Marvin Thompson reviews Hanan Issa and Zoë Brigley

My Body Can House Two Hearts is published by Burning Eye Books (2019)
Aubade After A French Movie is published by Broken Sleep Books (2020)

The front cover of Hanan Issa’s debut pamphlet, My Body Can House Two Hearts, acts as a wonderful, visual metaphor for the central themes of her book: a woman is wearing a white hijab that flows into the shape of Wales.

The pamphlet opens with ‘Lands of Mine’, a poem that showcases what the front cover promised, an exploration of Issa’s dual Iraqi and Welsh identity, followed by ‘Hen wlad fy nhadau’, which takes its title from the Welsh national anthem, and the ‘Blazing rage and bullets piercing dreams of Baghdad.’ Both ‘Fallujah’ and ‘Aberfan’ are evoked as scenes of mass human death. 

Throughout the pamphlet, Issa is fearless in deploying both Welsh and Arabic to give readers the sense of authentic, dual-heritage thought. At the same time, Issa is primarily an English language poet in a country where English colonialism encouraged the decline of the Welsh language. In ‘Jean,’ Issa writes:

‘You are Welsh first!’ my gran says, 
even though she can’t speak a word of it.’
Kids in her school got a rap on the knuckles
for every ‘ll’ caught whispered in the playground.

Issa seems acutely aware of how language has so often been a battlefield: suppress a language and you suppress a culture. Woven into the politics of language is the richness of familial love: “Growing up, it was Rosie stories at bedtime, / sinking into her softly warmed marshmallow divan.”

In My Body Can House Two Hearts, stories are gifts that keep culture and history tangible. For example, in the haunting, scary, ‘Human Pig,’ the poet’s grandfather tells Issa about a childhood friend, “a sickly boy swollen with lead poisoning.” The poet admits, “This story, hyperbolised in every telling, brands us.” Similarly, in ‘Ten Men,’ Issa explores a time when Iraqi farmers “refused to feed the colonisers.” Issa is one of a growing number of poets from traditionally marginalised backgrounds who are bold in their rendering of what being British means to them.

Issa writes in a range of poetic forms. In ‘Better Vision of Bravery’ is redolent of  Somali-British poet, Momtaza Mehri’s lush prose poems. Like Mehri, Issa uses the form to mould and manipulate language as she probes the wrongful conviction for murder of a dual heritage man from Cardiff. Issa’s imagery is piercing:

The taxi driver stayed facing forward /  stayed blind as the boyfriend held her against the glass /  I don’t blame him for looking away /  The world is unfair and fares are not enough.

The poem also showcases Issa’s ability to craft words into music: “Most days the fabric eclipsing my mind / churns a tale as shielded as Shahrazad.”

Zoë Brigley’s marvellous new pamphlet is dedicated to the Medieval Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain (1460-1502). The book contains translations of Mechain’s verse from Cymraeg (Welsh) as well as modern poems inspired by Mechain.

Like Issa, Brigley’s book celebrates Welshness: many of her English language translations are printed alongside the original Cymraeg. 

Similarities continue: both Issa and Brigley quote the African American poet and feminist Audre Lorde in their prefaces. As a white Welsh poet, Brigley is aligning herself and her translations with women from diverse backgrounds that have fought for the rights of women. These ideas of fairness and equality permeate Brigley’s opening poem, ‘The Men We Are Meant To Love’: 

                                        […] men washing 
your hair gently with long firm fingers the men
who would spoon you on nights when you slept 
with your fear or men who wanted to kiss you 
for hours or spend a day on each part of you

The glowing sensuality of the language turns as readers are faced with the reality of a modern world in which men so often wield undue power over female bodies:

men who do not laugh with the boys at 
the stolen photo of a naked lover that a friend 
flashes on his phone do not shove a woman into 
the spare room at the college party do not touch 
the behind of their co-worker

The repetition of “men” binds the words in this punctuation-less poem — an uncomfortable poem that gives its language a stark and ominous music.

Many of the translations that follow are short lyrics that are reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s verse. There is comedy and beguiling ambiguity. For example, in the closing couplet of the four-line gem ‘Gwerful Asks Dafydd Llwyd About a New World Always’: “Has the time come as we undress / for a world to arrive that is not this?” 

Amongst the lyrical use of f-words and c-words, there are lines that rage at our patriarchal world. In ‘Gwerful Curses a Man for Beating a Woman’ the poet seems to be praying, “In his chest, let a sharp stone slide – slanted / down to split his sternum wide.” Here rhyme is employed to give the poem a dark humour. As Brigley points out in her notes, these poems stand as feminist anthems in a “slut shaming” age. 

My favourite poem, which closes the collection, reads like a series of religious devotions:

because I am strong & I am not strong; 

because there is a crack in the eggshell; 
because something is tapping its way out;

Later on in the poem, were treated to a rising music: “because they tell me that whores are holy; / because I can help what I am no more than a willow can”.

These lines are rich with melancholy, hope and fearlessness.

Marvin Thompson was born in Tottenham, London, to Jamaican parents and now lives in mountainous south Wales. He is a writer, teacher and filmmaker. His debut poetry collection, Road Trip (Peepal Tree Press, 2020), is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In June 2020, the Poetry Society selected Road Trip as one of five Black Lives Matter Inspiration books.

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