Alan Morrison on
Palewell Press, 2022
Passport to Saponia
The superbly titled Federal Gods is a powerful account in poetic prose of poet, translator and tutor Clare Saponia’s time in voluntary service with refugees in Berlin-Wilmersdorf town hall at the peak of an immigration influx into Germany during the 2015 European ‘refugee crisis’. This scenario is also later set against the febrile, xenophobia-boosting EU Referendum back in the UK, and the path towards the catastrophe of Brexit. Both scenarios dovetail existentially, psychically and emotionally in Saponia’s personal senses of identity, ancestry and social responsibility—she is at once witness, interpreter, and poetic chronicler. She is also, at once, a native Britisher but also a German citizen living and working in Berlin, herself psychically displaced in spite of her many occupations, and perhaps inescapably is constantly on the precipice of burnout. Saponia furnishes all this in her compendious Foreword at the start of the book.
A brief note on the production: the first thing to strike one is the extremely powerful front cover of this book (photograph: Istvan Csak / Shutterstock.com) which, as the author explains at the start of the book, ‘shows children’s shoes collected for war refugees at Keleti Railway Station on 7 September 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. In 2015, refugees were constantly passing through Hungary en route to Germany’. The overall design of this striking cover is perfectly complemented by an unshowy font for the title and author name in pale pink letters stand out brilliantly against a dark grey concrete background. The book is also laminated in gloss which gives it a pleasingly durable sheen to the touch. Full marks to Camilla Reeve of Palewell Press for this impressive production.
On the visual interior of the volume: the typography is in a suitably functional-looking font, fairly large, and presented on each page full-justified with wider than usual indents on both sides giving a columnal, even gospel-like, appearance. Each section of the book is numbered like chapters—the numbering in itself is hugely symbolic given this whole book is about people being treated as mere numbers.
To the work itself, and in common to most of my reviews, a focus primarily on the use of language in the text to communicate the narrative. Saponia’s poetic prose is exceptional—cadent (almost rap-like at times), lyrical, rich in description, dripping with sense impression. The closest I can associate with this type of poetic witness from my own experience is the verse play Picaresque (2001-08) which I wrote in response to my experiences working in a homeless night shelter in Brighton & Hove: such extreme and at times traumatic occupational experiences tend to create an automatic momentum in the poetic imagination where one finds words almost spontaneously pouring out once pen is put to paper. There is this fluid, compulsive, pounding momentum to Federal Gods, and it’s significant to note that Saponia did actually compose its first draft in a matter of days. This gives the work a strange kind of impelling present-ness that makes it difficult to put down and, unusually for me, I read the book (pencilling in vertical lines alongside the paragraphs/verses I wished to excerpt in this review) in just two sittings.
Saponia makes deft use of both short staccato—sometimes just one word—sentences and longer more fluidic lines which contrast effectively:
The rot of history and contempt, as you nosedive through wounds, old and new, traumas tapered in at the heel. Boorish. Petulant. A viscid reminder of otherness and its tang of fear. Your fear. Your grandparents’ fear. Every parent’s fear. Anything but feel the dank drip-dripping about the cuff of their shoe.
The phrase ‘rot of history’ has a wonderful resonance to it. Saponia has a visceral poetic style, it’s sinuous, physical, tangible, punchy, robust, hitting the gut as well as the heart, but it's always fundamentally compassionate:
…the compulsive fever of dread and gratitude warping the tone of their landscape. The hue of music, language, trust, loves, hates and tastes. The guttural hacking of voice recognition smarted to a mousse-padded muffle. The dyspraxic trill of literature scribed full-swing in reverse order like a lie detector graph gone ape. Bonkers. Lost the plot.
Saponia’s prosody as demonstrated above is unobtrusively alliterate and assonantal, these are largely serendipitous features. There are some great phrases: ‘trill of literature’, ‘guttural hacking of voice recognition’ etc. There is some wonderfully figurative play on olfactory sense impression:
They come so close, their coffee reeks of suspicion. It seeps through filter upon filter: an acrid umber of unknowing, powdered fine as fishmeal beyond residue. But still there. Stagnating. Scourging in a bloat of pride.
Before there was love. Real love. Coffee smelt of grilled almonds, kids sang to a medley of swastikas and sickles…
The following excerpt is exceptionally assonantal with its o-sounds:
It oozes and throbs beyond body-length like an outer torso tattoo, a baggy etching chalked into a murder scene silhouette. Billowing greed. Billowing the trim of their bête noire baloney about lip and limb. Gaudy and gluttonous. Out to swallow you whole.
This is sumptuous poetry, one can almost taste it when speaking it. There’s an aphorismic quality to some of the more gnomic passages:
Phobias cloned their way into books centuries before you could read, the fibres of everything we feel hosted by ancestral minds: faithless crimes rammed into laws and literature like the latest enlightenment footage.
Saponia makes great use of a-assonance in the following passage, giving it a sense of pace and urgency:
And you came in spates through the night, waiting for names and numbers to be called, waiting for signs or something you understand beyond passports and stamps and surnames your hosts cannot say.
