Review of The Immigration Handbook

Thank you Emma Lee for the Review

Review by Emma Lee

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Caroline Smith has drawn on her experience as an asylum caseworker for an MP for her second collection of poems, exploring migration through the lens of bureaucracy. It’s a timely reminder of the barriers and labyrinthine hurdles those seeking asylum have to bend through and also of the inhumane delays the system has built in. The opening poem “On Hold” has the epigram, ‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application.’ It concerns Arjan Mehta who was aged 23 at the start of his application,

He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.

The two lines just before the quoted section, “Seventeen years have passed/ with no answer” I didn’t feel were necessary. The gap between the ages of 23 and 40 is more telling: it’s the gap when careers are established and families started. It’s the bureaucratic denial of humanity, leaving a man in limbo: without an answer, he can’t work (legally), if he starts a family, he does so with the risk of separation. Picking up this theme again, “Delay” is a Home Office letter (any identifying details redacted) with the line “I apologise for the delay in processing your clients application.” – the apostrophe is missing in the original. The letter is dated 2015 and refers to an application made in 2006. It goes on to inform the recipient that due to the delay, her client will have to resubmit the form which is now out of date. The correct form is not sent with the letter but the client is directed to the website (without a direct link to the required form) where she will have to find the form, download, i.e. print it, complete it (again) and send it in a provided envelope at her own expense even though she was not responsible for the delay. The provided envelope doesn’t even have prepaid postage.

The inflexibility of forms and their inability to give space to describe lives is explored in “Fault Lines” which asks how two parents would know

That there would be nowhere on the form to explain
why they had to move to Swaziland
and register his birth at the Portuguese Consulate
in his father’s name and when the work permit
ran out, no choice but to go back,
a mixed race couple to South Africa
where his mother would give him her name
and an Identity card where ‘Father’
was left blank.

Forms are only part of the process. There’s also the “Asylum Interview” where “she says only what will help her case.” The interviewer notes she says she has a cold.

He fires questions at her in bursts.
His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame
beating yolk orange like a fontanel.
He has realised the truth
but doesn’t correct his notes –
raped by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army:
her immune system has been shot through,
her CD4 count a mere six cells.

The need to establish the entitlement to asylum is done so without regard for the affect on the asylum seeker of describing their experiences and traumas or the stigma and shame felt. The interviewers can only record what the interviewee says, not what is implied or evident from observation. So the interviewer cannot record she has a badly compromised immune system or that she has been raped, unless she actually puts those things into words. When a language barrier is reinforced with the barriers of shame and stigma, a genuine asylum-seeker may be refused simply because of lack of humane support through the claim process.

Caroline Smith’s strength is in presenting facts, not guiding the reader to think in a certain way. She reveals the processes and leaves readers to decide whether they are fair or not. She doesn’t shy away from difficult cases either. It isn’t widely known that child refugees whose applications are accepted have to re-apply as adults when they turn 18, and can find their applications declined even though they were accepted as children. In “Teenager” a boy was imprisoned after committing a burglary and is now facing release.

They told him he was now
nineteen and no longer a child
and would be deported with £46.
They asked him which airport
he wanted to go back to
but he didn’t know
what ones there were.
He’d left when he was seven.

This arbitrary separation of adult and child identities and bureaucratic rules dictating that the adult is regarded as a separate being from the former child, creates injustice.

Caroline Smith doesn’t just look at recently arrived refugees, “Dr Gopal” goes to empty a kitchen bin and discovers “a sudden frost – like the awe of/ seeing her first snowfall in England./ An aubergine had turned old overnight/ a shock of white hair standing straight up/ on a wizened purple-brown head.” It reminds her of dolls she played with at her first English school which leads her into remembering her grandmother making a secret family of paper dolls,

But Mama had found the box and burnt them.
She didn’t blame her mother.
Now a senior consultant
She lived the model immigrant life –
with a beautiful house in a quiet street:
but she couldn’t stop
the tide of night terrors racing in,
prevent the silhouettes from
curling and peeling in the fires of Entebbe.

