– Reviewed by Sohini Basak –
Strikingly, the poems in Campaign in Poetry are as much about contesting lack of concern about democracy as about the people, the individuals who are the units of the democracy. I will start with a poem on the centrefold, Rachel Long’s ‘Aunty’, which depicts what the most basic political scenario is often about: an encounter with the other. The poem narrates a series of movements and mind games set in a public bathroom, between the narrator and a cleaner, who the narrator deduces is Yoruba, as her mother also ‘is’ or ‘was’. Each time the narrator thinks of starting a conversation by calling her ‘Aunty’, she withholds herself, afraid that it will take a familiar turn:
I want to tell her No! I know you don’t.
I want to tell her a secret,
my Mum is Yoruba, or she was,
before she came to England.
But Aunty will ask, What people? What town?
I won’t be able to answer.
Meanwhile, each time, the cleaner thinks that the narrator is going to say something demeaning. Finally, when the conversation does not happen (other than two separate imagined ones in their heads), she reads the narrator’s mind and can only react with a contradiction:
My laugh echoes
foreign against the lockers.
Luke Kennard’s “Poor Door”, which appears just before “Aunty”, is another piece combining satire, form, fact, and empathy in exact doses, to talk about the way our society, or its tangible structures, will always be designed to feed the beast of inequality:
Our monogrammed postboxes are extra wide to allow for
the quality of stationery. It’s not that we look down on you – our
gentility’s unimpeachable − it’s that you’re out of place here: a
peach with genitals. It’s not about where you came from it’s how
you’re getting in.
Another point of satisfaction, in reading this collection, is that there is a good balance of poems written in response to key events of the past years, and poems about people and politics on more allegorical levels. James Trevelyan’s poem “Understanding the collapse of the economy” is an acute tongue in cheek commentary:
Robbins got off
with four boys
in one night
at the Rugby Club
and I didn’t care
cos one of them
was me yeah
it’s a bit like that.
Other poems in response to current affairs include Rosie Miles’ “Cuts”, which takes a jab at the NHS with can openers, Ellie Danak’s “What I Know about Voting in the Scottish Referendum”, “In Fashion” by Anna Kisby – written in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse – and “On the day Obama was inaugurated”, which the anthology ends with.
Satire and animal allegory has long been associated with writing about politics; one only has to glance at a basic literary shelf housing Orwell or Swift. It is therefore apt that Campaign in Poetry opens with Holly Hopkins’ poem about bees. Only it is not about bees. It is titled “The General Election”, and it stings. Clare Pollard’s “Hamelin” is also an excellent inclusion, about the rat-infested town where the collective thinks “We must face the nature of the threat / and extend the powers of the catcher.” On a similar ground of myth and the politics of island geography, Mona Arshi builds a picture of ‘wireman’ and his seemingly perfect wire family in her Reduit Beach prose poem “Wireman”.
A running concern in these poems, and in our everyday dialogue about politics, is the gap between speech and action, between promise and brainwash, or to borrow from Clare Pollard, the dangerous campaigning of “Common Nonsense”. Stephanie Arsoska’s poem “Proper Procedure” is a brave take on this loophole that is doublethink:
You are true citizens now.
True citizens follow the rules.
True citizens are golden.
True citizens will be looked after.
and these haunting lines with which the poem ends:
We are watching.
We love you.
We are watching.
Be true to yourself.
This is a message of hope.
Ewan Stevenson’s “Election Line” is another gem of a poem on the role of media and censorship in political campaigning. The editors, Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, point out in their introduction that the idea behind the book was to shake up voter apathy, by presenting poems that would “make clear how important it is to think” about what is happening around us, and what needs to change. On this front, Ellie Danak’s poem “Stop” hits the nail on the head (and is an appropriate cue to end this review on):
And are you not moved some days
to run out of your house, your arms
whipping the air, to cry out ‘Stop’?