Featured this summer are three poets, originally from Bangladesh, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Poland respectively, but now resident in Britain. They arrived from ‘elsewhere’ in different decades as refugees or asylum seekers. But where or what exactly is ‘elsewhere’. George Szirtes (see below) comments that it is both place and history, here as well as there. Those who have their origins in this country may also find Britain ‘other’ or alien at times, as well as home. Obviously home can be a state of mind, as well as a geographic location. These poets, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Nazand Begikhani and Maria Jastrzębska could be said to live, to some degree, ‘in-between’, to inhabit a space, a crack, like “the cracks that grow between borders” in Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘They’ll say “She must be from another country.”’ A crevice, or sometimes a chasm, from which experience is viewed. Their poetry may seem very different from the British mainstream, yet they help to refresh it. These poets are bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and they bring to their writing particular linguistic sensitivities, including first-hand experience of poetry from another tradition in its original language.
They contribute to what the scholar Bruce King has termed “the internationalization of English Literature”. (See Vol. 13 of The Oxford English Literary History, ‘The Internationalization of English Literature’, Vol. 13/1948-2000). King writes, “Those born outside England often call upon a different imaginative world from those born in England.” A different imaginative world can be glimpsed in Mir Mahfuz Ali’s poem ‘My Daughter Waits By The Door’. The poet combines atmosphere and feeling when he portrays his daughter waiting forlornly for playmates by the door of a flat on a British estate: “A long emptiness howls like a mad dog”. The description is imbued, it seems, with a vestige of Bangladesh. The three poets Mahfuz Ali, Begikhani and Jastrzębska are poets with the strong subject matter – war, or genocide in their backgrounds or foregrounds. They have born witness. This does not mean that they write directly, or even indirectly on such huge themes all the time, but that their varied cultural experiences, including experiences of language, are threaded through their writing as a whole.
Their poetic style, as well as their themes, can seem ‘foreign’ or challenging – the extreme ‘Bengali’ sensuousness of Mahfuz Ali’s writing, Jastrzębska’s deliberate plain-spoken directness and her attraction to that ‘in-between’ form, the prose-poem, and Begikhani’s brand of imagism with its roots in the poetry of her country of origin. But, of course, it’s more complex than this suggests. Mahfuz Ali, for instance, grew up with ‘English Literature’, Jastrzębska has taken on and transmuted aspects of the poetry of the Women’s Movement in the 1980s, and Begikhani’s work shows the influence of T.S. Eliot whose poems she has translated. All three poets partake of and are part of contemporary British poetry.
Their writing confidently explodes ideas about poetry we might entertain in Britain, for instance that it should necessarily be ironic and understated, or that it should avoid the overtly political. Above all these are passionate poets, and there is an over-riding sense that the poems had to be written. For the reader, naturally, it’s not one-way traffic, and if we don’t share the particularities of their experiences, cultural, political or literary, we can bring to their poetry what we know of loss, protest and regeneration. Engaging with their poetry connects us to others, and to a wider world of which we are part, and to a fuller realisation of Britain. It can help us to connect to our own far-reaching familial and ancestral roots. ‘In-between’ is a fruitful place for a writer to be. Mahfuz Ali, Begikhani and Jastrzębska offer mature and compelling fruit.