Daljit Nagra, British Museum (Faber & Faber, £14.99).
Daljit Nagra’s third book of original poetry, British Museum, has been called “a significant departure of style”. It is definitely more understated than his previous Forward Prize-winning Look We Have Coming to Dover! and the lavishly titled Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger-Toy Machine!!! Where those two collections were full of exclamation marks, British Museum is full of question marks. This shift shouldn’t be mistaken as Nagra losing his energetic writing style. British Museum is a book brimming with intensity, occasionally overspilling with anger. Nagra may have dropped the ‘Punglish’ but he still manages to pull apart traditional uses of English and the language snaps back in interesting ways:
A brillig of bonbon and sherbet awnings for butcher,
baker, Lipton’s; the lanes wafting Yorkshire puds
with gravy that called home Brownies and Cubs.
This stanza, from “Ode to England”, is indicative of the book as a whole; Nagra seems nostalgic for the Britain of his youth. While his first collection seemed to focus on migration and his second on Empire and history, British Museum clearly focuses on modern-day Britain. “Hadrian’s Wall” questions the ideals of post-Brexit Britain:
to ask, the more stacked, the more shielded
a haven, the cleaner the stock?
National identity is a theme that reoccurs throughout and is clearest in the two longer poems that prop the book up at each end, “Broadcasting House” and “Meditations on the British Museum”. The institutions of the BBC and British Museum are concentrations of British culture and ripe for pulling apart. “Mazed by these time-compacted rooms…prompted / for guidance / out of the comfort zone of our myth-kitty”, the speaker tries to understand what it is to be British. Britain is as varied in its people as the British Museum is with historical artefacts, both bound to a colonial past. The book shows a Britain still struggling to come to terms with its loss of global influence:
Weren’t we once a plucky bunch in battle led by Drake
Wherever we died turned Britain forever?”
This, from “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”, exemplifies one of the conflicts in the book: who is this we? Nagra himself has said that he is unsure whether the poem is genuine or satirical. Nagra was born in West London so is undoubtedly British, but is also a second-generation immigrant from a Sikh Punjabi family, so the yearning for Empire — India “turned Britain forever” — seems to fall in on itself. Nagra seems to claim the position of “Coconuts & Half-Castes”, the speaker is paradoxically a patriotic Brit and an Indian immigrant. This dichotomy is addressed head-on in “GET OFF MY POEM WHITEY”:
if they think I’m too English I’m a mimic
I can write with two heads
Coincidentally, I am myself a second-generation immigrant from a Sikh Punjabi family born in West London and this duality running through the book resounded with me. Indian writers are often either pigeon-holed as “exotic” and I would claim some of Nagra’s earlier work can further a limited image of Indian-ness with the comic ‘Punglish’ and sometimes simplified portayals of migrants. Or they are “mimics”, shunning their culture to write white, even if, like Nagra, they were born in Britain. Where white writers have the luxury to be able to choose any subject-matter, writers of colour work under the obligation to represent their communities. Nagra manages to mediate this brick and hard place, meeting somewhere in the middle, part Heaney part Ramayana, part BBC part Gurdwara.
“GET OFF MY POEM WHITEY” also represents a formal split in the collection; having been written at the end of his last collection, it sticks out in the otherwise understated collection. Nagra himself considered taking it out, though his editor wanted it in to stop the book becoming too one-noted. Fed up of being “chutnified” and “sitarised”, the speaker claims “Caliban’s…voice” whereas the rest of the poems seem written in Prospero’s, with their allusions to Glück, Eliot and Yeats.
Nagra is constantly code-switching and shifting registers. Touching poems about family are spliced together with examinations of the Nation-State. Reading through the book, as I did in one sitting, is like walking through the rooms of a museum. There are exhibitions differing in style and content, artefacts of different eras, some of which you will return to and marvel at, others which you’ll casually stroll past, taking little notice. While the varied range of the poems makes for interesting reading, there are indeed a few duds in the collection, though not enough to stop the book being well worth a read.
A personal highlight is “Naugaja”, a myth-like telling of first-generation migration from Punjab. Where a similar poem in Look We Have Coming To Dover! might poke fun in a satirical — or rather, ‘sitarical’ — way, “Naugaja” is written with honest clarity. The speaker is at an interesting point in life, where “now one by one, in old age, they [first-generation immigrants] disappear” and his “children do not speak the foreign tongue”. The speaker is a middle-person between their Punjabi parents and their British children and that it seems to take three-generations to truly become ‘British’ is poignant in the modern political climate. Naugaja, the village Nagra’s family is from, is a starting-point in the collection and the British Museum is its destination, the book detailing the muddled journey between the two. While British Museum is by no means a flawless work, it marks a promising new phase in Nagra’s career.