Sarah Lasoye Fovea / Ages Ago Hajar Press £10
The problem with the passage of time is that we can never see beyond the moment we occupy. Our desires and experiences can cloud our understanding of what constitutes past, present and future. When Sarah Lasoye, author of debut poetry collection Fovea / Ages Ago plays with the stuff of tender memory through an exploration of her own childhood, she rips the past out of its distinct casing and leaves its entrails on the page for inspection. She challenges the overarching temporal order via an exploration of her relational memories. In other words, she turns the past into something tangible, packs us in her pocket and takes us along with her to school, to the playground, to her first experience of love. We arrive not knowing what to expect.
“The fovea centralis is a small depression that sits in the retina, right at the back of your eye, and is responsible for producing sharp, detailed vision” Lasoye tells us. Discovering this piece of anatomy was like opening the door to a part of herself. When she was a child, all Lasoye wanted was perception and acuity. The book opens with a detailed authors note in which she traces her most formative memories and details how those experiences made her feel. For Lasoye, feeling is paramount; she treats feelings like a binding agent that give memory its substance. After all, everything that has happened to us helps to shape who we are. So starting from as far back as her mind lets her go, she begins her inventory of raw recollection. She remembers the first time she felt real guilt after being caught in an elaborate lie, boys spit-spraying fruit across the playground which has left her with a strong dislike of apples, oranges, bananas and grapes. She remembers the first time a boy told her she could not do something and she did it anyway.
The specificity of these memories nudges the reader to go in search of their most formative memories, too. The collection unfolds in a linear fashion, heralded by the ocular metaphor. We get some sense that we are watching the speaker grow up as the collection progresses. We begin with a game of duck, duck, goose and end with a go-go dance on a bartop in South London. Earlier poems favour the construction of image over structure, they are rich and varied. Nonetheless, as the collection closes and the poems become less fixed and more miscellaneous, Lasoye hits her stride with her puckish use of form; Jericho Brown’s duplex, sequential excerpts, experimental spacing, a sonnet with no rhyme. Lasoye’s writing feels raw, underpinned by the kind of boldness only children have. She is at her best rendering images that cascade as the reader moves through the work, falling fantastical. When she tells us in “School Poem (Fed)” that she “found that [she] could be fed by a tool for feeding / and.. never hungered again” we imagine how painful swallowing a spoon might be and when she describes how “one House Red forgets you your watch” in “After the Reading” we can picture a group of friends, black, bustling, red-wine stained lips, losing track of time and so much more in the pub after an event.
As we follow Lasoye through Fovea / Ages Ago, we slowly see how she is discovering what it means to be with others; the tug-of-war of between the formation of self and the compulsion to share who you are with anyone who will listen. She takes every version of her childhood self seriously, treating them all with affection and mother-like care. She has been many people, sometimes at the same time. In “An Angel, Laughing Herself out of the Sky” She is the girl who felled another girl like a tree and then laughed about it, “Dear God, I have something to tell you. I peeled a girl today, like she was an apple. She went bright red and her eyes bulged to hold the pain. You should have seen it.”
Lasoye’s cruel admission demonstrates the child’s propensity for spite and revenge. Her epistolary description turns the sugar-sweet image of childhood on its head, encouraging the reader to contend with the notion hat children have agency and that to some extent they can grapple with the harm (metaphorical and otherwise) that they inflict on others. in “Liam” she is the girl who is always falling for small boys, especially Liam, who splits a soft moment with her. “All the boys I like are small– smaller than me and small altogether. Flighty. Smiles gummy and wide as mid-July, full as major chords.” Here, Liam acts as a stand in for the author’s relationship to masculinity and to the gendered script that will dictate and regulate her desire. Lasoye reflects on what kind of boys she liked as a way to indicate what kind of girl she is or the person she will become. This compact stanza is small, sweet, a pure distillation of a memory that tells us almost nothing about Liam but reveals something about the poet who is remembering him. In “SCHOOL POEM (SPILLED WARM),” she is the girl who wishes the shame and embarrassment of urine-soaked school uniform on the girls who looked on. “Now, I want all the people who made me feel (because they knew they could make me feel) to feel what I make them. I want the girls who stood on toilet seats and towered over my stall to have the backs of their legs turn cold, run down by their own spilled warm too.”
Here Lasoye’s young speaker seeks to regain control: understanding the power of shame, she wishes to wield it in the opposite direction. The repetitive nature of this extract, the switches in tense and pronouns make a mess of the memory. In line with the collection, the speaker’s intention is relational; she is working through her own embarrassment in order to find a way to make others feel as she does. Lasoye knows that poetry is not for the self. The only writing worth defending is shared and social, it refuses to retreat into the boundaried self of neoliberal fantasy. Fovea / Ages Ago illustrates how we make and unmake ourselves and each other. Children are watery things; in the process of creating themselves they construct tall tales, behave territorially, they are mean, shy but most importantly, at the mercy of the world. Therein lies the collection’s greatest lesson: Lasoye is asking us to radically embrace vulnerability. This implicit suggestion returns vulnerability from the possession of the individual and asks us instead to understand it as a formative political ethic that should dictate our relationships with one another. To see the way children see is to dare to uncover one another. Her poems ask us to imagine self-actualisation as a collective act; which is why they seem unable to exist on their own. Lasoye is always, inadvertently, talking about someone else.
Lola Olufemi is a black feminist writer and CREAM/Stuart Hall foundation researcher from London. Her work focuses on the uses of the feminist imagination and its relationship to cultural production, political demands and futurity. She is author of Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power (2020), Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, forthcoming from Hajar Press in 2021 and a member of ‘bare minimum’, an interdisciplinary anti-work arts collective.