Nagra makes a number of references to English poetry in his poem, elbowing an immigrant voice into those poetic traditions with a sense of humour. The title echoes DH Lawrence’s Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) and WH Auden’s Look, Stranger! (1936), while he directly quotes from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ (1867) at the opening. Arnold’s poem, which can be read here, presents the cliffs of Dover as ‘Glimmering and vast’, facing the constant waves and tides of change. For Arnold in the nineteenth century, that change was the receding importance of religion; for Nagra in the twenty first century, it is the changes brought by immigration. He looks back to first generation immigrants, like his own parents who came to England from Punjab, and the title comically reflects the uncertain English grammar of their speech.
While the shape of each stanza, with its gradually increasing line lengths, could be said to mimic the shape and action of waves, the language employed by Nagra consistently debunks poetic tradition, using colloquialisms and bathos to tug away at pretension. The beautiful calm moonlit sea of ‘Dover Beach’ becomes, in Nagra’s poem, a sea where ‘gobfuls of surf’ are ‘phlegmed’ under the ‘lash of a diesel-breeze’. Arnold’s ‘Glimmering and vast’ cliffs are now a ‘vast crumble of scummed/ cliffs’, as he presents a contemporary realist view of Dover rather than an idealised and romanticised portrayal. The weather too, ‘tranquil’ in Arnold’s poem, is appalling, as ‘thunder unbladders/ yobbish rain’, an amusingly elegant version of ‘it’s pissing down’. There is no sense of glorious Motherland for these immigrants on their arrival in England and their journey onward, ‘hutched in a Bedford van’, suggests that they are packed in like animals.
The poem also hints at the hostility faced by immigrants into Britain, using the verb ‘invade’ in the first line, referring to ‘stabs in the back’ and describing the immigrants derogatorily as ‘Swarms of us’, employing the xenophobic vocabulary that Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised for using twelve years after the poem was published. Life is also consistently difficult for the immigrants, apparent even from their arrival, where they endure the punishing ‘lash’ of wind while ‘tourists’ are ‘cushy’ and are imperially powerful, ‘lording the ministered waves.’ As they make their lives in England over ‘Seasons or years’, the immigrants try to be inconspicuous, ‘unclocked by the national eye’. Life is tough, they are ‘burdened’, but ultimately they can also be ‘ennobled’ and pass on bright ‘sparks’ between each other. The word ‘grafting’ is also significant, as a horticultural metaphor – it is the joining together of two different plants, and the idea of skin grafts carries the same idea, transferring skin from one place to grow in another. In both cases, the two sustain each other and become one, a much more optimistic view of immigration than invaders who arrive in ‘camouflage’. That optimism is also created by the reference to the ‘miracle of sun –/ span its rainbow, passport us to life.’
Arnold is in focus again at the poem’s ending, with ‘my love and I’, directly echoing the address to his ‘love’ in ‘Dover Beach’, while the apostrophes for omitted ‘e’ are another arch imitation of poetic tradition, though not used in Arnold’s poem. At the end ‘we raise our charged glasses’ in a clear signal of celebration, and Nagra makes a direct comment on language. In disparaging terminology ironically borrowed from critics of immigration, he refers to the immigrants ‘babbling our lingoes’, but acknowledges that their speech is affected by their new environment; it is ‘flecked by the chalk of Britannia!’ It is a return to the idea of grafting, evident in the immigrants’ speech. The poem’s language, though, is rather more than ‘flecked’– despite the mocking Punglish of the title, the lexis of the poem is utterly English in its colloquialisms and its references.
Watch Daljit Nagra read his poem here: