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Guest Review: Ward on an anthology that would make a good Christmas gift from Bloodaxe

Christian Ward reviews
edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra
Ten: New Poets from Spread the Word is an exciting anthology showcasing ten black and Asian poets, with the eventual aim of being published by a major poetry publisher. This stemmed from a shocking discovery that very few poets of colour were being published in this country.

A report commissioned by the Spread the Word Writer Development Agency to investigate this issue found only “1% of poetry books published in Britain are by black and Asian poets.” Evaristo was determined to do something about it and the result is a two-year mentoring project called The Complete Works, which aims to redress this paucity. Ten poets were chosen anonymously – Rowyda Amin, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Malika Booker, Nick Makoha, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Janet Kofi-Tsekpo, Roger Robinson, Denise Saul, Seni Seneviratne and Shazea Quraishi. They would be mentored by poets such as George Szirtes and Paul Farley, who introduce each poet to the reader in the anthology.

Ten: New Poets from Spread the Word opens with Karen McCarthy Woolf’s selection, a sequence of poems entitled ‘Yellow Logic’, which is a response to the death of her baby son. Woolf writes with energy and her lyrics are filled with memorable images such as “the river hums like a PC” (‘The Weather in the Womb’), “a broken bird/ song explodes/ on a frequency of earth and lime” (‘Mor Bleu’) and “thick-bladed grass/ green as astro-turf” (‘Yellow Logic’). Faith plays a major role in the sequence and she questions God in ‘Mort Dieu’, asking “Was this/ dear God/ your will?”

Mir Mahfuz Ali is, for me, one of the standouts in the book. He grew up during the Bangladeshi war of liberation and came to England in the early 1970s. Ali has a film director’s eye and his poems waste no details in trying to create an exact picture for the reader. In ‘Midnight, Dhaka, 25 March 1971’, searchlights are “dicing the streets like bayonets. /Kalashnikovs mowing down rickshaw pullers, /vendor sellers, beggars on the pavements.”  

While his poetry is graphic and intense, there are moments of stillness and sensuality. In ‘My Salma’, the speaker compares Badho, his addressee, to a “camellia bush” while the titular Salma is vividly described as having a “perfect fullness” which appealed to him as a “boy who was hungry in shorts”. These snapshots of innocence and discovery are contrasted with the bluntness of soldiers entering the scene and the rape which follows. Ali doesn’t flinch with the details, showing us the soldier “who was decorated with two silver bars” being the first to “dive on top of Salma”, laughing as “he pumped/ his rifle-blue buttocks in the Hemonti sun.”

My final pick is Denise Saul. The winner of this year’s Geoffrey Dreamer Prize, her lyric encompass a geography stretching from Paris to Africa but manages to be intimate with her subjects, which range from poems about her father (‘City of Coffee and Rain’), a quartz cave (‘Quartz Cave’) and a prehistoric primate (‘One’).

Saul feels comfortable writing about the natural as she does with more personal subjects. ‘Quartz Cave’, for instance, is a short lyric that celebrates the processes involved in creating the mineral. The piece opens with the stunning “As if the day depended on it for brightness,/ the sky above begins to lighten”, reflecting on the crystal’s shimmering quality. Each line rises and falls like the stalactites in the cave, mirroring the “smell of salt” which “rises from this geode” and from “orange earth through a fault”. ‘Moon Jelly’ is a beautiful lyric about a polyp which Saul compares to the moon’s light. Although it is “an outcast”, a drifter with ‘seven inches/ of nerves, no brain or heart”, the creature still retains an identity, becoming the moon’s light “in the last hour”.

Ten: New Poets from Spread the Word is an enjoyable anthology and the ten poets showcased in the anthology should go on to greater things. Bernadine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra must be commended for their efforts in producing this book.  

Christian Ward is a 32-year-old London-based poet. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Magma and Poetry Wales. The Tin Man's Lover, his first collection, will be released next year by Valley Press. He blogs at
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