Prac Crit


by Daljit Nagra


by Anna Thomas

I am surprised the poem I choose does not have a single question mark – surely the definitive punctuation of British Museum. Elsewhere in this meditative volume, its quiet, at times insistent, curve envelops literary history and history history. I feel I am meant to nod, the answer an often enigmatic, but maturely considered, ‘yes’. Yet I am still tempted by the exuberance of the exclamation mark, which predominated in Daljit Nagra’s earlier collections: I doodle variations – British?? Museum?!

‘Get Off My Poem Whitey’ punctuates, in a way, the comparatively staid verse of much of the collection. Each line rushes on to the next without the curtailment of punctuation. Sentences do not end, nor do questions – ‘Get Off My Poem Whitey’ cannot, or will not, divide its pace, its references, its spirit of refusal; nor check its speaker’s angry, encompassing energy.

Reading this poem, I have opposing impulses. First, I want to spend time in the inner sanctum of vowel sounds. Consider the first line. The inverted internal vowel rhyme of ‘get off’ and ‘poem’ enacts repulsion and attraction. Even as it wards off ‘Pinky’ – ‘get off’ – the word ‘poem’ reconfigures the e and o sounds, reabsorbing them through the welcome of ‘m’. It turns the hail of Oi into an address, even as it appears to reject a certain readership – or, one type of interpreting reader. In fact, we can think of the e-o/o-e get-off/poem schema as an inverted echo, which strikes me as the structure of the poem itself: sound bouncing off of things, simultaneously self- and other-referential. Both self and other, here, are, of course, deeply loaded concepts.

For the first line also reads as an invocation of an Amiri Baraka aesthetic, referencing the Black Arts Movement through bombast and alienation. This is a particularly sharp shift from the collection’s exploration of sites of British cultural importance as locations of multicultural and ancient history. Instead, we begin the poem in 1960s America, imagining a commons across oceans. The poem goes on to gather African American, South Asian, and Black British figures in an often antagonistic cosmopolitanism of the othered.

As we are alerted to the importance of vowels, as Pinky slides by way of an ‘o’ to porky, the homage to African American poetics slides towards the lard-slicked British imperial controversy of the Sepoy Mutiny. Here, porky fingers threaten to lard not bullets, but rather the ‘lean sheets’ of the poem, perhaps the collection as a whole. We are invited to think of what fat has been trimmed from this poem. More than an anxiety, the speaker fears the contamination of influence.

I said I had two opposite impulses in reading the poem: second, I want to know everything about the world that holds these far-reaching references in place. Named and unnamed references abound.  I fear I have missed them. The speaker knows it: ‘do you care to be stumped by the names in this poem.’ No question mark. I do care.

This poem bows to Coconuts & Half-Castes
This poem bows to Farrakans & Hindutvas

From the ‘oi’ of the opening, we move to a more reverential greeting. Seemingly incommensurate groups are hinged by the act of a poem bowing. The flexible, bendable usage of traditions and identities that range from the inauthentic to the nationalist. The poem thus bows to mutually destabilizing identities. But even this act of reverence is called into question, as ‘for’ in turn connects to the reviews and rewards of the next stanza. This is couched within a critique of ‘The pink men poets… in bed with the pink men poets’ and ‘The pink women poets… in bed with the pink women poets’: reviews and rewards seemingly within the purview of self-same artistic communities. (The speaker refers to poems and poets as lovers later in the poem – but that a sense of alienation is expressed through invective same-sex imagery also evokes Baraka). The problem of artistic genealogy – cross-pollination – seems foremost in this stanza. The speaker says, ‘I got no pinky I’m out on a limb,’ evoking the lonely singularity of the poetic persona, who is not a pinky, and has no pinky with whom to pair. Yet the repetition and difference of the subsequent line, ‘I got no pinky I’m out on a fat black limb’ evokes the ‘fat black heart’ of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’, gesturing towards a broad, inter-racial, cross-gendered poetics whilst also, discomfortingly, racializing that limb of influence on which it rests. Or is this exactly the kind of white canon-inflected reading – that sees ‘fat black limb’ and thinks of Plath – that the title warns against? ‘Are you stumped by the spin of each line of this poem’?

