World Book History #9: Maps Of Desire

Love and compassion bring people together. That sounds obvious, but the current state of world affairs suggests otherwise. Now and throughout history, those things are bypassed in the name of individualistic interest.

Manuel Forcano, one of Catalan’s leading love poets, primarily focuses on romantic love. That’s true of his 2019 collection Maps of Desire (Arc Publications) too.

But he also explores how romanticism can be extended to societal love and community cohesion. As the book’s translator Anna Crowe says:

‘I believe Maps of Desire succeeds in suggesting both the physical and psychological reaching-out towards other parts of the world that characterises the poems within its pages’.

Forcano centres his sense of motion around travel in the Middle East. Crucially, he both celebrates and breaks down the differences by tying communities together via love; we all feel it, we all mourn it when it’s over, and we all need it if society is going to function properly.

So how do the poems offer insight into love’s necessity in a societal context? Here are three interesting ways…

The History of Love and Landscapes

Much of the emphasis in Maps of Desire is on how love responds to landscapes. Or indeed, how landscapes reflect or influence love.

‘The Baghdad Train’, for example, is rich in the history and geographical prowess of the Middle East and, while capturing a contemporary moment, shows how those connections stretch back centuries.

But he also uses history to explore how the end of love can unite cultures:

‘People search among the stones
for pieces of those mirrors where joy
remained engraved. Even now
we dream the pleasure of others.’

Every society around the world has a distinct culture, but feelings are universal. When societies aren’t functioning peacefully, they often look to those who are for guidance.

Foreign aid is one thing, but it needs to come from a true place of love to actually heal divisions.

Baghdad, 2018; the muse for Forcano’s epic ‘The Baghdad Train’.

Identity, War and Peace

Identity and deepening diversions due to it reflect that lack of love.

In ‘The Huge River’, Forcano hones his practice of taking the personal and making it universal:

‘But often love means trying to hold water
in the fingers of an open hand’.

Those fears and perceptible doubts are felt just as keenly by communities healing from conflict as they are by individuals. Whilst those feelings are deep-rooted, by recognising that issue we can start to make a difference.

And Forcano does offer hope for those affected by contemporary conflict. In ‘Beirut’, he combines the sentimental value of memory with nationalistic symbolism to great effect:

‘…And memory,
at first so sharp in the mind
then later leaching colour
like a flag too long in the wind.’

By pointing to decaying authoritarian power, Forcano mirrors the drive to stop the current stream of nationalist uprisings.

People in oppressed communities know they aren’t that different from us. There needs to be further recognition of that from the Western world.

‘Poetry, for me, is like an oasis in a desert of words’. Manuel Forcano on his influences and translation in poetry.

Religion

Organised religion’s relationship with love is a complex one.

With so many factions in the leading faiths having different interpretations, it’s pretty much impossible to pinpoint a unifying definition of love.

Hailing from Catholic Spain, Forcano reflects religion in a societal sense both in terms of community and via the homoerotic tones in his verse. In ‘The Baghdad Train’, he chimes into the idea that (in theory) forms the origin of all religious love:

‘God is beautiful and that is why he delights in beauty,’
someone recited from the Qu’ran’.

But he mines another inclusive angle on ‘Egyptian Mysteries’. After referencing discussions around religion and love, sex and ‘sin’, he alludes to how gay desire is STILL halted by religion within many societies. When he rounds off the poem by saying:

‘I don’t know which I should thank: whether philosophy
or religion’

he shows doubt, before deciding that he looks to religion for guidance in love in too much.

Mainstream religion has a long way to go before being a totally safe space for gay people, but Forcano owns and embraces his sexuality all the same. In some societies that’s currently not possible, but increasing awareness is a kick-starter for a more equal world.

Conclusion

Love – in all its forms – is something everybody experiences.

Identity, religion and history change love’s meaning, and politics struggles to deal with those changes.

It might seem facile to turn to love poetry as a demarcation of unity. But poetry has always been about deeper connectivity, and Manuel Forcano’s work is proof of that in a context which effects every society.

Find out more about how Forcano uses love to reflect society by grabbing a copy of Maps of Desire today.

World Book History #8: Let Me Tell You This

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is let-me-tell-you-this.jpg

In 2020, racism is still a very global problem. Events in the US over the last two weeks have brought about awareness on the biggest scale that many of us can remember. But it’s far from just an American problem.

Here in the UK and wider Europe, the attitude that ‘our society can’t ever be as bad as America’s’ is both widespread and deeply problematic.

And Nadine Aisha Jassat is all too aware of racial divisions in her native Scotland. As a woman of colour, her perspective on race, heritage and integration in the UK is profound and affecting. In her debut poetry collection Let Me Tell You This, she lays out that perspective in direct style that’s brutal, uncomfortable, wise and truthful in equal measure.

It’s a book that – along with those highlighted by this petition last week – could do wonders on the UK educational syllabus. It’s full to the brim with crucial material, but there are three poems in particular which confront that very British strain of racism head-on.

And they are…

Paki Hands

As white people, it’s vital that we start checking our privilege. Early on, Jassat confronts that issue in ‘Paki Hands’. The poem shows just how normalised racist language has become in British dialect, and is pertinent regarding current events in the USA;

I could ask her what she means, but then I’d be told I’m making a scene. But if I stay quiet – gaze lowered to pale-dark hands, feet and knees – what will the silence do to me?

Here Jassat highlights another crucial way in which white people have to become able and proud allies to people of colour. If we’re not checking our friends – calling them out on the use of racist or generally problematic language – then we’re not helping.

