You Are Involved: Vahni Capildeo and Martin Carter

Some disclosures: Capildeo is a friend and fellow Edinburgher. They provided digital copies of their collections Undraining Sea (2009) and Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012), which are no longer in print. Copy of Carter’s University of Hunger loaned from the Scottish Poetry Library. As ever, it’s worth noting that I am a white cis male writer based in Scotland, and there are significant gaps in my knowledge and understanding of Caribbean and diasporic literature and history, and of the gendered violence described in Capildeo’s work. Hugely grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley, for substantial structural edits. This is a long read (7.5k words), so if you’d prefer to read as a pdf, you can download one here.


‘Nicholas Laughlin: Do you think of yourself as a Caribbean writer?

Vahni Capildeo: I think that’s a political and not a literary question.

N.L.: It’s a political question that intersects with the literary. But answer it as a political question.

V.C.: I’ll try to answer in terms of the literary imagination.’

— Nicholas Laughlin, interview, “The Liberty of the Imagination”, MaComère 13 (2011-2).


Vahni Capildeo has published seven full collections and five pamphlets since 2003, with a notable spike in critical attention around their fifth book, Measures of Expatriation (2016), which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1973, they moved to Oxford in 1991, and are now resident in Edinburgh, self-defined Trinidadian-Scottish. In this interview with Nicholas Laughlin, editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, Capildeo identifies and rejects the terms by which Laughlin attempts to place their writing, arguing against a system in which ‘Caribbean writers’ are bound imaginatively either to the demands of the academy – ‘pressured unconsciously to write poems that can be “analysed” in class’ – or the publishing industry, in which ‘any environment in which a Caribbean writer tries to speak […] is a trapped environment’. The benefits of ‘belonging’ under such conditions, Capildeo argues, are worth less than the ‘liberty of the imagination’ that comes from being unbeholden to institutional structures. Freedom does not infer isolation, however; as Capildeo’s career has progressed, the extent to which their poetry is fired by the work of other artists has only intensified, with Skin Can Hold (2019) almost entirely comprised of collaborations with or direct addresses to other writers.

Martin Carter, Guyanese poet and socialist revolutionary, was born in 1927 and passed away in 1997. The reverence with which he is held by generations of poets from the Caribbean is as remarkable as his relative obscurity on this side of the ocean. (Or, more accurately, in these islands: as Niyi Osundare writes, Carter’s poetry ‘made a thunderous entry’ into progressive circles in post-independence Nigeria.) In an essay in All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, George Lamming argues:

‘[Carter] is unlike all the other Caribbean writers who have had their reputations made outside the region. […] Carter is one of the few, if not the only one, whose reputation was made inside the region and validated inside it, that did not require external validation.’

Carter refused to attend university in England like his older brothers, committing to work and organise politically in Guyana. A founding member of the socialist and anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party, he was arrested without charge and detained on an American air force base in 1953. From prison, Carter wrote and smuggled out the poem ‘University of Hunger’; its refrain, ‘O long is the march of men and long is the life / And wide is the span’, according to Capildeo, is iconic among his Caribbean readership. As Gemma Robinson explains in her introduction to Carter’s University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose (2006), his work is ‘a poetry of involvement, a poetry that helped shape the political and cultural parameters of Guyana’.

Capildeo’s overt engagement with Carter’s work is extensive. In 2004, they wrote an unpublished memoir under the title One Scattered Skeleton, a phrase drawn from Carter’s poem ‘Till I Collect’; perhaps an ironic gesture, given the poem’s warning not to ‘plunge too far’ into the waters of (personal) history. In an extract published in African Writing, Capildeo describes how Carter’s work provided an anchor for their family during a coup in Port of Spain in the summer of 1990, when broadcasting and supply lines were temporarily severed. In a review of University of Hunger in 2006, they describe those events in further detail:

‘heavily shod feet thudding up and down the street and gunfire from the hills, and the conversation during that breakfast time, the voice of a scientist reciting poetry enough to get us through the day — poetry he had by heart: Martin Carter’s.’

‘Till I Collect’ would provide an epigraph to Capildeo’s 2012 collection, Dark and Unaccustomed Words. Utter (2013) is dedicated to Carter in memoriam; the title may partly emerge from his posthumously published sequence, Suite of Five Poems (2000): ‘I will still be speaking with you, in / words that are not uttered, are never uttered’. Between 2014-16, Capildeo composed a dramatic performance as part of their Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship, a series of ‘Syntax Poems’ for multiple voices, under the title ‘Astronomer of Freedom’: the piece attempts to inhabit Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’ in Skin Can Hold (2019), a collection which also features an epigraph from Carter’s ‘This Is the Dark Time, My Love’.

