Book review

The best recent poetry collections – review

How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil; Saffron Jack by Rishi Dastidar; The Atlas of Lost Beliefs by Ranjit Hoskote; and Shine, Darling by Ella Frears
Power dynamic … Bhanu Kapil performs How to Wash a Heart, at the ICA, London, 19 June 2019. Photograph: ICA

Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion, £9.99) responds with brilliant acuity to the prolonged stress of the immigrant experience.

In an affectingly claustrophobic second-person address, the immigrant speaker talks to her white, middle-class, liberal host. Despite the host’s “contra-regime” politics and assurances that “What’s mine is yours”, the power dynamic is steeped in inequality; everything is done on the host’s terms, and “there’s no law / That requires / What you’re offering me to last”. In this house – or in the nation state in which the immigrant is forced into the role of constant guest – the speaker is subtly undermined, turned into a “pet” and her rights amended accordingly. The host interrupts the speaker, polices her interactions, finds and reads aloud her diary. Hospitality is conditional: the performance of generosity is hollow. In this series of precise, destabilising poems, Kapil skilfully amplifies the pressured immigrant heart, showing how precarious it is to exist in colour in a white space.

The ways in which immigrant voices are failed by the state are also examined in Rishi Dastidar’s second collection, Saffron Jack(Nine Arches, £9.99), a long narrative poem that revises the fervent imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Man Who Would Be King”, from Plain Tales From the Hills. Dastidar’s central character, Jack (a play on the union jack and to hijack) is an outcast who rejects a system that has neglected him to become king of his own country. “Every country,” he declares, “is imaginary.” The collection dismantles the myth of assimilation, when even if “you have done everything to try and fit in” – “eat[en] the food, not your parents”, loyalty to a state that has only ever regarded you as a colonial resource is futile: “Do you think 300 years of ownership provided us with any duty of care?”

Borders also falter in Ranjit Hoskote’s The Atlas of Lost Beliefs (Arc, £10.99). Hoskote is a poet, translator, cultural theorist, curator and art critic based in Mumbai, and this multifaceted thinking informs a generous embrace of hybridity in his work. His language, too, leaps gracefully across vast terrains of dialects and mythologies, from the European “coracle” and “fjordlands” to the “kinnaras” and “djinns” from Hindu and Islamic mythology and religion that are catalogued in the titular poem. Out of this current a polyphony of voices arises – the biblical Jonah, Melville’s Captain Ahab, the victims of the 18th-century Zong massacre: a chorus that crashes, as impossible to contain as waves on the sea.

Ella Frears’s debut Shine,Darling(Offord Road, £10) fizzes with insistent energy. It is full of crystalline images and metaphors – “a palm tree nearby so enthusiastic the sky / has had to make extra room”; the ghost of Joan of Arc who “knows that pain / forms in the mind like frost”. Frears is also excellent on sexual politics, the threshold at the end of girlhood, and the small actions that betray an aching desperation to be wanted – waiting, “rosy and excited”, “your body’s hot-water blush”. The verse essay at the centre of the collection, “Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity”’, follows the speaker’s “near-abduction” through the uncanny twists of a false sexual allegation from a female housemate, the suicide of a twin. These unsettling poems lean into irony and beauty with equal measure, under the light of “the moon winking through the trees”.

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