Look We Have Coming to Dover! – Review by Kayo Chingonyi

The biography on Daljit Nagra’s website lists several people who, through teaching and mentorship, have been influential on his work. What is clear from reading the biography is that Nagra took a long time in assembling the manuscript. This care and attention comes across in the way the poems balance great seriousness in subject matter with a nuanced, ludic delivery. As the title suggests, this is a book that muses on what it means to be British; especially as a second generation immigrant.

Nagra jacket

The first thing that strikes you when reading the book is the use of Punglish, a blend of Punjabi and Ungreji (English), that gives us a renewed sense of what language can do and how it responds to mutations. In the book Punglish is not some gimmick brought in now and again for light relief, but rather a means of refreshing English, of inhabiting the grand edifice of the Anglophone literary canon. The need to assimilate in this way is the impulse behind many of the poems but is perhaps keenest here:

                        Should I talk with the chalk of my white inside
                        On the board of my minstrel – blacked outside  (‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’)

This is a question any outsider might find themselves asking, but the significance is deeper still since in this poem, which refers to the pseudonym Nagra used when he was first being published; an improbable agglomeration of Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu names, it becomes clear that the novelty of hybridity pushes a poet like Nagra into ‘the gap in the market’ whether he wishes to be there or not. In calling this situation into question the poem asks us what would happen if we were allowed to be in our full complexity.

This question of being and otherness is a recurrent concern whether it is in poems exploring the fracture between the north and south in England or the gap between the lives of first generation immigrants and their children. What is clear in the book is that such a question is one that follows you no matter how much part of a society you feel. In particular, the poem ‘In a White Town’ is a heartbreaking evocation of shame and the longing to belong somewhere that is specific to the migrant experience:

                        ‘She never looked like other boys’ mums.
                        No one ever looked without looking again
                        at the pink kameez and balloon’d bottoms,

                        mustard-oiled trail of hair, brocaded pink
                        sandals and the smell of curry. That’s why
                        I’d bin the letters about Parents’ Evenings,’ (‘In a White Town’)

Kayo Chingonyi is a poet, editor, events producer and educator. His pamphlet, Some Bright Elegance, was published by Salt in 2012. Follow @KayoChingonyi

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