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The Immigration Handbook

Caroline Smith
ISBN-13: 
9781781723210
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 7, 2016
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Shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award 2016

 

‘The Immigration Handbook was certainly the most moving and inspiring book of poems I read last year. It really is a major book of political poems; I find it hard to think of a comparably successful achievement in that area.’ – Bernard O’Donoghue

'These poems are very moving and it's hard to do justice to the way Caroline Smith conveys the anxieties, hopes and disappointments experienced by immigrants. She never allows the reader to forget that behind the refugee statistics there are suffering human beings; very often the victims of a seemingly insensitive and overstretched bureaucracy.' – Lord Alf Dubs

Lord Alf Dubs was formerly a Director of the Refugee Council and Chair of Liberty. He was one of 669 Jewish children saved from the Nazis on the Kinderstransport.

 

The strikingly moving poems in Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook are the fruit of the author’s career as an Immigration Caseworker for one of the most diverse inner-city areas in London. Her characters are careful composites of people she’s observed. They step vividly off the page, as if out of the headlines and we meet them: such as the battered Russian boxer in hiding; such as Dr. Khan, ‘who has been walking to Hounslow each week for seven years to sign his name’; such as the nurse who, denied citizenship for a petty crime, kills herself, as she believes this is the only way her children might be allowed to stay in the UK.

Interspersed with these sometimes harrowing stories, there are quieter poems where the contrast between first and third worlds pricks the conscience as with the Brazilian cleaner, Esta Cunha de Silva, in ‘Domestic Worker’ who picks rhubarb in an English garden while remembering the sounds of chainsaws in the Amazon, and with ‘Mr. Giang’, who speaks ‘sixty-two Vietnamese bird languages’ but ‘hasn’t yet mastered English.’ All through this book the dramatic emotions of the immigrants, veering between hope and despair, are conveyed with simple descriptions of their circumstances and of their feelings, in beautifully clear, expressive language: ‘Before poverty and disenchantment had/seared his unsuspecting heart, he had talked/ to her of the water, the longing and/waiting…’ (from ‘Nursery Tales’).  

Amid these human and lyrical moments the cold language of the bureaucrats runs like an icy stream. We also hear from the judges, social workers, immigration officers and caseworkers who must enforce, often with brutal detachment, but just as often with reluctance and empathy, the laws of the state. Smith artfully lifts and reconstructs Border Agency reports of detention raids on frail, failed asylum seekers. She reveals heartless adjudications where hopeful citizens, often clearly victims of trauma, are dismissed in the third person, as ‘applicants’. Occasionally, there are moments of humour, of joy, the e-mail address changed to reflect a success, the comical mis-spellings of those learning English, the friendships that arise due to shared difficulties.

Written over a period of years, as layered and infused with experience as the documents she discusses: letters folded and refolded, creased with time, Caroline Smith’s poems are a moving record of global people movement, the story of our time.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Chris Kinsey, Planet

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Caroline Smith's poems about people seeking asylum are astonishing. They're as clear and precise as surgical scalpels. These poems, sterilised from despair and anger, do not seek to accuse or wound. They make incisions to implant empathy and compassion for refugees' enduring loss, uncertainty and trauma and for some of the people 'under siege from the urgency' of administering their fate amidst a terrible backlog of applications. Smith has a remarkable talent for distilling physical experiences into imagery which resolve into unforced epiphanies about the way things are:

just as an early morning frost brings out
a previously invisible conspiracy of
white cobwebs connecting the grasses.

The changing and unexpected properties of paper recur as a powerful motif. In 'Home Office Files', 'shreds of Mr Subramanian's life, / his ten years waiting for a decision'. (He fled Vanni in a container ship lying beside his dead wife and child.) The narrator thinks of him as she feeds 'a fist of papers to the shredder':

They buckle rigid and erect
calcified into a frill of coral,
a corrugated shanty town roof.