In Capildeo’s review of University of Hunger, they quote from Guyanese poet Fred D’Aguiar’s elegy, ‘In Memory of Martin Carter’:

‘Traffic begins —
One giant bee. The morning, a rose,
Opens; Martin in everything.’

I did not set out to write an essay about Martin Carter; I set out to write an essay about Vahni Capildeo. In the course of my reading, however, it seemed I could not do one without the other. Of all the artists and writers and characters that populate Capildeo’s work, Carter appeared repeatedly, a benign presence, a touchstone. He seems to symbolise much of what Capildeo considers worth exploring via their art, of possible worlds and the poet’s duty to imagine them. To look over a few poems by Carter which seem to resonate most profoundly in Capildeo’s work – ‘You Are Involved’, ‘Till I Collect’, and ‘I Am No Soldier’ – is to illuminate how fundamental to each poet’s oeuvre are gestures of refusal, negations which enable new possibilities:

‘This I have learnt:
today a speck
tomorrow a hero
hero or monster
you are consumed!

Like a jig
shakes the loom.
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!’  – ‘You Are Involved’ (1951)

‘His net of twine will strain the liquid billow
and take the silver fishes from the deep.
But my own hand I dare not plunge too far
lest only sand and shells I bring to air
lest only bones I resurrect to light.’ – ‘Till I Collect’ (1954)

‘I am no soldier with a cold gun on my shoulder
no hunter of men, no human dog of death.
I am my poem, I come to you in particular gladness
In this hopeful dawn of earth I rise with you dear friend.’ – ‘I Am No Soldier’ (1954)

In three deeply divergent moods, Carter makes space for his imaginative and political stances by refusing simpler, easier or more commonplace responses. As Capildeo notes in their review:

‘from every imaginable and unimaginable place, and from under the shining governments of the damned … In the most fiery or brilliant of Carter’s poems he nonetheless seems to see by a kind of dark and inward light.’

That ‘dark and inward light’ encapsulates much of what makes Carter’s work still feel so contemporary, almost seven decades later.

For the purposes of this essay, and going somewhat against Capildeo’s own conception of Carter’s poetry as a complex unity, I’ve arranged my readings into three (broad) sections: poems of the parabolic or spiritual world, in which the paranormal is normal; poems of the mind, in which consciousness self-reflects; and poems of the world, in which physical and political bodies interact. In reality, as Capildeo continuously proves, these categories are porous and arbitrary; the ecstatic pronouncements of Carter’s work are just as involved in his ‘dark and inward light’ as his pensive, precise introspections. One creates categories as starting points, and hopes the journey justifies their bluntness.


*             *             *

I. Spirit

In their essay on University of Hunger (2006), Capildeo describes how, when read as a totality, it becomes clear how fundamental to Martin Carter’s oeuvre is ‘cross-referencing ideas, images, rhythms, and phrases, until they became preoccupations, counterpoints, a universe of locutions’. Capildeo even cites a series of page references, which ‘the reader interested in literary-critical riddles may pursue’. I did pursue, and the recurrent image they provide is Carter’s protagonist connecting to, perhaps communing with, the past, either through invoking spiritual presences or by a metaphysical connection to the landscape:

‘That night when I left you on the bridge
I bent down
Kneeling on my knee
and pressed my ear to listen to the land.’              (‘Listening to the Land’, 1951)

‘In the burnt earth of these years
I dip my hand, I dip my hand:
I plunge it in the furies of this world.’                      (‘O Human Guide’, 1952)

‘And that strange dissolution of shape into spirit
was traced from a snail and was found in a word:
O flower of fire in a wide vase of air
Come back, come back to the house of the world.’            (‘Voices’, 1977)

Like Carter, Capildeo is uncommonly attuned to the absurdity which constitutes the mundane, the often shockingly banal violence of being alive. In both poets’ work, the grossly physical domain exists alongside an immanent spiritual one, accessible in moments of visionary and/or poetic revelation. A key poem in Undraining Sea (2009) is ‘Disappearing People’. It begins:

‘When he saw her walking
he knelt down to the pavement
and bending, with his nails and fists
tugged at a stone the shape of a fish
so she could step smoothly;
and she did, without looking.’

The kneeling figure with his hands in the earth feels distinctly Carterian, and prepares the way, however esoterically, for a figure we might read as an echo of the poet, who appears to be on a long journey without a clear destination. The first obstacle the walker meets, meanwhile, is a locked gate to a garden in a land where ‘people fall into action, / play a violent rumour’. When the lock proves intractable, she shouts:

I am missing a layer.
You know how it has gone.
Where is the skin that pasted my bones?