There’s the first hint as to the meaning of the book’s title—though I’d assumed it related to European officials of some kind—in the following passage, which also cites the ubiquitous emblem of Germany: 'Civil servants demoted to gods with no time for real world deeds. You see eagles everywhere, tattooed to buildings and costumes and paperwork you can’t read'. The phrase ‘demoted to gods’ is almost oxymoronic, either that, or it’s a novel concept, to be ‘demoted’ to something commonly assumed to be omnipotent and omnipresent. The use of negatives gives the following line an opposite sense of endlessness: ‘Sugar surging their state of never-sleep, the neverending game of never landing’. The refugees are caught in a purgatory or limbo of nonbeing: ‘Waiting for existence to start. Rammed like heifers to the left-hand side of the yard’. There then comes, for me, one of the standout passages in this book, a beautifully expressive and aphorismic flourish:
You look for a ball to batter. To beat back the cold excreted from our raven sky. The stars too far away to matter. The stars so far away, you wish harder. All the extra clothes you should’ve brought. Could’ve carried. Instead of opening your palms to the grace of strangers.
I love the phrases ‘raven sky’, ‘stars so far away’, and ‘grace of strangers’. Over the page we get the alliterative image ‘Ratted mattresses’. The sheer force of Saponia’s empathy humanises these dehumanising scenarios—not mere poetic witness, the poet is in many ways champion of the refugees’ in their plight: 'Just the hungry and restless looking to fill their time with something beyond strife and sinking dinghies, where hot and cold, love and pain mean the same in any language'. And it’s an empathy which has its personal price as Saponia describes night terrors and sweats and an inability to shut herself off from what she is witnessing during the day:
I awake screaming, monstrous reams of figures gushing into the air like rogue computer coding. From registered arrival dates to birth and expiry rates, this is how we lose track of love. This is how we force-feed amnesia to a state of bulimic greed. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?
From hereon in we get several sections named after particular individual refugees—the first is ‘Zaid’. Saponia sculpts out each of these individuals vividly so that the impression we gain of them is three-dimensional and forensic putting them in bas relief. Saponia employs snowy imagery to express the existential wintering of these human beings caught up in a dehumanising system of perpetual transition:
You become a snowflake. But we could find you in a blizzard if we had to, branded under foot or birch. Browned beneath the weight of newer flakes. Your number goes nowhere without you.
You’re an algorithm only we can track…
Identity, national and personal, are themes in this book, and the poet’s senses of these is, as previously touched on, complex, and has aspects of ancestral and political displacement. Saponia opts—with a double negative—to conceal her true nationality:
I decide not to tell you I’m not German. Not yet. The woman writing this now has an eagle manning every page of her pass. It watches over her moves, all the flights to and from…
Saponia is able to conceal her true nationality because she is fluent in German, working as a translator and interpreter while living in Berlin:
The eagle keeps good and bad books. But I’ve learnt to play the role well with my copper-blond locks and Teutonic tone: Speaking my mind. Pausing in all the right places. Choosing Pumpernickel over Toastbrot*.
The next section is titled ‘Intesar’—a quick recce on the internet reveals that this Islamic name ‘is another spelling of the boy and girl name Intisar which means Winning, Victory and Triumph’, which gives added irony to the scenario. The name Intesar also makes me think of the word instar, which in the context of this book conveys all manner of unconscious associations. Saponia opens this section with a passage on the female condition:
Blood bonds me with your wife. We’re wired differently, we women. The moon in the month feeds us the same sense of time you could never know. Circles of love and loss that aren’t tied to the lands we live in. Circles we share, even in ignorance. We’re never strangers, gel like spilt juice to one another, molecule by molecule. Wasps like us all.
There’s almost something Plathian here with the juxtaposition of feminine identity and the image of an insect that stings and feeds on sweetness (in Plath’s case it was bees)—wasps and bees are also narrow-waisted, a key aspect to the voluptuous shape historically associated with and imposed on women in the form of corsets. Saponia touches on mutual female empathy under the male gaze:
We touch each other with arms and eyes. You’re smart. Smarter than the thirty men in the room who can barely read in their own tongue. Your mouth more nimble to the rumple of new sounds. Your memory more agile. I watch you lap it all up and spit it back through your jowls…
Saponia uses some iconic filmic allusions to put across her point: ‘…you brought bravery and a heart, brains bound in polyimide film like you were bolting from Oz in the freeze. No lion or tin-man in tow’. The following section is again titled ‘Zaid’—we are on a kind of psychical relay race here but it shows just how closely Saponia explores the people she is helping:
You hold my wrists. Your eyes turned to molten cacao as you tell me this. You speak for you both. You said there were lies hatching manifold as stillborns, grifters ripped and sliced from silence. And now no one picks up the phone.
