Opening Nagra’s award-winning debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! is a poem meant to be heard, not read, starring an Indian immigrant to Britain, a newly-married, drinking, dancing workingman, brimming with energy and appetite. A more lovable version of Berryman’s Henry/Mr. Bones, he is talking to us, we are almost certain, though we don’t know who he thinks we are. With a vulgar voice uncannily reminiscent of one’s Punjabi uncle, the speaker is of a sort rarely (successfully) rendered in Indian Diaspora poetry, which has hitherto featured elegant, editorial speakers who wield the Queen”s English with ease, self-consciousness, and occasional guilt. Not told through the mediation of second or third generation children, nor the subdued hindsight of a grandfather, the poem and its speaker make of the past the present.
On one hand, Nagra does what poets do with their immigrant speakers. Things exist in pairs: his English pop culture references are mixed with Punjabi syntax, he tangos to the Pakeezah record, his wife makes him roti at home while his mate Jimmy John’s girlfriend shoves “his plate of / chicken pie and dry white / potato” at him “like Hilda Ogden”. In nearly each line, Nagra gives the speaker both the ordering force of Old English style alliteration and conversational idiosyncrasies, making him at once a bard and an enthusiastic friend. This happens right off the bat, in the memorable first stanza: “Di barman’s bell done dinging / so I phone di dimply-mississ, / Putting some gas on cookah, / bonus pay I bringin!”