Review by Imogen Cassels
The poems of The Divers (Hurst Street Press), Arabella Currie’s debut pamphlet, put gentle pressure on the surfaces of apparently fixed things, and find them liable to metamorphose. So it is in the opening poem, where we see ‘a sculptor / fishing saints / from rock’; sculpture is not a painstaking unpicking of stone, but a process of discovering what was already there through a change of forms as natural as fishing. The Divers entangles maps, artefacts, and translations in its net, but most impressively it affectively demonstrates the ways in which these bordered territories are more fluid than we might imagine.
Currie is conscious of the contemporary association between the aquatic and the ongoing refugee crisis; the pamphlet’s central poem, ‘Dhekelia Cantonment, or The Lecture of Professor Georgiades’, is named for a refugee camp established on Cyprus in 1998. True to the Classical themes of The Divers, we are presented with the taxonomical names of ‘demanding, | very beautiful flowers’: ‘Arabis kennedyae’ and ‘Arabis purpureae’. The former, ‘kennedyae’, is critically endangered, and grows in a protected reserve: ‘we […] have valleys by the sea, protected places. / Refugia’. It is simpler, of course, to create reserves for flowers than it is to create spaces of refuge for displaced persons, but this poem shows just how disturbing that difference is: why should it be that the former is uncontroversial while the latter is met with reluctance? The lines appear to be clearly drawn: flowers are easier to deal with than people;
This is Europe, I always say.
This is Africa. This Asia. The 35th parallel,
ladies and gentlemen. Turkey 44 miles to the north.
It is easy to delineate, with borders, maps, and poetic lines, but, as Currie observes, migration and refuge are not only fluid, but natural. ‘Picture opening your eyes’, she writes later in ‘Dhekelia Cantonment’, ‘and finding flamingos where the umbrellas are. // They must fly here, to avoid the mountains’. In switching bright flamingos for drizzly umbrellas, Currie neatly embodies the surprise of finding flamingos in Cyprus, where they seem to ‘push their heads / against the whole weight of the island’. Animals cross borders and push against landmasses, both of which prove less rigid than initially thought: in its title alone, The Divers is a pamphlet in praise of movement, and ‘Dhekelia Cantonment’ in particular underlines the importance – and sheer normality – of migratory bodies across the globe.
The Divers is the first book of poetry published by Hurst Street Press, and it is an enjoyable object. The information about the Press, included on the back page, notes that it aims ‘to publish original and innovative works using traditional techniques of production including letterpress printing and hand binding’, and, in a particularly nice touch, lists details of the materials used to make the pamphlet, from cover sheets and inserts to the ‘Irish linen thread’ binding the whole thing together. The results of this construction are good: unlike many other pamphlets, The Divers doesn’t feel as if it might fall apart in the hand, but maintains the lightness, flexibility, and durability we expect from the pamphlet form. It is constituted of two hand-stitched sections; in the middle of these, there sits a loose map of the Mediterranean, printed onto transparent plastic. This map overlays the poems it sits alongside – ‘Dhekelia Cantonment’ being one. The placing of the map in the middle of the pamphlet presents the centrality of the Mediterranean to the poems, and, by virtue of its transparency, points to the ephemerality of borders and map-lines. Certain editorial details are less welcome: illustrations of Oxford architecture scattered throughout the book are elegant, but contribute nothing, and footnotes detailing prizes won by poems would be better corralled to the back. Considered as a debut, however, The Divers is a pretty neat piece of work.
The Classical world is scattered throughout The Divers, from Prometheus to Clytemnestra, and culminates in its concluding poems: a translation from the Latin of Propertius, and one each from the ancient Greek of Philippus of Thessalonica and Archilochus. The translations themselves are beautifully rendered with a warm but reverent modernity (‘whatever bones she finds scattered / on a foreign hill – tell her they are mine’), although the ancient Greek alphabet, included alongside as a ‘translation aid’, would only really help those already literate in ancient Greek. But, even for a reader (like myself) begrudging of Classical allusions, it is clear that Currie uses them cleverly, including these translations and references to make a point about what types of ‘foreignness’ are traditionally – and problematically – accepted in our culture. By placing poems about or drawn from Classical antiquity alongside those about migration and borders, Currie draws attention to just how selective the Western canon is: Greece shares a sea with Syria, and borders, as we discover in Currie’s pamphlet, are fluid, and yet the white Classical world is central to Britain’s cultural heritage, while non-white, non-Western cultures are maintained to be inferior and other. Classical translations are ‘traditional’ to British poetry, and have an illustrious history, but alongside Currie’s accounts of refuge and borders, have a point to make about what foreignness is and isn’t permissible or expected. We owe every part of our culture to exchange with others, and cannot pick and choose which ones to acknowledge.
In the final poem of the collection, ‘Eclipse’, translated from Archilochus, Currie writes of physical translation – ‘monkeys swap[ped] with dolphins’ – and utters some of the pamphlet’s best lines: ‘let none of you / see something strange / and marvel’. Earlier, in ‘Tract’, the speaker asserts, ‘I am an image of the world and | the world is an image of me’. These messages of hospitality are clear: while bodies may differ to one another, no one or thing is truly ‘strange’ or foreign, but culturally and geographically connected and reflected.
Imogen Cassels is from Sheffield, and studies in Cambridge. In 2015 she was a Young Poet on the Underground, and in 2016 was a winner of the Poetry Business New Poets Prize. Her poems have been published in Datableed, Blackbox Manifold, No Prizes, and Ambit.