Feb 8 2023
Poetry review – EUROPE, LOVE ME BACK: Pat Edwards admires Rakhshan Rizwan’s ways of tackling the difficult theme of racial intolerance
This is the beautifully produced debut collection by Rakhshan Rizwan with artwork by Reena Makwana. The cover design shows someone trying to enter a huge, ornate, door to an imposing brick building. This representation of what it feels like to be a woman from Pakistan living and working in European countries, sets the scene for the poetry within.
I was immediately struck by the larger than usual font size used throughout. This affords the text a particular clarity and even a determination to be heard and understood. Interestingly, the first poem is entitled ‘Bite’, so the larger font rather hits the reader with its starkness. The reader is drawn into what appears to be a rather lovely, summer scene, but there is a growing undercurrent in the poem, first hinted at with “everyone takes sides”, later followed up with “you cross the road”. Then, as we turn the page, we learn that the writer of the poem feels the intensity of being dressed differently, of feeling alien:
a hijab tied into a summer turban will not toss in the wind like a head of pale hair.
The next poem continues the theme with its wonderful title ‘Adjunct’, and we are at the door depicted on the cover, which “does not swing open” despite the knocking. At the end of the piece, we learn that academia has pissed on the writer with its “rarefied urine” and we realise this is more than about difference but actually about intolerance, discrimination, exclusion. Rizwan goes on to explore in her prose poems the historic nature of such prejudice and to expose the hypocrisy of other religions and cultures.
In ‘Foundation in Rose Beige’, Rizwan plays with the idea that any woman, not only those with brown skin, can become obsessed with their skin tone and how to present themselves to a patriarchal world. Some women with darker skin even try to lighten theirs to fit in. She observes “all the damaged women sauntering around make-up counters” trying to find the right foundation:
Sometimes we need it up to our arms, sometimes our thighs, sometimes we need to soak in it to survive.
Our young woman then considers how, in some parts of the world, females are not permitted to walk freely on the streets; and yet she feels equally unsafe in other places where it is normal to see both sexes mixing,:
Now all she needs are pockets to store her pepper spray, and a lipstick that’s secretly a knife.
With this kind of uncertainty, it even becomes difficult to foster female friendships when you feel like an outsider:
I’m going to blame your husband. I know how he looks at me, like he’s deciding if I’m fully human and hasn’t made up his mind yet.
Rizwan is capable of mixing powerful imagery and beautiful phrases with the more mundane. She flits between these and, in so doing, makes the poetry relatable. In ‘Letter’, she uses the list or litany to gain impact, exploring all the possibilities of what could drop into the mailbox, from letter bomb to dinner invitation, deportation date to “letter with juicy news”.
The poems are infused with the fears and thoughts of people, especially women, who feel unwelcome, folk who are told to “feel a little foreign…be grateful…a bit alone.” Even their own homes take on a kind of foreboding, “there is a border security officer in our bed.” One particularly striking image is that which compares the presence of immigrants to a cancerous lump embedded in the continent of Europe. The feeling that such a dangerous thing needs excising, removal, is powerfully expressed:
Basically, the Muslims are metastasizing and this raw - gentle – constant – intermittent pain – growing in intensity here, here, is in the body of Europe.
That people take the trouble to learn the home language, even become highly efficient in its use, seems not enough. The poet thinks about how her own language, Urdu, has no word for ‘border’, and how all languages have their roots in older tongues. Why is it that hearing Urdu spoken on a train seems like “letting the cold draught in”, yet speaking English in a foreign country is so much more acceptable? This creeping racism seems a short journey back into history when the likes of Sophie Scholl stood up to the Nazis. Rizwan notes her echo in the “gentle ding as passengers dismount” at a German station bearing the name of the movement she was part of. Rizwan also notes how racism is a learned behaviour, “at four, he does not understand/the subtle vocabulary of prejudice.”
The poet is well-travelled and in ‘Paris Proper’ considers how art exhibitions and museums display an unconscious bias, perhaps see some items as “a curiosity in the gallery”. She is aware how easy it can be to misappropriate the contribution made by those who have crossed borders throughout history. In ‘Seville’ the poet finds the need to separate “history into distinct floors,/as if this were possible to do with ourselves” unhelpful and likely a mistake.
This collection is a personal view but one based on lived experience so all the more compelling. The Europe of most people’s foreign holidays, study and business trips is where the poet has lived, worked, given birth, tried to fit in and feel loved. The experiences she writes about are very human, very rooted in the ordinary but the writing takes on much larger, intrinsic, universal themes. The poems feel well-researched and make us all question our relationship with Europe, more so than perhaps we did when Brexit loomed and we were forced into the simplicity of either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The poems also invite us to think more deeply about what it is to belong, what can trigger a whiff of rejection, how this can so easily grow into something much more sinister. From celebrating skin as being the “same/as yours” to questioning why we feel it best to “rest a safe distance from each other”, this collection is confident and profoundly moving.