Poetry Review: Us by Zaffar Kunial

Poetry - Us by Zaffar KunialI heard Zaffar Kunial read his World War One poem ‘Poppy’ on Radio 4 as part of the centenary commemorations last year. It includes a haunting refrain ‘no, this is not enough’ repeated throughout, until, in the end, this phrase becomes the poem itself, a powerful acknowledgement that nothing we can write or say will ever capture the horror of war. This focus on the power of language, contrasted with a sense of inadequacy or uncertainty, runs throughout Kunial’s debut collection, Us.  

From the very beginning we are tossed into the centre of this conundrum. In ‘Fielder’ we see a young boy pause in the middle of a cricket game, ‘beyond the boundary’ in a ‘shady fingernail of forest’ as he considers the future, whilst everyone waits for him to fetch the ball. This is immediately followed by ‘The Word’ which, again, portrays a teenage boy, this time caught between two languages, seeing life from two different perspectives:

It’s my dad, standing in the door frame
not entering – but pausing to shape advice
that keeps coming back. ‘Whatever is matter,

must enjoy the life.’ He pronounced this twice.
And me, I heard wrongness in putting a the

before life. In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.

At the centre of this duality is the notion of identity, and the poem ‘Self Portrait as Bottom’ takes a fascinating analytical look at what this might mean:

Let’s get down to numbers.
What could be more prosaic?
I am split. 50% Europe.
50% Asia. Figures that speak
to me and feel
like a thousand-year stare.

The poem continues, interrogating the notion of identity, in search of what Kunial describes as ‘usness’. This analysis of identity is explored in several other poems, including ‘I’ in which Kunial considers the meaning of his name:

‘…I left home and heard
other workers say his poetries, which I
liked. Last king of India he was. Zafar.’

In ‘The Wardrobe’ he contrasts childhood memories of watching The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe on TV with a youthful fascination of the Quran: ‘I’d place / a chair beneath, take down the shrouded weight, undo the black / sleeve, open a page and read a corridor of the English that slept / in the margins.’

I particularly enjoyed reading the two sequence poems, both entitled ‘Empty Words’, which use a more impressionistic haiku-like style to focus in on specific words, their nuances and multiplicity of meaning, for example:

Meaning ‘homeland’ – mulk
(in Kashmir) – exactly how
my son demands milk.

Identity and language are drawn together in the title poem, ‘Us’, with lines such as ‘maybe it’s a Midlands thing / but when I was young, us equally meant me,’ using this small word as a touchstone to question the way we connect across barriers, races, and cultures, ‘cresting the Mexican wave of we or us, / a shore-like state, two places at once’, and finishing with these enigmatic lines:

I hope you get, here, where I’m coming from.
I hope you’re with me on this – between love

and loss – where I’d give myself away, stranded
as if the universe is a matter of one stress.
Us. I hope, from here on, I can say it

and though far-fetched, it won’t be too far wrong.

Us presents a series of poems which explore our connections to each other – through family, across history, across geographical, cultural, linguistic and racial barriers. Kunial plays with the complexities of language and identity to break down those barriers, to turn the singular into the plural in a way that is both a pleasure and a challenge to read.

Us by Zaffa Kunial is published by Faber. You can buy the book here.

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