Publication: 15 May 2023
In this collection, Neetha Kunaratnam interrogates his experience of being Asian in a Caucasian context, and that of his children growing up with dual 'Cauc/asian’ heritage. There are poems here that consider the links between colonialism, plunder and ecological collapse, while others ponder the ethics of killing a mosquito or the status of a ‘B&Q Buddha’, all as attentive to the world’s minutiae as to the global challenges we face.
(dead white men)
Who commodified the body, and ratified its currency,
ditching slavery when the profits stymied.
Who preached autonomy for the noblesse only,
with clean-ups and climbdowns rife in the colonies.
Who cautioned their daughters about eugenics,
but still desired the exotic, who sired secret bastards away
from sorry spouses, shunned the swarthy
progeny, and spurned the surrogate mothers.
Who drew borders with rulers, straight and crooked.
Who aspired to be sun-kissed but perplexed, turned grey.
Who morphed into matriarchs, squirming in bodices,
like mistresses of phallic philosophies.
Who’ve evolved into lords with jaundiced tans,
who covet silver spoons and bleach their teeth.
Who sip at cocktails, demanding punctual sunsets
and bucolic vistas cleansed of refugee tents.
Who delegate nurture to nannies, presence to pacifiers,
day-care to dummies, and sell their sperm for cash.
Whose henchmen serve as caddies,
manicuring lawns, muzzle-bound, smiles still intact.
Who lounge in the crisis of the overheating sun,
as sprinklers kiss their grass iridescent.
Who nuke the bindweed’s white flower trumpets,
as their tired, old tongues are devoured by wasps.
Who wind up the crowd until it heaves and breaks.
Who bristle in their graves, denouncing snowflakes.
“A powerful and formally dextrous collection in which the climate emergency, the violence of borders, everyday family life and the political tumult of the past few years are held up to Neetha’s brilliant and incisive eye. A state-of-the-nation, or possibly state-of-the-world book!”—Andrew McMillan
“These poems are indignant, sometimes point-blank, dissilient – though never dishevelled. Neetha Kunaratnam writes mordantly about racism and ecological disaster: creativity abounds, and resilience too.” —Vidyan Ravinthiran
“In Cauc/asian, Neetha Kunaratnam intelligently dissects ‘this England of unkindness,’ exploring the relationship between the big calls and their impact on everyday lives. He holds up familial love against the bigotry of Brexit, care for a daughter against a world of masculine aggression. These formally and linguistically elegant, even playful poems, offer great emotional power, and have much to say about the future of our environment. Like the bird that fights its own reflection in one poem, the world this collection gives us is often at war with itself, but Kunaratnam’s wisdom offers us a path of love and care, to lead us through the chaos.” —Jonathan Edwards
Cauc/asian by Neetha Kunaratnam
This book belongs to…
A & E, NHS
The pushy drunk is hounding reception.
Shielded from exposure
to his blinding invective,
a nurse ushers us to an annexe
of the children’s ward,
and cordons it off
like a panic room.
Fear is a fast contagion.
But sealed within,
they deem us immune,
as his f-words filter through
their threat of infection.
Yet the longer we fester
in this sterile sanctum,
the more our crumpled states
seem fit for quarantine,
if merely to judge from
the gaunt mother
stealing shut eye
when her baby
or the shell-shocked couple
who mutter, tracing
their evening back
to breaking point.
And we are no different:
anxious parents bound to protocol,
here as a precaution, still
flummoxed that fever could
make Amber convulse and jolt.
Minutes grind by.
The toy box harbours mould,
so we home in on the crate of books.
With the flannel still damp on her brow,
we choose, from the tatty pile,
a Ladybird guide to The Marine Life.
‘There are many creatures in the sea’ I begin.
And whispering the rest, I feel submerged by
these sleepless fates, here in the depths of 3am.
She seems more herself, love.
Maybe call it a night?
Roused, then, from cabin fever,
I skim over the narrative
of the ocean’s pageantry,
and make believe to Amber
that we’re divers who must venture
through the maze of white walls
beyond this submarine’s confines.
Prepped for all predators,
guarding her in my grasp,
I hurtle toward the exit,
with heat-seeking fists
and elbows like harpoons.
And in my periphery I glimpse
this washed-up Kraken:
his stitched-up brow
and gauze-spun scalp;
and the burst capillaries
of his nasal flesh,
as he stirs himself one last time
to repel the policemen
in their luminous scales
of high-vis scotchlite.
And as his adrenaline wanes,
he shrinks in shame,
his ego a bruised fish,
hung by the hook
that pierces its lip.
His whole frame heaves,
as if the boy within has sunk.
And his handcuffs clunk
like an anchor wedged
to the blue plastic seat.
Neetha Kunaratnam was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for 2007. He gained an MA in Creative Writing in 2008 from Royal Holloway, studying under Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott. His work appears in the anthologies Off the Shelf, (Picador, 2016) and Out of Sri Lanka (Bloodaxe, 2023). His first collection Just Because (Smokestack Books) was highly commended in the 2019 Forward Prizes and he features in The Forward Prizes Poems of the Decade 2011-20. He is a teacher and lives in East Sussex with his wife and two daughters.