The near-rhyme of ‘wrists’, ‘this’ and ‘picks’ is a nice serendipity which adds to the rhythm of the lines. Zaid bears his operation scar to the poet to prove his narrow survival of cancer—Saponia describes it vividly through several analogies: ‘rhubarb worm’, ‘Victorian teddy torn in two’, ‘slimy lilac’ and ‘Udon noodle’. Zaid hopes his scar is a passport to permanent settlement:
We both know the Staat has a strong distaste for sick people: that the weak suffer more from deportation. That the bolshie, fruitful and krank2 can find themselves on the next boat back…
Saponia depicts the ‘pidgin English’ Zaid speaks in preference to ‘Deutsch’ as if he is ‘mouthing with pineapple bark between [his] jowls’. The unexpected sight of Zaid’s scar traumatises the poet-witness: ‘And when I close my lids now, I can still see that scar dangling in front of my third eye: a haggard braid, tiptoeing into the unknown’. Nevertheless, the scar is not enough, it seems, to secure Zaid’s place:
We take you aside after class. A mix of warmth and shame skids across your greyish mug. … The guys at the front desk not concerned, you say. You’re healed, they say. Healed. … Pain not big enough. … Remission‘s not a condition. Remission’s more taxing than the sick to the State, a public health bill in the making.
There’s no budget for you.
No place for nuances in the immigration system: ‘The system likes black or white, dead or alive’. The eighth section is effectively a poem which can standalone, titled ‘Black Hole on the Wall’, it describes a blackboard, presumably one which the poet-tutor uses to teach basic German to the refugees, on which information is chalked and then wiped off, like a palimpsest. Saponia employs a staccato approach: ‘Diced-up. Sacrosanct. Calcification of ideas. Otherwise spelling death in their lucid, smashed-up chalk fodder form’.
There’s some highly effective alliteration and assonance in the following passage:
She waves a vague hand shaman-style and hints at the hundreds hostelled around us. Her index digit darts past Kochar and relief kicks in as he catches my eye. He’s still here. Still illiterate. Still intending to try his luck on the farraged gut of my birth isle – if the Bundesarmee doesn’t get there first.
Saponia’s invented verb ‘farraged’ is particularly inventive and appropriate given the theme of the book. The poet-witness as an eye for the small details of the scenario which makes her descriptions all the more evocative: ‘Thirty-five butts carpet the floor of our hub. The room’s a shell. A heave of expectation and so little understanding’. The empathy of this poet-interpreter is palpable, as her sense of compassion: ‘I hoped for tabula rasa. I hoped the shaky tatters of German grammar might just tear you from the shreds of your past: the flesh of your grudge’. The term ‘tabula rasa’ is Latin for ‘scraped tablet’ or ‘clean slate’. Saponia’s poetic confidence becomes more sharply apparent as this book progresses, neologisms, and verbification, as in the following trope:
I plaster the lemon-sour walls with stripped recycled sheets I’ve dug out of storerooms, charity shops and waning home supplies: defeated scrap pads that have turmericked at the corners over time…
Saponia paints the scene of representatives from different nationalities in a colourful descriptive style:
Nikro springs up and down on the spot cursing all Iraqis. He’s spitting little bits of flinted rage all over the place, while the others just watch or nod to our nine o’clock now show. A Balkan batch swaps internal squirms across the room…
Even when using an expletive Saponia makes sure it does some prosodic work: ‘the whole ruckus fucked in translation’. The poet-tutor describes how she leaves a ‘prowl of language’ in her wake when she leaves each night with a ‘yolky larynx’ from all the talking she’s to do. Her role is emphatically didactic—as well as compassionate of course:
I bring language, not bureaucracy. And I feel the tightening of something that started as goodwill, an up-front share and rake of skill: to have them talking in three tenses by Christmas. And I make promises to myself even I can’t keep in the euphoria of pleated needs that change in months to pass.
Note the deft use of internal rhymes and vowel sounds: ‘goodwill/skill’, ‘keep/pleated needs’. Similarly, there’s sibilance and p-alliteration in ‘They want to be friends forever caught between crater and abyss – unremitting dimples on the solar plexus of philanthropy’. Saponia goes into full tilt polemic in the following passage:
He doesn’t listen to the red-flag warnings of Farrage’s fiends, the wrangle of unkempt lies on the wrong side of the Wirral. The ones flaring back and forth on soap-box banter: not against the EU – but against YOU, the flume of counties kipped full-kilter into partisan freight…
Saponia’s polemic then pitches in on Germany: ‘The turf wars and tribal conflicts that have followed them across the Med to the peevish walkways of Wilmersdorfed suburbia’. The poet-tutor depicts herself and her colleague in an ironic light: ‘Some see sisters and wives and dazzlingly bright green cards in Julia and me, golden-maned goddesses leaping about in the soot of trench warfare’. Saponia makes puns and wordplay with some of the names of the countries the refugees are fleeing from:
Nikro claims all Iraqis here are ISIS fry. He balks at the Balkans and flouts the Afghans. He relegates Senegal, pooh-poohs Cameroon and ejects Ethiopia on ethical grounds. From Ghana to Mali, through Egypt and Turkey, has there ever been a good time to look for a better life?
The text spills into a xenophobic monologue from Nikro:
The competition stinks. The rest are rot, he scoffs: a wasteland of pawned favours kneaded into the dough of plenty. Foul, he says: fucking foul fools with badder than bad intentions. His fear is louder than his rant, his fear aching and weeping like a chorus of dislocated corpuscles to the thud of our Bundesbogeymen. For Nikro, Iraq is just a plague on the other side of god, the hobgoblin of bane that tags his every move…
The suffering of some of the refugees is harrowingly relayed: ‘Dependent on pain to revive a sense of home. Self-harmers wilt to a steer of kindness that’s bound to kill when spun too far from rage. This is how browbeaten looks more mighty than it is’. Saponia’s use of language is often very physical and visceral: ‘I’m not sure they see the pitfalls, the sperm of trauma pebbled-dashed along each fork in the road, sorry as proud flesh. Grown men doped up on amphetamines, neurotic as you like’.
