Book Review: Chaos

Chaos, edited by Anna Johnson, is the most recent poetry anthology published by Patrician Press. Many of the entries have been included in previous collections but have been brought together here as a reaction to various events affecting the UK over the past five years. These include attitudes to: immigration, Brexit, climate change, the current pandemic.

“In difficult times, then, we turn to Art; poetry, in particular, is one of the pithiest ways to process events that seem extreme.”

Many of the poems are provocative – understandable given that the issues being written about have generated controversy yet little in the way of balanced debate. There appears to be an assumption that readers will agree with the points of view of the book’s creators. There is limited exploration of why these views are not held by everyone.

In their introduction, the editor writes

“I hope there is enough in these pages to console, entertain and feed the spirit.”

Sadly, this was not my reaction. While I am appalled by the selfish and insular actions of too many politicians – lining their pockets along with those of their financial supporters and powerful advisors rather than working to help constituents – the issues are more complex than is suggested within these pages. Solutions are rarely as simple as they are made to appear.

Refuge is a Taxi features an immigrant, Basim, who is obviously intelligent and willing to work hard in order to realise his quiet ambitions. His past still gives him nightmares – of the horrific experiences escaped from. He regards his new home as a ‘land of opportunity.’

I found no poems exploring the messier side of immigration – of those who demand the retention of oppressive culture and damaging familial traditions that break the laws of their new homeland. I’m thinking of such practices as: FGM, ‘honour’ killings, forced marriage, rejection of homosexuality. Freedom and safety are not just the rights of heterosexual men.

It is possible to agree with the headline – show compassion, seek understanding – without accepting behaviour that damages those who also deserve protection.

Closed borders are the subject of several poems. In Something Human the freedom offered by a red passport is compared to the plight of refugees.

“I’ve never pleaded with strangers
to let me in to a cold and foreign nation
where I feel unwelcome,
derided and despised for trying
to save my life.”

Ride the Waves explores the removal of freedom that we are currently experiencing within the UK – how it has been so submissively accepted.

“Running away from each other in public
Get back!
We’re too close!
6-foot rule, or 6-foot under!”

The poet ponders if we have already said goodbye to our rights by accepting the ‘sanitised lies’.

Although there are a number of poems focusing on climate change – blame and fear more than a call to appreciate the still beautiful world – I enjoyed the images of nature in Wild Isolation. Birds and mammals continue their daily existence, even amongst the abandoned litter and other human detritus – while people fearfully isolate themselves from the current plague.

“All left in the lurch   to besmirch green and brown –
While squirrels   maintain their slight sordidness
Without being thought – sweet”

Climate change can be hard to discuss pithily. The need to respect the health of the planet – the life support system of all species – may be incontrovertible. How this is currently being approached, especially given man’s innate behaviour, creates unpalatable reverberations. As examples, wind farms kill birds and are a blight on the landscape. They and solar farms – with their tax funded subsidies – add wealth to already wealthy landowners. These poems suggest we may help with small, personal changes. Advocating for these is worthwhile but also of limited impact.

I have found this review hard to write as I fear opprobrium for not always agreeing with good and honourable intentions without reservation.

The writing within the anthology is mixed, as may be expected from a variety of contributors. Some of the poems have a simplistic structure; others require a number of rereads to unpack meaning. Together they are certainly thought-provoking. The issues explored deserve attention and careful consideration.

It is, perhaps, because humans and their behaviour are the focus of these poems that I did not find the consolation the editor hoped to offer. Instead, I found too much polemic – sad reminders of the misnomers now surrounding ‘fact’ or ‘expert’. We undoubtedly need more kindness, generosity and acceptance. We may also benefit from listening more attentively to those outside our echo chambers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

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