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Paisley, Rakshan RizwanThe cover is a shiny laminate, with a background of yellow paisley pattern, like curtain material. The title is in large black caps in the centre, in a handwriting style -- they may be drawn. Beneath this in small lower case 'Poems by Rakhshan Rizwan'. Both are centred.

The Emma Press, 2017 £6.50

Paisley, paisley, paisley...

So I’ve been there, I’ve got friends there, I’ve worn it, I've drawn it (in the sense of drawing curtains) – and I had no idea what it was. It is there on the cover of the pamphlet, the little curving, leaf-like symbol that always seemed so boring to me on the fabrics I grew up with. What could even sound more ordinary than the word ‘paisley’?

But now I know, and it is not boring. Familiarity breeds contempt. That symbol is no other than ‘the boteh’. It’s Persian, imported in fabrics in the 18th and 19th centuries from India, and then copied in mass market textiles produced in the unromantic and industrial town of Paisley in Scotland. The source was forgotten, its associations long lost to me.

But the boteh has far-reaching symbolic meanings. Look for them in Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan. In this pamphlet, it is (among other things) a symbol what has been stolen (‘the paisley symbol soaked in royal blood’) by one culture from another.

Rakshan Rizwan’s poem ‘Europe’ talks about origins and overlays, the way one church is literally and mephorically superimposed on another, and then the ancient traces dug up again. But even in the digging up, the story is distorted and damaged:

They have taken paisley captive and retained the Kohinoor,
but nothing else. Europa’s long, blonde hair
trails all over the cathedral.
She supervises the undigging, the constant
unexcavating.

But this young poet is not afraid to do her own bit of undigging. In her title poem, she uses a ghazal form in which every couplet rhymes ‘paisley’ with ‘paisley’. The word is repeated so many times that all shreds of former association disappear in a furious blizzard of repetition.

There is fierce energy here, and uncompromising intensity. I see the paisley symbol for the first time in my life. 

Helena Nelson