A review of Filigree Ed. Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Peepal Tree Press, 2018)
In 2018 while navigating my way through the very early stages of my poetry career, I wrote a poem called My Breakfast: an imagining of different morning routines on Earth and off-world colonies, with references to typical British produce; however, I made the grave decision to include a papaya. After reading the poem at an open mic I was approached by white audience members congratulating me for prevailing “once again” at imbuing “Blackness” into my work. The presence of an “exotic” fruit had thwarted my attempt to become a poet. Instead, I became a “Black poet” (or more specifically “a Black female poet” with men also expressing admiration for the way in which I spoke about my ovaries because I referenced ‘fried eggs’.) I have always supported critical readings of poems, but this encounter left an impression on my relationship with poetics and myself. I became vigilant against the infuriating policing of Black poets and the rhetoric we choose to talk about. And, it encouraged a desire to find a safer space to express myself without judgement, or fear/ pressure of fulfilling and not fulfilling a role. I was located in a small town in Wiltshire and although Bristol was my closest city I was not necessarily looking for a space to perform, I simply wanted to be around people who understood my qualms, experiment and most importantly fail/ learn from those experiments. I wanted a home.* In the same year Peepal Tree Press published Filigree: An anthology which forces the expansion of any pathetic expectations for Black British poetry, while epitomising the notion of a safe space for me. It also perfectly (yes perfectly) threads powerful pieces from the likes of Roger Robinson, Zena Edwards and Kat François without any overshadowing. Therefore, it embodies not just a home/ safe space, but an impressive architectural achievement.
Usually when I read an anthology I seek more poems from the poets I am most intrigued by, but I found myself performing some serious finger choreography for the editor, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. His introduction is miraculous; his ability to reprimand negative responses to the collection with such eloquence while humbly presenting the craftsmanship of awe-inspiring imagery, is superhuman. On the aesthetics and rhetoric within the collection he writes, ‘For example, the fact that a stool is beautifully carved doesn’t rob it of the ability to carry the weight of a tired woman…’(p.25) Here, Nii is providing a demonstration on how to observe and critique the work of a Black poet that many have failed to do or even tried. Nii of course makes it seem easy, but our colour continues to be used as an excuse for unfair judgement/ critique. Nonetheless we move upwards and onwards, and by uniting the abundance of nuance and styles so fluently, threaded through a variety of themes, Nii enables readers to appreciate the complexity of a grossly rich conversation between brilliant poets.
Here are some notes of a few poems, (although I could write an essay about all):
Rachel Long - Night Vigil
This poem snatches a girl’s trembling then presents it to you in the form of couplets so you can somehow comprehend the painful moment with more clarity than a child. To write the nightmares of little girls who are forced to grow up too soon with such control is a notable achievement. I have always admired how writers perform the miracle of sharing the weightiest subjects on the page using a form which seems simplistic, which is of course far from the truth if done well.
‘he had blown candles for hands. With which
he led me down an incensed corridor,
and I followed.’
It is impossible to not feel humbled by such sincere and accomplished work, this is but one example of the many times I felt encouraged to be a better writer.
Joshua Idehen - Grenfell
Following on from handling trauma with such discipline, Joshua Idehen’s Grenfell is one of the best poems I have read on the atrocity of 2017. In 16 words he encapsulates: the government’s hypocritical treatment of immigrants; the fire itself; the government’s failure to provide sufficient aid; a cross reference between London’s history of fires and trading via ships from the 1500s; and many more things I have probably missed packed inside a rectangle - which when squinting looks like a tower missing parts of its structure. I was stunned. Buy the collection to read it.
Fawzia Kane - Cinnamon
There are so many poems in this collection which excite me and stimulate my senses. Someone once asked me what is the point of being a poet and this poem is a perfect example of the way in which poetry can magnify the most intricate things we know of but never mention or pause to think about. Fawzia Kane transforms the infinitesimal details into gigantic revelations with Cinnamon: a poem about the spice, which somehow provoked me to reflect on the composition of the human anatomy.
‘...This wound, just here on the trunk, has already dried. Even the leaves turn brittle, curl into fingers, and desiccate to crumbs.’
Adam Lowe - Boy-Machine
I am not fond of poems about Icarus, flight and birds (among other things), but if I do fall in love with poems on these topics it doesn’t take long before I start religiously scouring the internet for everything that poet has ever written. I am in awe of Boy- Machine, I was tipping towards the edge of my chair willing this brave soul’s flight to end in a more satisfying outcome than Icarus. The storytelling is breathtaking, I could feel my bones consulting with my dna to negotiate if I could grow wings for a brief moment. My bones settled for a re - reading.
‘... He stretched the thatch
over a lightweight wooden frame,
the way a lover’s embrace covers
a starved man with flesh.’
