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British Museum by Daljit Nagra review – a questing, questioning third volume

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The poet breaks new, more political ground in a significant departure of style

When Daljit Nagra’s mischievous and distinctive first book of poems won the Forward debut prize 10 years ago, it prompted a frenzy of interview requests and newspaper features. “Immigrant’s Son Wins Forward” hollered one tabloid, while broadsheets wondered at the animated new writer publishing his debut with the esteemed Faber and Faber. At best, this was indicative of a mainstream British culture eager to package the writer as multicultural or postcolonial; at worst, it was an example of the social divisions and cultural unease that still plague our political climate with increasingly disturbing ramifications.

Witty, sardonic and self-aware, Nagra was one step ahead. “Must I wear only masks that don’t sit for a Brit” his comic alter ego scoffs in one poem: “Did you make me for the gap in the market?” Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007) was followed by Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! (2011), a second book that established Nagra as an astute cultural commentator, apt to combine knockabout comedy, literary allusion and a keen sense of political injustice to challenging effect. His poems are as likely to employ Punjabi-inflected English as they are to quote Wordsworth, conjuring memories of a British Asian childhood just as they energise the language in an update to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, where migrants “babble our lingoes, flecked by the chalk of Britannia!”

Related: Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy‑Machine!!! by Daljit Nagra – review

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