David Cooke reviews Ezekiel and Cain

Joanna Ezekiel: Centuries of Skin. Ragged Raven Poetry.  2010. ISBN: 9780955255298.  £7.
Miles Cain: The Border: Valley Press. 2011.  ISBN: 9780956890443. £7.50.

Centuries of Skin is the first full length collection of poetry from Joanna Ezekiel. Bringing together work from a twelve year period, it was preceded by two pamphlets A Braid of Words, published in 2003 by Poetry Monthly Press and Safe Passage published in 2007 by White Leaf Press. Ezekiel has bided her time before publishing this collection and even a cursory glance through it shows that she is a fastidious writer who is at pains to make each word count.  Moreover, although the astringency of many of her poems might lead one to describe them as ‘minimalist’ this should not tempt one to dismiss them as slight.  The first lines of her opening poem, ‘Smile’, are precise and matter-of-fact: ‘You buy a set of Russian dolls / from the street market in Budapest, / carry it home, gift-wrapped, / place it upon the dining table.’ The set of matryoshka dolls is then described in a few deft strokes: ‘You let them out. / Four, three, two, one – / identical, / the shapes, the aprons, / the thick round bases, / the holiday smell of lacquer.’  However, the poem’s concluding stanzas show her ability to transcend the actuality of an object so that it takes on a symbolic resonance:

   You think: this is what
   it must be like
   to grow
   with your smiling face
   turned out towards the world.

   And you drop the dolls back
   inside each other,
   twisting each one shut,
   smile after smile after smile.

Suggestive rather than explicit, these lines work well because they are open to varying interpretations, but as one familiarizes oneself with Ezekiel’s work one senses that both psychologically and culturally they foreshadow themes which lie at the heart of her collection.  In ‘Severed Train’, written after a visit to the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, the poet deals head on with her family’s Jewish heritage:

   The back of a railway wagon hangs
   on the wall, bordered by darkness,
   its warped planks heavy with memory.
   I breathe sweat and dread. Avoid
   the abyss between each wooden slat,
   it’s as though I’m attuned
   to a lost radio wavelength, catching
   vanishing voices amongst savage crackle.
   I can trace their history along the worn grain.
   Plain as a train-track, or route on a map.

Here, as in ‘Pigtail’ that classic holocaust poem by the  Polish poet Tadeusz Rózewicz we see that it is only through precise and understated objectivity that such material can  be negotiated. However, Ezekiel’s family history is complicated by the fact that she is not only Jewish, but of mixed race and that her father comes from the small Jewish community of Mumbai.  This inheritance is dealt with in poems such as ‘Meeting my Grandmother’ where on a visit to Israel when she was a child, the poet greeted her aged relation with ‘Shalom’, although the latter then ‘rasped’ back ‘Namaste’.  In ‘Overheard at synagogue’ she describes an occasion on which she felt excluded within the Jewish community because of her particular family background: ‘Her father an Indian Jew? / That doesn’t count. / She’s not a proper Jew.’ The poem’s defiant concluding stanza then makes clear what lies behind the collection’s evocative title:

   But when she approaches
   in busy greeting
   I grow centuries of skin.
   Slip through her verdict,
   past her shut eyes.

Ezekiel’s family history is central to her work, but that is not the whole story. Centuries of Skin is a wide-ranging and varied collection which contains many vignettes of contemporary life, which are always well observed, yet sometimes coloured by the poet’s diffidence and vulnerability. In ‘Forty minutes to London’ she observes ‘a girl in black leggings / leaving the hairdressers for cigarettes; / opposite, the library … still as wide / as a Roman villa..’ but then is taken back to earlier days:

   I would say a mantra, like I am an island

   or Shyness is nice, as if it would save me,
   above the Tube subway, forty minutes to London,

   where we thought all the action happened.

In ‘Crossing Hungerford Bridge’ her eye roves like a camera across the scene before settling on one final poignant image: ‘At the steps, / a man with broken boots asks me to spare some change.’ Several poems are inspired by the poet’s experience as a primary school teacher, while others such ‘Walking Home’ and ‘Coffee with an Ex’ explore relationships.  In a less overtly confessional context, love, is also the theme of her wonderfully poised lyric ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’, which concludes with the lines: ‘I see the stars, their sudden sweetness’. Ezekiel is a clear-sighted poet who has a knack of homing in on the telling detail.  She also has a fine ear. However, one senses that she may be feeling the need to push beyond the boundaries of her minimalism.  In ‘Witness’ she builds up an enigmatic narrative from lyric fragments, the effect of which is not dissimilar to that of a nouveau roman. In ‘She Dreams’, a sequence of eight independent lyrics, each poem reinforces our sense of a single personality. Experimental, yet technically adroit, Centuries of Skin is an impressive debut from a poet whose work is memorable in the way that it transmutes everyday reality but also explores complex issues of cultural identity.

Miles Cain’s The Border is also his debut collection.  Along with writing poetry he is a musician and storyteller.  His novel for teenagers, A Song for Nicky Moon, was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House Children’s Writing Award in 2012. If Ezekiel’s poems are pared down and sometimes reminiscent of the work of certain East European poets, Cain’s are expansive, unashamedly demotic, and fit more recognizably into the mainstream of contemporary British verse which goes back to Philip Larkin and has been developed more recently by poets such as Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. His dark humour and surreal flights of fantasy are also reminiscent of Matthew Sweeney, another poet whom he admires. Cain’s idiosyncratic perspective can be seen in ‘Instructions for Downloading the Human Heart’ in which he creates a kind of cyberpunk reality where, if you’ve got the money, you can endlessly renew yourself: ‘It’s easy.  All you need / is superfast broadband / and the right chip… // You’ll feel decades shrivel, / find evenings pulse / with possibility…’ However, as the poem comes to its wry conclusion Cain is dismissive of the simple-mindedness of those who would make a Faustian pact with consumerism and technology:

   One last thing.  The heart is just an engine,
   A valve of sorts. That other stuff
   (anger, jealousy, compassion etc) –
   all of that is up to you.

Intimations of mortality also come to the fore in poems such as ‘The Man Who Lived In Shadow’ and the collection’s title poem ‘The Border’:

   You hold your child like a promise,
   imagine begging her

   not to grow old, kiss her
   again and again, holding
   her small fingers inside your palm.

Like Philip Larkin, Cain frequently evokes the monotony of the daily grind.  In ‘Thirty Seconds’ he deliberately uses mundane syntax to mirror the relentlessness of modern existence. In ‘Parfitt’s’ he describes his youthful experiences of working as the ‘boss’s son’:

   Each morning I stepped in to the Harrow air
   with a neat packed lunch and a small foreboding,
   knowing orders and sweat lay ahead.
   The dirt and shovels, the jibes
   from the boys who took the piss.

Successfully recalling the poet’s early induction into the world of work, it also convincingly suggests that sense of ambiguity he felt as the boss’s son who couldn’t just get on with the job and mix easily with the other lads: ‘The relief when it was all over … /  as if work was simply something to endure.’ Alienation is a unifying theme throughout much of The Border, and not just that of anonymous workers. There are also the youths in ‘Lessons’ who have been ‘banged up’ or those who in ‘1977’ find new idols in ‘Vicious and Rotten’. Work may be ‘something to endure’, yet in ‘Shouting down the Moon’ he describes the despair of someone who, having lost his job, goes on a bender and harangues the moon. Here again the theme is Larkinesque with its echoes of the earlier poet’s ‘Sad Steps’.  However, while Larkin’s tone is self-deprecating and elegiac, Cain’s is tougher and more bleakly despairing: ‘Sour day. Job lost. Four pints / dropped to a crater of stomach; / I sprayed my borrowed confidence / on a damp alley wall.’  The poem then concludes with the image of an idealised world where problems may be resolved: ‘Up there, past planes and satellites / where gravity counts / a little less.’
   In ‘Sax’ the main character is, like Cain, a musician and finds in music temporary relief from everyday pressures: ‘You’d think he’s ordinary, alright: / usual debts, wife, two kids… But on Saturday night… // he takes // centre stage, / presses his lips / to the mouthpiece / and pushes at stars, // bridges canyons, / tunes every face to freedom.’ ‘Runner’ is also about escape. With the voices of a toddler and his wife ringing in his ears, the man of the house grabs his trainers and sets off running. Down the street and onto the hard shoulder, he is soon making his way across France, Morocco, Asia, ‘through the whole world / turning on a compromise’. It’s a clever and appealing conceit. However, in a society where paternal absenteeism is a significant problem, the figure of the runaway father is surely let too easily off the hook. Doesn’t someone have to stay put and take care of the screaming kid? Maybe the wife also has her issues.  Whether or not one accepts Cain’s take on modern life one cannot help but respond positively to his gift for dark comedy. However, the poet’s concerns range beyond the merely quotidian. He is also fascinated by history and poems such as ‘Enemy Funeral’ and ‘Brennt Paris?’ are set against the backdrop of the Second World War. In ‘Coffee’ a poem which was the overall winner in the 2009 Sentinel Poetry Competition, he writes impressively about the slave trade:

   We murmured in the darkness,
   creaked with the timbers,
   craved a hard breeze.
   When they let us on deck
   we filled it like flies
   at the eye of a horse.

From the horrors of the slave ships Cain makes a skilful transition to the elegant world into which the survivors were transplanted:

   Groomed for parlours,
   we stood in shadowed rooms,
   kept tight in cuffs and collars.
   I waited near tables,
   poured coffee into pale cups,
   and thought of skin and coins.

Cain’s work is occasionally marred by a slight awkwardness of style and the odd image which doesn’t quite work.  However, The Border is a highly promising debut. Cain’s vision may at times be bleak, but this is mitigated by its quirkiness, humour, and accessibility.  It is also underpinned by a strong moral sense. An entertaining and endlessly inventive writer, Miles Cain will certainly be one to watch.

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