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John Siddique

The Poet

Why

Because we love it. Because we hate it. Because it
is Northern. Because it is Southern. Because this is
England. Because of the sea at our edges.
Because we live here. Because we were born here.
Because of habit. Because of the myth of returning.
Because we don’t want to be here.
Because there is nowhere else. Because we came
here as a child. Because it is cheap/friendly
familiar/true/known. Because of the lights.
Because of the sex. Because of the pubs. Because
of the nights. Because you have to live somewhere.
Because of love. Because it holds our secrets.
Because this is what we know. Because people
talk to you. Because the sun manages to shine.

From: Full Blood, Salt 2011

British poet John Siddique is an ardent student of human nature. As his poem ‘Why’ suggests, he is interested in culture, nationalism and belonging, as well as human desire and the vagaries of how we choose to live. The repetition of ‘because’ emphasizes Siddique’s preoccupation with unravelling the reasons for particular human behaviours, whether that includes the malice of racism, the denial of adulterers, or the deep-seated bonds of family – both blood and adopted ties. Though Siddique grew up in Rochdale in the English North, his parents were immigrant workers who came to Britain to find work during the late 1950s. His mother, Norah O’ Neill, was Irish, and his father, Mohammed Siddique, was from India and later returned to Pakistan when Siddqiue was a boy. Writing about his family in the anthology Four Fathers, Siddique describes his father as ‘a handsome Indian man who liked taking photos’ and his mother as ‘a girl who had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary during an air raid when she was eight years old’ (Four Fathers, Route 2006). As a result of his family background, Siddique is particularly interested in writing about people and characters that do not fit into the white, Anglo-Saxon identity that has sometimes dominated British subjectivity. He is also especially perceptive in analyzing the assumptions and prejudices of the British: the tendency to favour the known and familiar over the strange or the unknown, as is clear in ‘Why’.  

 

The Books

Siddique has four collections of poetry: The Prize (Rialto 2005), Poems from a Northern Soul (Crocus 2007), Almanac (Salt 2009), and Full Blood (Salt 2011), as well as a collection of poetry for children: Don’t Wear it On Your Head, Don’t Stick it in your Pants (Peepal Tree Press, 2007). He has also written poetry and non-fiction for a variety of literary magazines and anthologies. He was nominated for the Forward Prize in 2005 and was on the shortlist for the CLPE (Center for Literacy in Primary Education) Poetry Award in 2007. He contributed to the anthology of memoirs Four Fathers (Route 2006).

Books link to their Amazon page.

 

The Poetry

Looking back on his childhood, Siddique has commented on the difficulty of that upbringing as a non-white subject growing up in a working class town in the North of England. A sense of not quite fitting in is obvious in much of Siddique’s poetry, but it is especially poignant in his poems about growing up. ‘John Street’ from the sequence ‘The Knife,’ told by a non-white narrator, emphasizes the culture of fear and intimidation instigated by members of the British ultra-rightwing movement, the National Front. Effectively using the line breaks, short sentences and punctuation to convey the tension, Siddique emphasizes the brutality of the neo-Nazis without using overblown language or sentiment:

 

John Street

There was no one behind me when I left
the bus station. A warm September night,
drawn with lights from Lennon’s supermarket
at the top of the hill, the overgrown garden
of St James’ Church lies ahead with its secrets.
I know they are behind me. I can feel them
in the deeper layers of my skin, I am for it
if I try to run. A laugh, a response,
paki bastard said low, two or three of them.

They are faster than me, they are gaining,
trying to look bigger, taller, maybe I can
run once I hit the corner near the church.
Twenty yards, three of them. The enough
in me moves my hand to my pocket,
perhaps if they see the knife they’ll think again.
Flick and it is open, the orange reflection
of street lamps on its blade. I put the open
knife into my pocket, shift my hand
to my best grip, they are around me.

It begins with a question, have you got the time?
No breath, I am hot water, scorched mouth.
They are in full regalia, red boots and green jackets,
shaven heads make them look animal.
The main one speaks, the others go to back up mode,
you paki cunt, his Adam’s apple bobbles,
a bubble of spit on his bottom lip,
I know you have a knife, I’ll take it off you
and shove it up your arse. He’s as skinny as fuck,
wiry, a gold earring in his left ear.
The other two are shadow at the edge
of wet fear. I am small and dirty in my skin,
expecting a fist to my head. Cunt
- a breath of beer. If I see you you’re dead.
They walk off laughing in the direction
I want to go in, I am static amongst
the tufts of grass that have grown on soil,
that was turned too long ago, left littered
with half bricks and steel mesh.

From: Full Blood, Salt 2011

‘John Street’ ends with the narrator made foreign in his own hometown by the neo-Nazi’s hate speech. He feels ‘dirty’ in his own skin and the urban detritus of scrub grass and rubbish becomes an objective correlative for how he regards himself after such an incident. In this case, it is racism that excludes the narrator, but there are many types of outsiders in Siddique’s poems. In another poem based in the English North, Siddique describes an interruption to the flow of traffic through the Calder Valley, and the obstruction turns out to be not a broken-down car, but a person who has crashed emotionally.

 

One Monday Afternoon in Mytholmroyd

You can’t see what is down the road from behind
the wheel in a line of traffic. There are always
roadworks up ahead on this single road to take you
through the hills of the Calder Valley. One road in,
           
one road out is what they say around here.
The horns begin tooting like the rising expectation
of a football match – punctuated by shouts
between blasts, yells of ecstasy or fury.

Twenty minutes and no movement, a crowd
has left their cars and are clustered around
a small silver one – someone has died at the wheel
and everyone has cursed them for holding them up
on the journey home, shame and guilt upon us.

But no one has died, I walk the line of cars
expecting to see someone trying to give kisses of life.
We stand silent, there is a blonde woman
at the wheel, the cars hazards blinking seconds,
she is in her late forties, she looks tired,
her hair is too brassy, she has simply
come to a stop on the road.

No movement, no indication of anything
in her face. She could be a mannequin placed
in a car as a practical joke – we don’t know what to do,
no use banging her window or shouting.

From: Full Blood, Salt 2011

Emphasising the callousness of human nature – the lack of concern for the woman’s wellbeing from busy motorists, Siddique’s tone is sympathetic to the figure frozen at the wheel. The end of the poem is almost tender, approaching the woman like pack of cards that might collapse at any moment, seeking some way to console her. Human frailty is something to be embraced in Siddique’s poems. Take for example, his poem ‘Adultery’ which describes two people fooling themselves that though they have not committed the treacherous act of betrayal, they are still faithful.

 

Adultery

Finally I reached across the table
to touch your face, the pads of my fingers
on your forehead first, drawing down near
the inner edge of your ear and under
to hold your chin, lifting your head slightly
as if I’m about to kiss you.

We are burning as if we are adulterers.
The table is between us to keep us apart.
I think if we are going to have to pay for this,
I want to have at least touched your skin.
We do not kiss, don’t go home, or make love,
we drink tea – green for you, regular black tea
for me. I eat, you say you can’t.

We are adulterers of talk and desire,
pretending that by not coming together
we are somehow still standing on the good side
of the line.

We sit amongst other lovers, no one knows
we are not supposed to be, say my name, you say,
and I say it. I want to show you so many things,
you say. It goes right into the place
I have covered up and armoured, to pretend
it no longer existed.

From: Full Blood, Salt 2011

Human folly is the subject of ‘Adultery,’ and it is both mourned and celebrated. The narrator of the poem is not a macho hero, but a sensitive, flawed human being whose emotional ‘armour’ can be pierced. The kind of masculinity portrayed in Siddique’s poems is especially interesting, because it refuses to portray men as all-powerful and always in control. Siddique’s vision of masculinity and especially men’s sexuality is Lawrencian, because like D.H. Lawrence, his frank, revelatory poems about heterosexual sex suggest that physical fulfilment is key to the recovery of human dignity and happiness.  There are echoes of Lawrence’s ‘Figs’ in Siddique’s ‘Sucking the Mango’ where sex and appetite overlap.

 

Sucking the Mango

Bare the mast,
press hard.

Be passionate while I’m half inside,

and suck and press and
raise your tongue.

The cool skin of the mango
opens into orange wetness.
The strange stone pushes
the softness back.

From: The Prize, Rialto, 2005

The reason why Siddique is such a good poet of love and sex is because his poems both celebrate the vitality of the sexual act and mourn the fact of its futility. This is the poignancy of Siddique’s poems: that while human beings are rewarded by the heart feeling of love, the pleasure of sex, such moments are all too fleeting and often ruined or obstructed by folly, idiocy, or human frailty. That life and people can be both beautiful and flawed is the subject of the poem, ‘Yes’.

 

Yes

Yes to the Martian canals that run the length of me. Yes to the frozen
lakes beneath my fields. Yes to yes. Yes to my atomic self. Yes to the
lover. Yes to the tarot card playing fool with poker face believing this
means something. Yes to stardust, I am fleshed by you. Yes to perspi-
ration, sweat, labour, working with my hands. Yes to the dancing self
that gets pissed and pisses in the long grass, writing its name with
hot splash. Yes I am the same dust as you. Yes to my soul. Yes to my
death, I hope I never loose sight of you. Yes to breathing which
makes my dust a body, so I can hate & cry & make love & fuck, fuck,
fuck. Yes to falling on the floor crying my heart out. Yes to having a
heart to cry. Yes to the hand that can write yes. Yes to yes.

From: The Prize, Rialto, 2005

The repeated ‘yes’ makes this poem an orgasmic celebration of life and all its moments – the sublime and the pathetic, the brave and the idiotic. As Siddique comments in his memoir in Four Fathers, what is most important is to remember:

New love doesn’t old fix things, family is never forgotten, and it doesn’t go away. All time does it put layers of life in between you and whoever and whatever it is. We learn perspective, distance, how to do things in new ways and how to place the ornaments we make of life in a kind of display case in our hearts.

From: Four Fathers, Route 2006

Siddique, of course, does not place the ornaments of his memories in a display case, but in his poems, and many of these relate to family. Siddique’s idea of family, however, is far from conventional. In Four Fathers, Siddique explains his view that though blood ties have often been given primacy, there is also a kind of soul family – those who belong even though they might not be related by blood. This view is exhibited in an especially moving poem, ‘Other People’s Children,’ where the narrator describes his relationship with his stepson.

 

Other People’s Children

He is eight and good at football. His mind
flits blacker and whiter than a magpie
from playstation to plastic sword, chocolate,
internet, to nothing to do, to slamming the ball.
He has a will of iron. Can bend his mother’s
and my love for him like plasticine;
when he wears his stick-on tattoos
in the same place on his shoulders as I have mine,
when he calls me ‘old chappy,’ as we scream
through the air as human aeroplanes.
I want so much to show him the world
I know, make it right for him.
Their Dad shows up every now and then,
it blows this family sideways, the guy ropes
twang off their pegs, until morning comes
and the wind dies down, and he goes off again.
I begin planting and parenting. Applying constancy
at the thin end of myself. But here is the boy
on a Saturday morning, next to me in bed,
hugging his mother and I together,
blowing at my chest hair.

From: Almanac, Salt 2009

Siddique presents an intimate portrait of a father and son, who whilst not tied by blood, have a bond of what Siddique would call the ‘soul’. The picture is one of everyday intimacy and the masculinity of the father is sensitive, responsive and delicate. The family described is not an easily defined entity, but a work in progress which can be diminished or strengthened depending on the attitude of the parent. The narrator is not a perfect father, but a flawed human being like the woman in the car in ‘One Afternoon in Mytholmroyd’ or the would-be lovers in ‘Adultery.’ As Siddique points out in Four Fathers, being the member of a family is natural, but it takes work and effort:            

Just by living we gather family. It’s a natural function of life. All we can do is love them as best we can. And if we’re lucky, brave or daft enough we can keep them in our lives as we try to understand what blood means, what soul means and what family means.

From: Four Fathers, Route 2006

Blood, soul and family mingle in Siddique’s poems, which turn a precise eye on the beauty and folly of human beings, the heights of our achievements and the poignancy of our failures. Such extremes are celebrated and mourned, but most of all, these poems echo with laughter at how human beings make the same mistakes over and over again, and savour the same pleasures, heart-pain, love. 


Zoë Brigley

Please click for Angela Topping's interview with John Siddique.