Tim Dee reviews Zaffar Kunial’s ‘Us’ – our Book of the Month for July – alongside Steve Ely’s ‘Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah’.
Childhood photo courtesy of Zaffar Kunial
I find hope in these two books, twice over, despite their unlikely subjects and because of them: one being about an obscure bird clinging on to existence in some shabby post-industrial plots and the other about the uncertain and wounded growth of a single person from child to adult in another half-broken and in-between locale. Optimistic work, warm-hearted work, is born here out of, mostly, negative news – the poetry always feeling good without being feel-good.
Poetry can make things up – it invents stories as willingly as novels do – but it also has long majored in life-writing. These new books – a first full collection from Zaffar Kunial and a pamphlet of poems from the established poet Steve Ely – are mostly written in the first person singular and are told in such distinctive and personal voices that we take what is said in them to be true. These poems happened, that seems sure – they are made up of events that occurred. Their incidents are precisely placed and emotionally intimate – they feel real. They do this even if they collapse time, or fetch and carry memories from one part of a life to another, or retro-fit the past to root-out the present. And, because their voices are so obviously, audibly, their own, they are easy to trust. Being able to do so adds to their value and makes many of them lovable.
In fact, there is a fair amount of making things up in Steve Ely’s sequence and a lot of post-hoc reworking of incidents from his life in Zaffar Kunial’s collection. Indeed these activities are actually the true subjects of these books. They are both about becoming. And the difficulties of doing so. Neither are solely poetic diaries – truths as believed, told back to the self – but each asks instead how does what we know of the past and our position in it shape what we can know of who we are today, and what meaning we then can take from the facts of gone things – people, places, non-human life – and how these might also determine who we are now.
Both books are personal and original but it might be that one poem by another, older, poet swims in their headwaters. Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [uz]’ was first published in 1978. With great verbal energy – thrown punches, spat fists, glottal stops, or something like that – it vividly stages the battle (one that Harrison had to win) between the generic smooth-talking RP of Them – imagined as the proper voice for proper poetry – and the accented and located voices of uz – the non-U, if you like, of poetry, [uz] being different from us. Harrison’s poem denies any such dismissive categorising (poetry is not for your type…) and asserts the right of all to speak in their own voices, demanding that poetry – the saying of it or the writing of it – be considered as legitimate an utterance as any.
Zaffar Kunial’s Us is both uz and not. It describes someone struggling to be, but is interested in more than the outward politics of identity. Its concern – more personal, more risky – is in working out just whoever really is Zaffar Kunial. The title poem, ‘Us’, is actually, cleverly (perhaps even in part-conversation with Tony Harrison’s poem) not even about the plurality of us. Sometimes the word can mean, as here in this poem, me.
Zaffar was born and brought up in Birmingham. His parents were from worlds apart. His mother was a white English school-teacher (a poem here tells how she introduced Zaffar to ‘Just a Minute’ on the radio when he was a child). His father was from Kashmir and learned English as a grown man by reading the shop signs on the streets of his adopted Midlands home (a poem describes Zaffar travelling as a boy to his father’s original village and watching Afghan refugees help hand-cut the family wheat).
In that Midland city, another boy once confronted the young Zaffar: ‘Oi, you, tell us where yer from.’ The ‘us’ there means, first of all, ‘me’. Tell me who you are. But it also means all the people who are from there, rather than the addressee, who – by his looks and how he talks – might not be. Tell my people, then – tell me on behalf of all of ‘us’ – what make of person you are. Yet, deeper into the poem, ‘us’ means the boy/man himself, it represents an us that survives the threat of being singled out in this poem (and across the whole collection), and who succeeds in turning the same thing into a joined and beautiful and moving song of himself. For there, at the poem’s end, ‘us’ is a word for a couple, addressed to a partner and describing a state that the speaker – Zaffar surely – would like to move towards and hopes he can join – a relationship. You and me = us.
Questions – difficulties – about how to relate, taking in that word’s double meaning, are at the heart of almost all of the poems in Us – how can we relate, how tell and how be with? Young Zaffar shines at cricket but the opening poem of his book works the outfield, a world where a lost or over-hit ball, like a ‘small, seamed planet’, might lie out of reach and where the fielder, Zaffar, might hang around, as if in some far-spun orbit, at the edge of everything.
