Review: Simple But Potent

Published in Solidarity 536, 26 February 2020

I continue to enjoy Janine Booth’s poetry for its humanity. Her latest collection Fighting Tories: The Force Awakens develops compelling political ideas out of personal experiences and observations.

Janine is good at moving from the specific to the abstract and can make a political point without losing her audience or becoming too didactic.

This Place is a great example. Drawing on Janine’s visits to one of her sons in hospital, it is both moving on a personal level and an understated but blistering attack on the lack of support over-stretched councils and the NHS are providing. A couple of lines towards the end put the point plainly and personally in a way that seems absolutely withering to me.

Other poems draw out discussions and arguments on the left. Rootless Cosmopolitan begins with the life of Janine’s great grandfather Edward, “stitching boots / digging roots” and rises to a defence of all who have “travelled…can’t be trusted”, who “don’t count as a native / mixed-up, exotic / not so patriotic”.

Again, by rooting the poem in personal experience, this writing bring lofty and evasive arguments about who belongs back to the lives of real people. Labour Heartlands follows some of the same concerns about our labour movement developing a false opposition between progressive politics and working-class votes.

A Tale of Two Cities, written in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, exemplifies one of the themes running through the book.

Several poems are concerned with the victims and survivors of austerity. Simple, but potent, lines like “People die like this / when people live like this” pull a long poem, covering many examples of inhumanity, greed and inequality, into sharp political focus.

Hackney Gardens mourns the cutting of public services in a similar vein and Unlucky Number rages against the increasingly small number of rich people whose wealth is greater than the poorest half of the population. I really enjoyed Not OK, taking to task a poster that reads “It’s OK to not be OK” and arguing that lots of people not being OK is symptomatic of a much wider problem with “those who rule us and could not care less”.

Janine seems to enjoy exploring quite rigid forms and seeing what she can get out of them. Fighting Tories features several pantoums, where some lines are repeated in subsequent verses, but in different orders. Janine manages to create different effects out of this repetitive device.

Planet Pantoum evokes feelings of repeating slogans in the climate movement that fall on the deaf ears of politicians and capitalists whose short-term interests don’t align with saving the planet. The poem resolves itself in a final, angry “We need a revolution / Bring the City to a standstill”.

This Place uses the form to create a feeling of wistfulness, even a hint of mourning and a sense of family life having been paused in a way that is cruel and preventable.

Fighting Tories is touching, funny and stokes a feeling of justified rage at the government, the rich, and their assault on our society.

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