In the following passage Saponia uses the imagery of a spell or recipe:
The unsaid system is fissioned into five tracts of Arabic, a sprig of Farsi and pinch of Albanian, an alloy of another fifty shaping their own. All this hums within bird’s eye view, the feast of dialect our eagle’s tone-deaf to: the deals that get agreed over mouldy cheese…
There’s great play with sibilance—‘fissioned’, ‘sprig’, ‘Farsi’—a-assonance—‘tracts’, ‘Arabic’, ‘Farsi’, ‘Albanian’—o-assonance—‘alloy’, ‘tone’, ‘mouldy’—and e-assonance—‘feast’, ‘eagle’s’, ‘agreed’, ‘cheese’ etc. There’s the ambiguous paraphrase of Jean-Paul Sartre’s iconic phrase ‘Hell is other people’ from his existentialist play Huis clos (No Exit): ‘Hell is not the others, but a dangle of white inferiority’. It’s unclear if Saponia means the following passage rhetorically
So much man-hate in the history of humans and no word for it. Just wasted, rejected, thrown to the battlefields: no use to the future of the family, the pollination of the nation. The tide of hormones leaves our pride in shrivelled tatters…
but as a linguist she is presumably aware that there is a term for hatred of men and all male things: misandry—though it is not admittedly anywhere nearly as well-known or commonly used as the opposite term, misogyny. Note here the almost rap-like sound-association of ‘pollination of the nation’.
By the eleventh section ‘Zaid & Intesar’ are depicted as couple. This part of the book seems to zoom in on prejudice. Saponia poses the pertinent question:
It’s hard not to send out fear when you look into the phobic eyes of others. How do you learn to do that? How do you not think terrorist when you run into shards of ice blue gaze.
…For now, the enclaves of gangs are enough, the funk of nationalist nobodies throwing their weight about, nasty as they come.
There then follows the wonderful trope: ‘Until now, I’ve wildly defended my right to be unreachable’. Saponia has a penchant for the macro-political, not least in her analogies:
And we’d give anything to know which god was put in charge here, moving you on ‘cos your birthday bingo call came through, slapdash as Vietnam draftings. And now, you’re shifted, elapsed, slung-shot somewhere east of the most easternest Kommune*, where too many white men have been left hanging for too long
and they don’t know who to blame first.
Night terrors afflict the poet-tutor:
I awake to a trippy giddiness, icicles dribbling barbs of anguish down my spine, polka-dot-poking through the hunch of my hood. … Dreams were stringing me along, flashing their little secrets now and then like juiced-up poets.
Saponia’s similes are often strikingly original: ‘mind open as a mussel with its soul hanging out’. The following passages are buoyed on b-alliterations, various assonances and some resonant aural sense impressions:
The blurb between Bundesländer* sucks and I feel impotent, spoilt sat here in some cinema, whilst you’ve been sent to the Blyton-bound burg of Iron Mountain. And I can’t bring you back.
I’m barely watching the film in fact, my thoughts sounding dud off the walls of my skull every time I scout for a lead. Somewhere between Berlin and Eisenberg.
… But the banality of this ballgame sickens and I’m clearly better off in dream, a little further from Kafka castles, a little closer to Böll-esque clowns. I can hear the dull out-of-tune thump of ill-suited boots pounding the arse end of the world, the echo of weary infant groans and luggage clatter pummelling the cobbles in turn. I hear the wails for unmourned mothers. I smell the sour, ferrous twang in a downwind sneeze, spy the cocky hilltop buzzards playing hero through the breeze, handgliding on an upthrust of russet-skinned dust, a curtain of metallic voices swung wildly to ebb
Note the internal rhymes which give an almost rap quality to the lines: ‘sneeze’/’breeze’, ‘upthrust’/‘russet’/‘dust’. Occasionally Saponia deploys some more opaque turns of phrase but never fails to be evocative: 'The voices become thinner, more diaphanous the further up we go, and even iron smelts to the fold of edifice, always beaten back in the prelude to silence'. It seems, like much of Fortress Europe, and by no means only Brexit Britain, Germany also says to its immigrants: ‘Welcome. Welcome. As long as you don’t stay’. Saponia’s physical descriptions become more tortured and tortuous until they almost evoke the torsions of an Egon Schiele nude:
The moisture of morning’s smoke swarms my hive. A single creek of sweat carves out its path
staging a bleed from far-left blade to bottomest ribcage, swamp of needs in the small of my back. I glide an index down my spine, a kebab skewer of rinsed crabapples beneath the dough of rind, oil and acid trying to get on in the folds of my husk…
There’s more taboo than I’d like. I feel this in the chill of my damp sheath, the sweet, tacky remains of an inner rant I can’t contain…
There’s a stream-of-imageries as the poet reflects:
I notice how Eisenberg becomes less of a name, a team of anonymous chimneys, stone-boned, smoking themselves
I hear a voice in my head, the me of fifteen years’ shier and Brussels-bound, more café and cognac than I could handle. More autism than I knew what to do with. Just a hearth of nicotine reading into the future.
