John Siddique is a British author who was born in 1964 in Rochdale, Lancashire to an Irish Catholic mother and a Muslim father originally from Jullundur (a city which after Partition was renamed Jalandhar and came to be situated in the Indian Punjab). His first collection The Prize (2005) was nominated for the Forward Prize and contains ‘Variola’, a poem that describes his father’s traumatic journey to Pakistan during the violent Partition of the subcontinent in 1947, during which his three sisters died of smallpox. This story is echoed and developed in Siddique’s prose piece, ‘Six Snapshots of Partition’, written for the online issue of Granta 112: Pakistan. His children’s book Don’t Wear it on your Head, Don’t Stick it Down your Pants, was shortlisted for 2007’s CLPE Poetry Award. Siddique’s second adult collection, Poems from a Northern Soul, was also published in 2007. His next book, Recital: An Almanac (2009), contains the most important and sensitive poetic response to the 2005 London bombings yet to be written: this sequence, ‘Inside’, constitutes an urban series at the centre of a largely rural collection, and offers a nuanced, even-handed response to 7/7.

Full Blood by John Siddique, Salt, Cromer, Norfolk, 2011

In his most recent collection Full Blood (2011), John Siddique turns his attention to love, a subject which, as he rightly notes, all his poems to date have been about, ‘even when they turn out to have bombs in them, or politics, or light switches’. The poems contain acute observations about such topics as race and racism, urban degeneration, and death. However, readers may be most seduced by Full Blood’s interplay of tenderness and erotica, although the frankness of several poems in the collection’s second section, ‘Reclaiming the Body’, is not for the faint-hearted.

The collection begins with a Prologue, which contains ‘Every Atom’, the perfect poem to replace Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet on Marriage’ as a wedding reading for our times. Celebratory but never trite, it makes sense that this poem, with its evocation of physical juxtapositions, has been turned into a dance piece by the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. The dance piece, along with the fact that Blackpool residents knitted a huge version of his poem ‘Why’ for the Wordpool literature festival in 2010, indicates that Siddique has greater impact and connects with readers more directly than many more overtly ‘high-brow’, elitist contemporary British poets. Siddique is also a tireless performer, blogger, and marketer of his poems, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Full Blood reached number 1 in Amazon’s contemporary poetry chart in October 2011.

After the Prologue, there follow four parts to the collection: the first, ‘Via Negativa’, recalls the Christian philosophy that God is formless, so it is restrictive to describe Him through language, and preferable to discuss instead what He is not. The via negativa, or ‘negative theology’, is similar to the Islamic concept of lahoot salbi, popular with the Mutazali or rationalist school of philosophy and theology as well as Shia Islam; and it also overlaps productively with meditation (a practice Siddique himself adopts), in which the subject makes his or her mind blank in order to achieve self-transcendence. The first poem in the section, ‘Thirst’, resonates with this kind of negative theology:

Imagine thirst without knowing water.
And you ask me what freedom means.
Imagine love without love.
Some things are unthinkable,
until one day the unthinkable is here.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.
Some things we assume just are as they are,
no action is taken to make or sustain them.
Imagine love without love.
It is fear that eats the heart: fear and
endless talk, and not risking a step.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.
Fold away your beautiful thoughts.
Talk away curiosity, chatter away truth.
Imagine love without love.
Imagine believing in the whispers,
the screams and the gossip. Dancing to a tune
with no song to sing inside you.
Imagine love without love.

This poem about freedom is also extremely timely, given the volume’s publication in 2011, the year of revolutions (‘one day the unthinkable is here’). In the ensuing five-poem sequence ‘The Knife’, Siddique discusses racism in northern England, juxtaposing half-remembered puppy love with Andrea (‘or was it Julie’) with the need to escape from jackbooted Rochdale FC supporters. ‘Read your books,’ Siddique apostrophises himself, and by extension his introverted, misfit readership, ‘go from house to house, live/within sanctuaries, the streets are theirs’.

After the achingly personal and carnal ‘Reclaiming the Body’ comes the quasi-religious ‘Tree of Life’ section, which has overtones from all three Abrahamic religions, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism. Here, Siddique plays with the myth of Lilith, the female aspect of God, which is found in Judaism and Christianity, possibly dating even further back to Gilgamesh, the epic from third-millennium BCE Mesopotamia. Siddique posits the idea that Lilith is excised from the Bible by religious scholars, who un-write her name, stealing God’s wife from him and ‘make him lonely’. In the central seven-poem sequence, Siddique suggests that human life centres on the quest to discover the secret of the sacred masculine and feminine. The form of these poems is also innovative, as Siddique takes the traditional villanelle form and blends it with blank verse, creating a modern, unrhymed villanelle. Without the strictness of rhyme, the reinvented form allows greater scope for story-telling, and the three-line stanzas of the villanelle creates the quality of an incantation to reflect the ritualistic nature of the seven poems. This is most apparent in the triumphant final poem in the sequence, ‘Trial Seven – Love and the Body’, with its chant-like iteration ‘and all there is, is love and the body/[…] and this moment and this moment’.

The final part, ‘Xibulba’ takes its name from the Mayan underworld, and includes poems such as ‘Lustre’, a Keatsian reflection on a pot from the Manchester Art Galleries exhibition, and ‘Why’ about life as a second-generation migrant in Britain and the myth of return. The volume as a whole contains complex references, which serve to remake both European and Eastern literary traditions and evoke textured human experience: mortality, tenderness, war, peace, and alternative modes of living. Technically virtuosic yet direct and sensual, this is a collection I keep returning to.

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