These poems have the grace of non-judgmentalism and show varieties of vulnerable courage, as in 'Asylum Interview' where a man is interviewing a woman who was raped by soldiers:

His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame

Review by Dilys Wood, Artemis poetry

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Caroline Smith's The Immigration Handbook is different. It's single theme. It's based on her work as an Immigration Case Officer in a North London MP's constituency office. It's 'documentary' to the extent that documents are quoted or printed here. It is worth reading for the substance alone. Also, the people whose cases are represented, who (the publisher tells us) are 'composites' of real clients, would be difficult not to relate to. A gaggle of forlorn but often resilient fellow-humans, their idiosyncrasies give life to the book and ensure that it isn't a treatise. Mr Giang finds it hard to learn English: "He concentrates on the words / but as he stretches out to grasp them / they squawk out of reach" (Mr Giang); "You know Abdul, / a serial letter writer in green ink", Heron Flats; "Mahmood spent twelve years in England / hiding in a caravan with fruit pickers...He remembered / rain-grey fruit fused to the stems", Tangiers. One way or another Smith adds a touch ("rain-grey fruit") which clinches the kind of desolation stateless people suffer. Though these poems could be samey, Smith's narrative skill wins out in poems short and long. New email address is a one-liner: "LuckyinUK_@netnet.com". The Strange Tale of the Immigration Judge & the Carpet Seller of Kampala is a three-page Arabian Nights story, a rare case of a happy ending. Smith is punchy, satirical, persuasive and quite often lyrical. Is this poetry? It is writing which grapples with opposite pressures. In one way, it's like writing about a friend dying of cancer: the subject-matter seems 'entitled' to a hearing. Even before shaping, our response is 'ready-made'. On the other hand, this 'emotive' subject-matter is also laden with dry fact and reference to procedures. Smith's variety of approach to each case achieves a great deal. Sometimes we sense that the poet is 'searching for her own soul' rather than ours, which is perhaps the key to making this data-heavy material shape as poetry.

Review by Peggy Ellsberg

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Caroline Smith's brilliant new collection, The Immigration Handbook, brings to detailed, tangible, often heartbreaking life one of the hottest topics in global news today. The poet is an immigration case worker who has seen plenty of fire and rain. She personalizes and concretizes 55 individual human moments, poems as well as cases, blending people's experiences with the bureaucratic vocabulary of "appeals," "judgments," "lawyers," "Home Office," "asylum," "settlement," and the devastating "deportation." The Immigration Handbook works the way human memory works--by webbing, weaving, networking, knitting. "Red Road Flats" features "white cobwebs." A "Scarlet Lizard" is something a Judge wishes he could see on his desk instead of the "parched, cracked hexagons/of a legal phrase." White, pale, pallid, bleached; red, blood-orange, scarlet; long grasses and seaweeds and vines; mold, fungus, undergrowth; vivid images and colors connect the dots to create a congruent narrative collage. In a defunct phone booth, the poet finds the "black cradle... silent as an obsidian urn."
A few pages apart, one poem/case calls up the smell of fresh-cut pine in the courtyard of a Trappist monastery, and a second one compares a lawyer's work to that of a manuscript illuminator in the scriptorium of a Florentine monastery. Both of these poems rely on the colors silver-grey and blue. Thus, for the reader, a psychological ecology is established. A one-time adolescent shoplifter chooses suicide rather than allow her family to risk being deported with her. A young immigrant must decide whether to stay in the new country and await approval or return home to his mother's deathbed. Semantic webbing and emotional netting unify the 55 case/poems.
Once I started this profound, quiet book, I simply could not put it down. I was sorry when it was over. Every single poem is a gem. The Immigration Handbook achieves what every book should strive to achieve: it opens the reader's mind to a whole new country of human experience.

 

Peggy Ellsberg is Senior Lecture in English at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of several books.
Review taken from Amazon.com

Review by Clare Pollard, Poetry London

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook is a large-scale project, an attempt to tell the individual stories of people she has encountered as an asylum caseworker for an MP. It is attentive to others, and the specifics of their realities. Smith herself is largely invisible, to the point where some poems are ‘found’ (a legal apology, an adjudicator’s verdict, a letter from the Home Office printed with details blacked out: ‘I apologise for the delay in progressing your client’s application. // Due to the length of time that has elapsed since your client submitted her application the form is now out of date’.) Others feel verbatim, like one in the voice of ‘Ali’:

I have worked
maybe sixty hours this week
in a kitchen in Wembley.
I’ll be paid for five.
There is no one to complain to.

But this is generous poetry, and Smith is present in each careful, interested detail. Mint leaves twist in a tea glass ‘like fur caterpillars’. Mahmood ‘posts cigarette butts / into an empty Sprite bottle’. A carer is seen emptying a catheter and ‘blurting out the wet-nosed tube of his cream’. An answering machine’s messages ‘brim like the water butt / spilling over with black water’. A baby snores:

through its cleft palate,
dummy balanced on its lip,
thin sky-blue hood
pulled over its eyes.

