Victoria Adukwei Bulley appreciates three debut collections that understand the weight of language
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we live in the newness of small differences
It goes without saying that any good poet will be alive to the functions of words – not just their meanings, but their shapes, sounds and music. This being the case, we should add that Raymond Antrobus is a poet who is deeply attuned to the ways that languages can embrace or exclude. In The Perseverance, his stunning and dynamic debut collection, we meet a skilful examination of the ways that d/Deafness, race and masculinity intersect.
Antrobus walks us through a continuum of the d/Deaf experience across time and place. ‘Sign has no future or past; it is a present language’, states the speaker of ‘Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris’. The irony of the American Sign Language gesture for ‘alive’ – ‘both thumbs pointing at your lower abdominal, // index fingers pointing up like two guns in the sky’, as the poem describes it – is juxtaposed with the devastating death of Harris, an unarmed deaf man shot by US police in 2016. There is a clear statement here about the potential for inhumanity faced by d/Deaf individuals in a predominantly hearing world, and the unrelenting persistence of this reality.
One of the most liberating poems in the collection is ‘Deaf School by Ted Hughes’, in which Antrobus’s only act of authorship is to strike through every line in Hughes’s original poem. It is enthralling to see the original ‘Deaf School’ – a poem that would likely not be printed today – emphatically eliminated:
The deaf children were monkey nimble, fish tremulous and sudden. Their faces were alert and simple Like faces of little animals
Antrobus’s intervention renders the Hughes we have accepted as a giant within the English poetic tradition, symbolically, as a student – one whose assignment is prone to being struck through with a teacher’s pen, like any other. There is an art to this beyond superficial transgression. Like Antrobus, anyone who lives from experiences of marginalisation, disability or otherness will hardly be unfamiliar with negation. In such a position, how one speaks, eats or dresses is equally liable to be crossed out, erased, or overwritten. Antrobus’s deconstruction of Hughes’s text is not simply an act of writing back but writing over; of highlighting and correcting simultaneously.
Elsewhere in The Perseverance we receive similar, crucial reminders of how the marginalised are too often tasked with explaining their realities to those who hold power. This is encapsulated affectingly in the poem ‘Dr Marigold Re-Evaluated’, which informs us that in British Sign Language ‘if you are crying and someone asks, “are you crying?” you must answer with a smile and a nod to affirm’. What can we say about the composition of BSL if to admit tearfulness one must force a smile? At what point does signifying the affirmative to others – answering yes; signifying presence – constitute an erasure of the self? To what extent does the communication of d/Deaf individuals become a service performed for the benefit of the hearing world?
Time and again Antrobus demonstrates his finely tuned awareness that the purpose of language has only ever been to create signs – vehicles of meaning – that enable us to reach one another. In the impressive poem ‘To Sweeten Bitter’ – after which Antrobus named his 2017 pamphlet with Out-Spoken Press – the young speaker takes to bibliomancy as a means of establishing order. Using a dictionary gifted to him by his father, he asks ‘what is difficult about love?’ The book opens onto to the word ‘grasp’. This poem is pivotal for the way it refines the definition of hearing into one that does not exclude the d/Deaf experience. To be heard is to be understood. To be understood – whether by word or sign – is to feel held, just as to make the effort to understand is to hold. How may we reach out and hold those who use alternative tools of language? How do we let ourselves be held?
Communication is a process of give and take which, as Antrobus beautifully illustrates in this urgent debut, no one should have to live without.
Zaffar Kunial’s Us is startling in its ability to illustrate how, when enmeshed in the process of remembering, we cling to what we can. Where what we recall are words, we are apt to unpick them to their very foundations, down to the scaffolding of syntax and speech. In this, Kunial has a razor like sharpness, expertly combined with a warmth that prevents the reader from feeling wounded.