Saponia invites us in to more personal reminiscences of her younger wanderlust as she moved to the Continent at the peak time of EU expansion and freedom of movement only to eventually find herself a displaced British national and German citizen:
That year, I missed my flight, hiked halfway across Europe on a string of trains to get home: to host the New Year’s Eve we’d planned. I penetrated three national borders on one pass, changed pesetas into this franc and that to get fed. To get back before you. Going with the migrant flow.
My passport was never alien enough to spurn my groove. One glimpse of EU script and the guard slaps it into my palm, subtle, snide, same routine over and over with us white ones. Sudan and Senegal do a much better job at quelling his yawn. Sadism on tap. And most of them don’t make it past Nîmes. The captions
come and go
over the years. Never had we expected to be part of them, our bedrock dismembered, right by right, in the Blitz of Brexit…
On returning to England Saponia meets with the post-Brexit British intransigence, and the heartless bureaucracy and atomistic dehumanisation of a welfare state in tatters after a decade’s austerity:
Orders that now come from the Home Office, Job Centre, Department for Work and Pensions: stay low, keep your eyes to the ground, don’t get too comfortable with the deft sweep of your doctor’s wherewithal. It’s dependents, not docs, they want: a whole hush of airheads, not public service saints, makes them so much easier to send packing. Your degrees
Your skills, compassion and acumen
Back in Berlin the poet witnesses a street tirade from a ‘man with Tourette’s’ who ‘takes his pew on a stone wall opposite the café, cussing gypsies, cussing capitalism, cussing the AfD down to size. Fressen! Ficken! Fertig!’. It seems prejudice and xenophobia are Europe-wide problems.
The eighteenth section is presented as a poem and is an exquisitely phrased miniature of a refugee named ‘Jayla’:
Your identity is dependent on a strip of masking tape, a cramped straggle of lettering, lost in the chronicle of you, leaving your history behind.
Where did the narrative begin?...
Saponia has a particular penchant for gustatory—or gastronomic—metaphors and her imageries are often rooted very much in the body and physical sensations:
It’s not grudge or malice or envy of any kind, gutsy girl – but a straight-out hunger for growth, a hankering for what is possible when you peel back the skies and watch the blue drool hope all over your world like folds of raclette.
Having said this, the ephemerality of existence is never far from Saponia’s thoughts—and this comes directly after the previously excerpted trope:
was ever meant to be permanent
The twenty-first section is presented in more of a poem form—it begins with the phrase ‘brave is’ and all the subsequent sentences follow on from it: ‘rusting the hands of strangers who talk in cryptic, pagan tongues// it’s feeding hollow mildewed cheese to your child ’cos it’s the only bite on tap’. Gustatory again. I couldn’t help thinking of the song from The Wizard of Oz, ‘We’re Off To See The Wizard’, with the following line: ‘wanting to work but can’t because, because, because’. Saponia packs a punch with a bluntness that reflects the appalling experiences of refugees in the contemporary European asylum system:
it’s being shunted from bundesland* to bundesland until someone finally yells stop
being told you can stay, play the game but take your foreignness to the grave
i say you’re brave but you just see “evarb” when the mirror tilts your way
and now it’s just us here, a fistful of words, both signing sorry
(Note “evarb” is of course ‘brave’ backwards). The poet launches into impassioned polemic on the German asylum system in the following section ‘Tirana calling’:
And it is chaos. A class with no roll call. No rules or course books or record sheets: my clan coming and going when the Bundesbark
deems it’s time to hit the road –
a Ferris wheel of love and no arrival. Just a hustle of papers and appointments between that mean yes or no
cambered across the skyline.
You take what you can get. There’s no wisdom in this, all these deadlines that really are dead for some from beginning to end
line for line
Saponia writes openly, powerfully and bravely on her own burn out for overwork, exhaustion and a pulsing hyper-empathy which she cannot switch off:
They’re on overload, beginners head-banging against a curb of flames. And if I took a moment to look inside, I’d see that I’m burnt too: my body howling at me to stop, slow down,
go home. But I can’t,
hoping they’ll get the grammar if they stay just five minutes more. Hoping they’ll learn to love the lingo if I scrape my mind raw. Je pense que ça suffit pour aujourd’hui, Samid shrugs
in his usual modest way, tearing me out of my trance. He’s right. Of course he’s right, I nod, hasting my words to a halt. I notice each face in turn, as if for the first time, each fixed hard
here. We are silent for the longest second ever. Toi, tu es fatiguée, Samid says, telling me what I’m too weak to admit. To me. To them. Teaching without tenses after ten hours’
translation. And next time I set the alarm.
In ‘Julia’ Saponia employs fluidic metaphors to express hers and her colleagues approaches to helping the refugees: ‘We divide up our skills into tents of knowledge and pool them somewhere in the bottled space between’. The stress and pressure of volunteering her expertise and empathy to help the helpless takes its emotional toll: ‘And now rage fleshes itself out inside of me, compassion hanging by a thread of perished rubber bands I can’t help
Piscine and nautical images surface in the following passages: ‘More faces. Eyes open as fishhooks. Expectation packed from wall to wall, swollen as sturgeon roe’ and ‘He grips his pencil like a harpoon in the name of hand control’. Saponia scoops up an aphorism: ‘There are things words will change forever’.
Saponia spots all the glaring political ironies of the pan-European scenario:
We need teachers, translators and therapists. We need the fruit of multiculturalism, the
unwanted bloom of migration hiked up on the spice shelf ’til now – as if diversity were the
worst that could happen. And it’s times like this
we notice when our bread is buttered.
Demand outstrips supply. There are volunteers of every kind. Just not enough. The cops put
out a call for Farsi, Pashto, Igbo, Albanian, the four favoured forms of Arabic. Flavours of the
The police pay well. Reliably. Punctually. And there’s a heap of work to be done – from
delinquent endeavour to deportation plots. The Polizei always finds a way to get what it wants…
Saponia then plays on a well-worn phrase which in this context has a perhaps more literal meaning: ‘And for once, it’s not English floating the boat’. The German state as with all states has a clinical and cynical eye for those seeking asylum: ‘Another weight on the social welfare wall. Individuality has its place somewhere, a very long way away’.
Saponia can happen upon unusual turns of phrase: ‘And there’s a shadow cast across the breadth of my turf when I haven’t slept enough’ and ‘my body carting me around like a bruise on the move that’s forgotten where to go’. There’s a wonderful deployment of p-alliterations when Saponia sings praises of her esoteric poetic escape:
Life is looking up with Pessoa in tow. A page or three a day to keep me sane. Tagging along at hip-height, just a strap and buckle away from
She feels Pessoa’s poetry ‘cleansing the mucus of myth and self-lie, shielding in a membrane of charm’. One wonders what the heteronymous Portuguese poet would have made of scenes such as these:
And maybe it’s a better way to ward off bugs as autumn takes a plunge, Fernando fighting what wildfire can’t contain in this hall that’s not a home. Not a real one at least. Numbers rising. Temperatures falling. People camped on raw stone in their hundreds, queuing one on top of the other for loos and baths and meals that thwart the gospel of hygiene code. Arguably.
One of Saponia’s real powers as a poet is her capacity for compassionate polemic:
There’re things I’m shown I can’t unsee, the finest, littlest needles of reality. There to query. There to roast. Fibres of goodwill with only measured intent, the spirit of our annexed humankind that doesn’t give away anything for
Gustatory images come to the fore again, as do o-assonances and g-alliterations:
Sleep urges me to bind the group, the class too far now to start over every time a new kid hits town. Only guilt thinks otherwise. And it lays tight and weighty on my chest like the lurgies I’m grilling in turn.
At market, I dose up on avocado, blueberries and pineapple, my basket brimming with antioxidants and accidental bargains. I run into the woman with ginger dreadlocks who is everywhere and anywhere I go of late…
I buy a gözleme on the way for something to do. It tastes of flour and cheap oil. I throw half
and go home.
Saponia’s preoccupation with the temporal proffers another aphorism: ‘all as ephemeral as ice in the Syrian sand’. The eponymous ‘Rayan’ of section 31 has come to Germany via Sweden where ‘The Swedes said it wasn’t enough to be half Syrian when the warlords came’. Saponia coins something of a motto for resistance and dissent in the age of Assange and Manning: ‘there’s no art without activism or truth without hacktivism’. By the 33rd section of this book Saponia’s tone has become more polemical and fiercer on the issues of the time that needlessly divide nationalities and races—and in this she speaks for so many of us who feel utterly betrayed by the abomination of Brexit and everything related to it:
And now my birthland wants to go that one step further and ban the blood of others under threat. The rigid sickness of this island’s ills fills me with shame. I am angry. I am sad. The jagged arrogance of a barren soul that yearns for the might of Boudicca, the grill of barbarian hands. And I won’t appease the spit of delusion, the gob of law and tug of war, like two thousand and one never happened – The same band of yobs who’d sell out the young, kill off the old, but fail to rip the European from me.
Note the wonderfully rampant a-assonance: ‘birthland’, ‘ban’, ‘angry’, ‘sad’, ‘jagged arrogance’, ‘barren’, ‘Boudicca’, ‘barbarian hands’, ‘appease’, ‘band’. This is entirely justifiable anger and of a kind which has irreparably damaged relations between generations in the UK. It is the anger of futures stolen from younger generations by older blue-rinse reactionaries and xenophobes who won’t be around to see the damage done; the anger of all of us who do not wish to have our sense of Europeanism taken from us—and all for what? Economic meltdown, import and export charges, no more freedom of movement (for workers, that is—but corporations can still move where they like), emboldened xenophobia and racism.
More gustatory imagery: ‘And I saw where this was heading, filleting my inkish life into flax seeds, impasse signs between my teeth’. As with the best political poetry Saponia’s is fired on the engine of imaginative language:
On the other side of the street there’s something like growth happening that can’t be seen up-close in this civic cave, this parish hive: soured roof beams flaunting to the elements like a lumber of bone caught in the upshot
of its soul
before the squall.
