Poet: Reshma Ruia
Collection: A Dinner Party in the Home Counties
Publisher: Skylark Publications UK
Price: £9.99 (You can purchase a copy here)
Review by Joy Francis
It’s not often I get the chance to review poetry, and certainly not by one of our very own book reviewers, in this case the author and now award-winning poet Reshma Ruia, who won the 2019 Word Masala Debut Poet Award for her first collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties.
With a title that screams Middle England and Mike Leigh in the same breath, the poems quickly deflate that perception. They are varied, punchy and memorable little gems that traverse politics, migration, racism, culture and Brexit. Clustered under three headings: Beginnings, The Space Between and Endings, there is something cinematic about these poetic short stories, filled with arresting detail and vivid imagery about modern Britain and belonging.
Beginnings reveal the often ominous experience of migrants finding their feet in the UK. The mental distress. The trauma. The sexual harassment. Being othered and, as highlighted in the poem In Which Mrs XU Becomes a Sally, being renamed: ‘Nah, I can’t call you Mrs Zoo.’ / She waved away her name. / ‘I’ll call you Sally. / You look like a Sally. / Good Morning, Sally!’
The title poem, though short, speaks volumes about how the chattering classes respond when a solitary person of colour is in their midst. It becomes a space where, Well-meaning white voices throw questions like bait. / ‘Where are you from? Originally?’
The Space Between is home to lives being built and love being pursued with disappointment lurking on the horizon. This Could Only Be John Lennon’s Doing conjures up an imaginary England as a safe haven for refugees, welcomed by the rich, with young people discarding their mobile phones – no clearer an indicator of fantasy needed; one that the old and wise can see through.
It Is a Poet’s Fault is a painfully exquisite study of betrayal. Your bouquet of words wilted dry, / your eyes threw down shutters, / your wedding band appeared, glinting gold. This is not unrequited love but more misguided love.
Death, and its inevitability, bleeds through Endings as the aging process colonises the body and mind, and life loses its meaning. The President Is Coming Home inventively explores oppression and redemption as a president sheds himself of his opulence in the vain hope he will be healed by his people.
Ruia’s collection is richly textured, political and timely. There is an edginess to many of her poems, with the odd sprinkle of tenderness, all filtered through a candid lens and well-crafted verse. The poems feel current, but hark back to a painful and complex history – and a love of art – alluded to in their names, such as Southall Sisters, 1947 and Van Gough’s Bed.
In the wake of a divisive Brexit referendum, ushering us out of the EU and saddling us with a government that barely disguises its disregard for people of colour, this collection is a poetic ode to the undervalued people who keep this country running.