Most impressively, Kunial depicts what it is like to grow up as a person of mixed heritage, transmuting a complex experience of identity into an exploration of the fissures within language itself. We see glimpses of this from early on in the collection, especially in ‘The Word’, a retrospective of a youthful summer spent indoors in avoidance of the world. The faulty grammar of the speaker’s observing father – ‘Whatever is matter / must enjoy the life’ – provokes a touching interior moment of guilt, humility and acceptance. Guilt, stemming from the speaker’s awareness that he ‘knew better’ than his father about the structuring of sentences in English; at the same time, humility, for knowing that his superior mastery of the language, his closer proximity to Englishness, did not save him from feelings of depression, leaving him ‘stuck inside while the sun was out’. This is a poem with a weight that transcends its brevity. Structured fittingly as a broken sonnet with its middlemost two lines suspended between its remaining halves, the poem visually emulates the sense of being caught between cultures. The form itself works in tandem with the speaker, who describes himself as being ‘half right / half wrong’, like the wording of his father’s attempt at reassurance.
Similarly, within ‘Empty Words’, one of two haiku sequences of the same title, we find the following:
Letters. West to east Mum’s hand would write; Dad’s script goes east to west. Received.
Kunial’s use of haiku is thrilling for the way that he combines the familiarity of form with the uneasiness of cultures that sit in contrast. The abrupt statement ‘Received’ suggests a comforting playfulness that Kunial is willing to bring to a poem; an assuredness that this does not undermine all that is deeply serious, often painful, in his work. In Us, Kunial shapes an experience of what it looks like to think a thought and also cope with it at the same time. Most arresting of all are the moments when the speaker seems to pause mid-poem and turn to us. This happens on several occasions, but most triumphantly in the title poem, when we are addressed humbly with the wish: ‘I hope you get, here, where I’m coming from / I hope you’re with me on this’. Arising later in the collection, this stretching-out of a hand toward the reader impacts us in the modesty of its aspiration. We are offered much, and demanded of little. There is a patience in Kunial’s writing, with his eye for lightness and understatement, that allows us to follow him.
It could be said that we live in the newness of small differences, an imaginative debut from Sohini Basak, is about animals, but that would only be partially true. Instead, it is a collection about us, as humans, with our basic animal needs for comfort and order. Throughout it is a sense that the most quotidian of events have significance, often of a greater or lesser weight than can be comfortably borne. Where such significance is not seen, it is still felt. In the first poem, ‘Enclosure’, the speaker notes resignedly that
[…] what does not happen to me happens elsewhere after all. I was not always here, I am often not present.
Basak’s interests do not lie in hierarchies of existence, or ideas of pre-determined fortune. With her eye trained consistently on the ‘elsewhere after all’, she consistently examines what acts we each perform to believe in our own agency. In ‘Sorting Winter Days’, a mother and daughter adjust the furniture of their household: rooms are reassigned usages, a bedroom becomes a living room, and not even doorknobs are spared. At the bottom of it all, an admission:
[…] we move what we can since we cannot, or, we dare not change our lives entirely, we live in the newness of small differences […]
The poem occurs in the difference between just so and too much change, and the perimeters are blurry. In ‘The Brightest Thing I Saw Today was a Dead Kingfisher on the Road’, a speaker remarks that ‘your hands are more solid if you are raised an atheist’. The focus upon hands again leads us to questions of power and usefulness – our ability not simply to be subject to change, but to make changes without a tiresome human fragility intervening.
If at times we live in the newness of small differences is a challenging collection to read, this is only due to its density. Basak is not shy of writing extendedly. Like Kunial, her playfulness with language is a recurring aspect, but where Kunial’s poems are staccato and exact, Basak’s adopt a maximalist approach. Frequently moving into passages of prose, it is as though she draws us into a magnified perspective of the world within which we are miniaturised by the scale of her poems. This is admirable, but at points risks being overwhelming. Basak is best when she is at her most succinct. Certain lines in the collection boost our momentum as we read, such as in ‘Poraghati’, where we are asked, ‘How many near misses add up to a family?’, and elsewhere, in ‘Salt’, where ‘[we] sit at the table passing around the blame’ and see that ‘No one takes a slice.’ These are the points at which Basak’s vision is clearest. Her sharp observations serve as bolts within her prose workings, fixing the collection together, rooting it down in the world it paints yet towering over and around it. When a speaker asks ‘what should i stand next to so that you / can see how small i am’, we recognise the need for concrete emotional reference points in our own lives. We understand, intimately, Basak’s sense of scale. These are the moments in her debut that make a world of difference.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, writer and filmmaker from London, and a winner of a 2018 Eric Gregory Award.
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