“Songs of Suicide” Onkar Sharma
The poetry we have reviewed this year has been strangely,
wonderfully relevant, almost prescient. Jericho Brown’s ‘The
Tradition’ exposing the murderous cruelty of US racism, Jo Lilley’s ‘Endings’ questioning
extinction at the start of the pandemic caused in part by the trade in
endangered species. The toll of Covid-19 has been more than lives lost and its impact on mental health will
probably take longer to overcome so Onkar Sharma’s collection of poems
investigating suicide published in July is overdue in the poetry catalogue.
“Songs of Suicide” was inspired by his mother’s mental health problems bravely outlined in the introduction. Suicide is a growing problem and one not readily or easily handled by poetry. It is a brave decision to make it the subject not just of one or two poems but a complete collection. The sensitivity of such a complex and
significant mental health issue is such that the outcome, no matter how well intentioned, could easily be mishandled or misunderstood. So, the fact that this collection of poems adds to our humanity in the face of an issue widely and often dismissively misunderstood is a notable achievement.
The poems in the collection investigate different aspects of or perspectives upon the tragedy of taking one’s own life, affording a variety of insights which enable us to expand our understanding and ability to empathise. The opening poem ‘Panchatatva – The Five Elements’ reconstructs a fundamental of Hindu theology, the five aspects of God, into five situations in which an individual is driven to suicide. A fired executive contemplates leaping from a bridge, a failed student prepares to hang herself, a farmer is driven to a cliff edge by the drought failure of his land. In ‘Live-In No More’ a man cuts his wrist following a conviction for rape and in ‘Cocaine Queen’ an aged model compares herself to the women adorning the roadside billboards. (The implication for society’s facile standards of beauty does not need to be stated.) If these seem bleak and unpoetic topics, they are not. The subject may be grim, sad, painful, but the poems take us to an area of what it is to be human and help us to find something more than mere sympathy.
In “Sensitive Mind” Onkar examines the torment of mental illness as it drives its subject to self-immoliation and elsewhere poems examine the impact of poor mental health and self-harming on those close to a suicide sharing vicariously their suffering. That impact often causes people to question the apparent selfishness of the suicide but in many poems Onkar challenges the view that concern is missing outlining the practicality of death and the love and concern for others that often accompanies a seemingly distanced and disconnected act.
“please feed the moti on time so it doesn’t die
please water the plants so they don’t dry
please open the piggy bank when i’m gone
please get yourself an iphone from amazon
to my lovely sis, that’s my last gift”
The title of another poem presents us with an alternate view often not recognised, ‘Let My Journey Be My Destination’! That essentially Indian approach to our fragile and suffering existence leads to a uniquely compassionate and understanding grasp of what is easily shelved as just mental illness.
This collection begins with five poems re-working a key aspect of Vaishnavist Hinduism and, inevitably, similar cultural references run through the collection so it is appropriate that Onkar returns to them in the final poem ‘A Jilted Bitch’ which places suicide in a sympathetic context it needs if we are to makes sense of it and make positive inroads into improving mental health in an increasingly fragmented and distored world.
“my search to seek meaning in life
was like discovering music in commotion
salt in sand and water in parched land”
Inevitably, the subject matter of this short collection of poems published in Kolkata by Hawakal and distributed by Amazon risks being too challenging to the potential reader. They dare to approach daunting realities. But disheartening they are not. There is a current of humanity running through them no doubt deriving from his own experience and the ancient culture they reflect and they really are uplifting empathetic poems. Their appearance is timely. You should read them.
“Songs of Suicide is published by Hawakal and available in the UK from Amazon.
Onkar Sharma is a business technology journalist and cyber security consultant and former editor of India’s leading IT magazine. He manages LiteraryYard.com a leading international literature e-journal.
Jericho Brown is the most exciting poet in the USA today. On May 4th he was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his latest collection ‘The Tradition’ which Pulitzer described as
“A collection of masterful
lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation
of the bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence”
Two previous collections had established him as a voice for the voiceless, oppressed by virtue of their colour or their sexuality. The murder of George Floyd three weeks later (to the day) gave Jericho’s work a bitter prescience that measured just how pressing that ‘historical urgency’ was.
As the BLM protest erupted across the world challenging centuries of historical complacency in the face of injustice, violence and oppression, as the facts of racism were reflected in the higher pandemic fatalities amongst people of colour, ethnic minorites, the poor and disadvantaged, The Tradition could be its manifesto. Poetry is enjoying heightened popularity but few poets riding the crest of its wave can compare to the talent and impact of Jericho Brown.
Before ’The Tradition’ was published last year Jericho Brown was already recognised as a poet of exceptional importance. Winner of a host of prestigious awards. Published in some of the USA’s finest including The New York Times, New Yorker and Time magazine. The Pulitzer placed him at the end of a list that runs from Robert Frost (sadly not without prejudice) to W H Auden and Allen Ginsberg.
Born and raised in Shreveport Louisiana part of ‘Bible Belt’ American, Trump country, Jericho Brown is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and director of its Creative Writing Program. He was speechwriter for LaToya Cantrell the first black woman to hold the post of mayor of New Orleans.
His first book, ‘Please’ (2008), won the American Book Award.
‘The New Testament’ (2014),
won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award which honours
written works that make an important contribution to the understanding of racism and the appreciation of the rich diversity if human culture.
This impressive CV reflects the unique quality and power of Jericho Brown’s poetry. He follows in exalted footsteps in both the majesty of his poetry and the righteousness of its causes – Gwendolyn Brooks, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and others walked that difficut path too.
“The people of my country believe
We can’t be hurt if we can be bought”
When Shelley claimed poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” he was talking about more than polemics. There is a place for slogans. There is a time for anger, for demonstrating. Anger and statements of truth are the blood in the veins of the poetry of Jericho Brown.
“Gratitude is black----
Black as a hero returning from war to a country
that banked on his death”
They hit you in lines as deadly as gunfire, mirroring the violence that is part of the everyday life of black folk in the USA and over here.
“I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do,
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home.”
But the true power of poetry is not just that it produces
a good line, a punchy combo of words that can grace a placard or make an epitaph.
What places poetry above other communication is its ability, in the right
hands, to make us understand that which we have never experienced, what we may
never experience. To make us know and feel what that person feels, what it is
like to be in that situation. I knew what love and heartbreak were before I met
either through the poetry I read as a juvenile. Owen and Sassoon and the many
other ‘war poets’ didn’t just rage against the slaughter, they take you into it,
its tragedy, its lack of meaning, its horror and its crippling ennui. In an
interview in 2018 Jericho said
“A poem should go beyond what you already know……….. I do want poets to feel empowered to announce politically, but I also want them to go beyond the pronouncement.”
This is the core of poetry, to take you into the most complex, unbelievable, horrific or beautiful of circumstance through the medium of just a few lines. This is its potential, to get you to feel what it is to be another human being and, through that, to know and change yourself.
It is a subtle craft, easily mishandled, but when done
well the result is breathtaking.
“The opposite of rape is understanding”
Jericho does not merely rant at the injustices that are the daily experience of black Americans, he examines its chillling normality, the banality of evil. He places it into the context of his own experience as an African American, as a gay man, as a son and as a lover. He connects the political and the societal with the individual. Tracks its line from the general to the specific. Into the home, the breakfast table, the bedroom.
“I love a man I know could die
And not by way of illness
And not by his own hand
But because of the colour of that hand and all
His flawless skin.”
The generic of prejudice and oppression is personalised, made at once political and intimate. It is not just the ‘big issues’ of black experience Jericho Brown exposes, it is the cloying suffocating corruption of everyday existence on the street, in the home, among family and between lovers.
With the same incisive verse he lays open the experience of love and intimacy.
“Come, love, come lie down, love, with me
In this king-size bed where we go numb
For each other letting sleep take us into
Ease, a slumber made only when I hold
You or you hold me so close I have no idea
Where I begin—where do you end?—where you
Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies”
Poetry he said in an interview for Barren Magazine
better when it comes from and happens to real people we can imagine. No
His poetry includes modified sonnet and the use of ‘ghazal’ both in content and the way he writes. An Arabic form, ghazal expresses both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. One of the poems in ‘The Tradition’ is called “Duplex” reflecting that duality. It talks of both the cruelty of an early lover and that of his father. The potency of ghazal can be seen in the closing lines,
“None of the beaten end up how we began
A poem is a gesture toward home”
'Duplex' is the term Jericho uses to describe his decision
to write sonnets in a shortened or ‘gutted’ form, a series of repeated
couplets. Embracing the sonnet and the metric traditions of ghazal allows him
to question America but not be constrained in response.
“If I can take a sonnet and I can take a ghazal and I can take the blues—we’re not gonna get around taking the blues, since I’m black—if I take those three things, is it possible for me to merge them into a single coherent form?” And that’s how the duplex came to be.”
Asked to reflect on the harsh childhood which features in
his poetry he said,
“Literature is about opposing characters being right. So
poetry is about opposing feelings being right, about ambivalence being the
proper state of being. I’m glad my parents are old and that I’m older. There’s
really a wealth of new language born from reflecting on this.”
Jericho Brown’s poetry has enabled him to move beyond just anger, though it is righteously justified, so it gives the reader the same opportunity. To understand, to empathise, to be outraged but to see the journey’s end where strength and humanity, possibly love, is more powerful.
Jericho Brown is a professor who says that reading Milton
taught him how to rhyme and calls him his ‘homeboy’. As you’d expect, he is
prodigiously well read, an intellectual. But the language of his poetry is
clear, precise, engaging. There’s a musical influence, no doubt coming from the
church which he still attends despite the less than ‘Christian’ response of
most non-conformist denominations toward being gay. Just as Gospel fed Soul so
hymns and the music, which is still the greatest cultural gift America has
given the world, has seeped into the way he uses words and constructs his “gutted
sonnets”. (That, of course, should be the greatest gift Black America has given
the world!) You can feel it, for example, in the opening line of the poem “Dear
Whiteness” quoted earlier. A poem which even repeats the chorus of Fleetwood
Mac’s “Little Lies”.
In another interview he explained how he starts a poem,
“I usually get (or overhear) some series of sounds I find musically attractive. I try to transliterate those sounds into lines and follow them with lines that riff off of the sounds of those lines. I don’t concern myself with sense, at first.”
The poems in ‘The Tradition’ remind me of something James
Baldwin said in ‘The Fire Next Time’.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within"
The cover notes say “The Tradition is a timely, necessary book….” Published just months before George Floyd died at the hands of a white policeman you could not have gauged just how timely it would be save for the fact that these injustices are decades, centuries old. It continues, “….from one of the most vital poets of our time” Amen to that.
©Josh Brown 2020
‘The Tradition’ is published in the UK by Picador Poetry
and is available from the usual sources for a mere £10.99. His earlier
collections, ‘Please’ and ‘The New Testament’ are also available.
We urge you to purchase from small booksellers struggling under the impact of Covid-19 and to buy ‘The Tradition’ if it is the only book you buy this year.
You can find out more about Jericho Brown on his website
You Tube has pleny of clips of Jericho being interviewed
and reading his work.
The Barren Magazine article can be found at
'Endlings' Turnstone Press
Available in print and as E Book
A beautiful, moving examination of our destructive cruelty
The pleasure of Portsmouth Poetry is that we get to meet, to know and to work with talented writers and artists to play a small part in their development and the increasing awareness of their work. One such is Joanna Lilley, a poet and novelist from the Yukon in Canada. Author of a collection of stories, a novel and two collections of poetry, her third collection, “Endlings”, was published in March by Turnstone Press and is available in the UK from April 15th.
The release of this
collection in the midst of a world pandemic known to have originated in part
from the trade in endangered species, is chillingly apposite. Yet to be
recognised by the OED, the word ‘Endling’ refers to the last individual of a
species facing or having become extinct. As she says in the opening pages, “It
is probably only a matter of time” before the word is included; it is
painfully relevant to the time in which we live.
Copiously researched, Endlings is a collection of poems outlining the fate of 63 animals lost to our benighted world. From the Woolly Mammoth, past the Dodo, to the Yukon Horse, the Tasmanian Tiger, the Falklands Island Wolf and the St Helena Earwig!
“You are not the only ones
who need tools, who,
without them, would be
as obliterated as me.”
[Flightless Bird of Mauritius – Dodo]
topics like the environmental crisis easily become polemical, uncomfortably
moralistic or cliched. The poet may be politically driven and angry (so many of
the greats have) but the soul of poetry requires the tender subtlety of
approach witnessed in, for example, Wilfred Owen’s approach to war to find a
way to enable us to ‘feel’ the issues explored and to experience them through
the eyes of those they touch. This is
what Joanna has done with this remarkable collection of poems. These are not
simple diatribes against stupidity and destruction, they enable us to experience
the tragedy and to understand the loss. So much so that, in the end, it is
ourselves we understand too; our callous disregard for the world we co-habit
and the tragedy we heap upon ourselves. As the Canadian environmentalist and
science broadcaster David Suzuki says
“This book is a reminder of what we have lost within human memory”.
If reading these tender, beautiful poems were to leave you feeling frustrated and righteously indignant they would have been timely and worthwhile. If they moved you to re-examine your own interface with the rest of our vast planet that would be success. But they do more than that. They produce a sadness that had me both tearful and ashamed.
There is a carefully structured anger and empathy in these poems as when Joanna lays out the psychopathic cruelty of the Lepidopterist
© Photograph by Michael Edwards
“The man will carry me in his jar as far
from shore as his collection.
He’ll pinch my middle with his thumb
and forefinger to stun me
from flapping, damaging myself
so that he can
relax me to death”
No slight achievement to let you feel the terror of an insect and empathise its fate!
These poems examine not just the callousness of our kind but the incomprehensible stupidity that often attended the loss of these creatures and continues to do so.
“But all we know for certain is that cave bears are extinct and too many soldiers die in wars and Germans plunder the caves because they needed phosphate so they could blow more people up.”
