
One of the strengths of this very short poem is its balance of anger and compassion, the understanding that the grandmother’s frustration at her lack of opportunity is what turned her into the monster that nobody loved.
Just as the Grandmother is a kind of monster, so are some of the inhabitants of a re-imagining of Goldilocks framed in in five-line stanzas, like a slightly wonky ballad. Goldilocks in this version is a ‘wild girl’, adventuring into the forest to the bears’ house and reporting back. It’s not clear how reliable she is as a witness either:
… She said the bears lived
in a house of secrets a mile off the track.
She said she ran from the house, and still wakes
in the night, trembling. There are bears in her sleep.
The suggestion of abuse leads us to the next part of the narrative – and this is indeed a narrative poem – where, as often happens in police searches for missing people,
… we walked, a long line of women and men
reporters and dogs, into the wild night of the wild girl
with our axes and our noses and lifetime’s rage.
This group forcibly enter the house and we return to the more straightforward narrative and a discovery that is startlingly ambiguous:
We never found the bears but there were bones
in the ash we left: the skull of a child we were too late
to save; charred pieces of a man, perhaps
a woman too.
I puzzled over this poem, wondering if it was intended to be more than a re-telling almost in the style of a TV drama. It repaid several readings to reveal its complexities. Most of it unfolds in an unsurprising manner, apart from some luminous lines in the penultimate stanza, before the classic reveal of the bodies. Here, the poet’s particular and unique voice comes through more clearly, with greater depth and with more of a sense of discovery than in any other part of the poem:
… We were singing. We were parts
of a body that adored itself: because we were frightened
we loved each other, without realising.
What is clever is the mystery buried in the narrative: the group who are hunting for the missing seem to become a mob feeding off each others’ hysteria, projecting their own feelings of rage onto others. Are the skeletons those of the bears, or are they the bears’ victims? Was ‘the wild girl’ making up a story about them? Who are the monsters here? The bears or the people, or Goldilocks herself?
Juxtaposed with and in stark contrast to ‘Goldilocks’, the gorgeously titled ‘I was talking with my marvellous man-friend’ utterly charmed me with its open and simultaneous relish and fear of male intimacy, its wonder at the friendships between women as well as the desire to emulate them. Running directly from the title, the first stanza begins:
about our girlfriends with their friends and how it looks
so good the way they laugh together, like a dance you could
learn but not well;
Sastry isn’t the first male poet to write about male friendship but this poem is particular in that it is beautifully balanced between the longing for self-expression and the fear of self-exposure, in phrases like:
… I stopped looking for the mercy of regular trips
to the bar and the toilet and looked at him instead.
‘Complicity’, the title poem, with its metaphor of clowns, is positioned towards the end of the book. ‘Nobody knows where the clowns went’ is the first line, and clowns seem to be standing for immigrants who have perhaps been forced to leave the country, or at worst have killed themselves or drowned on a journey by sea, like refugees:
there’s a boy in Weston-Super-Mare
who says he saw, lined up on the mud at low tide,
small piles of braces, red wigs,
bellied pantaloons and oversized shoes.
And indeed, this poem delivers the most direct political message in the book:
The politicians are explaining.
If they have left, says the PM,
It was their choice.
I myself am the son of clowns.
We just wanted to disperse them
to prevent them from clustering together
The poem goes on to suggest that when we dispose of one scapegoat, we try to find another:
The Commission on Nightmares
has proposed a new terror of badgers
but we all know it won’t be the same.
I’m not entirely convinced by clowns as a sustained and sustainable metaphor in this context – their associations with laughter, silly costumes, entertainment, slapstick and circus rings, although visually interesting, don’t seem to support the poem at its centre.
Compare this to ‘The Office’ in which the metaphor of birds is employed to great effect: phones and birds are brought together to create a startling comparison of the natural and artificial worlds. Here is a density and depth of information and feeling conveyed with poetic simplicity:
… We do not have names
for birds in here. You can bring the name of a bird
in from outside, if you like. You can bring its call
on your ringtone, you can bring
possibility from a bird.
Sound is foregrounded throughout – a vivid way to convey the atmosphere of an office:
Keyboards slork and chirrup their way
through diets of words. The striped cough of the printer
punctuates the settling of sludge-mugs on the
woodskim tops. Everything has its
There is a pleasing variation of tone and form amongst Sastry’s poems, many of which benefit from their own ‘secret grammar’ and range from regular stanzaic shapes to ragged line endings, demonstrating the poet’s ability to match form and content. The poems are by turns vulnerable, angry and full of wonder; they are at their strongest when writer is being bold with language and image, using a developing diction all of his own which lends strong colour to his material. Unafraid to address large political and social concerns as well as smaller personal ones, this is an emotionally complex debut with a great deal of charm and freshness about it.
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