Tolu Agbelusi - Faking Death To Avoid Sex Is Not Extreme
Poetry can be cathartic for the poet and the reader who resonates with the text - I screamed, cheered and unfurled in a myriad of ways. This poem follows the subjugation of a woman by a man during sex and the diffusion of power. It reminds me of Patricia Hill Collins’* writing about a type of negotiation between the self that the Black woman often has to practice regarding her sexuality according to her situation, and managing degrees of sexual prowess according to the level of danger. ‘This is a death I can come back from. You know this. You know how it feels to make a corpse of your body, hoping the one you thought you knew notices,
vacates his excitement and ceases pursuit.’
The poem accomplishes the depiction of resurrection after sex that suffocates the spirit, so you need not have experienced this to understand the survival strategy. Drawing back on the rhetoric of trauma, rejections of such poems usually happen when the reader/ listener finds fault in “enduring victimisation”.* However, here it is clear that the writer has overcome a trial and therefore has progressed beyond being “a victim”, a fundamental aspect of the narrative that is often overlooked. Also, surely it is fair to suggest that by addressing the “trauma” the poet is exercising a form of self- empowerment. This is an essay in itself but worth mentioning as it readdresses the unfair stigmatisation received by members of marginalised communities. I find it compelling the way Tolu Agbelusi articulates how power, fragility, fear and desperation can be experienced equitably by the fatality.
Tishani Doshi - Coastal Life
High praise for Tishani Doshi’s remittance of perplexing scenes with ‘slain mosquitos’ and ‘poisoned biscuits’ left for a mouse, in exchange for the cliched descriptions of a coastal scene you might have expected. The spectacular imagery in this poem might leave you feeling full for a while. I really appreciated the love and care grafted into this piece and the generosity of exciting metaphors. I think ecological poetry does not necessarily need to revive a love affair with Mother Nature, I find it appealing and honest to sometimes depict nature as menacing. In my opinion sometimes a sense of surrealism under this category can make the poetry seem more believable, as though the act of documentation was a performance of normality.
‘Even the door-jambs, plump with rain,
know that something is coming to prise
open our caskets, unhinge us with salt.
We can latch all the windows and doors
but the sea still hears us, moves towards
our bodies, our beds - hoarsely…’
Keisha Thompson - Gökotta
I was already a great admirer of Keisha Thompson’s work after watching her play ‘Man on The Moon’* and once again I was enthusiastic about her style which I would describe as ‘methodological magic’. Sometimes you read a poem selfishly and claim the poem was written in your honour by divine guidance, I shamelessly admit to doing this. The poem is composed of two quatrains and thoughtfully describes a dance/ conversation lost and found in translation. My interpretation: the quatrains represent two regions of a quadrant and the soloist is dancing across the axes between ‘listening’ and ‘speaking’ and ‘the anticipation of moving’ and ‘moving’. ‘Gökotta’is a Sweedish word which roughly translates to “waking up at dawn to listen to birdsong’. Even if my interpretation is far from the truth (probably), the poem still cleverly transcribes hopefulness of bliss you do not understand but know is coming. I think it would be insulting to provide a quote rather than the whole poem so please buy the anthology and read it for yourself.
Gemma Weekes - The She-Mix
‘Bitches - distilled from full-blooded planets - (held down/ f**kd) - intricate as pomegranates - I
Ain’t ask for this - (spread wide) - being the despised/ prized opposite - this vagina gave birth to time - no
Shit - nothing without it - (no!)/thing and no/one - including
you - including your tongue - wake up - broken
But alive - indelible - stunned (gone) - music stripped naked -
revealed as diseased to the bone - making…’
As I read this poem I was raving to all types of wickedness (good and bad), my love for hip hop and my afflictions with it. This poem dares to take on the confinements of womanhood, the men who put us there and the vixens of the culture. I love its audacity and boldness, the way it seems to conquer a hard-hitting beat that we have all shaken our backsides to (that probably wasn’t too good for us). This poem is deviant and devine.
As explained previously I could write an essay about each poem with references galore from cultural studies to mathematics. I cried, I laughed, I ran to mummy to share my joy and most importantly I rested… Being a “Black British poet” is exhausting but in Filigree, although the rhetoric of race and trauma is present, it is not policed, nor made crude, nor abstracted. In 2018, somewhere in South West England, I left a poetry night wearing the skin of a papaya but after reading Filigree I was reminded that my work need not be limited to other people’s perceptions of it; my papaya could be a planet. So thank you Nii, and all those responsible for Filigree.
You can buy Filigree here - https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/filigree-contemporary-black-british-poetry
You can fund Nii’s new work here -
* In New York I discovered a multitude of spoken word events and communities where I did not encounter the same issues. While the argument may be there is "strength in numbers", I never felt as though I had to fulfill a covenant due to my Blackness. I did whatever the hell I felt like doing and never spent 2 hours pondering if I was wrong for writing a poem I actually wanted to write. Ironically, while in New York I was told if I wanted to experience that same sense of acceptance and love I should seek out Nii Ayikwei Parkes and Jacob Sam-La Rose in England.
* Further reading: Collins, P.H. 2006. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and The New Racism, Routledge.
*An unfair (and sadly common comment) directed at poets who consider themselves to be from marginalised groups.
*Man on the Moon was written and performed by Keisha Thompson and directed by Benji Reid.