Entebbe is in Uganda and Gopal’s Asian name reveals her as a Ugandan Asian who had to flee after Idi Amin’s declaration in 1972. Even after working her way up to a senior position at work, she cannot leave her children terrors behind. In my review I have ordered the quoted poems into a narrative. In the collection, “Teenager” is much earlier, and the time lines don’t fall into a natural, narrative order. This is a successful approach because it mirrors the difficulties for refugees in telling their stories, the sloughing back and forth as they are twisted and bend through the claims process and the way that, for some, being able to shut away a memory until they are strong enough to deal with it, is an important part of recovery.

The final poem, “Stamps”, is about ignoring the pristine collectors’ sets in favour of the ones postmarked and steamed off their envelopes,

“We wanted the ones
that had made the journey,
that bore the marks of their struggle.”

The Immigration Handbook records the marks of refugees’ struggle filtered through the lens of bureaucracy. It shows the stories behind the numbers and reminds us that behind the statistics are humans.


Taken from the Emma Lee blog

My Reading Tour of the USA in pictures

Thank you to all my friends and colleagues for inviting me to read at these amazing venues.

First Stop Porter Square, Cambridge Mass                                          Second Stop Grolier, Cambridge Mass









Third Stop The Hudson Valley Writers’ Centre, New York                  Fourth Stop Barnard College, New York









Fifth Stop Red Bank Regional College








Sixth Stop Ann Arbor, University of Michigan



Final Stop Book Party, Ann Arbor, Michigan


Thank You Chris Kinsey for your Review in Planet

Review by Chris Kinsey, Planet

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Caroline Smith’s poems about people seeking asylum are astonishing. They’re as clear and precise as surgical scalpels. These poems, sterilised from despair and anger, do not seek to accuse or wound. They make incisions to implant empathy and compassion for refugees’ enduring loss, uncertainty and trauma and for some of the people ‘under siege from the urgency’ of administering their fate amidst a terrible backlog of applications. Smith has a remarkable talent for distilling physical experiences into imagery which resolve into unforced epiphanies about the way things are:

just as an early morning frost brings out
a previously invisible conspiracy of
white cobwebs connecting the grasses.

The changing and unexpected properties of paper recur as a powerful motif. In ‘Home Office Files’, ‘shreds of Mr Subramanian’s life, / his ten years waiting for a decision’. (He fled Vanni in a container ship lying beside his dead wife and child.) The narrator thinks of him as she feeds ‘a fist of papers to the shredder’:

They buckle rigid and erect
calcified into a frill of coral,
a corrugated shanty town roof.

These poems have the grace of non-judgmentalism and show varieties of vulnerable courage, as in ‘Asylum Interview’ where a man is interviewing a woman who was raped by soldiers:

His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame

How I did it. Essay for The Poetry School on being shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award

How I did it.

For me poetry and art are at the heart of life – a driving force – not a commentary upon it. I did not write ‘The Immigration Handbook’ to try to change immigration policy, I knew the climate of the immigration debate needed to change and as an artist I felt compelled to write these poems.

Working as an immigration caseworker for a Member of Parliament, I get the chance to see immigration from a multiplicity of angles and perspectives. In our surgeries I hear first-hand the despair and frustration of people trapped in the system, the victims of rule changes and bureaucratic mistakes, the prey of bogus lawyers. I also speak to the decision makers in the Home Office, the politicians who make the laws. I analyse the judgements and decisions from the Courts and Tribunals. The poems in ‘The Immigration Handbook’ work together to give a whole picture that reflects this multiplicity of perspectives.

To be asked to focus on one poem, is to look from one angle only so I have chosen ‘The Scarlet Lizard’ because it deals with a theme that is constant through the whole collection.

‘The Scarlet Lizard’ is about the importance of language in immigration law and in poetry. How words matter, how they can be critical in determining someone’s fate; whether they will be allowed to stay in this country or be deported to a country in which they fear torture and death. Convincing an Immigration Judge that a story is true and credible is everything – like Scheherazade, who I have referenced at the front of my book – a persuasive story can mean the difference between life and death.

