London Grip Poetry Review – Alessio Zanelli & Alamgir Hashmi



John Lucas reviews new poetry collections by Alessio Zanelli and Alamgir Hashmi


The Invisible: Poems
Alessio Zanelli 
Greenwich Exchange, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-910996-71-3 
104 pp    £11.99

The Shorter Poems (1993-2023)
Alamgir Hashmi
Greenwich Exchange, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-910996-77-5 
170 pp    £13.99

These two collections from Greenwich Exchange will add to its reputation as a significant publisher of contemporary poetry, both English and foreign.

The Pakistan-born Alamgir Hashmi has been publishing poetry for over sixty years and has, in that time, developed a world-wide reputation, his work having appeared in many journals of international significance, including ones based in England, America, and Australia, as well as across the Indian sub-continent. He has been awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship, won the Roberto Celli Memorial Award, and for the past fifteen years has been a Life Fellow of the Pakistan Academy of Letters. Given all this, it may be wondered why he isn’t better known to, or mentioned by, contemporary English poets, especially as his praise has been sung by, among others, Ted Hughes,who found his poems ‘a delight – sinuous and assured, serious with a light touch,’ Jon Silkin, who applauded ‘the wit … the light-footed pace,’ of Hashmi’s verse, and Roger Garfitt, for whom the poems exhibit a ‘persistent lyric resource …clear-eyed and compassionate, unflinching in their celebration of ephemeral verities.’ Alessio Zanelli is Italian and comes less laden with praise, although Michael Swan is quoted as commending the book under review for managing to be ‘moving and thought-provoking by turns,’ as a result of which ‘this collection is impressive both for its range and for its intensity of feeling.’ Well, as Bertie Wooster was wont to remark, I don’t know about you, reader, but I get more than a little irritated when asked – or expected — to praise intensity of feeling. I mean, primal screams are one thing, poems are another. If I very much enjoy Zanelli’s work, as I do, it’s as much as anything for its craft.

The opener to Zanelli’s collection is called “Transition Hendecapoem,” and consists of eleven separate poems, each with its own italicised, lower-case title, each poem consisting of eleven lines, and each line consisting of eleven syllables. Were this self-consciously laboured, a kind of heavy-breathing, sweaty performance-against-the odds, I’d see no reason to praise it. But in fact the poem as a whole is managed with real panache, and the assured blending of memoir-cum-autobiography, from birth to here and now and laced through with mythic origins as it is, proves to be an aesthetic delight.

The same may be said about a poem which far more daringly challenges expectable responses. “Flash Spacers”, which comes with the sub-title For the crew of the Challenger, blown up in flight on 28 January 1986, isn’t so much a conventional elegy, remarkable for ‘intensity of feeling’, as a wondering about the vast gap between human aspiration and uncontrollable reality. ‘They sought/no fame, just heaven, still the fiercest hell

                  burst out of SRB’s. Their shreds dispersed
                 among propellant spray,  the boundless blue,
                 and ocean waves Star sickness branded on
                 our wafting minds, lamenting seven who
                 consigned their lives to OV-99.

Byron’s gladiator ‘consents to death and conquers agony.’ These astronauts ‘consigned their lives’ to a faulty rocket ship. There’s much more to say about Zanelli’s poem than I have space for, but at the very least I need to note that Zanelli shares with Byron a sense of the ineffable, which the OED defines as ‘too great to be expressed in words,’ and as such requires consent and/or consignment and not a show of words that are inevitably self-regarding. ‘Look at me, flexing my deep feelings. Intense or what?’ There’s no true consolation in such a verbal parade. I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) moment when the dying George V was told by his well-meaning and no doubt deep-feeling nurse that he’d soon be well enough to ‘recuperate at Bognor.’ To which the king is said to have responded ‘Bugger Bognor,’ and promptly died.

The best of Zanelli’s poems, and there are plenty in The Invisible to choose among, display a blend of intense verbal regard and acute observation, and all of them are notable for their formal accomplishment. In other words, he does what a good poet should do: he makes a virtue out of the act of making a poem. I am, though, puzzled by the occasional taken-for-granted use of American formulations: ‘Mom,’ ‘I go visit’, ‘like’ (for ‘as if’), ‘colors’, the more so as other formulations suggest an insecurity in handling idiom: ‘their gazes scan me,’ ‘heights/of yore.’ Between them, these suggest moments of translatorese which interrupt what otherwise is a very real, very considerable achievement. But don’t let them put you off. The Invisible is a necessary acquirement for anyone at all interested in contemporary poetry.

The same can be said for Hashmi’s substantial collection  Shorter Poems. And not merely because it’s important to be aware of what’s happening beyond our own patch, though Greenwich Exchange certainly deserve our thanks for bringing these poets to our attention. There are, it has to be admitted, moments of what I think must be innocent failure to handle idiom in Shorter Poems, of which the most startling is perhaps the following, from “According to the Scriptures”

                  I  bend over and kiss your turnips,
                  flattened, white-fleshed, loamy,
                  pink and then purple to touch, warm;
                  and they grow, upturn, invert
                  in the mouth – crowned
                  each by                     
                  a nipple.

As Eric Morecambe used to say, ‘There’s no answer to that.’

It may be that Hashmi would have benefitted from sterner editing, although it has then to be added that as the poems printed here have all previously appeared they must all have passed muster under different editorial eyes, and certainly Hashmi is rightly confident in his use of idiom when it comes, for example, to “They Say, They Never Wrote,” a tongue-in-cheek performance that takes to task certain poets who either disclaimed any responsibility for their own work or who in different ways fobbed it off as a side-line or who put the blame for the whole shebang onto others. Hence, the Earl of Rochester’s ‘ruse’, who, Hashmi says, ‘rode and hunted by the day/And slipped into his English sleeping bag/at night, so tired he made the girl his Muse,’ though I have to say that Rochester’s Drinking Song insists that he plans not only never to ‘Love a woman ’ – that’s for asses – but that he intends ‘every night to sit/With my lewd well-natured friend,/Drinking to engender wit.’ Still, Hashmi’s use of the vernacular is here pretty well irreproachable, and the ingenious sonnet sequence “Virus Regulation”, made up of twelve fourteen-liners, each following its own pattern of irregular-syllable-length lines, has a formal dexterity much to be admired.

Equally admirable is the way Hashmi manipulates the triplets of “Any Ideas”, a poem which moves with nimble ease through a various questioning of possibilities about how to confront – or indeed evade – circumstance, from the verbal play that spins from cotton to yarn to novel to Jenny and so on, and on, in order that chance words be given the chance (ha!) to create ideas by associative power and wit flexes in delighted discovery of unexpected vistas, with ‘hardly a thought/to grip the pen – /lest all came true.’ But then, if the truest poetry is indeed the most feigning, poets must follow where fancy leads and trust to what they find, whether that requires them to be ‘up early and help whoever fights/for peace around, speaking of human rights,’ (“Enlisted”) or to recognise ‘Familiar birds/[who] wear foreign names/and intone their signals//in failing October light,’ as ‘Leaf by leaf/the summer signs off.’(“Composition in Early Winter”) . For as the poet whom I can’t imagine Hashmi not admiring said, ‘World is various, and more of it than we think.’