Coming in from the boundary is what the rest of the book negotiates. Zaffar’s father’s broken English shapes several poems. ‘You’ quotes him: ‘My tongue can’t make good fist / of speech like you.’ ‘The Word’ is more tender with similar material: young Zaffar hides morosely in his bedroom on a summer’s day; his father – awkward as fathers can be and specifically awkward also in his English – stands in the door to his son’s room, neither in it nor out, trying to cheer him up: ‘Whatever is matter, / must enjoy the life.’ That incorrect the between enjoy and life is like a concrete definite article. It stands like a stone. And the whole book ripples away from it, preoccupied, obsessed even, with a series of follow-up accounts of how language both builds a self and also, forever and for multiple reasons, gets in self’s way. We are as we speak but we speak as we are. We are all tongue-tied.
That suggests the poems sound wordy and, of course, being poems, they are, but these are also real lives, not ciphers for ideas, and nothing here is schematized or binary. Everyone in this book is honoured as complicated and contrary, while the writing of them is always subtle and deep, generous and empathetic, even if everything, as befits a first collection, is being used by the poet to tell all his news up until now.
Form in Us is often fluid. The poetry moves in and out of metred lines through prose and back again, using extended spacing and oddities of layout to help capture thought and language shapes: hesitation, a stutter, commitment, returns upon the self, and open ends. ‘Hill Speak’ finishes: ‘even at the rare moment I get towards – / or, thank God, even getting to – / my point, I can’t put into words / where I’ve arrived.’ I’ve met Zaffar (we made a few radio things together when I was at the BBC) and collectively these pieces give a good account of his essence, the way, as a man, he walks and talks, his shape. They seem true to life.
Zaffar’s father is a remote figure even when present and yet also determinedly present when remote. Genes can work like that but bodies – the animated, walking, talking gene sack – can too. His father’s native tongue, a dialect ‘part way towards Punjabi’ has no dictionary. He left school, or his education finished, when he was seven. But he lives on, beyond the book, and is now back (I think) in Kashmir. Zaffar’s mother is dead now, and ‘Prayer’ is a wretchedly sad poem describing her death. But in the last poem of this, all-round miraculous, book she lives as she did. It is called ‘Ys’ and is about family-trees.
The Y of the title describes the branching shape of a garden tree. Young Zaffar would sit in its crux. It also suggests the dendritic forking of a family line. The poem began, I think, as a charming prose essay written for a woodland anthology Arboreal (Little Toller). In ‘Ys’ the story is half abducted into poetry and it is even more of a heart-stopper. One summer, when Zaffar was little, his father returned to his ancestral home. His son wanted to know when he would be back. His mother explained that they, in Birmingham, would have to wait until the leaves fell off Zaffar’s tree, the laburnum at the bottom of their garden. The next time she looked up and out from their window, she saw her young son shaking the tree, doing his best to speed up the season, and bring his daddy home.
Fewer readers will cry over Steve Ely and his sequence of poems about willow tits. I did, but I am old enough to have previous with his material. Fifty years ago I used to see willow tits and I don’t now. I knew them then far better than I do today. Now they have all but gone out of my life. But I remember the sensation of teasing them out from the blurry backdrop to my childhood: they were shy, particular, always birchy birds then, tied to those trees, and autumnal or wintry and not known to me otherwise. And, always, all around them, was the vexed question about their identity and the need to be certain that they weren’t marsh tits, their close and similar relatives. (The call was all for willow tits – they can be separated on plumage from marsh tits but it is better to hear their cold warbling zi-zi taah taah taah, which is clearly different from the marsh tit’s commonly sneezed pitchou.)
The two tits look so alike that the species weren’t systematically untangled in Britain until the very end of the nineteenth century (Steven Moss tells this story nicely in his good new book on birds’ names, Mrs Moreau’s Warbler). When I was a young birdwatcher the willow tit was the last British bird to have come into being in this way (later the Scottish crossbill was elevated to full species status). It made them special. The bird had been there all along, for sure, but it hadn’t been seen as a different tit. Its invisibility defined it before and then continued to do so even when it was known. Capture in any way was always hard. Even the means with which we brought it towards us was uncertain. Its name, as Steve points out, is a misnomer in both its scientific and common forms. Nor has its late arrival into our comprehension kept it current in our minds. It feels like it was prematurely posthumous before and is today a totally out of date bird. We might register that intellectually and emotionally, but also actually, or factually, for it is now almost everywhere a nowhere bird.
