Sunday 7 January 2024

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Desire Lines" by Jess Mookherjee


In Desire Lines Jess Mookherjee leads you through city streets like Dickens on speed - the taxi driver warns ‘don’t you get smart green girl – like the hicks from the sticks / who in no time think London’s not so clever-clever.’ 

But this is more Angela Carter-esque – ‘Green Girl’ goes ‘Pitter- / patter down the Holloway in ruby slippers.’ She is told, ‘I’ll turn you / hoofer, prancer, get in with the chancers.’ She is ‘urchin, doxy. Cut purse, foot pad, felon, they’ll never / catch you alive on the run.’ She is street smart, always on her guard; a kerb crawler backs off when she ‘grins him down with the knife in her / smile,’ ‘She sees the nasty man off in the dark roads.’ 

Green girl is a shapeshifter, she is all and none of the characters who inhabit streets, ‘blind alleys and dead ends,’ ‘tributaries and deltas … tube lines and tunnels,’ the place where ‘canal joins slum/and cemetery.’ She is a nature spirit, ‘all the wells spring as she / runs step by step, Clerkenwell, Baggnigge Well … Sadlers Wells.’  She knows the ‘Green of London’s secret paths,’ calls ‘come with me to the forest.’ The city is a living being – like the London of Peter Ackroyd’s Biography, it is a palimpsest: ‘Stories bubble up from the old river, fleet foot, dam the river, curse the/ground.’  

The prose poetry in this collection is pitch-perfect, an exuberant chatter of language, as the poet herself explains, ‘notably Romani, Polari, Cant, Rhyming Slang, back slang, Victorian ‘Gobbledygook’ and other ‘anti-languages.’ Quotations and allusions to literature, poetry, fairy tales and nursery rhymes bump up against each other.     

Like the Booth maps of London, places and postcodes are defined by poverty and affluence; ‘on the eighteenth floor, SE18, Tanya’s got two kids, / at seventeen’ … ‘She knows who killed that black kid / in Eltham.’ In the Yuppie society of the eighties. debts to ‘gangster landlords’ grow, while home-owners are ‘Mortgaged up in the long game’ … ‘She moves her lips from Upton Park to six pound pints in Hackney Wick.’ This is a city of cappuccino, pasta, Young British Artists, ‘Imax, BFI, the embankment, and OXO tower, the Barbican and Lumier … and good restaurants.’

But it is also a city of ‘Benylin and acid,’ ‘Brit-pops and cider,’ rough pubs and drug deals on back streets. These are the modern precariat under a Hogarthian ‘gin-green sky.’ ‘People are Skint, even though they tell things can only get better.’ There are ‘Bombings, racists, anti gays, anti black.’ There are lost and unwanted babies, abandoned mothers, the shadow of Coram Fields: ‘He gets her a foetus, look after it for me, he says, and disappears.’ 

Personal incidents time check the narrative – a mugging in New Cross on the ‘day of the Twin Towers,’ a kiss ‘by the traffic lights on Fore Street’ … ‘The moon’s big / the night of Lady Di’s crash.’    

And there is the enigmatic ‘blue boy,’ ‘A lover she doesn’t think / he’s who he says he is,’ her own role ambivalent, ‘I’m not your absinthe mother, I’m not your absent mother.’  There is domesticity and aspiration. ‘She can’t afford a sofa in Habitat,’ but ‘He cooks her Sunday dinner after Sunday dinner. See what we’ve become / he says puts a computer on the landing, play house on / the fire escape.’  

In this new age of technology she finds ‘Family in India she never knew living on the inter- / net, her baba says, They’re strangers to you. you’re made of composite / mass movement and abrasion. Looks in the mirror to see/who she’s become.’

Recurrent themes run through the poems: metamorphosis, development, finding identity, finding where you belong, movement, restlessness, change: ‘you’ll never call this home you’ll be the never-be-loved.’… ‘She wants / to cross the river and go, he won’t go…’ She ‘packs the cat into flatpack,’ it is Time to Grow up tall as Canary Wharf.’

‘The city becomes one of ‘mixers, fixers and demol / ition, compulsory purchase orders.’ ‘The filchmen / knock Angel cottage down, oldest house in the East end, survived / the Blitz, it won’t win a medal in the next Olympics.’  She is wounded, like the city, ‘hobbled, ankles and hip broke, crushed under wrecking and knock / down’ and knows she must leave, ‘let the children / she never had go, where she wrote their names on London / roads.

‘The story is bigger / than her and flows despite her’ and she takes her London self ‘into the garden, to the orchards, to the deep deep green where she can never be / seen, never be sussed, hidden away by the plains of her sights, with / a cat on her back, cut purse, felon, Moll.’

The poems in this collection are a story of a personal journey, of love and loss, of London, innocence, relationships, identity, children who never were. I read it in one sitting, enthralled and enchanted by the quest through the labyrinth.

For me there are so many moments of recognition and authenticity. I grew up in London of 1960s and 1970s and I have ancestors who were Covent Garden costermongers, street traders, and a Pearly King and Queen. Like the Black Cab drivers being usurped by uber, Jess Mookherjee has the knowledge and the language. 

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell has an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University and lectured in Creative writing there. Now retired from teaching and facilitating workshops, her work has been published in a range of English and Welsh print anthologies, and online, including  Agenda, Ekphrastic Review, Whirlagust, Bloody Amazing, The Dawntreader and Prole. In summer 2023 she won the Archaeology Festival Haiku competition which made them the most lucrative 17 syllables of her writing career!

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