By Mir Mahfuz Ali
64 pages, Seren, £9.99
Ways to Build a Roadblock
By Josh Ekroy
82 pages, Nine Arches Press, £8.99
When a poet renowned for his performances, his ‘extraordinary voice’ referring to his reading skills rather than his industry on the page, a collection in book form is not always the obvious appetizer. Add to this is a sub theme of civil war, written in a language other than the author’s mother tongue, and pessimism often creeps in.
But Mir Mahfuz Ali, in Midnight, Dhaka, his first full collection of poetry (which includes the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize winning poem ‘MIG-21 Raids at Shegontola’), is just as fluent in poetry-on-the-page as he is in English (which is not just perfect, it is also engaging in content and pleasing to the ear in sound). A chief weakness for spoken word poets is the use of punctuation to add depth to their poems. Ali manages just fine, better than most. There are no jarring sensations, missing question marks or frustratingly misjudged enjambment in Midnight, Dhaka. And while Ali does not make the most of punctuation (not only are there are no cool tricks in Midnight, Dhaka, there is also not a single semi-colon, which, in twenty-first century poetry, is a bit like a football chant without a swear word), his skill with words themselves quickly become obvious.
The stories told in poems such as ‘Dog Seed’ could conceivably be from any country, from any poet with all the competency and grace of any ground-breaking thinker:
A nine-year-old scrambles out of his tin shack
to find two dogs jammed rump to rump –
a gruff mongrel with slashing jaws
dragging another up the street, a third of its size,
yowling at the grip of the knot, from which
it can’t run. As the sun fries the fleas on their backs,
the boy decides to pull them apart.
This is a poem where cute rhyming and subtle rhyming combine brilliantly. As our minds take in run/sun and fries/fleas quite easily, the addition of size in the latter scheme, as well as shack/backs, gives us an overall elegant transition through a vulgar image, letting the tension build right from the scrambling, slashing start until the stanza ends and we are left curious as to what will happen next.
Mir Mahfuz Ali was born in what is now Bangladesh. He has worked as a male model, a tandoori chef and as a dancer and actor, though his past occupations are much harder to detect than his birthplace. Many of the poems in this collection refer to the culture of Bangladesh.
The title poem in Midnight, Dhaka, from the viewpoint of a camera, takes us back to 1971, to the time of the Bangladesh genocide. After some brutal images, the contents of which can spring easily to mind, we are left with a slogan, where humour creeps into the poem, and where both the two worlds of Ali’s poetry and the two worlds of every story, are knitted together:
I click as the soldiers laugh at the billboard on the bulkhead:
GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU
SIX MILLION DRUNK EVERY DAY.
The troubling war in Josh Ekroy’s mind is more recent, and more comprehensible to us living in the UK. Firstly because Ekroy is concerned with all war, whether it takes place in Gaza or Afghanistan, and secondly because Ekroy acknowledges all victims, from the dead to the bereaved to the people reading the news in their own homes. In Ways to Build a Roadblock, Ekroy’s first collection, one poem rewrites an article from The Guardian, while another is based on a quote from a victim of phosphorus shell attacks, but in Ekroy’s hands they become more than a rehash. Because all reactions to war matter to Ekroy, not just his own. War Enquiries are mocked, between an elegy of a soldier’s rifle, and borders are crossed not just by visitors but also by the men guarding them.
The title poem, ‘Ways to Build a Roadblock’, begins with humour rather than leads to it, and leads instead to a disturbing reality. This humour is never real though, only hinted at:
Wreaths of stapelia and cycad trunks
can’t be overrun. But the surest way
is to use a tall wardrobe. It should have
a mirror which you angle to the sun
to dazzle any road-user. They’ll halt
a good way off and walk, frowning perhaps,
towards you, acting normal.
This collection is lightened by war in other forms, such as a trip on the tube (‘R&R’), where the breaks go berserk and passengers are swiftly penned, and the hierarchies of brainwashed fish (Leader), possibly reflecting Bush and Blair, possibly reflecting responses in everyday people.
A poem which balances the clear and non-clear existences of war and confrontation is ‘Cellar’, where war is past but lives on in chilling reminders, presented to us in almost exciting exploration:
The dividing wall balances the house,
under whose floor you’re a velvet mole.
Soggy-dried cardboard instructions:
Official Bomb Shelter: For The Protection
Of Twenty People. Breathing in air sharp
with compost, you scent diseases long since
banished, creeping back. You mount
rotting wooden steps with chilled feet,
Both Josh Ekroy and Mir Mahfuz Ali buck the trend of debutant poets being fresh out of university. While poems from young whippersnappers show creativity and ambition, they often lack maturity, not necessarily in how the poets think, but how they write. And both these books suggest it is sometimes better to wait to release your first collection. There is no need to wait for the third or fourth collection from Ali and Ekroy to witness their voice develop; the results are here, early, ready to read.