“Notes from a Shipwreck” is a journey through the past and present, touching on migration, colonialism through family history, Shakespeare, sea legends and myths. Like the sea itself, the poems shift perspectives and avoid easy answers. In the title poem, the narrator is on a whaling ship, the Violent Blue, where she’s asked to pray to the Hindu god Varuna,
“Her fluke takes us down – for the whole catastrophe
of things we did to her and the sea. I was just a ship-trapped
girl on a rock, far from homeland, it was nothing to do
with me, just a bloody foreigner. I watch as they harpoon her.
We wipe our sleeves while wreckers look on, light fires
on the shore. What a disaster the stink is for all the sailors
left. Next comes scurvy, next comes fever. The captain brings
us a remedy named after a baby whale who washed up
on the banks of the Thames, near Barnes Bridge, last summer.
I stood by when the crowds came to witness her carcass.”
A boat needs a unified crew and an experienced captain. Here, the narrator is an outsider, a “foreigner” as far as the crew are concerned and therefore not worth attention. The crew sickens and it’s down to the captain to bring remedies, since the fault lies with him. Scurvy is caused by a vitamin deficit and avoidable. There’s an irony in the captain naming his remedy after a dead whale. It also underlines the sense of being foreign for the narrator: whales don’t belong in the Thames river. Its presence suggests a faulty radar, a whale who’d lost its bearings and ended up in the wrong place. The cure sounds worse than the illness.
In “Outcaste”, a girl tells her school classmates “I was from India, not England. They were eased”. Allowing her classmates to think she is not English explains her dark skin. The girl however admits, “But in my heart I knew I was born in Luton”. Not confessing to her correct birthplace avoids the racist discussion about being born in Britain but having an Asian heritage. Like the narrator on the whaling ship, the girl is both part of the ship and outside it. The title is a play on the word ‘outcast’ and the caste system intersecting with the British class system.
Teenage rebellion strikes in “Cracked Actors” and a teenage girl casts herself as “Puck, Miranda, Titania” and her boyfriend as “Romeo, Ferdinand and Antonio” to a soundtrack of Bowie as they sneak off to a hotel in a father’s car,
“You were slicked back, I waxed and waned, made up
from a strange thing of you. Someone clapped, did we
make it from the bones and blood of us? All smeared
like lipstick on the sheets as we fell to earth.
I was a vixen when I was back at school. You, Oberon,
had a line or too to get through. I was playing
kitchen sinks and gin until you were out of my system.”
Naturally, it can’t last. The boy slips back into life, make king by his adventure. The outcome for her feels miserable. The love potion’s worn off and she drinks to feel better or at least until he’s washed from her.
“No Place Like Home” starts with the narrator listening to a stranger who “didn’t want Angela Merkel to take our queen”. Later the narrator recalls,
“I went out on my own last night to a Korean restaurant, ordered
the wrong thing again and everyone else’s was better, there is a
German word for that, I’m sure. I was given silver chopsticks by a
girl with great hair. I felt like crying.
My sister phones and speaks to me like a stranger about our father.
I want to tell her to see a shrink and hang up, but I say things
will be fine. There’s nonsense on the radio as I drive home. Later, I
watch a documentary about the Inuit and how they have lost their
rights to hunt whales. The ice is evaporating. For some people there
is no place like home.”
The narrator is adrift, doomed to repeat the wrong actions. Even the food can’t comfort her and she’s sure there’s a foreign word to describe her mood but she doesn’t know it. What she does know is that home is a slippery concept to someone who is adrift from her origins and not at home in the country she was born in.
In “Wrecker” the narrator is sorting through the flotsam that found itself,
“jettisoned, stuffed in cupboards, you say that’s all scuttle
and sink as I rummage in corners, to see what I can salvage.
There’s banging on walls, a baby’s yell. Life happens
in cracks and shouts, the marks etched in the wall,
that second of violence, a defiant scar to show I’ve gone
to ground, perhaps I never had anything to lose.”
The notion there’s anything to salvage seems to be a romantic idea. This is a life with apparently nothing to show for it.
The narrator’s earlier lie about being from India catches up with her in “The Caller”, which starts with, “There is a legend that I was once from India/ before the world was so broken and left scraps”. It makes her think of a legend where nightingales sang for princes. She listens and hears a song she’d not noticed above the noises of everyday life. She runs into the garden, singing to keep the singer singing so she can find him,
“I grow lung-song sharp and he keeps calling,
come, come, and my human hunger is marked
for his words to sing our lonely songs
from a kitchen window forever in the dead of dark.
Fly-catcher, rattler, all my island’s voices, call again,
and my brown feathers appear for a moment
as he sings more urgently, now night-jar, windfallen
in the coal dark. Come here, come here.”
It feels fairytale-like, the narrator has found her home, her community.
“Notes from a Shipwreck” navigates choppy waters, as if knowing that still waters are merely the lull before a storm. They explore themes of identity, immigration, the watery foundation of trying to make a home in a country where you’re not entirely accepted and how we might find our communities and poeple with whom we can share common values and interests. Mookherjee keeps the shipping and sea theme sustained throughout but it never becomes predictable and none of the poems feel like fillers, as if they were just included for the sake of padding out a collection. Each poem has earnt its place.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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