The bureaucracy emerges as a black joke, and Smith manages to find humour, as in the misspellings of ‘Letters’:

I would like to express my filling
I love your cuntry
I have applied for neutralisation

Ultimately though, this is a book that makes us face our own unkindness. It does the important work of witnessing those whose pain we would rather not see.

 

Review by Emma Lee

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Caroline Smith has drawn on her experience as an asylum caseworker for an MP for her second collection of poems, exploring migration through the lens of bureaucracy. It’s a timely reminder of the barriers and labyrinthine hurdles those seeking asylum have to bend through and also of the inhumane delays the system has built in. The opening poem “On Hold” has the epigram, ‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application.’ It concerns Arjan Mehta who was aged 23 at the start of his application,

He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.

The two lines just before the quoted section, “Seventeen years have passed/ with no answer” I didn’t feel were necessary. The gap between the ages of 23 and 40 is more telling: it’s the gap when careers are established and families started. It’s the bureaucratic denial of humanity, leaving a man in limbo: without an answer, he can’t work (legally), if he starts a family, he does so with the risk of separation. Picking up this theme again, “Delay” is a Home Office letter (any identifying details redacted) with the line “I apologise for the delay in processing your clients application.” – the apostrophe is missing in the original. The letter is dated 2015 and refers to an application made in 2006. It goes on to inform the recipient that due to the delay, her client will have to resubmit the form which is now out of date. The correct form is not sent with the letter but the client is directed to the website (without a direct link to the required form) where she will have to find the form, download, i.e. print it, complete it (again) and send it in a provided envelope at her own expense even though she was not responsible for the delay. The provided envelope doesn’t even have prepaid postage.

The inflexibility of forms and their inability to give space to describe lives is explored in “Fault Lines” which asks how two parents would know

That there would be nowhere on the form to explain
why they had to move to Swaziland
and register his birth at the Portuguese Consulate
in his father’s name and when the work permit
ran out, no choice but to go back,
a mixed race couple to South Africa
where his mother would give him her name
and an Identity card where ‘Father’
was left blank.

Forms are only part of the process. There’s also the “Asylum Interview” where “she says only what will help her case.” The interviewer notes she says she has a cold.

He fires questions at her in bursts.
His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame
beating yolk orange like a fontanel.
He has realised the truth
but doesn’t correct his notes –
raped by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army:
her immune system has been shot through,
her CD4 count a mere six cells.

The need to establish the entitlement to asylum is done so without regard for the affect on the asylum seeker of describing their experiences and traumas or the stigma and shame felt. The interviewers can only record what the interviewee says, not what is implied or evident from observation. So the interviewer cannot record she has a badly compromised immune system or that she has been raped, unless she actually puts those things into words. When a language barrier is reinforced with the barriers of shame and stigma, a genuine asylum-seeker may be refused simply because of lack of humane support through the claim process.

Caroline Smith’s strength is in presenting facts, not guiding the reader to think in a certain way. She reveals the processes and leaves readers to decide whether they are fair or not. She doesn’t shy away from difficult cases either. It isn’t widely known that child refugees whose applications are accepted have to re-apply as adults when they turn 18, and can find their applications declined even though they were accepted as children. In “Teenager” a boy was imprisoned after committing a burglary and is now facing release.

They told him he was now
nineteen and no longer a child
and would be deported with £46.
They asked him which airport
he wanted to go back to
but he didn’t know
what ones there were.
He’d left when he was seven.

This arbitrary separation of adult and child identities and bureaucratic rules dictating that the adult is regarded as a separate being from the former child, creates injustice.

Caroline Smith doesn’t just look at recently arrived refugees, “Dr Gopal” goes to empty a kitchen bin and discovers “a sudden frost – like the awe of/ seeing her first snowfall in England./ An aubergine had turned old overnight/ a shock of white hair standing straight up/ on a wizened purple-brown head.” It reminds her of dolls she played with at her first English school which leads her into remembering her grandmother making a secret family of paper dolls,

But Mama had found the box and burnt them.
She didn’t blame her mother.
Now a senior consultant
She lived the model immigrant life –
with a beautiful house in a quiet street:
but she couldn’t stop
the tide of night terrors racing in,
prevent the silhouettes from
curling and peeling in the fires of Entebbe.

