D A Prince reflects upon the complexities explored in David Tait’s second full collection
David Tait’s pamphlet Three Dragon Day (smith|doorstop, 2015) was a winner in the Poetry Business Competition, judged by Billy Collins; The AQI, his second full-length collection, builds on the themes laid out in those earlier poems. AQI is the acronym for Air Quality Index, a measure of the amount of pollution in the atmosphere, and Tait makes its effects tangible through the verbal clarity of ‘The Air’, his opening poem–
A text from the embassy: the air today will not be good. If possible I should stay indoors. If possible I should wear a mask. Today is my day off. I sit and watch as the air rolls in. The skyscrapers lose their sure angles. The skyscrapers could almost be whales.
In three quatrains (this quotation is half of the poem) Tait makes the air visible, like a tide as it ‘rolls in’, as the buildings could be whales, as solid form vanishes in the obliterating swirls of what we’ve learned to call ‘particulate matter’. He works in China, (hence ‘the embassy’) so you might think you can feel safer; after all, he isn’t writing about Britain. Yet my copy of The AQI has acquired an inner lining of newspaper cuttings relating to air pollution in the UK, including one with the chilling global statistic that 90% of the world’s population is forced to breathe toxic air. Tait may have started out to show us the reality of China, but that aspect is closer, now.
This collection includes roughly half of the poems in Three Dragon Day, allowing for a wider exploration of pollution and its implication, both in reality and as a metaphor. Take the use of ‘mask’ in the quotation above; there it is literal, a precaution and practical safety measure. Tait returns to it in ‘The Facemask’ – ‘I wear it on the metro, we all do./ We stare at each other like surgeons/ during a tricky operation.’ The unspoken anxiety, the situation that binds everyone, is quietly underlined. A mask, however, can also provide a disguise, a way of protecting the self as the outer surface starts to replace the inner person:
I start to wear it on dates. I imagine his slick lips, white rows of teeth. During sex, we leave more than our socks on.
An examination of LGBT issues, both personal and political, is threaded through this collection; in China, such relationships are political – and not only in China. In ‘After Orlando’, Tait’s longest poem (it runs to thirteen pages) he writes in close detail of the shootings on 12 June 2016 in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, when 49 people were killed. The poem is a collage; personal memories, Ian McKellen’s analysis of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, the events in Orlando, the last phone calls of the dying, the levels of homophobia in reporting, the attitudes of the Westboro Baptist church (who picketed the funerals), and – above all – the names of the dead, with their ages. It’s the placing of these fragments, all co-existing within the same frame, that gives the poem its emotional weight and coherence; as Tait says in the penultimate couplet
It’s been happening and happening my whole life. It will happen my whole life.
‘After Orlando’ is an ambitious poem, showing how Tait can reach beyond the shorter, more lyric approach. In the same vein ‘Beijing after Tianjin’ lets the collaged detail show the edginess of being non-Chinese in China when the country is nervous. Tianjin is a container storage station, relatively close to Beijing, where a series of explosions on 12 August 2015 killed 173 people, and injured hundreds more. In parallel with Tait’s workplace discussions about students and the viability of a new language course the news levels are constantly changing as photos and video clips appear and vanish;
and the net is going slow, not fast enough to conference call. […] VPN will not connect, BBC is blocked, local television is not covering the explosions that were so large they could be seen from space. The day wears on and one by one the pictures and videos disappear.
Tait’s language mirrors not only the clarity of reporting but also the careful exchanges in a second language; he reports minute by minute activity, limits his adjectives, lets the details speak for him and the situation. ‘The TV is full of feel good stories’ he states, as the broadcasters mask the truth, and revert to historical items about The War of Japanese Aggression, which began in 1937 and ended in 1945, seventy years earlier. The poem ends
Overhead the helicopters form a 70 in the sky. The metro is full of black and white footage from The War of Japanese Aggression. I get scanned three times. My passport is checked twice. My water is confiscated. I get to the office and my colleague says how lucky we are, the sky is so blue, what wonderful weather to celebrate peace. I smile and say yes we are lucky. I say it as thought they’d had it planned.
How, I wonder, can you trust the Air Quality Index when the government/broadcasters avoid the truth?
The AQI is divided into four sections but I’m not convinced that the poems gain from this; they work as a whole when the divisions are ignored, raising questions and issues across and throughout the collection, leaving any comparisons open. They show the strangeness of China and also its closeness to our country, something which Tait starts to explore in the final poems. These are shorter, more lyrical and personal. ‘The Cairns’ is set in the Lake District, when Tait and his Chinese partner discuss visible measures of achievement –
… I explained what cairns were, how each rock came from walkers who’d conquered the fell, how they marked their assent through these stones. Then you told me about skyscrapers in China; how workers etch a scratch on the metal beams, how each floor they complete is redeemed on a tally, achievement measured in metres of metal.
–and how these two separate measures add up to life, or seem to, as clouds cross the top of Silver How.
Even the short final poem, ‘The Water Calligraphers’ depends on the word ‘if’ for its driving force. Tait isn’t a poet to lay down answers; he looks for complexity and his own place within it and records these tensions scrupulously. When he is using a mask he tells us. The final quatrain, closing the collection, leaves the poor air quality and dust for something far gentler –
If I was content I’d learn to write my poems with water. The wind would life them into the sky. I wouldn’t mind where they fell.
But this is an ‘if; Tait isn’t content because of all the external pressures that he recognises in these poems. The AQI is a watchful and intelligent collection.