Full Disclosure: Wrote about Chingonyi’s work in a post on Ten: The New Wave last year, several poems from which appear here (some with minor alterations, I think). Have not met him or seen him read. Review copy purchased with assistance from Patreon backers.
Review: The Color of James Brown’s Scream is published by Akashic Books in a series commissioned by the African Poetry Book Fund. The series editor, Kwame Dawes, provides context for the pamphlet series, which:
‘seeks to undermine the easy ways of reducing Africa to notions that do not recognize the complexity and variety of experiences and practices that constitute poetry written by Africans.’
Dawes also provides an introductory essay: he explores the book’s engagement with garage and grime music at its culture of making and curating, the problematic norms of contemporary theatre (difficult not to see literary/poetry culture reflected here too), and twentieth century Zambian history. He also provides insightful discussion of how art acts as a site of cultural belonging, ownership, ‘a sense of “home” that is constantly being contested, but one [Chingonyi] must contend with always’.
The preface also makes space to draw attention to the poet’s formal skill, linguistic richness, his ability to make his poems tactile and sensuous; this instinct to make the art sensually pleasing seems itself a central theme, an assertion against nullity, against being erased or simplified. In ‘This Poem Contains Gull Song’, the poet lays out a kind of aesthetic manifesto: ‘such music / we forgot how to understand, since / it lacks that carefully planned sweetness’, ‘an old tune hidden / in the genes of a new one’. The opening piece, ‘In Defense of Darkness’, is partly an account of lovers meeting after time apart (‘the harshness of the journey written / into the depth of a clinch’), but figures its darkness metaphorically:
‘Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking.’
The poem’s catalogue of sounds (‘Drum-brush of fabric. The clink of a zip / on laminate floor’), of tastes and smells (‘Coconut oil, laundry detergent, sweat, / dry shampoo, Burberry Weekend’) faces up against memory’s incapacity to recreate these ‘local delicacies’; the poem seems to ask if it feels less true for being at least partly fictional? Chingonyi seems to be outlining what is at stake in the book: this particular act of witnessing cannot, finally, be confirmed as either memory or fiction; the reader has only the poet’s word, or the word of the poem’s protagonists, for guidance. Throughout the book, the question of authenticity, of recognising the truth of one’s testimony, is a recurring concern.
In this light, the book’s several poems about music feel united by their drive to accurately preserve or relive important moments in the past, providing as much context as the lyric poem can carry. ‘The Room’ is an outstanding piece, smuggling its deep thinking about the politics of musical (literary?) borrowing into a plain-spoken and comprehensible scene, and a kind of sonnet if you include the two-line epigraph by Oddisee:
‘when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound,
you’re picking up the room it was recorded in.’
While the poem itself doesn’t veer too far from this thought, it does bring it into a practical context; the poem’s action all happens:
‘in the few moments’ grace
before the store clerk, thin-voiced, announces closing time’
and is deceptively full of characters: the clerk, the three musicians in the recording, and the ‘purist’ and ‘mere completists’: the antagonists in the poem’s internal drama. The purist is ‘hung up on tracing a drum break to its source’, finding ‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’, in their dedication to specificity gaining access to an understanding that eludes the ‘completist’:
‘air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’
The few moments’ grace in the store correspond to a few moments in another room, possibly many years earlier, with all the quirks and flaws (‘the MacGyver theme tune’?) intact, a little window into a past, historical, moment. Again, ‘The Room’ feels aligned with ‘In Defense of Darkness’ in its determination to recoup a memory, to be the ‘purist’ understanding the fuller context behind the ‘hiss’, ‘hiccups and spools’ of a moment.
The book’s title poem is similarly concerned with understanding the present by honouring the past. Here, the tradition of garage music is commemorated or elegised, by a poem that seems in tension between a kind of nostalgia for a time of legendary musical figures (Larry Levan, James Brown and Willi Ninja feature), an acknowledgement their significance to the present (‘some / of us don’t know it is your grave / we dance on’), and a recognition of the pitfalls of idolising the past, becoming stuck on ‘a taste we’ve been / trying to recreate ever since’. The poem is alive in the richness of its imagination, doing in language what Levan did in music:
‘I see your hand in the abandon
of a couple, middle of the floor,
sliding quick and slick as a skin-fade
by the hand of a Puerto Rican clipper-man
who wields a cutthroat like a paintbrush.’
Chingonyi connects Levan to the mythical figure Legba, which Dawes’ introduction describes as a shape-shifter, a communicator between mortals and immortals, and a survivor of a wound that leaves him with a ‘phantom limp’. Levan, the poem subtly suggests, keeps a tradition alive that goes back much longer than any of its contemporary practitioners.