So entrenched are offensive ideas about ‘foreignness’ that people are often shouted down for trying to be the difference. But the fight for race equality has never been quick or easy to resolve.

An ITV news report on racism in the UK, dating from 2016. Have thing got any better for BAME people?

Built to Last

A post-colonial mindset still has a strong grip on many Britons. This gets even murkier when nationalist groups, politicians and activists begin re-branding and reinventing the truth about entire sections of society to adhere to some notion of ‘Britishness’. In ‘Built to Last’, Jassat writes:

I’m starting to learn your ways, through your attitude to names. Stories untold, makers’ hands forgotten, once the item is marked ‘sold’ (or ‘gifted’, never stole – )’

At some level, all white people benefit from what other cultures offer us. Jassat’s allusion to that colonial mindset, which positions the values and beliefs of non-white societies as being lesser than our own, is clear-cut and powerful.

Not only does it show the confusion caused by white superiority, but also that people of colour have to work so much harder to gain acceptance in UK society. Only through amplifying voices like Jassat’s is that going to become a thing of the past.  

Hopscotch

Unfortunately, the majority of British people of colour will be familiar with the question ‘where are you from originally?’. Which is why Jassat’s inclusion of it in ‘Hopscotch’ is so pertinent. It’s the sort of thing that many would associate with a mentality from a bygone era. But Jassat, as a young woman, has still experienced it. It’s a signifier that things haven’t changed enough.

Jassat entwines that realisation with notions of toxic masculinity:

              Hey beautiful – isn’t she Gorgeous, Stunning, Bollywood Babe – I want you.

Combined with the inevitable question about origin, Jassat exposes how any supposed ‘compliments’ she’s given are ultimately about control and denigration. They mask a very real, very vicious kind of belittlement.

‘Where your blood comes from is such a small portion of who you really are.’ British people give their perspective on the ‘where are you really from?’ question.

Conclusion

Jassat’s observations are both personal and universal. Personal because she has experienced them first hand, and universal because many women of colour in the UK have experienced them too.

Let Me Tell You This could go a long way to improving the representation of BAME voices in both UK consciousness and representation.

The longer texts like this are ignored, the harder the fight becomes.

Grab yourself a copy of Let Me Tell You This via the 404 Ink website today.

World Book History #4: Inside Voices, Outside Light

Image credit: Jen Flickr

Iceland is often perceived as one of the world’s most mysterious countries. Exposed in the far north, miles from any mainland, it’s sometimes depicted as a lonely, cut-off place, with harsh winters but one of the planet’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Yet, just like its fellow Scandinavian countries, it has an incredibly rich and historic literary culture. Sigurdur Palsson, whose repertoire includes plays, poetry and prose is one of Iceland’s most renowned exports. Inside Voices, Outside Light was translated by long-time collaborator Martin S. Regal and published in 2014 and features poems from almost 40 years of Palsson’s work.

There are a number of ways in which Palsson’s poetry can both reflect and educate humanity. Just like much Icelandic poetry, Palsson constantly references Icelanders’ deep relationship with land and the power of nature. It takes all of Iceland’s previously discussed idiosyncrasies – particularly its landscape and geographical nuance – and turns them into a beautiful component of national pride, one which is shared by pretty much all Icelanders.

As Regal writes in his forward for Inside Voices, Outside Light: ‘Even the most complex of Palsson’s images or meditations are outward looking, not products of a dramatized or analysed self; they are offerings to the reader rather than insights into the writer’s mind’. Palsson’s vivid and gorgeous vision works in tandem with the wider implications of global warming. The systematic protection and upkeep we, as humans, need to devote to the planet is absolutely our responsibility – and we’ve been neglecting it.  

This has been part of the very fibre of his work right from the earliest collections. In ‘Nocturne for Saturn’ (1980) the title planet is depicted as a ghostly, wraith-like presence full of ‘blonde tears’ and silence; not worlds away from the potential future of Earth in 2019. By contrast, the final contribution, ‘By River and Ocean’ (2012), draws on Greek mythology and tracks the beauty and growth of Earth through the millenia, indulging in mankind’s consistent misunderstanding of nature.

But there are also lessons in how to emphasise the power of natural beauty in writing. ‘Plywood’ (one of the poems Palsson specifically asked Regal to translate) references the ‘nature vs industrialism’ debate that has been engulfing Iceland for decades. Ultimately though, it asserts that Iceland owes all its beauty, pliability and growth to both the elements and mankind working in conjunction.

Image credit: Chris Yunker flickr

In ‘The Art of Poetry’ he suggests that his writing is entirely dictated by the actions and patterns of snow blizzards, and in ‘The Black Land’ he asserts that without its freezing backdrops and icy/snowy measures Iceland feels like a paralysed, alien world. The dense winter snows make vast swathes of the country impassable, but in Palsson’s view they open up the potential for real, raw beauty.

Inside Voices, Outside Light doesn’t preach – in fact, it seems as though social consciousness was never at the top of Palsson’s writing agenda. But his connection with nature, so clearly persistent here, should be a point of inspiration.

In Part three of ‘Poem Energy Need’ (2009), he writes that we are ‘throwing stones from glass houses, or glass from stone houses, depends on the mood’. We, as humans, have a duty to save the planet. In 2019, it is only us that can do so, and only us that can condemn it to death. Inside Voices, Outside Light presents the message we should have been aware of all along.

If you want to explore more of Palsson’s intoxicating relationship with nature, then pick up a copy of Inside Voices, Outside Light today.