It’s been my mirror for months, as my tack descends into a purl of pneumatic groove, the band of stoned doves I’ve tried to keep hidden, but now cankering, tracted into the attic.
Saponia produces striking images: ‘My right fist clenches into a walnut’. In section 37 Saponia writes at her most personal and biographical, in this particular case she remembers her late father and imagines how he might have responded to her own responses to her experiences helping the refugees in Berlin:
Dad would’ve brained me. We’ve had regular words this past year and no one tells it straighter. I miss the flesh version that left too young. It’s like I’ve only truly known him since he went. And the guilt of that never goes.
Though he’d back the education bit. I know he would: the earth I want to move by stirring minds, the hunger for people to learn themselves free. He’d have got that. He’d have got why Bora wanted more than Albania could give: sick of packing supermarket shelves instead of studies she had to quit for grain. €160 a month and no breaks. And I know he’d have done the same, seen through Albi’s urge for school and skills he couldn’t get back home: siblings smart enough to change the world. Just not there.
I’m trying not to get attached. I’m trying to just teach. But don’t know how to just teach human beings who have run from harm and hypocrisies that keep them from their future. They’re in my head when I shut the door at night, when the thrill of a coffee-time paper numbs the urgency of their pleas. My days bathe in a bleed of privacy, an illusion busting out of the screen of life, a piddly word, not immune to connection. I cannot treat them like algorithms. There’s no arm’s length in a smile.
That last phrase, ‘no arm’s length in a smile’, is quite sublime.
Saponia then turns back to the macro-polemical, her natural medium—this passage beautifully buoyed on b-alliterations:
Refugee becomes term of the year. Everyone’s talking about it. Everybody knows best, clichés spun nationwide from Freiburg to Flensburg, from swanky Berlin bars and Hamburg harbour to the backwater barnyards of Bremerhaven.
It’s the fags that give us more gall than we came with, sipping house whiskies to Bowie while the world beyond is imbibed by the Med. Cigarettes don’t care about your sex.
My lungs make odd sounds on the dance floor these days. Maybe I’ve read too much Bernhard. Maybe I’m just suffocating myself between stress and sulphites
There’s a feverish quality to the poet’s daily life in Berlin:
I brush off a lover on the first of October. What a way to start the month. I coat my skins in Vaseline for anyone who clings too tight now, not knowing when to back off. I use the day for walking and writing, hunting down other loves instead. The town shrinks into a series of cafés and tube stops, where I can’t keep still. Tempo escalating. Restlessness expediting.
It’s a testament to the momentum of this book that the excerpts I include in this review lengthen the nearer the end is reached—this seems to be to me because the concentration o language intensifies. It’s a moot point whether or not many prosodic features are serendipities or unconsciously selected euphonic patterns but certain letters seem to often crop up in words grouped together in passages to alliterative effect—for another example, the dominance of g-alliteration is tangible in the following excerpt from section 39, and I highlight where:
The groups begin to thin. Volunteers with time on their hands do classes during daylight hours and keep our unsaid factions apart. Learning German becomes a homogenous job you can’t
take personally. I miss my mob, I’ll admit.
But they need smaller, safer spaces to open their mouths. No room to grow in a gang of this size. No room for multi-ethnic ideals among the raw of trauma. There’s always a logic behind loyalty, practicalities you wouldn’t oversee in their shoes, as much as I wanted the mix, maybe even the dream: that this foreign tongue could unite the Levant with tenses not tension.
Letting go is my lesson in this, a change that frees me from the conscience I am sewn to, my own fears, my overloaded plate. The West Balkan gang becomes my tribe.
It’s impressive how Saponia compresses so much narrative and expression in such small space:
We’re carving bookish out of bakers. Albi says they spend every second of non-lesson time slotted between multilingual shelves at the local library, submerging themselves in sounds that could sink or sail their status here. From the moment they rise, everything is done auf Deutsch, he says. Obsessed, Bora smirks. Obsessed. The folks she’s known her whole life but never seen. The political odds they’d do anything to overturn.
Who the hell stamped Albania safe? she snaps, her parents’ hard graft lost to callous racketeers, profits rotten into a skein of life that wasn’t worth the bother. Armed bandits running the wild, wild west of their Balkan score.
Another wonderful Saponian aphorism: ‘But no one bit. Just biting lips at a prejudice I can’t ignore. No one cares about flair with the wrong passport’. There’s another striking trope a bit later on: ‘Bora tries to stay useful in the eye of the Amt*, bides her time as interpreter for muter tongues, for tour guides and doctor meets’.
The last part of the book is ‘Epiloque – The Bundesgott’—the latter German neologism is of course Saponia’s coinage translating into the Federal Gods of the book’s title. This epilogue is the poet’s final speech, in effect, on her experiences at the refugee centre and everything it taught her about German/European societies in the process—once again, the prevalence of g-sounds is striking (I highlight them in bold):
They said only good things would happen if you prayed to the Bundesgott*. There’d be food and shelter, and above all, life. Good or bad. Big or small. But life away from bombs, brown boots and the slew of bile you called home.