Entebbe is in Uganda and Gopal’s Asian name reveals her as a Ugandan Asian who had to flee after Idi Amin’s declaration in 1972. Even after working her way up to a senior position at work, she cannot leave her children terrors behind. In my review I have ordered the quoted poems into a narrative. In the collection, “Teenager” is much earlier, and the time lines don’t fall into a natural, narrative order. This is a successful approach because it mirrors the difficulties for refugees in telling their stories, the sloughing back and forth as they are twisted and bend through the claims process and the way that, for some, being able to shut away a memory until they are strong enough to deal with it, is an important part of recovery.

The final poem, “Stamps”, is about ignoring the pristine collectors’ sets in favour of the ones postmarked and steamed off their envelopes,

“We wanted the ones
that had made the journey,
that bore the marks of their struggle.”

The Immigration Handbook records the marks of refugees’ struggle filtered through the lens of bureaucracy. It shows the stories behind the numbers and reminds us that behind the statistics are humans.

 

Taken from the Emma Lee blog

Review by Dylan Moore, The Welsh Agenda

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Caroline Smith's collection of poems, The Immigration Handbook, is a far more specific affair. Taking as its cue Smith's role as asylum caseworker for a London MP, the poet opens up a series of windows into the lives of refugees caught up in the bureaucracies of the UK asylum process. Titles hint at the tension between people and system. 'Mrs Shah's Complaint', 'Josef Rexha – salesman', 'Mr Giang' and 'Dr Gophal' all deal with individuals with names and, therefore, voices – but just as in reality, it is the cold, impersonal language of beaurocracy that dominates: other poems include 'Selection', 'Asylum Documents', 'Pro Bono 1', 'Spouse Visa', 'Removal', 'Home Office Files' and 'New email address' and Surgery Note 2'.

The language of paperwork perhaps diminishes the power and quality of The Immigration Handbook as poetry, but it certainly works to bear out the opening epigraph, a quotation from Lord Bingham: 'It reduces the weight otherwise to be accorded to the requirements of firm and fair immigration control, if the delay is shown to be the result of a dysfunctional system which yields unpredictable, inconsistent or unfair outcomes.' 

The experiences of the 'characters' in the book – almost certainly based on real people – strongly suggest that the asylum system is indeed dysfunctional.

Review by Kim Moore, The Poetry School

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Immigration Handbook collects together stories of people caught up in the unwieldy, impersonal and often seemingly illogical world of government bureaucracy. Not unlike the recently released I, Daniel Blake, such a bureaucracy is shown to brutalise those who depend on it the most.

Caroline Smith is perfectly placed to write these stories, having worked as an asylum caseworker for a London MP. In a recent interview in Eastern Eye, Smith explained:

 

“It’s called The Immigration Handbook because it comes at the issue of immigration from different people’s perspectives, whether it’s the immigration judge, the asylum seeker, or the case worker.”

 

This multiplicity of views is one of the main strengths of the book, and without it, the poems could have been unremittingly dark. As it is, many are suffused with a sense of hopelessness, which would be deeply troubling and upsetting were it not for Smith’s empathic listening and objectivity. Post-Brexit, this feels like a necessary project. Now more than ever, we need writers to draw attention to the human suffering behind the headlines and to challenge the often disturbing and extreme language that is used to describe migrants and refugees.

In the first poem of the book, ‘On Hold’ we are introduced to Arjan Mehta. This poem is short, and worth quoting in full, as it illustrates many of the key concerns explored throughout the collection.

 

On Hold

‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application’

He was just twenty-three
Arjan Mehta, when first he began
calling the Home Office
from a red phone box
on the corner of Preston Road;
would push against
and let fall behind him
the heavy creaking door,
into its stale, vacated, smoke smell,
stand on its concrete littered floor
his fingers twisting through
the plastic snake cord,
dragging round the metal dial,
eager about his application.
Seventeen years have passed
with no answer.
He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.

 

The poem opens a door onto a world that many people are not aware of, and simply asks you to look through. The language used is simplistic and factual, and the long opening sentence fits with the idea of being on hold, of things going on indefinitely. This is contrasted with the factual, short, sharp statement: ‘Seventeen years have passed / with no answer’.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I realised after reading this collection is that the pain of waiting for an answer that never comes, of having no home, or the possibility of having your home taken away, can be just as damaging as physical violence, and the haunting image of the sealed-up phone box at the end of this poem symbolises this brilliantly.

‘On Hold’ begins with an epigraph of ‘official’ text taken from communication with the Home Office. This technique of weaving in official text to use as part of poems or to serve as epigraphs occurs throughout the collection. Taking this strategy even further, a copy of an original letter from the Home Office appears in full, roughly halfway through the collection. This letter begins ‘I refer to your clients No Time Limit application which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006.’  The letter is dated 21 September 2015.

