The Emma Press is an independent publisher which specialises in poetry, essays, short fiction and children’s books. They’re based in Birmingham (hooray!) and are doing great stuff – I reviewed their “Once Upon a Time in Birmingham” a couple of years ago and they’ve been winning all sorts of prizes and publishing loads of interesting stuff. Although I’m not the world’s biggest poetry fan or expert, I do like a good poem about people’s experience in the world, and I was drawn to these pieces by a Muslim woman originally from Pakistan, living in Netherlands and writing her life there. I wasn’t disappointed.

Rakhshan Rizwan – “Europe, Love me Back”

(12 October 2022)

… I can see the fingers that never

touched my arm the way your eyes avert just a little

how your voice loses its lilt how you tighten your grasp

on your dog’s leash one day you will see the way

my skin pores open in the summer months

to receive warmth same

as yours.

(from “Bite”, p. 2)

Rakhshan Rizwan now lives in the US but documents her time in Germany and the Netherlands in this book of poems that pack a powerful punch. The poems are in blank verse and interesting layouts, sometimes with gaps, as in the quotation above, sometimes with really long lines, printed sideways on a double spread in the book.

Like “Bite”, a lot of the poems draw on actual or imagined-but-realistic situations the poet finds herself in – “A Man is speaking Urdu on the train and everyone is turning to look at him” falls into this category, where a man who has been speaking Urdu moves into broken English and a trainful of Dutch people relaxes, or “Caucasity”, where at a conference, she is one of the only people of colour in the room but gives support to a woman presenter who stands out in the same way.

Other poems are more abstract or fanciful. I loved, although its ending is devastating, “Medusa Ghosted” where the protagonist grows a head of Medusa-like snakes for hair, tends and grooms them, keeps them when her husband isn’t keen.

I particularly liked, also, the poems that took Rizwan away from the Netherlands, to other parts of Europe. In “Paris Proper”, she and a friend visit the same city but have two very different views of it:

She saw warm crepes with jam,

and cold newlyweds with beautiful shoulders,

striking brave poses against mighty gusts of wind

at the Tour De Eiffel.

I saw Pakistanis, North Africans,

in frayed jackets, dirty mufflers,

selling plastic tat, keychains,

reproductions of the tower for a euro,

hawking yesterday’s Le Monde,

their bodies dancing a different tango

from the dancers by the Seine.

(from “Paris Proper”, p. 54)

and in “Seville”, she observes the interlayering of the European and Arabic in the buildings and the relevance to those who don’t feel quite at home in either one place or the other.

Moving and wry, sometimes a poem is the best way to show an experience, and that really comes across here. I will defintely look for more by this writer.

Line drawings by Reena Makwana, who also drew the cover image, add a lovely extra dimension to the book.

Thank you to the super folk at Emma Press for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. “Europe, Love me Back” was published on 6 October and you can find out more about it and buy it direct here.