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English: Wheat field

English: Wheat field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Berlin’s Bernauer Straße the wheat around The Chapel of Reconciliation was tanning in the summer sun – each blade a memorial to the 171 people who lost their lives attempting to cross from East to West. The death strip wheat field brings ‘all flesh is grass‘ from the book of Isaiah to mind. The wheat is a reminder of our mortality but also of time’s ability to illumine even the darkest places, as the barren death strip now sustains life. The irony of protecting the wheat from feckless tourists by roping it off, together with stern warnings not to cross this line, was lost on the trustees but, overall, The Chapel of Reconciliation is a powerful witness to both humanity’s folly and dignity.

In Imtiaz Dharker‘s poem When they walled her in, the wall is used as an instrument of capital punishment to prevent the emperor’s son from carrying-on with a dancing girl. ‘It didn’t take the skill of an executioner / or a hangman. All the job needed was a builder’. Dharker’s presentation of thrifty brutality creates an uncomfortable comparison with today’s regimes. World news proves that killing is still just another job in some parts of the world. The dancer meets her doom with dignity, singing ‘about lost courage, a sleeping man / and names that would never be said to him. She sang / the names of all the people who had gone missing’. The voice of truth, even when weak, suppressed and immured will not be silenced, like the voices of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Leaving Fingerprints is a carefully structured collection of poems. As the act of leaving a fingerprint requires an initial touch, so Dharker often favours paired poems, presenting her reader with an action and then a reaction. When they walled her in is followed by Walling her in, a poem which shows the impact of state violence upon its citizens. The builder tries to treat his work as just another job but is unsuccessful. ‘I began to lay the stone / in front of her mouth, but her breath on my hands, / her singing so close to my face, did me in’. Despite the darkness of this material, Dharker’s view of human nature is optimistic. The situation will be redeemed. ‘One day a crack appeared. Another day / a pomegranate blossom burst through,’ lines which reference Dublin, Belfast and Berlin but which are just as true of the Arab Spring.

Dharker’s tour through cultures and histories allows her to use the whole collection to gradually invite her reader to view issues with a broader perspective. The first few poems explore the Battle of Hastings. In Hastings, Dharker writes that ‘Hastings / then was just a word. A name / beside a date in my exercise book. / Today the train comes rolling in to this / town, houses marching up a gentle hill.’ The contrast between then and now shows that this defining invasion of the British Isles now leaves the lightest of fingerprints, as Harold’s strategic high ground is transformed into a ‘gentle hill’. In A place called Battle, Dharker shows that the fingerprint of 1066 even touches English place names. Any scar, Dharker suggests, will fade in time. However, the fields ‘ablaze with poppies’ point the reader to the imagery of The Great War, suggesting that no matter when, or where, they were fought, all battles are the same. In Rush, Dharker’s poppies become narcotic, her poem concluding in a list of heroin’s aliases ‘Horse Ferry Dust Smack Junk Scag / Black Tar Big Bag Cheese Chip / Antifreeze Ready Rock Train / Dirt Hero Golden Girl White Boy /Dead On Arrival’. Like Proteus, such a shape-shifting evil, one which even defies language to pin it down, will never be controlled.

Weighing in at 142 pages, Leaving Fingerprints is a sizeable work and across these pages Dharker explores and celebrates everything from the oral transmission of recipes, to photography, to the miraculous lives of tiffin boxes. She sometimes tackles inhuman behaviour but without ever sacrificing the warm domestic smell of cooking. Without sacrificing love.

If you like the sound of this, then why not hear Imtiaz Dharker read at this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Prom?

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