Poetry Review: The Immigration Handbook by Caroline Smith

Poetry - The Immigration Handbook, by Caroline SmithThe Immigration Handbook is an impressive collection which varies in tone and style. Smith uses simple language, small details and powerful imagery to present to us the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, caught up in situations beyond their control. As the asylum caseworker for a London based MP, she has spent years helping immigrants to navigate the complexities of an underfunded, overstretched bureaucratic system.   

Throughout the book there is an underlying sense of irony, alongside a sensitivity and poignancy that brings into sharp relief the tragedy of a woman who discovers that her beloved “Turkish prince” simply wanted a visa, and the story of a man who “…spent twelve years in England / hiding in a caravan with fruit pickers…” only to be faced with a stark choice:

“He had almost made it to fourteen years,
when they’d have given him his papers,
let him stay –
but he’d got a message from home
that his mother was dying –
and he’d had to choose.”

In many of the poems we encounter the clash of disparate worlds, such as in ‘Domestic Worker’ when “Esta Cunha de Silva”, is reminded of “the favelas, the depleted rainforest” whilst making a rhubarb pie, or the contrast, in ‘Mr Giang’, between his ability to speak “sixty-two / Vietnamese bird languages” and his struggle to make sense of English:

“The echolalia of foreign sounds
stutter stubbornly in his throat,
catching on stumps of charred,
defoliated forest
that emit only the ghostly
calling of the gibbons
and the breathless whistles of the birds.”

We also see the plain, unadorned horror of sudden deportation, for example in the prose poem, ‘Removal Directions’, as we observe a young woman who becomes physically ill with the shock of finally being deported, and the detached voice of the officer: “I arrested her at 06.20 hours as a person liable to be detained.”

Detachment is another theme which runs through the collection, emphasising the brutality of a system that treats human beings as cases, and the feeling of helplessness in the face of bureaucracy. The brevity and objective language of ‘Father’, for example, actually made me cry, to think of someone faced with such a humiliating and heart-breaking situation:

“but DNA tests show that
only two of his children are his.
The middle one has been refused a visa.”

But Smith also portrays the stress and strain of those involved in making these decisions. We delve, for a brief moment, into the mind of a caseworker as he sits, “checking this man’s documents / for illegal working” whilst reminiscing on his own decision to migrate to the UK. We glimpse the thoughts of “the Presenting Officer” in ‘Red Road Flats’ as, faced with news of “their suicides” he regrets his decision:

“What he had dismissed as paranoid, he
now saw from within their world as real,”

Each person involved in this process is presented as an individual. I particularly like the way in which the work of a solicitor, in ‘Pro Bono 1’ and ‘Pro Bono 2’, is depicted as that of an artist:

“he must place words carefully:
uncover details, minute inflections
that will capture her suffering…”

Poems such as ‘Judgements’ and ‘Apology’ emphasise the absurdity of a bureaucratic system far too complex to achieve anything in reasonable time. In fact, the collection begins with a poem which highlights just how tragic and preposterous our asylum system can be. ‘On hold’ presents us with Arjan Mehta, a man who has waited seventeen years for a response to his asylum claim, and is still waiting.

Other poems tell us stories of compassion and hope, from Abdul Rahman in ‘Heron Flats’ who is grateful to his boss for giving him a chance, to the “sudden deep snowfall” in ‘Luck’ which “grounded all flights” so that “Mr Owusu’s deportation… / is unexpectedly cancelled.”

The Immigration Handbook brings us people from all walks of life, facing intense, tragic, horrific, funny, paradoxical and challenging situations. There is every human emotion here, from resignation and regret, to defiance and tenderness. We see the people behind the headlines, and we rejoice and mourn alongside them. This collection not only moves the heart, but reveals to us the hidden stories of those who do not have a voice of their own.

Caroline Smith will be reading her work and discussing the notion of belonging, at the Cardiff Book Festival on 29th October.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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