Smith makes the titles of her poems work hard. They often have two meanings – as in ‘On Hold’ with its literal meaning of being ‘on hold’ on the phone, and the secondary reference to the idea of someone’s life being on hold. In ‘The Jumper’ the reader begins by thinking that it refers to an item of clothing, as we read about a nurse who is caught stealing a jumper. She pays the price years later, when she is refused the right to stay because of the ‘criminal act’ committed in her youth. The poem finishes:

 

How she could see no other way –
how without her, they’d be allowed to stay.

 

Suddenly the title takes on a whole new meaning.

In another poem, ‘Omnipotence’, after reading lots of poems in the voice of an observer or an outsider, we are in the first person. An asylum case worker tells us:

 

He’d been bugging me all morning,
phoning insistently
so confident of his rights.
Just wanted the Home Office to hurry up –
but he was bolshie and I snapped.
Told him they were doing further checks,
had called up another file.
Then I heard his voice crumple and go small;
‘please don’t push them too hard then,
don’t make them angry,
I’ll leave it to time.’

 

Again, the title of the poem deepens the impact of the poem – and the sense of shame which comes from this moment of self-reflection on the part of the speaker is both startling and moving.

One of the things that keeps the collection fresh and surprising is the considered exploration of the viewpoints of those who work with and alongside migrants or refugees – various caseworkers, judges and officers operating within the constraints of the asylum system. The first two poems, exploring the lives of two different asylum seekers respectively are followed by ‘The Scarlet Lizard’, a different kind of poem altogether. This poem, is again spoken in the voice of an observer, but this time looking at a judge.  Here is the Judge, reading through a report:

 

He needed to sense some quiver of
indecision, an odd detail
that would open the truth of their words;
chinks of light shining
through shuttered doors.

 

And ‘Red Road Flats’ we read:

 

When the Presenting Officer heard of
their suicides following the ruling
it was as if he’d woken up
and found himself
a trespasser in his own garden.

 

People are not presented simplistically, and although the news of the suicides make the latter poem particularly dark, the exploration of the impact that this has on the people dealing with these cases is delicately drawn does alleviate the sense of hopelessness in a small way. Though the asylum system is inhuman, real people are part of it, and these people are also human beings who are compassionate and flawed and struggling to understand the situation they find themselves in.

The problem of writing other people’s stories is a difficult one, particularly when dealing with groups of people who have already been silenced time and time again. The position of witness is often difficult one to pull off because of the position the author must maintain as outsider, but Smith is successful here: she negotiates and avoids the pit of slipping into sentimentality and mawkishness. This collection explores this idea of ‘poetry as witness’ layering story after story of trauma and pain on top of each other in orderly way that is to be admired – in a shocking poem, Smith factually recounts how a middle child of three is sent home because he is the only one in his family that doesn’t have a visa.

If I could wish for anything else it would have been for a few more poems exploring the impact of working with refugees/asylum seekers in the first person so that there was more of a range of tone throughout the collection. However, this is a small quibble – I found the book moving, disturbing and revelatory in its exposure of the intricacies of the immigration system.

Review by Afric McGlinchey, Orbis

Friday, November 11, 2016

A TOUCH OF COMPASSION: REVIEW BY AFRIC MCGLINCHEY

 

Caroline Smith (Orbis 176) is delving here beneath the morass of statistics and forms to uncover the real lives, circumstances, memories and emotions of individuals applying for refugee status. In fact, many of her metaphors involve revealing something hidden: a kitchen bin lifted to reveal ‘a sudden frost – an aubergine had turned old overnight / a shock of white hair standing straight up on a wizened purple and brown head’; ‘ a row of waiters standing, one hand behind their backs, percussionists lifting silver domes’; opening a grain bin exposes ‘ a nest of purple ratlings’; ‘ apricot snails / sheltering in the damp pelts / of wet undergrowth’ (‘The Administrative Removal Officer’).

 

      The Stories show the tip of an iceberg, but the language is starkly plain and clear. In ‘The Father’:

 

He has finally saved enough

to bring his family to join him;

but DNA tests show that

only two of the children are his.

The middle one has been refused a visa.

