New Review of The Immigration Handbook

Thank you ‘K’ so much for your thoughtful review of ‘The Immigration Handbook’ for Barham Library Book Group.The Immigration Handbook – K’s review

K’s Review – Jan 2019

I’ve never been big on reading for pleasure. Poems have been an exception, as they are usually short enough to read and be done with in short blocks of downtime. I mostly read from anthologies because an editorial team has done the hard work of uncovering the gems within their covers. I am currently most interested in contemporary world poetry(in English translation) for its alternative perspective on today’s world and its usually accessible language.

So these were the mixed prejudices/preconceived ideas that I brought to my reading of Caroline Smith’s ”The Immigration Handbook”. On the plus side, the poems were short, the book was small, and the poetry was contemporary. On the downside, the poems were all by one author who, I learnt from the back cover, appeared to be a sculptor earning a living by other means and writing poetry as a hobby. I was also doubtful about the subject of the book – a whole book of poems about immigration by a single author could surely be rather dull. Would not a more interesting prospect be a book of poems by the immigrants themselves? But hey, the poems were short. If I didn’t get into them, I didn’t feel obliged to read them all.

Wow! Wow! Wow! I was captivated from the first phrase of the first poem. And my captivity continued to the last phrase of the last poem. I read the whole collection in a few days, but it will certainly be a book that I keep and reread.

On Hold [p9]:

” He was just twenty-three,

Arjan Mehta, when first he began

calling the Home Office

from a red phone box

on the corner of Preston Road;

…”

Stamps [p69]:

”…

We wanted the ones

that had made the journey

that bore the marks of their struggle.”

This is the essence of the book: journeys and struggles. Caroline’s poems are the stories of the people in our neighbourhood; stories told from many perspectives (asylum seekers, judges, case workers, clerks ..)

I found the experience of reading the book akin to flicking through an album of snapshots; on nearly every page, my eye alighted on something to capture my imagination. And when I got to the end, I wanted to flick through it again. Each time I revisited it, I uncovered some new treasure I hadn’t noticed before.

I enjoyed the way Caroline uses simile [if that’s the correct technical term?] to move a story from a harsh present reality to evoke a distant memory and vice versa. I was surprised and delighted by the unusual and carefully chosen similes. For example, in Domestic Worker [p47], ” rhubarb erupt[s] through the bare spring garden like a miniature rainforest” in the poem’s opening phrase and the poem journeys back to the departure of the Domestic Worker from the ”depleted rainforest” of her origins.

When I reached the poems Pro Bono 1 and Pro Bono 2 [pages 32 and 33], the insight struck me that Caroline’s gift for words has likely been honed over her many years as an asylum case worker; and not only her gift for words, but a gift for understanding what is in other people’s souls – their memories, the paths they have travelled, their dreamings and imaginings. How essential such gifts must be in this employ.

In conclusion, I found this a rewarding book that I would highly recommend anyone from Wembley to the world to read.

P.S I have since discovered that Caroline Smith’s poems are included in contemporary anthologies, so she’s on my reading list already!

From Baroness Sally Hamwee

It was lovely to receive this unexpected endorsement from Baroness Sally Hamwee who is spokesperson on Home Affairs in the Lords:

‘Thank you for your poems. A friend gave me your Immigration Handbook, and the other night I read Dr Gopal at a local group. They laughed at the image of the aubergine turned old overnight, which gave the ending even more impact. The whole body of work is a wonderful reminder that each person caught up in the system is an individual, not just one of a group to be lumped together (though I guess each of the subjects stands proxy for many others).

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

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