The we of the poem seems to shift to exclude the holders of green passports – non-citizens – who enter ‘our Blighty anthologies’. They ‘swamp’ ‘to dampen our Uncle Tom-ti-Tom-tease’. Does this open a division between Black British writers, citizens burdened with the expectation of accommodationist percussives – Uncle Tom-ti-Tom-tease – and postcolonial writers whose perceived worldliness might exceed the speaker’s chosen community? That this combination of self-disgust and doubt is expressed indirectly, by way of an American literary reference, further undermines the surety of our. My ear notices the irony of ‘Blighty’ as the union of Black and of Whitey.

The question of influence and access relates to that of authenticity. The poem turns into a ‘Black Test,’ and the ‘you’ of ‘do you pass the Black Test’ no longer seems to be the ‘you’ of ‘Whitey’ and ‘Pinky’. The next stanza shifts from the hidden violence of the ‘canon’ to the explicit threat of ‘cannons’; the desire (‘drool’) of the speaker recalls the lard in the opening stanza. But that desire cannot be separated from the violence undergirding British literary history. ‘If I allude to your canon do I soil your canon’: this floats somewhere between a question and a promise – so the immigrant’s son winning the Forward corners ‘you all’ in Edward Thomas’s empty, old-England Adlestrop. I do not trust this insistent, shifting ‘you’.  If Adlestrop is a site of confrontation – ’I’d corner you all in a corner of Adlestrop / then call for support but there’ll never be enough of us’ – this may outline either a battle against the Edward Thomases, or reluctant civil war amongst those the speaker seeks communion with.

this poem bows to Wheatley Senghor Vyasa
this poem bows to Kolatkar Brooks Kalidasa

The poem bows to African American, African and South Asian literary figures spanning centuries. But again, reverence is undercut: bowing becomes ‘bow-wowing,’ and the speaker moves on from canine admiration to ‘rise in salute to the stallion / black power of Sir Vidia & Sir Salman’. Refiguring the two OBEs as knights, not of the British Empire, but of a Black literary empire does not resolve the tensions fissuring his cosmopolitan gestures, not least because the idea of Naipaul as a figure of Black Power is laughable. Do you (does he) pass the Black Test? The poem’s insistent refrain, comparing lines to cricket balls, advertises its misdirection. Though, at this point, this strategy seems to open out into a more direct critique: ‘should I ball a few straight balls’?

Contrasting with the same-gendered pinkies of the fifth stanza, we now have a description of the speaker’s lovers, non-gendered and endangered: ‘must you flatten my lovers in your sheets / till they’re text-book samples.’ The poem’s exuberantly referenced lineages cross zones of global, regional, and religious variance, and conflict; here, the poet seems to sample. Though his aren’t the ‘text-book samples / of the multicultural or the postcolonial’ that flatten the speaker’s lovers – other poets, other poems. The anthology is ‘chutnified’ – emphasizing the consumability of difference – and ‘sitarized’. Alluding to Salman Rushdie’s talk of ‘chutnification’, the poem emphasizes how the act of preserving culture radically alters it; also, the consumability of difference. ‘Sitarized’ refers to the sonically exotic, but the word is only a vowel-flip away from satirised – and all is designed ‘to serve some light on Whitey’. If the idea of an echo that I invoked at the beginning of this essay still holds, it seems here to consistently bounce off, and clarify, whiteness.