 

Smith’s work as an asylum caseworker obviously provides authenticity. She is also a sculptor, and her visual perspective is evident in the ability to evoke myriad landscapes and visceral, sometimes uncomfortable images that resonate effectively. Her particular strength is in the striking analogy, and she also conveys the tactile:

 

the years, like a soothing poultice,

began to break down his identity,

braille his documents with mildew and

the wet, black gills of fungus; crumble

the pages into the soil he’s become a part of.

                                                                                  [‘The Boxer’]

 

Such writing captures the sense of ‘extinction’ felt by immigrants – and the stupendous elation when luck strikes. For example, when a baby is born three days before the end of amnesty, allowing a family to stay in the country.

 

          While focusing on the harrowing difficulties of trying to penetrate legalese, she also shows the other side. One particularly strong poem is ‘Red Road Flats’, where the image of an ‘invisible conspiracy of white cobwebs connecting the grasses’ relates to the presenting officer who perhaps feels responsible for the suicides resulting from his decision to deport three immigrants. The poet has a particular knack for slowing a moment down, particularly those of reflection.

 

            Many collections today can be self-absorbed, with their authors hoping to achieve some sort of renown, accruing to the ego. This book has a much nobler purpose and occupies what Carolyn Forche has called the third space in poetry: not the personal or the political, but the social, making a profoundly compassionate and powerful case for the asylum seeker. It deserves a wide readership.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The 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.

Review by The Tablet

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Immigration Handbook is a haunting collection of poems by Caroline Smith inspired by her experiences as an asylum caseworker for a London MP. Many of her characters’ fates are uncertain: every week for seven years, Dr Khan has walked to Hounslow’s immigration reporting centre; Arjan Mehta has spent 17 years phoning the home office waiting for a response to his application: “He is now forty. / The sealed-up phone box / long out of service, \ the black cradle / within its sepulchre, / silent as an obsidian urn.”

Review by Greg Freeman, WriteOutLoud

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Caroline Smith’s collection The Immigration Handbook (Seren) is the product of her experiences as an asylum caseworker in the constituency office of a north London Labour MP, and the characters within these poems are composites of people she observed over a number of years.

Some poems are more “poetic” than others. ‘The Administrative Removal Officer’ likens the weary official to a gardener forever engaged in the act of clearing, “pulling away armfuls of climbers”. For most of the poem the language is faintly repellent  - “twisted ground … purple worms … sickly-pale apricot snails”. It concludes by describing the pity and destruction of this soul-sapping process: “I must clear this plot / steel my heart to dig up / perfect flowers in full bloom.”  

On the other hand, ‘Delay’ appears to be a copy of a Home Office letter dated September 2015 which apologises for the nine-year hold-up “in progressing your clients [sic] application”, which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006. You don’t need a metaphor to know which way the wind blows in this case, or crafted language to tell this story any more clearly. 

Like a dossier, the poems compile individual tragedies, such as the nurse denied citizenship because of a minor shoplifting crime many years earlier: “How she’d forgotten / until now, when the letter came / refusing them all … How she could see no other way - / how without her, they’d be allowed / to stay” (‘The Jumper’).  

A desperation and determination to be allowed to remain sometimes leads to romantic deceit and broken dreams. ‘Spouse Visa’ tells the story of an older volunteer worker who allows herself to accept a young Turk’s claim that he has fallen in love with her.  She hadn’t been back on the rota to help since he left, but had signed his papers anyway, because “for two years / she had been the moon’s grace, / had shed the wrinkles of her old age”. 

Sifting among the heartbreak of wasted lives, such as the doctor from Paktika province in Afghanistan who has been trekking out to Hounslow each week for seven years to sign his name (Eaton House’), there can be found occasional lightness, such as the unwitting comedy of broken, misspelt English: “I love your cuntry … I have applied for neutralisation … I was arrested by six uninformed guards … With wormiest regards” (Letters’).

And I will quote in full the five-line poem ‘Father’, which in its brevity expresses how the demands of unbending, heartless officialdom can uncover family secrets that could and should have remained hidden:  “He had finally saved enough / to bring his family to join him; / but DNA tests show that / only two of his three children are his. / The middle one has been refused a visa.” 

This is poetry that is about something, that needs to be written.  In these strange and disturbing times, Caroline Smith’s sympathetic and enlightening poems reveal the complicated truths behind the tabloid headlines, and show that poetry can be employed in significant and important ways. 

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Review by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
See the full article here: http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=662

09/12/2013 - 13:53
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Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
Weariness
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

See the full review here: http://cordite.org.au/reviews/jackson-alvarez-galbraith/

09/09/2014 - 11:44
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