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 John Siddique

Crocus, 2021

 Reviewed by Emily Zobel Marshall & Latifa Akay


Emily Zobel Marshall

The sixth collection by prize-winning poet John Siddique, So, is dedicated to:

 My father and my son

And this moment between

Siddique, who occupies that ‘moment between’ both physically and metaphorically, offers readers of So a space of stillness, a moment to contemplate life and breathe. A sense of tranquillity descends upon the reader of Siddique’s deceptively simple stanzas as he draws our attention to the magnificence in the seemingly mundane; the sparkle of sunlight on water, the wheeling of gulls between bridges.

Siddique explains that his last two collections of poetry were complex in both form and theme, while So is a collection in which he wishes to return to poems ‘more akin to an exhibition of paintings or photographs’. He is successful in this, as he draws our attention to life’s detail, habitually overlooked as we rush past, which is lovingly enlarged and brought into sharp focus.

It has been over a decade since Siddique released his last collection. ‘Where have I been?’ he asks, rhetorically. He suffered, he explains in his introduction, a dramatic near-death experience in an Indian government hospital in 2014. He was ‘gone’ for five minutes, and since that moment every day is viewed by him as a gift and a blessing.  He now enjoys the simple pleasures in life: holding his wife’s hand, walking amongst the trees. He has let go, he tells us, of his ‘literary ego’ and the need to be a ‘somebody’.

There is certainly a search for humility here, a focus on the dissolving of ego and a sense of spiritual quest. Readers may know that Siddique is a ‘Sacred Teacher’ and a spiritual guide, and this translates, a few times, into a slightly didactic undertone. Some stanzas left me imagining myself listening to the words of a leader at a spiritual retreat. This tone does not persist throughout the entire collection.

The first poems in So are awash with immersive images of water; rivers, whirlpools and oceans. Here Siddique has his full talents on display, capturing the profundity in the minutiae of life and allowing us to step into otherworldly spatial and temporal arrangements:

The River Calder and the Hebden Water

become one name in an unequal marriage.

 Away towards York, the Calder becomes the Aire,

though each was once an idea inside the rain.

(Whirlpool, p. 16).

The collapsing of time and space also echoes throughout the stunningly evocative poem ‘One in the Morning’: ‘I have never known how to measure the night/you have cigarettes to go by’.  In other poems, the drama of the struggle for love is mirrored by the coastlines and the rural landscapes of northern England and the cities of the Indian subcontinent. There is quirk in this collection, as most of the poems begin with longitudinal and latitudinal map coordinates. Perhaps surprisingly, the inclusion of coordinates enhances the sense of trans-global wondering, rather than offering a strong sense of geographical rootedness.

There are more serious, autobiographical and historical poems here too, such as ‘Another Somme,’ dedicated to Siddique’s great-grandfather who died at the Somme, and ‘Blue Water Lilies’, a hard-hitting, haunting poem focused on torture and police brutality. The searing imagery of hardship in ‘Rebellion’ forms a part of a set of understated yet impactful politicised pieces, many of them ‘in memory’ of people who have suffered pain and great injustices; ‘in the aroma of coffee…sits a man whose life has piled stones upon him’.

Yet the best poems in this collection are about love; the vulnerability between a couple in the aftermath of an abortion, the tenderness and rituals of long-married love, the unexpected offering of flowers to a man. They shape the collection as a whole, giving it its honest, frank, wide-open feel. Longing, joy and melancholia sit side by side and the poetic vison here is keenly observant. These poems settle us into that meditative, nurturing, holistic moment in the midst of our over-busy, bustling lives. Siddique offers us a space;‘

– cut from time to be lived tonight’.

(One in the Morning)




Latifa Akay

John Siddique’s latest timely offering, So, has an enduring, grounding quality – a collection that makes things slow down when you pick it up. As Siddique tells us in his introduction, So is his first collection since a near-death experience – or ‘actual death experience’, as he describes it – in 2014, when his heart stopped, but returned to life five minutes later in an intensive care unit in India. With So, his poems speak to the very essence of what it is to be alive and to exist in a world where the passing of time, deterioration and lifecycles are inevitable. Like the turn of those lifecycles, in So Siddique returns again and again to the same questions. 

The world Siddique wants us to be present to is one in which all life is connected, and existence is fractal: in ‘Lungs’, ‘Where the leaves will come / mirror the passages and capillaries in my lungs’ – the leaf is him and he is the leaf. In ‘Perspective’, ‘In the heart of the leaf, / the tree. In the heart of tree, / the forest.’ In ‘Whirlpool’, the River Calder and the Hebden Water are ‘swelling as they receive themselves.’ Eventually, the River Calder becomes the River Aire, ‘though each was once an idea inside the rain.’ In ‘A Specific 35° 1’ 60” N 9° 30’ 0” E’, in memory of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death through self-immolation was a spark at the beginning of the Arab Spring, Siddique shows that pain and suffering are also fractal and cumulative, ‘A desperate moment based on all the desperate moments.’ In ‘Brocade’, which ends with the line, ‘The one and the zero / do not care to know each other,’ we see a wish for interdependence and connection – a lament that in the making of a brocade coat, ‘The thread which warps and wefts, / knows nothing of gold and silver’ – and a reminder that ‘Power is forgetful / of its roots. Roots are forgetful in the dark.’ 

Siddique invites us in many of the poems in this collection to create clearing for inner reflection and connection; ‘Ground Floor’ closes with ‘Not to flail against the darkness / but to stay home and wash the dirt from / the ground floor windows of the heart.’ In ‘One In The Morning’, he writes beautifully ‘- all our nights reaching back into forever, / though sometimes a night falls back to earth / – so we may see who we are now.’ 

Siddique is a spiritual teacher, and his guiding voice through these poems will feel timely to many readers. For those for whom such steering will not land as comfortably, Siddique’s pragmatism, humour and gravitation to the detail of the ordinary will be welcome. In ‘The Years Ahead Are Heavy’, ‘a hippy woman’ ‘whoops and breaks the air / until the tea lady from the church / talks with her to restore the holy peace.’ In ‘Between Bridges 51° 30’ 38” N   0° 6’ 36” W’, gulls are ‘a mixture of vermin and spirituality’; in ‘Rose’, ‘the flower is / a crushed-up Coke can.’

Ultimately, Siddique’s spiritual message is one of love. In ‘Voices’, he writes, ‘Today, just like yesterday, the work is / learning to live the truth of love.’ Love in So is energy and life-giving: in ‘Nine Allegories of Power’, it ‘breathes back more / than the world has taken out of your sweet body’; in ‘Evening Passage’, ‘this love is our wake / on the water’, and in ‘The Kiss’, a kiss ‘fills the well, tapping the roots / of water from the deep ground.’ One of the marks that So leaves on its reader is of wonder in the ordinary – in ‘Bottle Tune [Night]’, ‘A spirit child blowing over / the open mouth of a glass bottle […] to make / a one note tune’; ‘Holy the high air / breath of the night.’

While inviting us to pay attention to the macro, Siddique constantly draws us back to the cellular and specific – we see this in his choice to accompany many of the titles in this collection with specific map coordinates for the places in those poems – a suggestion perhaps in line with the message of the final poem of this collection, that the divine is within all of us, that ‘God is the breath inside the breath.’ We may have answers that we’re searching for, if we allow ourselves to be open to that possibility.