Merryn Williams commends both the intention and the achievement of a poetry anthology in aid of refugee charities
Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge ed. Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan Five Leaves ISBN 9781910170281 142 pp £9.99.
This is a collection of 101 poems, by authors most of whom live in the East Midlands. All the proceeds from its sale will go to charity.
We are in the middle of the greatest refugee crisis since 1945, and it has brought out the worst in some of us. ‘A bunch of migrants’ is how our Prime Minister describes the dispossessed. Several of these poems stress the differences between our lives and theirs, or protest against heartlessness, as in Neil Fulwood’s ‘Ebb’:
And the sea shall give up the last of its dead before the media gives up its corruption of words: immigrant for refugee, crisis for tragedy.
If the images of drowned children don’t affect us, a ‘bunch of poems’ certainly will not. But it’s still important that those who can, should record what is happening. Charles Causley defined poetry as a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism. Chrys Salt, in ‘The Insurrection of Poetry’, makes the same point.
Yet poets in the comfortable West have a problem when they try to write about things far outside their experience. Dispatches from the front are all, as Jon Stallworthy wrote in ‘A poem about Poems About Vietnam’. I remember several wretched verses about 9/11 and have worked through many more, featuring mud, blood and poppies, which attempt to describe the First World War. But, although the quality does vary, there are some very good poems in this book. Not everyone is just saying helplessly ‘isn’t it awful?’ Some poets come from families of refugees and one, the late Rose Scooler, was a displaced person herself. Her poem ‘Goodbye to Theresienstadt’ is translated from German by her great-niece Sybil Ruth:
So Fortune has made arrangements to eject us. It knocks on the front door with an official hand. This isn’t the first time. Once again we’re being moved on towards fresh woods. New pastures. Unfamiliar land. Fate got us evicted from our previous homes. It booted us about, pummelled us with its fists. Almost we’d begun to feel that life in the camp was safe. Now the way ahead’s unclear. Our road is full of twists and turns. Nobody knows what’s going on outside; where our families are, if loved ones have been spared. We have become weak. The very thought of being told our future makes us tremble. We are that scared.
It is also possible for some of those who haven’t ‘been there’ to write about the tragedy in ways which are not hackneyed. Anne Holloway describes being on a pedalo off a Greek island with her children when the pedalo begins to sink. Emma Lee tells the true stories of people from the Calais ‘jungle’. David Belbin contributes a ‘broken sonnet’, in the manner of Barry Cole, about cold-hearted politician-speak.
Or you can approach the subject through metaphor, like abandoned teddy bears in a Budapest park (Laila Sumpton), or white mice rocketed to the moon (Mariya Pervez), or asteroids vanishing into black holes (George Symonds). The two outstanding poems in this collection are each an extended metaphor. ‘Callum’s Day’, by Peter Wyton, describes an elaborate funeral procession (which actually happened, I believe) for an abandoned baby:
Everyone has turned out for Callum’s Day except, sadly, his closest relatives …. Callum, who brought nothing into this world, takes nothing from it, true to tradition, except ‘Callum’, a label printed to him for use on the occasion of Callum’s Day. Callum the refugee, who, like many refugees before him and many since, managed to make it across the border, only to be turned around and sent straight back.
Everyone is deeply concerned, but the child is still dead.
Another superb poem is ‘So Many Set Out’, by Joanne Limburg, who probably has in mind the slow journey of baby turtles towards the sea:
One was miscarried and two born too soon, three hatched at dawn but were eaten by noon. Four were deprived and five disaffected, six were mistaken but never corrected. Seven were stranded and eight more were drowned, nine were stamped ‘bogus’ and sent to the pound. Ten lacked direction, eleven finesse, twelve met the judges but failed to impress. Twenty were shelved and thirty rejected, fifty lost face and were soon deselected. A hundred were stories with no proper ending, thousands undone, and a million pending.
When the historians look back on this momentous event, it is to be hoped they will find some poetry that makes sense of it.