In the subsequent poem, ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’, the poet recalls his own adolescent discovery of garage in a ‘white-flight- / satellite-town’ in Essex. Chingonyi is at pains to tell this story in its full complexity, and the poem acknowledges the misogyny and machismo of teenage boyhood (‘the underwear section of Littlewoods catalog’, ‘Victor’s dad’s latest copy of Escort’) and art as access to social hierarchy:
‘slick lyrics I could earn stripes
by reciting tomorrow lunch in front of anyone who’d listen’
talent shows, tours of local junior schools, and lunchtimes
in the music room making haphazard recordings onto TDK
cassettes, broken tabs Sellotaped, a surfeit of fame secure.’
On the other side is hard-won self-esteem and sense of belonging through artistic discipline, and at the heart of the poem is the discovery of a recording of his four-year-old self and the ‘kettle drum pitch’ of his father’s voice. There is quietness amid the bravado, silence in a poem devoted to sound:
‘If I throw off the reason I’ve adopted he sat next to me
that day as I rewound the tape and asked me again
and again till the streetlights bloomed through the still-
open curtains and settled in the lacquer of the table.’
All of which makes the poem’s close, ‘Eminem ruined everything’, a bodyblow. The music industry’s compulsion to promote whiteness intercedes, forces the young poet to ‘rattle off the Slim Shady LP line for line’, confronted by the fact that:
‘no amount of practice could conjure pale skin and blue eyes.
The eyes that made Marshall a poet and me just another
brother who could rhyme’
The poem ends abruptly and unjustly, ‘anyone with sense knew it was all about hip hop now.’ The whole story, the time spent learning a tradition from roots to branches, is rendered irrelevant with a single publication.
This entrapment by the demands of white culture is at the heart of the sequence calling a spade a spade, with an epigraph from American poet Thomas Sayers Ellis:
‘I no longer write
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me’
The poems are tight, eleven-line stanzas (almost every line eleven syllables), a precision and levelness of tone that allows a kind of distance from the deep hurt and dehumanisation taking place in each tableau. In ‘The N Word’, the speaker addresses the appropriation of hate speech into contemporary middle class argot, ignoring its extremely recent acceptability in ‘a Pinter script’, or ‘polite conversation’, ‘making wine from the bad blood of history.’ In ‘The Conservatoire System’, the question of visibility is unravelled, a poem too knotted and complex to quote in part:
‘All of that to fetch up here, on secondment
to the institute of whiteface minstrelsy –
where I must flay myself nightly or risk
the indignity of being seen, in blackness,
as I am or as I’ve been taught, from without,
I am; an unconvincing Everyman.
But why would I want to be that dry bastard
with his pronouncements on all that can be seen
and practice this, his art of self-effacement, by which
he shakes off the vulgarity of being,
the better to make himself praiseworthy?’
The poem ties the speaker’s blackness to his unconvincingness – who needs/fails to be convinced? – and the assumption that white male actors (consider Martin ‘Everyhobbit’ Freeman) are best suited to be the audience stand-in, observer and commentator. The luxury of being everyone and no-one is contrasted with the choice faced by black performers to be either hypervisible or overlooked. Successful mediocrity is for white people.
The following piece, ‘On Reading “Colloquy in Black Rock”’, a 1946 Robert Lowell poem, draws attention to an academic unwillingness to address casual hate speech in canonical works, ‘The seminar tutor tiptoes round you now’. The labour involved in unpicking contemporary social norms is left to the student (‘Ours is to note the working mind behind the word’), to acknowledge that one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated poets had no compunction about considering black people in terms of ‘us and them’. The cumulative effect of these pieces is a painful reminder that ‘blind casting’ is suspiciously selective, that the US is not the only anglophone nation with a culture of racism to confront. The poems pose a question Chingonyi expresses, in a review of Daljit Nagra: ‘what would happen if we were allowed to be in our full complexity’? What could poets of colour achieve if they weren’t obliged to fight racist assumptions every time they put pen to paper? Extrapolating from this, how can white readers change how we read (who we believe? who we prioritise in our reading lists and festival lineups?) to make this a reality?
In her essay ‘Not a British Subject’, Sandeep Parmar does vital work identifying trends in publishing poets of colour in the UK, that to be accepted in the cultural centre the poet is encouraged to emphasise their own difference or marginality for a white readership, her concern that ‘increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness’. (Her conversation with Juliana Spahr in the recent issue of Tender is also required reading.) The Color of James Brown’s Scream draws strength from its literary and musical touchstones, asserts the value of artistic communities outwith the poetry mainstream, and refuses to simplify its acts of witness for the benefit of the uninformed. Its demand that we educate ourselves about, for example, the history of black music in the UK, is an assertion of value and not a performance of otherness; as Khavita Bhanot recently put it in Media Diversified, the book does not ‘diversify’ so much as ‘decolonise’, challenge what non-marginalised poetry readers might consider culturally valuable.
Tl;dr: A challenging, much-needed book from a thoughtful and skilful writer. Better yet, it’ll only set you back a fiver.
Further reading: Review by Nisha Ramayya in Ambit
Interview with Cadaverine Magazine
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