And there goes the double-bind of the poet of colour: the speaker, having been ‘ruled & parsed’, claims Caliban as his voice: taught to speak by Prospero, and now able to curse. The speaker understands the argument of Langston Hughes’ ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ – that no poet who is black should reject being a ‘Negro poet,’ that to begin with an abstracted idea of poetry that transcends identity is to lose access to the wealth of experience. Yet to claim Hughes as the speaker’s own forebear relies on an imperial abstraction of otherness, so that it is not from the speaker’s own Mountain but ‘his’ – Hughes’ – that the speaker’s ‘niggardly force’ roars out a capitalized and thus abstracted ‘Truth’. It is seven lines of loss and longing.

And into that messy tradition, the final stanza does roar a ‘Truth’. It is not a truth of unadulterated choice amongst limitless possibilities – it is in fact ‘ruled & parsed’ – but the speaker asserts his preferences. He’d rather be, not Milton, not Spenser, not Tennyson, nor Shakespeare – those canonical giants – but Kim, Kamban, Tippoo, Pandey. From Kipling’s fictional Anglo-Indian, to medieval poet, to a mechanical tiger, to hero-mutineer: each role suggests a rearrangement of what poetry is, and what it means to write. And, though the ‘Whitey’ of the title may continue to read, to determine markets, to anthologize, to get off on exotic poems, there is a force of truth in still declaring:

I’d rather be
I’d rather be
I’d rather be
I’d rather be



by Daljit Nagra

oi get off my poem Pinky
your porky fingers lard my lean sheets

look at my darkie mug – my indie tag
do you think I could think in the same old English
you keep to your standard my standard’s bastarded

your editors boast they elect by taste
if they like me they think I’m exotic
if they think I’m too English I’m a mimic
is it time for a fresh look Pasty Face
I can write with two heads
yet you groan on the head you get

this poem bows to Coconuts & Half-Castes
this poem bows to Farrakans & Hindutvas

for the brown-nose reviews
for the brown-nose rewards
the pink men poets are in bed with the pink men poets
the pink women poets are in bed with the pink women poets
I got no pinky I’m out on a limb
I got no pinky I’m out on a fat black limb

the ones won’t stoop before the Union
of our Queen cos their passport’s green
must they swamp our Blighty anthologies
to dampen our Uncle Tom-ti-Tom-tease

          do you pass the Black Test
          do you pass the Black Test
          are you stumped by the balls of this poem
          are you stumped by the spin of each line of this poem

is your holy word a Whitey canon
when I drool at your canon
I drool at your lowing herd centuries of verse
that famed an isle & spoke for an echelon
grafted by so many gorgeous clerics
diplomats, lords, academics
Etonians & door-knocking Tory petitioners
sponsored by monarchs & earls & slave owners

when I think of your canon do I think of your cannons
if I allude to your canon do I soil your canon
so why would you hold me in kindred terms

on MY biggest day the paper headlines
I’d corner you all in a corner of Adlestrop
Then call for support and there’ll never be enough of us
& you’ll say I was never in The Guardian

this poem bows to Wheatley Senghor Vyasa
this poem bows to Kolatkar Brooks Kalidasa
when this poem’s no longer bow-wowing
watch it rise in salute to the stallion
black power of Sir Vidia & Sir Salman

          do you pass the Black Test
          do you pass the Black Test
          do you care to be stumped by the names in this poem
          do you care for the balls of each line of this poem
          are my too-many googlies way off course
          should I ball a few straight balls

the lovers in my rhymes are in love in their beds and bazaars
my lovers are in love and I’m in love with my lovers
must you flatten my lovers in your sheets
till they’re text-book samples
of the multicultural or the postcolonial
so we’re chutnified
so we’re sitarised
to serve some light on Whitey

I’ve been ruled & parsed
now Caliban’s my voice
where all I can do
is climb after Langston Hughes
from the crown of his Mountain of Race
from my niggardly force
I will roar the Truth

I’d rather be slimy Kim than Satan’s Milton
I’d rather be Kamban than a Paddy-bashing Spenser
I’d rather be Tippoo light-charging Tennyson
I’d rather be hanging-Pandey than Shakespeare.

From British Museum (Faber, 2017).

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