Two newish writers to me; I read Bird’s “Keats is dead so fuck me from behind” last year and its wit, dexterity, daring and simple fuck-you attitude was a good part of my reason for buying the book. I’d never heard of Chingonyi until a friend passed along a copy of this, his collection to me, but I am pleased they did.
On HLB – I don’t know if Bird is her last name, or whether it is Lindsay Bird, then again, I’m not sure it matters, but I’ll just use HLB for short – poet as acronym… She is all those things I thought when I read that first poem, viciously witty in the pitch of sarcasm, verbose to overflowing, and also, apparently really not bothered what people think of what she says. She is also unblushing when discussing her own life, whether talking about her desires or wetting herself “extravagantly” in a supermarket checkout queue aged 14.
There’s a lot to love about HLB (the book), she has a very good, occasionally electrifying way with words: in the poem Ways of Making Love, it is like:
…two lonely scholars in the dark clefts of the Cyrillic alphabet/ …an ancient star slowly getting sucked into a black hole
…like dogs trying to do it people-style, but failing due to the inflexibility of their anatomical structure
while later, she notes that:
…writing poetry about fucking/ when you could be fucking/ is the last refuge of the stupid…
Amen to that. She also appears not to have an editor or at least an editor she cares to listen to, because the poems just don’t stop…they flow and they flow and they remorselessly flow, the repeated bludgeoning blunting the scalpel. And they are all at the same pitch, there is little nuance or variation. It is in places hilariously funny (see Monica, the poem on how much hates the TV shows F.R.I.E.N.D.S. but especially Monica…it is funny…but it is 5 pages of rippingly sarcastic funny and in the end your laughing face becomes an exhausted rictus grin).
…she makes me want to wash my eyes with hand sanitiser/ she makes me want to stand in an abandoned Ukranian parking lot/ and scream her name at a bunch of dead crows…
…they were not the most self-aware of people/ and to be able to maintain a friendship/ through the various complications of heterosexual monogamy/ is enormously difficult/ especially when you take into consideration/ what cunts they all were…
Yeah, its funny, conversationally funny, but its a mighty long way to go for a punch line and a fairly predictable one at that.
It is more a collection to take a couple of poems from a day, rather than try and get through it all in one sitting; one espresso in the morning is enlivening, two is pushing it, while five or six and you would be verging on sociopathy.
As for Chingonyi’s Kumukanda, this has subtlety, variation and tenderness and it speaks of a world that I know little about. Born in Zambia, he came with his family to the UK at a young age. He seems to have lived mainly in London but there are also extensive visits to the north, as well as returning to his extended family in Zambia. The poems reflect on being outside, being neither at home in various places in the UK nor fitting in back in Zambia.
Kumukanda, he explains, means a tribal initiation, the passage into manhood and in the absence of experiencing his own Kumukanda, Chingonyi offers these poems as a substitute.
The opening poems about the things of youth: love of music, making mix-tapes, friendships, clubs, drinking, trying to get a girl, are bang on key and time.
…you swing your hips,/ and sweat drips from your hair/ the colour of James Brown’s scream.
I say dance, not to be seen but free…/ Dance for the times/ you’ve been stalked by store detectives/ for a lady on a bus, for the look of disgust/ on the face of a boy too young to understand/ why he hates but only that he must.
The central section of nine poems, under the banner ‘calling a spade a spade’ deals with the everyday racism of growing up black in Britain: short punchy poems on school (alterity); sport (the cricket test); the Arts (the conservatoire system, casting, callbacks); or University (varsity blues, on reading ‘Colloquy in Black Rock’)
from the cricket test:
...first week at upper/ school, blacks versus whites…After the match/ our changing room was a shrine to apartheid./ When I crossed the threshold, Danny asked me why/ I’d stand here when I could be there, with my kind.
…Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick/ of playing lean dark men who may have a gun/ I have a book of poems in my rucksack…know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul.
The poem of the collection for me is one of the early ones, Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee. Five pages, ranging across his teenage and his love of music, cutting the lining of his jacket so he could slip the Walkman into school, threading the earpiece through the sleeve, so he can listen in class…all leading to the discovery of a tape without a label that brings back the boy he was in conversation with his father.
Both books have qualities, some excellent poetry but if I were to choose one for the long haul, one to go back to time and again it would be Chingonyi for the substance alongside the attitude and pyrotechnics.