(REVIEW) Mutton Rolls by Arji Manuelpillai
Annie Muir reviews Mutton Rolls by Arji Manuelpillai (Outspoken Press, 2020), revealing poetic bite sized portions of the pain of reality, and poems as an explosion of a lifetime of being questioned about your identity.
> Brought out this year in the height of lockdown, Arji Manuelpillai’s debut pamphlet Mutton Rolls (Outspoken Press, 2020) has a light touch, despite tackling heavy subjects like racism, depression, cancer and civil war. Reading each poem is like eating a bite sized portion of the pain of reality, which is also stuffed with tiny burps and farts of laughter.
> The first line of the first poem is: ‘someone pretended to be me’. The poem is about a credit card fraudster who somehow ‘intercepted’ the speaker’s card and ‘spent 200 quid on/groceries’. The use of proper nouns like ‘Morrisons’ and the ‘NY cap’ distracts from the telling phrase ‘I imagine’, followed by a shopping list:
toothpaste, noodles, coco-pops
definitely leeks and potatoes
for a leek and potato soup
(crème fraîche to stir in)
The idea that this is a list of what the supposed ‘someone’ bought is contradicted by the word ‘definitely’. This intrusion of the speaker’s preferences suggests that this is where the poet starts to ‘imagine’ what it would be like to be ‘me’: what would this ‘someone’ have done if they were pretending to be me? They would have ‘caught the bus, the 343 perhaps’ to ‘that Peckham café/on the white side of Peckham’ where they would have:
sat on a shared table
had tea and carrot cake
read the paper, leant
back in their seat
so that their hands fell to their sides
and the lady to the right
casual as breathing
pulled her handbag close
In any poem it is always the poet who is pretending to be ‘me’: using words to try and recreate the feelings and sensations of a real mind. Here, the poet manages this by making the reader feel comfortable (who doesn’t enjoy reading a newspaper with some tea and cake?) before shocking us with an ending which makes us feel profoundly uncomfortable. This is a poem about the baggage that comes with being this particular ‘me’: ‘I’ might like ‘crème fraîche’ and ‘carrot cake’ and spend time in predominantly ‘white’ spaces, but ‘I’ am not white.
> These poems are an explosion of a lifetime of being questioned about your identity. The poem, ‘after the Sri Lankan bombing that killed 360 (after the 20 year war that killed significantly more)’ begins: ‘after the news my skin feels darker’. Later, the speaker states that their ‘Sri Lankan’ identity is ‘only’ felt through the eyes of ‘inquisitive white people’, suggesting that their ‘skin’ colour is also felt through this lens. The explosion comes to a head in ‘monkey’, in which the speaker smashes through the window of a pub and tears the place apart while chanting ‘look at me’: ‘NO! I will not keep calm and carry on I’ll rip//the flag from the wall’. This poem is a rejection of all stereotypes of ‘brown boys’ as ‘reliable and sweet’ (‘brown boys in kavos’); it is a response to every ‘inquisitive white’ person who has asked “where are you from?” after trying to ‘read’ your skin colour ‘like a public toilet door’ (‘Cecelia says we’re all fucked up’).
> Arji often uses comedy to talk about race. The poem ‘nominated for a BAME prize’, about the use of the commonly used acronym, starts ‘it’s always in capitals/like someone is shouting it’, and goes on to describe that seeing ‘so many BAME outfits’ makes the speaker feel ‘almost unBAME’. Comparing himself to other ‘BAME’ people, who have the ‘BAME outfits’ to prove it, causes the speaker to question his own identity. And again this ‘BAME’ identity is thrust upon the speaker by the perspective of ‘inquisitive white people’ trying to categorise the identity of anyone who isn’t white, and doing so by lumping them all in the same category.
> Arji plays with this idea of naming and grouping racial categories further in poems like ‘brown boys in kavos’ and ‘white people’, which starts ‘every sort of white people’ and goes on to use lots of meaty metaphors to describe their ‘pink’ bodies: ‘sizzling/bacon sausage/strips glistening on the grill’. The term ‘white people’ is repeated multiple times throughout, as if the speaker is really enjoying enunciating and joking around with the phrase:
I went to Tenerife and all I got was
This celebration of the term (‘oh wonderfully/white people’) harks back to acronym ‘BAME’ and its use of only two categories: people (aka ‘white people’) and Everyone Else. White people often don’t see themselves as white, and they aren’t used to hearing themselves described as white, or being laughed at for being white. The poem ends with the white people returning to work: ‘flashing your skin/line a fine new coat’. This sudden swerve into direct address and the striking image of turning up to work naked is yet another skillful way of putting the reader into the shoes (or ‘coat’) of someone with a skin colour that ‘inquisitive white people’ can’t help but question, the same way they’d say: “Nice tan! Have you been on holiday?”
> Concerned as these poems are with image and how things are perceived, it is not surprising that Arji pays a lot of attention to the look of his poems on the page. The poem ‘an IKEA flat pack’ is arranged into the shape of the ‘IKEA shelving unit’ that acts as a fly on the wall, exposing the problems within a couple’s relationship; ‘white people’ is centrally aligned (maybe to illustrate that white people often see themselves at the centre of the world?); in ‘regret’ the speaker uses the addition of Tamil script to illustrate the sound of ‘my mum chatting in Tamil to the boy at the petrol station counter’. Arji perfectly describes the feeling of listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand:
plucking subtitles from their eyebrows
intention in the corners of their lips
snatching at the remnants of english
dropped like loose change
The poem ‘because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit’ is spliced into two viewpoints: a couple telling the speaker about their romantic engagement on a ‘sandy dune’ outside a ‘beach hut’ in Sri Lanka, alongside a description of the brutalities of the civil war waged between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which lasted from 1983 to 2009:
changed me she says the bars the sea-views biryani kothu roti
plus the people are so generous they don’t hassle like Indians
they’d drop a bomb wait five minutes drop another to
kill the rescue party
The best poets use their poetry not to tell you something, but to show you what it is like to live through their eyes, or ‘the meat of my chest’ (‘cancer cancer cancer’), and to encourage you to learn more for yourself, so you are never ignorant enough to say to someone ‘I don’t know why you don’t move back there’.
> In ‘The Long History of Sri Lanka’s Short Eats’, Sharanya Deepak describes the Sri Lankan population’s love of handy snacks that can be eaten anywhere at any time: ‘It is this fluidity that has helped the short eat travel abroad with the diaspora. Mutton rolls, for example, are the short eat of choice among Sri Lankan Tamils in Britain.’ This pamphlet, consisting of 18 poems over 21 pages, is a tough, meaty snack that will leave you wanting more.
Mutton Rolls is available to buy now via Outspoken Press.
Text: Annie Muir