We closed the borders folks, we nailed it
No trees, no plants, no immigrants Jackie Kay

Update December 2023: It’s very touching to see so many new views of this old post written in 2016. It’s a tribute to the great humanity of Benjamin Zephaniah who died on Thursday 7 December 2023. His loss is mourned but his poetry lives on. His irrepressible sense of fun breaks through in Poem No 4. [See also Mother Country, get it right.]

For west-centric liberals, 2016 has been the worst of all years.  That’s such a constant refrain there’s now an echoing response on Twitter, ‘Stop blaming it on 2016’ is petulant and unimaginative in its repetition. Yet absolutely spot on.

This was the year the developed world woke up to discover the impossible can happen, and the unthinkable can be not only thought but spoken aloud to cheers from angrily exultant crowds.

In the victories of Trump and Brexit, we discover, we’re reaping a noxious crop we began sowing many years ago.  When it comes to suffering we still have a lot to learn.  As Aleppo-born Mohamed Raouf Bachir writes in his 2014 poem I Am a Refugee:

In my country,

There is only hell, no heaven

Merry Christmas?

At the ragged end of this sorry year, what poetry can we pluck to raise spirits for Christmas 2016?

I go in search of words which might offer explanation and compassion, understanding or solace, or even a laugh.  Here’s what I find: five very different poem connecting  us and the world we inhabit with humour, humanity and hope.

Each one includes a video or audio link to the poet’s own readings. That’s partly so we can share the whole poem without breaching copyright but mainly – whether they move us to laughter or tears – because that’s how poetry comes alive.

1. Nigel Farage – by Sir Ian Bowler MP

No longer just a figure of fun, Farage enjoys the oxygen of publicity without the accompanying exposure of serious scrutiny.  One of my wishes for 2017 would require all radio and television channels to balance interviews with Trump’s wannabe best friend with this poem by Sir Ian Bowler MP (aka comedian Natt Tapley). Watch how wickedly his expression changes with each iteration of the name.

Nigel Farage, Nigel Farage

You won’t find Romainians

building his garage

Should foreigners get British jobs?

Not on your life

Except for his assistant who’s German

And also his wife

2. Extinction – by Jackie Kay

Climate change is here. It won’t be slowed or blocked by Brexit borders or Trump walls yet it was scarcely mentioned during EU referendum and US election debates. During the summer of 2016 Scotland’s Makar, Jackie Kay walked in solidarity with refugees (Refugee Tales) and poets from Shore to Sbore. Her reading of Extinction first published in Carol Ann Duffy’s 2015 collection acquired new significance after 24 June.

We closed the borders folks, we nailed it
No trees, no plants, no immigrants

3. Reema’s poem – a young Syrian refugee’s words

Beyond imagining, the suffering inflicted in the Syrian war has claimed many thousands of lives and displaced millions of people. The UK responds with shameful indifference to the human rights and needs of refugee children. In 2013 Oxfam began publishing the poetry and drawings of Reema, then 12 years old, now living in Lebanon (Reema’s last day at home). Her words spoken here describe her loss of country, friends and home.

Shall I write about my house that I no longer see
where I can no longer be,
Shall I write about flowers which now smell destruction?

4. Talking Turkeys – Benjamin Zephaniah

It’s tempting to focus on Benjamin Zephaniah’s political thoughts. For the Birmingham-born poet, Brexit is personal: 2016, as he told the Independent, was the year he experienced racism for the first time since the 1980s.

But this is Christmas and Zephaniah’s performance of Turkeys is so gloriously full of fun (with an occasional political twist) it would be a mortal sin to miss it out (though I’m now wondering about my Christmas meal): ‘Cos turkeys just wanna have fun!’

…it’s nothing to do wid Christ Mass
Humans get greedy an waste more dan need be
An business men mek loadsa cash

5. The Glassblower Dances – Rachel McCrum

And finally to Rachel McCrum, a leading light in Scotland’s spoken word scene. The Glassblower Dances is an aural delight, a performance piece of great beauty with an unexpected message of cheer – in the ‘alchemy of changing dirt into something fluid, strong and beautiful’, and a writer’s ability to touch people’s hearts with a phrase that doesn’t’t stop wars but makes people smile

And all this happened because once upon a time someone thought to write upon a wall

with joy

First published on Sceptical Scot