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Book Review: Chimene Suleyman, 'Outside Looking On'

16/09/2014 12:06 | Updated 15 November 2014

Chimene Suleyman, a London-born poet, journalist and essayist of Turkish heritage, has produced "Outside Looking On", a debut collection of poems for Influx Press; a very fine piece of work which, given its timing, captures London at a pivotal moment in its history. I first became aware of her work when she curated a poetry evening in Shoreditch, Kid I Wrote Back, and subsequently saw her writing shared across a variety of media platforms, most notably The Independent and The Quietus. Suleyman's collection deals with the subject of Canary Wharf, her tales of love and loneliness taking place amongst its foothills of stainless steel; a place which has come to dominate London's skyline as quickly as its cash-over-everything ethos has come to dominate life in this city. This corporate backdrop, at some times elegant and pitiless, at others glowing with a distant and oddly comforting warmth, provides the perfect frame for Suleyman's poems. For example, in "Tartan", she swiftly sketches a picture of silent, exquisite longing:

"A new home will not become as such until the fridge is
full for its first time.
With this, in heavy bags of shopping,
her fingers remembered him."

Elsewhere, she deftly gives life to the machines which themselves seem to be some sort of permanent scaffolding in this part of the city:

"There is a crane outside the window,
licking the air with its hook, blocking
my view."

This book is a procession of reminiscences, punctuated every now and then by Brian, who acts almost as the collection's lead character, with four poems dedicated to his life and musings. You can imagine him being played by Timothy Spall, as, in "Brian, the Relationship Counsellor", he comes to the ultimate realisation:

"He has never been in love. Name him
A man who has. Or a woman, for that matter.
But he's watched a woman pee from behind
an open door. After, he's seen television shows
with her next to him. Fallen asleep, chin
an ungainly position on his chest. Thinking
about it, he probably has been in love."

Elsewhere, there are characters so smartly drawn that they could have stepped from the pages of a novel, such as the flashy City type in "Smollensky's" who demands of the author "Islam: sell it to me." Whether the themes are of bitterness, displacement or hope - sometimes the three moods occurring within the same poem - Suleyman confronts them with an unsparing honesty; a bravery of self-examination that is rare in London's citizens, let alone its writers. As her collection ends, the stirring final piece, "To Whom It May Concern", feels more like the close of an album than a book, so immersive and starkly musical is the world created here; of fervent traders and sniffer dogs, night-shift workers and city-dwellers whose lives are slowly losing their lustre. And all the while, Canary Wharf sits fittingly on a peninsula, almost adrift, seeming ever further across the water from the financial realities of nearly everyone else who dwells in the same town. For producing this work, given both its tone and its time, Suleyman is not merely an outstanding writer, but an important one.