In an earlier poem ‘Selection’ I concentrate on the opacity of the way the Home Office uses language; their deliberate obfuscation to disguise the true meaning of their words. They will ‘invite’ a failed asylum seeker to a ‘Service Event’: the soft, welcoming word ‘invitation’, the unthreatening activity of ‘service’, disguise a devastating decision to refuse and to detain and to deport. In another poem, ‘Asylum Interview’ I focus on the interviewer deliberately misinterpreting the answers given by the interviewee as to why she has claimed asylum. But I also show the way in which asylum seekers too will speak in set phrases that they have been instructed to use by their lawyers, because these words fit the rules and legal precedents for being granted asylum.

In ‘The Scarlet Lizard’ an immigration judge is dealing with all these layers of meaning; a professional, but in this quiet moment, overwhelmed by the immensity of his task to discern the truth in the thousands of cases he must read and judge and decide upon. He is conscious of the enormity of refusing someone and sending them back. He must be convinced, discern the credible through the layers of stories, both those presented and those concealed. He must weigh up accounts of asylum seekers whose first language is not English, who are afraid of the authorities, who have fled with no documents and are traumatised by the events that have happened to them, such that they cannot easily put them into words. In the poem, the immigration judge uses a poetic metaphor and looks to the similarity of the tools of poetry to pick out the truth;

‘He longed to see the quick movement of a scarlet lizard weaving unexpectedly through the parched, cracked hexagons of a legal phrase’,

He needs a clinching detail that can bring a story to life, a vivid observation, an unexpected element, an unpredictable turn in the story that doesn’t chart an obvious path to the longed for outcome. He looks to the power of language to convince and illuminate, to see the authentic within the lawyers’ legal speak used to frame a story within a Geneva Convention reason for a grant of asylum.

It took me about five years to write ‘The Immigration Handbook’ and I was still including poems up until the day before the proofs were being sent to print, driving my patient editor to distraction! I had however, been thinking about it for many years. The subject is so huge I found it hard to find a way in. I knew I didn’t want to write a polemic, I wanted it to be centred around the impact of the system on the people trapped in it and to create an emotional response in the reader in this way. Like the Immigration Judge in ‘The Scarlet Lizard’ to see the human beings behind the statistics and legal speak.

I finally found the key to writing ‘The Immigration Handbook’ through theatre. I happened to see a series of Shakespeare plays. I realised Shakespeare presents whole characters in dramatic tension with difficult decisions to make, in the most extreme and challenging situations. He presents boundary moments in people’s lives, the consequences of action and inaction, actors caught up in the ebb and flow of social currents and the contingencies of fate. But above all he does not judge his characters.

I originally trained as a sculptor and as soon as I began to see the poems as three dimensional and to withdraw myself, at the narrator from the poems, I felt they began to work. I remember when this first happened with one of the poems – I realised I had began to think as the character, to use metaphors that could be part of the character’s unconscious instead of my commentary on them.  I then saw how two dimensional some of my first poems had been and went back to them and rewrote them from within the character’s own perspective.

Although I don’t write in a conventional form. The structure of a poem is very important to me. My technique was honed by the discipline of writing thousands of letters to the Home Office over the past fifteen years. A turn of phrase, a report, situations of injustice and poignancy would jump out at me in my day to day work and gave me sparks of ideas. These fragments would sit in the background until there was something else to juxtapose against them. Being so immersed in the subject and carrying so many stories and incidents and letters around in my head – a portable and abstract version of my sculpture studio – meant unexpected images would come into my mind naturally because they were already part of my daily life.

In ‘The Immigration Handbook’ I have no interest in revealing the sensational; to record the horrific stories I hear and read on a daily basis. I wanted to use stripped back language, focus on the subtle and human detail, the different angle, contrast the official language of a report with the lyrical moment, like the immigration judge – look to the tools of poetry to convince the reader.