How To Make Curry Goat, by Louise McStravick, is a collection of thirty-three poems that bring to vivid life the experiences of a second generation Windrush immigrant. The author describes herself as of mixed race and heritage. Many of the poems explore the theme of culture, belonging, and the challenges of expectation and assimilation. Questions are asked about how people change when horizons expand – if this is improvement or loss, and how these affect those left behind.
Opening with Just another road in Erdington, the reader is offered a picture of the place where the narrator first remembers living. There is violence, drug taking and a nod to urban habits and survival tactics. There is also humour in the memories of home furnishings.
Tanned Feet considers skin colour and the pride to be felt in what this represents. Although many of the poems in the collection examine how often the narrator tried to change how she looked or acted – in order to please others or feel accepted – there is also acceptance of her cultural inheritance and how this has shaped her. She may now prefer Earl Grey tea to builder’s brown brewed, but this is neither a rejection of where she came from nor of who she is.
The titular poem is just wonderful. The frequent interjections from the parent add both fun and poignancy to what is a recipe but also an appreciation of stories passed down through generations – memories evoked through the senses and richer for the depth of feeling this brings.
Mommy Belly is a love song to a beloved parent.
“We learn the beauty of belly with skin
that no longer fits.
That does not conform to the rules of playdough
it does not return to its original shape, no
more like a creased cape now
on the world’s greatest superhero.”
Beyond family, there are poems looking at the difficulties inherent in dating and cohabiting. The woman contorts what she is in order to conform, fitting in but not comfortably.
“There isn’t enough space for everyone and her curls take up double. So they pull and they push and use their fingers to touch, make her disappear between the lines”
There are betrayals and endings, pain but then valued lessons learned in hindsight.
“I thank you for teaching me the nature of things that a smell can become cotton fields and tropical rainstorms that futures are real in the moment but live in the past more than anything”
A few of the poems are more opaque – perhaps dealing with the loss of a child, or a child who could have been. It is always a mistake to assume authors create work that is autobiographical but the writing is nuanced and intensely personal in all it represents.
As a white, female reader there is much that resonates but also much to consider. The collection presents a life outside my personal experience but with a strength and piquancy that may be savoured. In avoiding both the didactic and the sentimental, these poems offer a candid window into growing up in a country that invited but then struggled to welcome. The next generation wove their lives around the impact of this treatment of their parents, and these poems reflect that there is much still to be unpicked.
Playful and clever use of form and language add weight to the always accessible reading. This is a poetry collection I am happy to recommend.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.