Arji Manuelpillai’s debut collection, Improvised Explosive Device (out now with Penned in the Margins) explores the precarity of human existence in a world where violence suffuses every interaction. This book peels back the skin of a society “gasping / like blood bags” to reveal a terrible, raw hunger underneath. Even the landscape is like a bleeding body: “the road is a spinal chord, / the trees, severed nerve endings.”
The book begins with an epigraph from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.” But while the sea may be wide enough to enable at least the possibility of survival, the world Manuelpillai paints is one that “hums / like a closed café’s / fish tank,” where the very walls press in like “a child slamming / on the glass,” and there can be no escape. This image becomes an extended metaphor to explore the way people are pigeonholed into certain roles, their lack of options within society, racialized hate and state violence, and the process by which people become radicalized. There is a sense of dreadful inevitability in this collection – “everywhere is dolphin / mistaken for whale / a mother watches / her goldfish repeatedly / smash into a window” – and we may wonder what hope is there for humanity in a world where “everyone wants to see a body splayed on the road.”
Unsurprisingly, given the fish tank metaphor and the faces pressed up against the glass, this collection is heavily invested in questions of spectatorship, as well as the role of the media in abetting aggression. In “The cameraman,” a nature documentary about an elephant dragged to death by hyenas becomes a conceit with which to think through the viewer’s complicity and what it is to do nothing but watch when atrocity occurs, comforting ourselves that it has nothing to do with us: “look, / all anyone wants to do is belong, to feel like we are not part of / the sound of flesh pulled from the jugular, so mesmerizing.” Perhaps most unsettling is the viewer’s fascination with images of suffering. In this case, the glass walls of the tank function not only as a container, but a reflective surface, wherein we may see ourselves. In “Let’s just call them butterflies,” a poem that relies on another extended animal metaphor, a boy nurtures “an unhealthy obsession for butterflies,” and watches “a hundred or so videos of butterflies being slammed on sills,” until “he cannot stop / seeing it, there, in the space above the desk, dead, // the centerpiece of a bedroom.” Here, desire for “the way the wings flicker,” for the butterflies’ delicacy, “sipping honeydew, nectar,” is inextricable from the killing instinct.
Throughout the writing process, Manuelpillai conducted interviews with academic experts on radicalization, as well as with English Defence League members, parents of former ISIS fighters, and British army officers, leading to a series of persona poems. After a racist attack in “The Expendables,” the speaker of the poem – the perpetrator of the attack – reflects, “it’s just / good to feel a part of something”; after a boy is beaten up in “I love you man,” the speaker says to a friend, “I love you like the weight of my boot in the face of that cunt.” In a world where “violence [i]s the language of negotiation,” there can only be one ending – and it is terrifying to behold. The use of stacked monosyllables in many of the poems creates a stark staccato rhythm that puts the reader on edge, aware that something is always on the brink of happening – and everything, so precariously balanced, is in danger of collapse. For instance, in the poem “If you don’t like it, leave,” where busloads of far-right demonstrators go to defend monuments, the speaker says, “I beat myself up a few times a day […] hard enough to feel like a floor // after a party kissing a lit cig like a fuse from a stick of dynamite.” Like the glass walls pressing in on the fish tank, Manuelpillai exerts immense rhythmic pressure on his lines, so that each word feels like it too could explode.
Arguably, the book’s interest is not really in the individuals who enact violence, but in the society in which those individuals thrive: “maybe we focus / on the whale when / really it is the ocean / that led us here.” Over ratatouille in poem “5. A cigarette tastes better when the house is full,” a gardener tells the speaker “to stop the roots raising the pavement / the council trim the tips of branches.” In other words, it is society that has utterly failed to tackle the causes of hate, and instead is invested in a series of activities ranging from useless (like trimming the branches) to violent (including government policies like PREVENT in the UK, and policing in general). It is hard not to see a critique of government in this collection – both the ways surveillance has been used to terrorize marginalized and vulnerable communities in the UK and America, and the way racist discourses around the “War on Terror” have contributed to increases in hate crimes on both sides of the Atlantic. The effect of these measures is that by the end of the collection, the universe itself is being ripped to smithereens, and all that remains is loss – the space where a son once lived, “the empty chair.”