From the jacket inwards, Priscila Uppal, a Canadian of South Asian descent, fires her mantra for this collection in sharp nails on a very tall mast. Rightly thanking Neil Astley “for the wizardry he does on behalf of poetry”, any reader will acknowledge that he has chosen a brave, inspired and distinctive voice in Uppal. Her aim in Sabotage is to explore “private and public acts of destruction, disruption and vandalism in the 21st century […] several vital sites are under attack or at risk: [not least]the human body.” Every poem here fulfils her manifesto.
Whilst it is always unwise to assume that poems are wholly or even partly autobiographical, there are certainly times when Uppal invites that. “To my Suicidal Husband” arguably dances a very dangerous game with the reader, using as it does the poet’s own first name. Hers is a complex life, crossing continents, and struggling with bereavements and a personal experience of cancer. While a detailed life analysis is not the function of this review, any reader of Sabotage would be well-advised to do some cursory background study in order to peel layers from this very densely-packed verse.
Divided into seven sections, the first “Accusations” opens with a powerful, eponymous poem – a tightly-controlled, ever-escalating volley of fury, which is a hallmark of the entire collection. The first poem in this section, much like the last, ends on a final line with an uncomfortable image of the sun. There are surreal, almost hallucinatory, qualities in much of this verse, which is kept from meandering by the poet’s sharp enjoyment of sound. She makes tight use of all kinds of rhyme, relishes stark and surprising comparisons and references and fashions some very creative couplings and apparent non-sequiturs. She is so very gutsy in her outrage –
And you may likely have been harmed by more than one
perpetrator. By someone you know. Add your name
to existing lists. William Shakespeare just eked past
Pablo Picasso and the Sex Pistols […]
If my reaction on first reading was that there was too much anger here and too many targets, undoubtedly one of the pacing and sustaining factors for the reader (and I suspect the poet) is her finely calibrated wit. Consider the excellent section “Riddles” where Uppal reworks the accepted solutions to some Anglo-Saxon classics as prose poetry, and gives both the original and her contemporary answer. Clever, and a lot of fun. The trippy, quirky and the quippy punctuate and give grace to a potential subject-weariness the poet herself identifies by page 7 in “Compassion Fatigue”.
One of this collection’s great pleasures is Uppal’s versatility with form – traditional stanzaic forms, couplets, monostichs, and one very fine concrete poem (with shades of e.e.cummings) in “Swan”.
Sabotage fizzes with energy, but yes, the universality of the targets is problematic, and sometimes the poet just avoids the wire of her own linguistic cleverness.
Do you love sonnets?
I love line-ups.
Do you love film reels?
I love vertigo.
Uppal has picked some highly deserving targets – politics, attitudes to physical and mental illness, body image issues, social media, organized religion and flurries of off-beat cases. Arguably, it might be easier to line up those not targeted.
Bludgeon the canvas.
Bleach the paper.
Blind the cameras.
Buffet the bodies.
On winning the Griffin Prize, the judges described Uppal as “a political poet who sounds like no other political poet, someone bound to get into trouble in every political system in the world.”
This is a dare-devil ride, but I have less faith than Burnside and his co-judges that our leaders read. I understand poetry enough to know its dangers. Would that they did. They might start here.