Paisley: Political Poetry

Paisley, Poems by Rakhshan Rizwan: The Emma Press, 2017

Rakhshan Rizwan is described on the back of this slim poetry pamphlet as “an emerging Pakistani poet”. The focus on nationality is apposite because Rizwan’s poetry bears all the marks of a postcolonial history and perspective, with an emphasis on politics of identity, resistance and belonging. However, the focus on the nationality of the author is somewhat misleading as the work deals largely with the migrant experience in Western Europe rather than with Pakistan. The introduction to the work, by Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese writer, emphasises this aspect of the writing as well as its preoccupation with language and languages. The poetry is thus not confined by the parochial dimensions of nation, but enlarged through engagement with the clash of East and West and its situation within the larger frameworks of contemporary globalisation. Furthermore, in its exploration of issues of gender, the work clearly marks itself out as “intersectional”. That is, gender and race overlap and inform the perspective.


The figure of the paisley, which is woven into the fabric of several poems, stands as a symbol not just for the work, but also the poet. This originally Persian design became popular in the west and eventually took on an English name. The poet herself, like paisley, comes from the East and yet writes poetry in English, speaks other European languages, as the symbol of the paisley now does, beyond its original language, and lives in European countries, like our paisley shirts belong to English fashions. Rizwan’s identification with this appropriated and displaced figure is therefore resonant on several levels which are explored. One instance is when Rizwan engages with how Westerners say her name differently from its originally intended pronunciation in “Noon”. She writes further in “Migrant” how no one in the West can understand her. The emphasis is on how the symbols, and the people and language of one culture cannot be understood by another but are always productively misunderstood and aligned with the structures of meaning which are peculiar to one society over the meanings that other groups bestow on them.

Paisley also has another significance which adds a larger dimension to the work. The design is formed like a teardrop. It is the symbol of suffering. Rizwan’s work is wracked by the spectre of suffering. In “Buffet”, Rizwan explores the “gaping hole” (5) which the spectacle of suffering in the media caters to, yet image upon image in this collection obsessively encounters the same sight and panders to the same appetite. Atrocities against Pakistani women by men are listed in “Eve”, a short prose poem and the theme is continued in the poem named after the title of the collection. In other poems we are presented with the bleak picture of life as a misunderstood and marginalised migrant woman who sheds pounds “working two jobs,/ in hopes of securing/ a paper-thin/ ticket home” (15).

This collection of poetry is thoroughly familiar to a British Asian reader such as myself. I know the themes it explores well and have met many people and writers with similar life experiences and preoccupations. The writing style of the work did not particularly appeal to me, hence I have concentrated on subject matter in this review. In my opinion, the poet is suitably described as an “emerging” voice as the collection is clearly the work of a promising young hand. However, I do not wish to lavish too much praise on this collection, which is certainly worth reading. In places, the work suffers from that exuberance and cock-sure confidence of youth by becoming preachy and insisting on the points that are made quite repetitively. Sometimes the work marginalizes the perspective of competing voices which is worrying in a work which aims to disclose a migrant perspective which has itself been marginalised.

In “Eve”, critiques of western feminists, with their western ethos, are presented as deluded monsters who uphold atrocities against women. Certainly, men can pretend that all Pakistani or Indian families are perfectly happy when all is not well and there are real and even widespread issues of domestic violence, exploitation and rape in society. Some men do want to sugar-coat reality in their own interests. However, the “deluded monsters” still make a perfectively valid point in “Eve”: that western structures of thought like Western feminism can’t just be transplanted and exported everywhere as though they were incontestable, universally valid and applicable ideas about people and institutions like the family. It is perhaps surprising, but ultimately revealing, that Rizwan’s postcolonial outlook conflicts with her feminism in this example. It begs the larger question of how coherent an intersectional approach to life can be and how near and far we are as a people from colonial and neo-colonial structures of thought.

The collection as a whole, however, is a serious instigator of thought. It will certainly appeal to a Western audience so that they can see what integration means to those that that they want to integrate and what kinds of things their ethnic minority brothers and sisters from the Sub-Continent are experiencing and thinking about.

Click here to buy Rakhshan Rizwan’s Paisley direct from The Emma Press. 

About the Publisher:

The Emma Press is an independent poetry publisher based in Birmingham, UK and founded in 2012. The Press is dedicated to producing what it calls “beautiful, thought-provoking books”. The Press states that it is “passionate about making poetry welcome and accessible”.

Review by Suneel Mehmi:

Suneel Mehmi is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, songwriter, musician and artist. He is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster. He has published academic work on the concept of Law and it relationship to violence in the adult short stories of Roald Dahl. He has previously contributed scholarly book reviews to the Literary London journal and to the London Fictions website.



Second to None

Second to None

This Is Not Your Final Form: Poems About Birmingham, edited by Richard O’Brien and Emma Wright. The Emma Press, 2017.

Join Emma Wright at Reading & Being Read: Birmingham, Ikon Gallery, 27th June 6-9pm.

‘This is not a city.

This is a cloudburst of culture –

and we are not citizens,

we are soaked to the bone.’

(More canals than Venice! By Kibriya Mehrban)

The UK’s second city has a genuinely inclusive, refreshingly unpretentious, truly exceptional creative scene. This Is Not Your Final Form is the much-anticipated anthology of entries to the inaugural Verve Festival of Poetry and Spoken Word competition, which took place earlier this year.

From the industrial revolution to intimate family histories, public and private stories combine in this new book of poems celebrating Birmingham. As a Brummie based in London, I was very excited to read it. An ambitious project, it attempts to capture the humour and humanity of this dynamic and open-minded ‘city of a thousand tongues.’ (Beorma by Gregory Leadbetter)

This Is Not Your Final Form

Heather Freckleton’s In the Bullring: After image of my Parents took me straight back to shopping for dress-making fabric in the Rag Market with my Mom when I was little. We would have ‘greasy newspapers full of chips’ as a treat, possibly to stop me moaning. Shaun Hands made me laugh out loud with his references to Daysaver bus tickets and the old Brutalist architecture in Birmingham: An Odyssey in 21 Images. His witty blend of admiration, nostalgia and disgust flawlessly contrasts the modern with the old images of the city.

‘As long as kids are throwing shopping trolleys into rivers/

There’ll always be a Birmingham.’

Washday by Bernadette Lynch captures the unpredictability of working class wartime life. In this vibrant snapshot of the past, a mundane afternoon is made extraordinary by the dramatic return of a soldier. It is a beautifully understated study of how challenging times fostered the resilience of local people who carried on through adversity.

‘Our Dawn scrubbed her knuckles raw on the washboard, cleansing Europe of Hitler.’

In the melancholy prose poem The Second Law of Thermodynamics by Susannah Dickey, Birmingham’s Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK, forms the backdrop to an unsuccessful date. With a nod to its seedier past, the narrator attempts to make a connection amidst the chaos of the city whilst struggling with insecurity.

‘I wish I could stop trying to justify myself. The city urges me not to, in its greenery,

its concrete, its clustered formations like constellations.’

Memories of family life growing up in modern Birmingham are intricately woven into Reza Arabpour’s ingenious Another Day in a Brummie Life. Local and international communities combine, emphasizing the city’s multicultural heart. It subtly focuses on the human face of the city as well as the hidden beauty behind the concrete façades.

‘I picked up a gab’s worth

of Baba’s Mama’s tongue –

the Persian version –

in Handsworth above my Amoo’s shop

among the varieties of life making roots

from distant time zones.’

The incredibly catchy Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm Tree? by Helen Rehman is based on a real-life local murder case. During the second world war, a woman’s body was found hidden inside a tree in the woods. The mystery has never been solved and the poem artfully incorporates the various local conspiracy theories surrounding the story. This rhythmic plain spoken lyrical poem reads like a sinister children’s playground chant and stayed with me for days.

‘Birmingham has bloomed since 1943,

from the Bullring to John Lewis to the Library –

we have theatres, universities, a symphony,

but we still can’t name the woman in the wych elm tree.’

This Is Not Your Final Form is a compact, accessible read befitting multiple revisits in order to uncover the poems’ many layers. It made me laugh, cry, and wonder why I’ve never wondered what the Floozie in the Jacuzzi dreams about at night. The poets have channelled the city’s depths and looked (for the most part) beyond the obvious clichés. Talented voices of many different backgrounds and poetic styles are featured, reflecting the diversity which to me is one of the city’s greatest strengths. The city’s distinctive self-deprecating humour and outlook fill the pages of this funny, bleak, uplifting, tragic, original, gritty and inspirational love letter to Birmingham.

‘An open sky/

The streets I was raised around/

I walk among them/

Feel this world before me’

(Birmingham: An Odyssey in 21 Images by Shaun Hands)

Emma Wright, founder of The Emma Press and co-editor of This Is Not Your Final Form will be speaking at Reading & Being Read: Birmingham at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, Tuesday 27th June 6-9pm.  For more information and tickets click here.

About the Publisher:

The Emma Press is an award-winning independent publisher based in Birmingham. Founded by Emma Wright in 2012, it is ‘dedicated to producing beautiful, thought-provoking books’ and aims to make poetry more accessible. The Emma Press is keen to discover new writers and holds regular themed poetry competitions.

Click here to find This Is Not Your Final Form on The Emma Press website.

Review by Becky Danks:

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, occasional poet, and book reviewer. Among other things! Her poem was shortlisted for the Verve Festival poetry competition 2017. Read her magazine feature on the Verve Festival here. Twitter: @BeckyD123. Website: