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Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves

Written by Jim Mainland for New Shetlander on no date provided

Last year Raman Mundair visited Brae and entranced our fifth year. Afterwards, one student said that what had him most about the performance was her 'openness'. That openess, that candour, is, I think, what binds this absorbing collection together. It is a quality not always found in modern poetry - or at least not when written by white males. Raman is not afraid to tackle issues head-on, whether exploring tangled intimacy, crises of identity, a woman's right to express herself in her terms, or racism in its various sordid manifestations. all theses themes, and more, are explored with a characteristically unflinching gaze.

The collection is divided into four sections of the title, but - and this is another feature of her work - you never get quite what you might expect. For example, 'Lovers' is ironic: the poems here are of love gone awry, of love as violence, of love wounded and wounding. 'The Folds of My Mother's Sari', struggles to survive in the succeeding poems, but is redeemed in the slow beauty of 'Mysore Sunset', which concludes this section.

The poems in 'Liars' are tautly observed, and their conflicts subtly established. Here, truth and desire are threatened by exclusion, presumption and prejudice. the filmic quartet 'Close Encounters', and other poems in this section, are as honest and as compulsively readable as anything in Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters. 'The Catch', an exuberant and mischeivious poem, prepares us for the next section, 'Conjurers', which luxuriates in transformation and moments of realisation. In 'Thieves' we return, mostly to stolen lives and futures, and twarted opportunities, before the closing poem 'Last Night a Poem Saved my Life' celebrates poetic rescue, if only temporarily.

The poem in memory of Ricky Reel and Stephen Lawrence, both murdered by racist thugs, 'An Elegy for Two Boys', is in this section. I have been electrified by Raman's performance of it three times, and on each occasion I was moved by the closing lines, where first Ricky's mother speaks in Punjabi, and then Stephen's father, in Jamaican English: desolation followed by a kind of trusting disbelief.

If these are fragile voices, then Raman goes some way to restoring their dignity and strength, not just in this poem, but throughout the book. The minority voice, the dissenting tongue is strong in her poetry, and it is strengthened by a kind of oblique purchase on the second language which is, rightly, at odds with what might have been termed 'pure' lyricism. This is a quality I have detected in writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad. Iain Crichton Smith and Charles Simic - where unexpectedly conjoined elements and an emphasis on concrete imagery, rattle your expectations and summons attention. these are not poems intended to lull you with a false beauty - they are proud of their differentness, and many are jeweled by borrowings from other languages - hindi, urdu, Punjabi - and other cultural, religious and mythical allusions - not for ornamentation, but to remind us that this mix is now part of 'our' culture and heritage, too. And it goes without saying that it is also a predominantly female voice, and a spoken one.

In a splendid poem of misplaced identity, 'Refractions', the speaker asks:

How do you speak
where there are no imagesĀ 
of self to claim?

The poetry in this collection is a triumphant riposte to that question.

This is a review of Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves

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