So I hung an eagle in the corner of every room where my laughing Buddha would’ve been. I missed the Buddha. It was harder to smile at a bird of prey, its penchant for stamps and stars.
The Bundesgott takes things so damn seriously: Eighty years on and still the same gut-wrenching relics of the Führer fisting out of the front page on a Sunday morn: Lucid syncopations with Mahler and Freud we call culture, all live and well. The Süddeutsche
does us proud. The Bundesgott has a healthy love of poetry, reels’em off word-perfect from the pit of glib constitution: trophy of the tax office, driving force of job and housing centres, a bedrock of psalms with just one very long
He tunes his day to tepid laws, code after chord of deviation and inspired whim, the guile of raving ambiguity – where the rational has never looked so irrational around the rule of thumb.
No lesions for loyalty or traffic light warnings for lust and war: grand gestures we’ve agreed to pay for. An A-1 bleed we like to call
denazification. And he won’t marry. Not for love at least. There’s no Frau or Herr Bundesgott waiting in the wings. Just a melt of fetish, dark and worldly, drooling in the flesh, fanning his polyamorous arse…
Saponia recounts her own ancestral roots in European diaspora:
The Bundesgott loves you. Even if he didn’t love your Opa or Oma and gnawed the rest of their kin to ash. You jump in, take a front
I got why pa ground his teeth at night, perhaps why I do the same. They braced high seas to swerve the Bundesgott, from Brno and beyond to the Dover docks, the rounds of mutant alopecia, the non-existence meant for them –
until they found each other. In nothingness. Had kids and grandkids who came from nothingness, who became the fear they had run from: the inheritance that sucks, until someone shouts STOP.
Saponia keeps certain details absent from this ancestral narrative so the reader is left to fill in some of the gaps—the terms ‘Opa’ and ‘Oma’ hint at some German-speaking ancestry. Saponia juxtaposes this narrative with disturbing contemporary developments in Germany which echo the horrors unleashed during the most terrible period in its recent history: ‘Turn your back while the AfD cackles’. Then the ancestral narrative resumes with a typically Saponian focus on the gustatory and gastronomic:
The Bundesgott sent Oma packing with prerequisite recipes for Sachertorte, Pischinger and Rahmspinat, the good housekeeping guide to perpetual exodus, home always out there somewhere, simmering
on the tip of your tongue. I remember how she spanned the strudel dough to twice her body length, yanking back and forth with her scrawny limbs like a battery-powered Hampelmann. I wondered at the violence of her thoughts to pull
it off. Her Apfelstrudel never failed, loose gloop flying between her palms, taut as falcon wings, just inches from level ground: the skin of a Shar Pei rippling the air with gamma rays. The scent of home infusing walls, stifling the musk of old
recycled bags. It took years to see the self-love in that, respect pervading the palls of trauma, the eye teeth of a mass murder machine that still chatter in the distance, far, far off at the dearth of remorse, whenever the voice shies. So much senseless self-harm drummed into my DNA…
Shadows of the Holocaust are captured in those last chilling lines. Saponia then appears to draw a parallel between the creeping fascism of 1930s Germany with the nationalism and xenophobia expressed in Brexit: ‘Rehousing the past. Resetting the present. I take the path of most resistance, baton in hand, my birthland now a breeding ground for the same’. This comparison might seem hyperbolic to some but then that’s the point of such comparisons: if one compares something disturbing and alarming in the present to something only marginally more disturbing and alarming in the past then who is going to take notice? One has to make the comparison with something more explicitly worse from the past in order to flag up the dangers in the present developing in the same direction. And the closing passages bring this book to an almost apocalyptic close
hushed, unconscious and so virally fertile, it must be easier to just never change. Options, options, whilst I’ve been Brexited. De-Britained. Another blow from those who hail difference and divide, unpicking the stitches
as fast as we can thread the eye. Old angst they’ve padded along the way, while we get burnt, spiced up, something like splintered inside our fibreglass lives. Until we are sand. All of us.
Until the final defiant trope posing the poignant irony than in death we are all the same, so much dust and ashes:
Run a finger through and we become
When I reviewed Saponia’s politically charged The Oranges of Revolution (2015), I wrote: ‘One might hope that, in time, this most un-introspective of poets may employ her considerable poetic equipment in a more personalised direction, since one senses Saponia has much in her persona and experiences which readers would appreciate exploring every bit as much as her macrocosmic polemics’. And it’s pleasing as well as edifying to find in Federal Gods so much of Saponia’s own persona, feelings and anxieties coming to the fore in sporadic passages throughout this work. In a sense this book is our passport into the poet’s interior world of experiences, responses and emotions. Somehow these passages fit seamlessly into a deeply holistic work and in no way impede but oppositely complement the main thrust of witness and poetic document of the 2015 European diaspora.
Federal Gods is much more than a poetic account of voluntary service among refugees: it is also a humanitarian intervention, and should be required reading for all European politicians, bureaucrats and petty officials who administer the tortuous protocols of the contemporary immigration and asylum system. And as at this time anti-immigrant rhetoric is cranking up again, not least in Tory Britain, with prime minister Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman currently scapegoating Albanians in small boats and deporting countless refugees to Rwanda, this book is still more than timely.
Alan Morrison © 2022