Sep 19 2022
Poetry review – YOU HAVE NO NORMAL COUNTRY TO RETURN TO: Alwyn Marriage finds herself sharing some of the discontent expressed in Tom Sastry’s poems
You have no normal country to return to Tom Sastry Nine Arches Press ISBN 9781913437343 78 pp £9.99.
Tom Sastry does not come across as a particularly angry young man when one meets him; but in this collection, an underlying anger – indeed, at times a rage – emerges, along with numerous hints as to the cause of this anger.
Some of this anger is personal, stemming from his own feelings of isolation and exclusion arising from his dual English-Indian heritage: he was born of an Indian father and an English mother, and does not feel completely at home in either skin. For instance
British mirrors lie I see myself reflected in them, distorted ("Two tigers")
a Home Secretary signs my exile and I'm not told where, in that moment, am I really from?
This sense of ‘otherness’ is exacerbated when, as a student in an English school, Sastry hears ‘my clumsy English syllables / naked in a white boy’s mouth / proving me false’ (Jagannadha”). And it is clear, from several lines in the poems, that Sastry has on occasion experienced hostile racism, which is enough to make anyone angry.
The riddle of my identity has been solved words like half-caste unfair of your parents one of each? really? where were you born? ("Almost”).
But Sastry’s anger is not only a result of his dual identity; it is also directed at the country that England is becoming, particularly since the Brexit vote – a phenomenon not always named, but often rumbling just below the surface: ‘stained, broken, lonely / its own brief surrender to hope.’ (“A popular history of urban planning”). Elsewhere Sastry observes
Interesting times, the curse the English unable to see themselves as interesting or cursed attribute to the Chinese Makes itself at home in our small damp houses.
The Caucasians among us boast of their new Irish passports acquired just in case. ("May you live").
Sastry does not want to be lulled into acceptance of the rot he feels is eating at our nation and ‘was glad / when the rage returned’ (“The end of history 1”).
But he also has hard words for those who are unaffected by tragedies that happen elsewhere in the world. In “At home with the first Gulf War” he writes of young people avoiding the truth of what they witness remotely on television:
We wanted peace like our parents looked for a good price at the pump but even when the oil wells burned and the dictator's enemies were abandoned our allowances still bought shoes, records and sweetened wines to drink in parks.'
It is clear that Sastry has an interest in history, including the history of Empire. Indeed the collection begins with the poem “Queen Victoria demands to be made Empress of India”. There is also a more light-hearted take on the randomness of history in “What’s love got to do with it”:
I read books of glory, making sense of England's solitary millennium carving it into monarch-sized portions: George I, though Protestant spoke German. George III, though mad did not. Britain beat France for India in the Seven Years War but carelessly lost America. Queen Victoria was loved by all her peoples. She was particularly fond of the Isle of Wight.'
Apart from Sastry’s search for his true identity, and his fascination with Empire and Englishness, You have no normal country to return to includes an Interlude that focuses on the covid years: a time of ennui, of the collapse or closing of businesses and, for many, a time of unrelieved loneliness. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, the seriousness of the subject is relieved by flashes of humour, as in “You can’t feel your hair because it feels for itself”
Sastry also tells a good story as, for instance in “Witness”, which describes a simple event in which he caught a woman’s hat when it was blown off her head by the airstream of an incoming train; then
I see a hatless woman smiling make the right amount of eye contact return her smile and her hat.
It would be misleading to suggest that these poems are easily understood and digested. True, the language is, in general spare, precise and uncomplicated; but it can also occasionally be puzzling. So, for example, in the poem, “A popular history of urban planning”, after the simplicity of the lines ‘The best view from here is of the future / a sky in a frame on the wall’ I was pulled up sharp just a little further on, by the apparently complete sentence: ‘Enough space for your thoughts // an inside toilet.’ I still have no idea where this fits into the poem.
We live in what often feels to be an angry age and Sastry certainly fits into that zeitgeist; but much of what offends Sastry should offend us all. Indeed, although Sastry probably has good reason to resent some of the encounters he has suffered and to object strongly to changes he has witnessed in England, it is probably true to say that those of us born to entirely monocoloured English parents also find ourselves out of kilter with what England started to become with Brexit – or maybe earlier. Tom Sastry, you are not alone!