Mar 13 2023
Poetry review – SANCTUARY: THERE MUST BE SOMEWHERE: Tim Murphy considers Angela Graham’s thought-provoking – and mildly collaborative – debut collection
(with Phil Cope, Viviana Fiorentino, Mahyar, Csilla Toldy & Glen Wilson) Seren, 2022 ISBN 978-178172-678-5 £9.99
‘Every heart to love will come’, wrote Leonard Cohen in ‘Anthem’, ‘but like a refugee.’ It is a poignant thought, and one open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps it might be taken to associate desperation with love, but a more benign view would probably focus on the sense of home or sanctuary intrinsic to loving and being loved. This latter interpretation would resonate with the ethos of Angela Graham’s debut poetry collection, Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere, which approaches its theme from a variety of perspectives.
In ‘Chronic’, for example, the poet reflects on returning from the chronic pain that makes her ‘nothing / but spasm; blotted out’, to ‘the battered sanctuary’ of herself and her capacity to discover her body ‘as friend, as home.’ The pain from which sanctuary is sought in ‘The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: First Day’ is different — it is the ‘un-hideable pain’ wrought by military ‘[s]preaders of dread’.
‘Since the Evacuations from Kabul’ compares a sanctuary with a prison cell: ‘keys turn, locks click, bolts slide / but only one can open from inside’, while ‘Consider’ is a strong and direct poem concerning the multiple global refugee crises:
Why do you still call me ‘refugee’? Do you want me to be forever fleeing? I have fled. Now I am here, trying to keep both feet on the ground and find my balance.
The poem continues with the narrator speaking of the ‘two hearts’ of their original home and their new home, and concludes with an emphasis on the latter, ‘now I come from / — and so let me be — / here’.
Graham was born in Belfast, and signs of her background and career in television production are apparent in some poems. In the third part of the six-part ‘After Iconoclasm’, for example, the narrator along with a cameraman and sound recordist experience the ‘silent O’ of awe at a church’s stained-glass window. The Northern Irish Troubles feature in the fifth part of the same poem (‘A Teenage Tartan Gang Member in St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, Belfast, February 6th 1973’); ‘A Heerd tha Sodjer on tha Radio’ is written in Ulster Scots (‘an A wus thair! / Kabul, at a “gate” in the airdrome [. . .] Sodjer, be kine; tak peety on me . . .’); and ‘The Journalist — for Nedim Türfent’ is about a Kurdish journalist imprisoned in Turkey since 2016.
The collection also contains several poems that consider sanctuary in religious or spiritual terms. In ‘Glimpses’ the poet shares her sense that a recurring dream (‘a fire in my hearth / is a beserker’) represents ‘holy ground’:
I have to dare to gaze; wrest from the apparition his true name; claim the help I desperately need. No burning bush for me but these visions, visitations.
In ‘Three Stones’, the poet’s mind becomes ‘sanctuary’ for the stones in a photograph that form ‘a perfect triangle, two suns, / in white, in black — Here is your God.’ In contrast, ‘The Sanctuary’ describes the forbidding majesty of traditional religious symbolism — ‘This was power, and unapproachability. This was God’ — before this reversal:
Sometimes a phrase just turns you over. It’s a corner that you walk around and everything opens up. The previous falls away: always about Him — His sanctuary, His place. Instead, it’s ‘where God’s people come to know that they are loved’.
‘Annunciation, Visitation’ depicts Mary in thought after the Angel Gabriel’s visitation, when ‘she has become a sanctuary’:
What she is to do has been left to her. That mention of a cousin’s pregnancy in the distant uplands, seems suddenly a path. She turns, sweeping her former future from the sill, brushing her hands together. Joseph she’ll tell when she gets back, three months well in.
In ‘Attending’, God ‘evades’ the protagonist with silence until eventually, given that ‘one who is silent long enough compels attention’, the protagonist ‘leant in, fell, and sank through fathom after fathom’. God in turn expresses desire for ‘this attentiveness. It lets me in. / You are my home; my sanctuary, where I can be / who I am.’
It is relatively uncommon to come across such openly religious work in contemporary mainstream poetry, and another distinctive feature of Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere is that it is collaborative. The book includes poems on the theme of sanctuary by five other artists of various nationalities: Phil Cope (Wales / ‘Another Lake, Another Land’), Viviana Fiorentino (Italy / ‘In This Sanctuary’), Mahyar (Iran / ‘You’), Csilla Toldy (Hungary / ‘Sanctum Trilogy’) and Glen Wilson (Northern Ireland / ‘Border Crossing, Reynosa to Hidalgo’). Wilson was a mentor to Graham, while the other four guest poets collaborated with Graham for their poems (a topic dealt with in the opening poem, ‘Collaboration: Sanctuary Poets Send Their First Drafts’).
These ‘guest’ contributions are interspersed among Graham’s poems, and in this way the collection exemplifies the hosting part of personal and political sanctuary; yet at the same time the variety of poetic voices introduces an unevenness into the collection. Graham’s project is hugely experimental — few poets give space in their debut collections to others — and, because each guest poet offers an individual poetic style and perspective on sanctuary that is only in a general way connected with Graham’s more extended engagement, the effect can be somewhat jarring. But as praxis, the project seems politically perfect, an unselfish poetic gesture underlining the ‘unevenness’ of sanctuary that is genuinely thought-provoking.
Toldy’s poem concludes with reference to the pandemic and learning ‘the art / of smiling / with the eyes’, and three pandemic poems by Graham near the book’s close — ‘A Gardener Imagines Death During the Pandemic, 2020’, ‘In Early Lockdown: Antrim’, and ‘Vision, North Antrim, in the Aftermath of Lockdown’ — pave the way for its two final, reflective poems, ‘There Must Be Somewhere’ and ‘Home’. Leonard Cohen’s sense of love as a universal sanctuary permeates the latter, which concludes, ‘We are a home for one another. / And this holds true for everyone.’