A contemporary poet for complicated times

I’d like to recommend the poetry of Daljit Nagra as an entrance into the many complex issues that we are all living with these days, the issues of identity, multicultural life, migration.

Sometimes literature can open up new avenues of thinking about our place in the world, and I have to say that Nagra’s work is appealing to me on those grounds. I also think that his energy and straightforwardness as they come through in his videos and in his poetry may well appeal to your students. I particularly like the following video where he talks directly to the audience about his vocation: “I am a poet’ and his address of his own Indian ethnicity.

His volume, Look, we have coming to Dover, explores in a way that is both humorous and touching, what it is to deal with his own identity and that of his family. ‘In a White Town’ is one poem that particularly highlights this dilemma for students growing into their own adult identity and dealing with their differences to their family, not an uncommon phenomenon of late adolescence.

In this second video Nagra reads the poem that follows:

‘In a White Town’
She never looked like other boys’ mums.
No one ever looked without looking again
at the pink kameez and balloon’d bottoms,

mustard oiled trail of hair, brocaded pink
sandals and the smell of curry. That’s why
I’d bin the letters about Parents’ Evenings,

why I’d police the noise of her holy songs,
check the net curtains were hugging the edges,
lavender spray the hallway when someone knocked,

pluck all the gold top milk from its crate
in case the mickey-takers would later disclose it,
never confessing my parents’ weird names

or the code of our address when I was licked
by Skin-heads (by a toilet seat)
desperate to flush out the enemy within.

I would have felt more at home had she hidden
that illiterate body, bumping noisily into women
at the market, bulging into its drama’d gossip,

for homework – in the public library with my mates,
she’d call, scratching on the windows. Scratching again
until later, her red face would be in my red face,

two of us alone, I’d strain on my poor Punjabi,
she’d laugh and say I was a gora, I’d only be freed
by a bride from India who would double as her saathi.

Nowadays, when I visit, when she hovers upward,
hobbling towards me to kiss my forehead
as she once used to, I wish I could fall forward.
Poet’s Note: Kameez: loose gown worn by women
Gora: white male
Saathi: life-long companion

© 2007, Daljit Nagra
From: Look We Have Coming to Dover!
Publisher: Faber and Faber, London, 2007

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