(Nine Arches Press, https://ninearchespress.com/, published 21 April 2022)
What does one want in a twenty-first century poet? Not exactly a dispassionate eye – because one wants passion in the work. But definitely an ability to view one’s material as an outsider, to see the absurdities, the prejudices. But, at the same time, one needs the poet to know that material intimately, affectionately: to know the things only an insider would know but as if looking through a windowpane. The reader looks through the same window, over the poet’s shoulder, as it were, and comes to understand.
Such a poet is Tom Sastry.
This is Sastry’s second collection. The first was A Man’s House Catches Fire (also from Nine Arches) in 2019. It is apparent he has spent the covid years creating and honing this one. I spent those two years putting together my second volume of short stories. Frankly it was no hardship. What else do writers do with time on their hands?
In the first section “Be your own witness” Sastry ruminates on what it is to be of British and Indian descent. He looks back at how children treated him at school, and the other outsiders he knew there. He considers the First Gulf War, when he was a teenager. He and his school friends feared potential conscription, and debated the morality of oil and the immorality of war. 9/11 informed his twenties after which brown-skinned men were often considered terrorists before they were considered anything else.
In the second section, “Enchantments collapsing on themselves” Sastry plays with magic realism. These poems start in the quotidian, then soar above the life in Britain in the twenty-first century using the mythical stories of our western lives – Jesus and Cinderella, for example. These were my favourite poems.
The third section, “Interlude”, contains explicitly covid-generated poems. It is wise about the mad thoughts we all had during the lockdowns. This is the smallest section. I understand I think why. One started out feeling a need to Say Something Important about the pandemic, but life simply became two years when nothing happened (if you were lucky). Sastry gets to the nub of that emptiness, then moves on.
The fourth section, “You have no normal country to return to”, has sharp things to say about our current government. As it does about the way our culture changes sometimes so slowly it is impossible to see, sometimes so fast our preconceptions trip us up.
I have looked quite carefully to see if there are a couple of seminal lines of this collection that I could quote, to show you how powerful the poems are. But they are holistic, and build in such a way that taking one or two lines out of context does them no justice. So if the above makes you think you might like Sastry’s work, fettle the book from Amazon or Nine Arches Press and enjoy the whole lot, holistically, for yourself. Or get your local library to buy it. These poems will show you the world from a slightly different viewpoint, I think. And that is what every poet strives for, and every reader values, isn’t it?