Always overlooked, the species is not today available in many of the places it once liked, but it survives oddly, and is bucking the prevailing trend, in some half-ruined former industrial landscapes in Yorkshire. Seeing the birds here, remembering them in his past, and then getting involved in their present-day conservation (making and erecting nest boxes for them) led Steve to his poems.
Taxonomic niceties do not necessarily make for poetry but perhaps the willow tit in grievous decline could? Its numbers have decreased in Britain by 94% since 1995. How might that be put in verse? A poetic tomb of the unknown soldier? The excellence of Steve’s book is that it plumbs all this generic uncertainty and national disappearance to build up a very particular and locally placed elegiac sequence for the bird. In effect, he makes uz poems for the willow tit.
I talked willow tits with him in Mexborough once, when I was following him for a radio programme on the route that Ted Hughes had taken when he was a boy living in the town and doing a daily paper round. With some local arts activist colleagues Steve had worked out the route Hughes cycled in and out of the then-thriving industrial centre: many of his early breakthrough poems came from places and creatures seen on these daily break-outs from Mexborough.
Hughes never wrote about willow tits – they seem a profoundly un-Hughesian bird – but Steve knew them from the hinterland of Mexborough. Meanwhile the nearby Dearne Valley area around Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster has become a stronghold for the species. At least 70 territories were recorded in 2015. They especially thrive in post-industrial places, former collieries, ironworks, old railway lines and canal sides. And Steve, lifelong inhabitant of this landscape and poetic deep-delver into and of its pasts as well as an unsentimental anatomist of its presents, has been on hand (Oswald’s Book of Hours – published by Smokestack books – is his superb poetry collection made out of this terroir, his manor).
Steeped in species, specifics, specificities, and the difficulties of calling out any of these, the willow tit poems are thick with local lore, language, place names and stories. They are also dense with the churn and roil of assorted historical aggregates (the similarity of a North American chickadee to the willow tit allows Plenty Coups of the Crow a ride on part in the book), and thickened by the concrete poetry of bird song transcriptions (‘de-de-de-de-de-de-det’, ‘tui tui tui tui’) and scientific and governmental acronyms (‘ICZN’, ‘HBW’, ‘HS2’).
These last boxy unutterable hieroglyphs are especially telling. They are signifiers of a language deployed but failing to capture. We could call them received pronunciations – the RP of this sequence. They provoke a reaction that is unexpectedly moving to encounter. It is a like hearing the places and the birds and other life echoing back the sounds we speak towards them – and in the ricochet and decay of the echo we hear something of the real thing, supplying in return its own shape, that may well be beyond language. We fire HS2 at a scrap of woodland but it will not be enclosed by that term – like John Clare’s ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’, a put-upon place can answer back with enduring persistence.
The variety of the telling adds to the overall feel of resistance in these poems. Belonging, here, is indicated by various gantries of codes, clubs, terms and tongues. Each poem or section has a different register. There are monologues – one channelling many remarks I have heard (and sometime made, I suspect) of a self-justifying somewhat anxious birder (‘Dude’). There is a prose chapter of vivid memoir (‘1979’) about a childhood egging adventure when Steve and friends found blue tits nesting in holes in trees that they had evicted willow tits from (willows are the only tits to dig). There are poems that are bricolage themselves (‘If you want blood’) which heave, ungainly but alive, with soiled life, layer upon layer of fly-tipped irreducible junk from our now-world. There is a Yorkshire version of Bergman’s Seventh Seal with death everywhere and some rapture on Upton Beacon (‘England’s Dreaming’): ‘Nine days I hung like a greasy fatball, pecked blind / by furious titmice: on the Mount of the LORD is vision – // zi-zi taah taah taah taah‘.
Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns might lie somewhere hereabouts and Iain Sinclair’s dystopic M25 is in the distance, but all in all, and far beyond any other sources of inspiration, the willow tit itself is now gloriously written. I know of no other poem and know of no other non-ornithological writing about the willow tit in Britain. It simply hasn’t occurred and now it probably cannot. But it could here and it is wonderful to have this. Ta very much.
Tim Dee is talking for CBTR at Kaleidoscope, Port Eliot and The Good Life Experience festivals this summer. A book he edited, GROUND WORK – a collection of new writing on places – came out earlier this year; a book he wrote, LANDFILL, on gulls and people, comes out in September.
Us is out now and available here, priced £10.99.