Tom Sastry: You have no normal country to return to

Critics are rarely popular, and this includes with poets. Robert Burns, responding to some adverse criticism, suggested his adversary-commentator was a “ennuch of language”, a ”pickle-herring in the puppet show of nonsense” (letter to a critic 1791, The Works of Robert Burns, Volume 4), and John Dryden thought that critics may write out of “mere revenge and spite” because they can’t write well themselves (The Conquest of Granada, 1670). Poet Tom Sastry is a little more sympathetic; he recently said on Twitter (10 July 2022) that: “Explaining can be the problem. Review space is used to assert what kind of work really matters and why rather than conveying the feeling evoked by the poems. We are egotistical: we aspire to be arbiters of taste. It feels like a contest for the high ground, a private argument”.

Sastry has also said (Twitter, 16 July 2022) that his recent collection, 2022’s You have no normal country to return to, “must be a difficult book to review because so many of the poems are about the need to resist simple narratives. I imagine it feels like the book is fighting you when you try to summarise what it is about”. Thankfully this provides us with an excuse not to attempt to summarise, especially when the poet has helpfully done the job for us; he says that the collection is about “coping (or not) with the avalanche of bad news and hostile rhetoric which surrounds us every day….a snapshot of a society as it unravels” (interview with Fire & Dust, August 2022).

The forward to the collection, “A short history of The End of History”, in itself a prose poem, also serves as an introduction to the themes, poetically describing some of the apocalyptical sections of the book: “Be your own witness” suggests that “On your worst day, you are no-one’s cause”, “Enchantments collapsing on themselves” states “even dissidents become storytellers” and “You have no normal country to return to” advises “history must be contained…unauthorised memories cannot land”. There’s also a suitably unannounced interlude between sections two and three featuring lockdown/COVID-19 poems.

Second Generation Original

Sastry is “a second generation Original. His mother is Originally English and his father Originally Indian”, and he grew up in England. Much of the first section “Be your own witness” addresses what it means to be “half-foreigner, half-native” (“Two tigers”, which in a triumph of sequencing follows poem “Three Lions”). Sastry is of the view that not belonging is more interesting than belonging, and the collection takes on the “riddle” of his identity (“Almost”).

The poems in You have no normal country to return to are often striking for being both personal but with elements of the universal. “Jagannadha” evokes the difficulty of being in a foreign but familiar country, so that “Taxi drivers will correct me/in the pronunciation of my surname, say/you’ve never been to India?/as if India was part of my soul”. In “Dual Heritage”, the poet is “back: a dizzy tourist/with a white-skinned family and hilarious vowels”, he struggles with accents and tries not to show it. In England, things are no better, with the casual and cruel racism of “Three lions” (“On the last day of my first job, the boss told me/it made him puke to have to give me a reference”) and the bias of “United Kingdom”:

Is. Your. Mother. English? demands the Welsh girl
who seems to like my tall white friend.
It is a bad moment to discover how angry I am.
Born of an English mother. You’re English.

England

England is sharply observed, and as such it’s difficult not to think of Philip Larkin, a long gone 20th century English poet, possibly now cancelled due to his racist and misogynist correspondence, but who had a distinct poetic vision of English society. Today Larkin would probably be classified as a white male cis-boy, his poetry full of post-empire disappointment.

Sastry’s disappointment is from the other end of the telescope, “they take you in when history spits you out” (“The end of history (2)”), with “no normal country to return to” (“Empire (it’s everything you think))”, a strange foreigner for others to describe in the jumble of history of the kings and queens of England (“What’s love got to do with it?”). The England of Sastry’s collection is post-Brexit, “winning our history in a drawbridge vote” (“We will defend our island”), an “exhausted” country, living off its myth (“Conservatism”). In amongst the turmoil of world events, the English, living in small damp houses, see themselves as uninteresting (“May you live”), the country itself an unappealing character:

You’ll know someone like England
who knows what they don’t like what they see it
How they lean over the fence wanting to talk
about people’s front gardens, young men
electric scooters, human rights.
How they love your bad news
a plan unravelling, a secret shame
(“England says yes”)

Rage and Humour

Rage (“glamourous as nails”, in “The end of history (1)”) and humour combine to create a distinct poetic voice. Sastry has said (in an interview with Fire & Dust, August 2022), that “Humour buys me permission to be complex and sometimes miserable. It is not the only way of attending to the needs of an audience but it is the one which comes most naturally to me”.

Witty and edgy poem titles – “A suburban accountant remembers his whipping boy”, “A popular history of urban planning”, “Cinderella and, by extension, all other stories” – often indicate the dark humour to come in the poems, with Sastry “testing” his rage to see what it does (“Searching for the last word”). In “Politics is over” he admits he can’t write “about flowers” and instead chooses “the truth of terrible things”. Sastry has a deadly aim, but the tone is far from dismal and depressing. Poem “Jesus of Bristol”, in which Jesus visits a chip shop and Buddhist centre in an English city, is a comic shaggy dog.

Pandemic

Sastry notes in the thanks and acknowledgments that You have no normal country to return to is a “pandemic book” which “took shape in the silence”. The eight lockdown poems which make up the Interlude section are particularly strong, addressing Larkins’ favourites boredom (“Alternate weekends during lockdown”) and fear (“You can’t feel your hair because it feels for itself”); Larkin may well have been pleased with the ambulances of the latter poem and the vision of doom in “How England Dies”.

Art made in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic can be particularly specific to the period, but the poems here are sufficiently broad to apply to life more widely; there’s self-pity and hypochondria (“If you a reading this, I am still alive”), paranoia and confusion (“What if I invite my friends to sit in my garden?”) and social anxiety (“Sharing a small space”).

History

The collection puts its characters in the context of history, a never ending news cycle, with all events and acts interconnected (“Life-changing news”). The poet references the outbreak of World War I (“Summer 1914” and the “The beach house and its meaning”), IRA Belfast killings (“In the stillness of his moment, deciding”), the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the “BBC’s first postmodern war” (“At home with the first Gulf War”), the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 (“The outhouse, 2005”).  Sastry remarks that there are no “inwardly unremarkable lives” and is on the side of the people, those who may be told by a bureaucrat politician, in the moment, where they are really from; we are subject to “the cold/average of human fate, an unscripted/hail of events” as our countries attempt to “make it make sense” (“…This Is Our Story”).

In a look to the future (“Screening Interview, 2031”), we’re asked, in the face of the world’s problems, whether it’s enough to be kind. Sensibly, no answer is given, but what seems certain is that it would be foolish to rely on the government or an institution to get by; in “Witness”, it’s good luck, good memory and the wonder of “the mysterious abundance of human warmth” which keeps the human world going.

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Publisher: Nine Arches Press
Publication Date: 21 APR 2022

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