A few days ago, there were bees and terracotta butterflies in my garden, blackbirds and little birds in the thorn tree singing. Such commonplace beauty. So needed in viral isolation imposed to fight a killer that our continuing abuse created. You will probably, need to read this collection in sections. The tragedy they bring the reader to feel, the anger, sadness and guilt they induce would be overwhelming if you read the complete collection in one go. But read it you should. When we finally emerge from our current crisis we will need to question everything about how we have lived and find new routes to our own happiness and security. “Endlings” should be essential reading in that desperate rethinking of ourselves. We should be glad this poet had the sensitivity to examine the world of the Carrier Pidgeon or an earwig!
Joanna grew up in England and has lived in the Yukon, Canada since 2006. She has an MLitt in creative writing from the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, is a Humber School for Writers graduate and helped to set up the Yukon Writers' Collective. Her first poetry collection, 'The Fleece Era', was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Her novel, 'Worry Stones', was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Her poems and stories have been published in Canada, the US and the UK.
“Endlings” is published by Turnstone Press and is available in the UK in print and Kindle Edition Her previous books are also available.
The Fleece Era (Brick Books)
The Birthday Books (Hagios Press) Stories
If There Were Roads (Turnstone Press)
Worry Stones (Ronsdale Press) Novel
Endlings (Turnstone Press, 2020)
PORTSMOUTH POETRY WILL [HOPEFULLY] BE HOSTING POETRY WORKSHOPS AND READINGS FEATURING JOANNA LILLEY, MAGGIE SAWKINS, EMILY PRIEST AND TESSA FOLEY AT PORTSMOUTH GUILDHALL ON JULY 11th
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Is a freelance writer, consultant and stand-up poet
She has a BA in Creative and Media Writing
Emily lives in Portsmouth
You can catch her @ http://emilythewriter.co.uk
Emily Priest – Nicotine and Napalm
Emily Priest is one of the most exciting new poets I have encountered.
Poetry is a condensed communication. Poets say things in a few lines where other writers take chapters, even hundreds of pages to say. The mechanisms poets use to do this are designed for brevity. But this makes reading poetry difficult. The intensity of poetry makes it hard to consume in large batches, the literary equivalent of over eating a rich meal.
I read poetry constantly but I can rarely read more than a few at a time before I am overwhelmed even with poets I know and love. So ‘Nicotine and Napalm’, the first collection by local ‘stand-up’ poet and writer Emily Priest, is a unique experience.
Last year, Portsmouth Poetry co-curated the headline event of Portsmouth Festivities, “20 Love” marking the twentieth anniversary of the founding of this annual 10 day arts event. Poets were invited to produce and perform works inspired by each of the poems in Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair”. We were commissioned to find two rising poets on the stand-up circuit. I almost despaired finding a young writer locally when I discovered Emily. Not only is she a talented poet, her work is similar in style and content to Neruda.
And she can perform. Video clips of her reading her work are breath-taking in their passion and crafting. Around the time she was involved in ’20 Love’ in June 2019, Emily published this first collection in print.
I took a copy with me on a train journey expecting only to start reading it. I began late on a cold November night coming home from the annual memorial for Dylan Thomas at Westminster Abbey.
But this time it was not just a handful of poems! Captured from the first pages, I read slowly and intently through to the end and I was genuinely blown away! I knew Emily was talented but was not prepared for how amazing this collection is!
Nicotine and Napalm chronicles the path of a doomed relationship from its initial intensity, its growing frustrations and disappointments, through break-down and break-up, the nagging aftermath, to its final resolution.
It is an account of the passion, joy, disappointment and
re-growth that leads to a new strength.
It is frank and honest, sometimes painfully so, sometimes explicit in its openness. Few women write about the exhilaration and despair of love, emotional and physical, with such clarity and intensity. The parallel with Sylvia Plath may sound exaggerated but it fits. Few poets of any gender dare to be so honest, to be prepared to investigate and lay bare what it means to love, to struggle with love that is not equally and fairly reciprocated, to admit to the page the short-comings and disintegration, the delicate and needy aftermath before the growth that is the positive result of pain.
The final poems are in contrast to the doomed trust and dependency of the failed love. They include stunning statements of female empowerment and courage. (I am reticent to call them ‘feminist’ only because too often such writing is more polemic than poetic.) They are determined, angry poems from someone who has found strength through heartache without letting it deter her from loving.
I would encourage you to read these poems and to read them in a single sitting so that you follow the path of the poet’s growth and the narrative that connects them. It is a work all women would understand and identify with. A collection you would want to give to your daughters before they plunged into the maelstrom of love, sex and relationships. And, like Plath, it is a work all men would benefit from reading!
Josh Brown Copyright 2020
Nicotine and Napalm is available to buy on Amazon at
or contact Emily through her website
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