Feb 8 2020
Poetry Review – Tigress: Neil Fulwood is particularly impressed by the exquisite turns of phrase in Jessica Mookherjee’s poetry
Family, culture, geography and displacement intertwine through Jessica Mookherjee’s accomplished second collection. The opening poem ‘Welcome’ begins:
Toy-bright and high-rise, England jumps on him from red post-boxes, flashing taxi cabs, Belisha beacons and yellow lines. He arrives the day Winston Churchill dies. His land was slippery from Ganges mud, bone-white stones of Sitakunda Hills, where his mother smeared hot ash on her boy’s face.
The comparisons are palpable. The unreality of England (“Toy-bright”) is anchored by the historical specificity of Churchill’s death: whether you think of him as statesman, stoic wartime leader or the man who, as Home Secretary, ordered troops to fire on striking workers at Tonypandy, Churchill remains a uniquely English archetype and the deliberate mention of him gives the poem its weight. The title, too, is deliberate – and ironic. The protagonist certainly doesn’t enjoy a gastronomic welcome, while almost familiar voices on the radio seem freighted with caution:
It takes three nights on the toilet. His guts reject gorges of fly-overs, mountains of concrete, Wimpy burgers and Golden Eggs. England smeared with grime lands on his head. He turns on the BBC, where men speak in alternating Urdu and Hindi. Welcome, they tell him from the radio, There are things about Britain you will need to know.
Much later in the collection, ‘The Displaced’ describes the kind of scene familiar from press reports drenched in hyperbole. Only here, the reportage is clear-sighted:
I’m stranded, stacked on this bite of land as the hoo falls into a gulp. I see lorries, piled on a motorway mile, ticking over, listening to boys dying to get across; on car radios, static whispers, I hear them drown, fall into the sea ...
Whereas a press report would hammer home the word “immigration”, bemoan the drain on resources, Mookherjee’s imperative is humanitarian:
I want them to climb over the White Cliffs, grab the mud Of the Wash and come, to save themselves from flood, Become an upward force of blood and run to us.
While a poem of this title and subject matter can only ever be political, explicit politicizing is generally absent from Tigress. It’s not so much a case of the personal replacing the global, or even of subtlety doing the work of the polemic; more that family, culture and memory consolidate into a far more effective poetic lexicon than the nakedly political or the poetry of protest. As a personal takeaway from the collection, given my own tendency to respond to the issues of the day with unsubtle and often heavy-handed protest poetry, Mookherjee’s work reminded me that I too often protest against rather than for.
Life left behind in India is contrasted with life in Wales, be it a “house where we loved but couldn’t touch” (‘The Welsh House’) or the lunar-haunted imagery of ‘Mumbles Pub Crawl’:
A blue-black moon sat on the swings, mad with the air and he told her things, beautiful as a soap bubble. Something dressed as fiction slunk home in a sea-drift of lime and vodka.
Mookherjee’s turns of phrase are exquisite: “mad / with the air” and “Something dressed as fiction” spark from the page to the reader’s imagination, igniting their own memories and experiences. Add to this roster “the sound of frostbite / and shouting, drenched in moon” (‘Moon’), “a violence of daylight / burning into all the things you told me” (‘Black Holes’), “the refinery at night, / where the lights made magic cities // against cobalt cloud” (‘The Engineer’), “an unused place inside me” (‘The Crone’), and “They spread / rumours that I’m the moon and chase me with silver”. I’m not going to contextualise any of these quotes or offer commentary of them; Tigress is a collection that deserves to be discovered, savoured, lingered over and returned to: a work, I believe, that will find its home in the subconscious rather than the coldly analytical.