An unidentified ‘it’ responds, emerging perhaps from unfinished sculptures, ‘half-made in marble’:

You get too far into your work,
then turn around with a tragic look
to see who still loves you.
You should try being lonely.

The voice seems to turn the poem’s mythic tone into something more personal and specific; given that ‘your work’ may refer to the text we are currently reading, the poem might be deliberately deflating its own conceits to permit this moment of self-criticism. The passage closes with a depiction of lights in dark water – ‘night-lights of apartments […] draw black water / into amber reflection’ – seem to echo the opening to Carter’s ‘Till I Collect’:

‘Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights.’

‘Disappearing People’ shares Carter’s ruminations on ancestry and origin, but Capildeo is keenly aware of the difficulty in forging an uncomplicated continuity between their Caribbean past and English present (in which the poem’s central figure is robbed, harassed and aggressively othered). A complex metaphor appears at the poem’s narrative climax:

‘He is like a grotto
built from imported coral.
The blocks look porous. They are rough.
Animal-ocean stuff too close up
yields notions, not natures,
being dragged from lost totals.’

The ‘imported coral’ might read as a spiritually and ecologically fruitful space transported far from its roots, as, maybe, Carter’s poetry might feel in the streets and halls of Cambridge. The poem seems to warn against an over-prescriptive reading in its suggestion that presumptuous ‘notions’ might impose themselves over the ‘natures’ of what is truly there; ‘Disappearing People’ seems to suggest that falsified (or ‘imported’), clarity is a far greater failure than honest confusion. The poem’s conclusion is aptly conflicted, refusing, or unable, to look even tentatively into the future:

‘If she tries re-creating
some past and some present,
it is a form of gratitude,
shaken out from the aptitude
for joy: […]
A future – that’s not in their gift:
infinites more of work than faith,
time grown inconsequential,
a sense of consequences.’

The chiasmic last couplet, and the sinister connotations of ‘consequences’, shine light on the poem’s feeling of tension between an imagined past and how it informs a desired future. If the poem is haunted by the past, its ghosts are often reassuring; if it has reconciled itself to the utilitarianism of its present, it comes with a deeply unpleasant feeling of being instrumentalised:

‘She is like a knife blade
that has been too much sharpened: […]
so apt for use, so used to be keen –
it can no longer cut
without risk of breaking.’

‘Home’ in Capildeo’s work is a fraught concept, to say the least, as much a philosophical ideal as a physical reality. Capildeo has written of Carter’s rendering of Georgetown, Guyana, as conveying a ‘reverse poetic effect’, as elements of his work which might sound metaphorical, as in ‘Freedom is a white road with green grass like love’ (‘The Kind Eagle’, 1952), refer to real conditions in Carter’s home city. In Capildeo’s poetry, an inverse process seems closer to the truth: by converting reality into language, they create a metaphorical domain which the poet may, however briefly, call home.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that poems which handle such ideas are so often haunted, accompanied with disembodied voices, as in ‘Disappearing People’, or ‘About the Shape of Things’ in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012). The latter opens with a recurring character in Capildeo’s work: a domineering figure who demands that the world abide by categories recognisable to hegemonic power. The figure demands: ‘Help me cut the world up / into paper shapes! / Then I’ll know I see it.’ A ghostly, plural voice responds:

‘Nameless Bones Nameless Bones below oceans
Nameless Bones we name them. That’s all the names
we have for you. […] Not for:
Display. Arraignment. Arrangement. We’re done.’

The poem shares certain affinities with M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), a book-length poem concerning the crew and enslaved people on board the eponymous ship, including the 150 people who were murdered for insurance money during its voyage in 1781. In an essay at the end of Zong!, Philip argues that the poem disrupted ‘the eye trying to order what cannot be ordered’, to ‘create semantic mayhem’ in a story which Philip believes cannot or should not be told. Both poets explicitly raise the moral quandary of giving voice to and making art from people whose humanity and agency have been erased multiple times over. Capildeo’s lines in ‘About the Shape of Things’ also echo Carter’s ‘Listening to the Land’ (1951), another poem haunted by the transatlantic slave trade:

‘and I bent down
listening to the land
but all I heard was tongueless whispering’

Capildeo’s speaker, meanwhile, discusses how:

‘this morality of nameless bones
begins to stir in me against my will
to help […]
against my will to help the namer. […]

“Does it need signalling,
the central secret of each thing?”’

At the close of a deeply emotionally charged poem, Capildeo interrupts the original speaker, the ‘namer’, with a familiar voice, a familiar poem:

‘Guyana’s poet,
Martin Carter, said it:
Till I collect my scattered skeleton…

Deploying Carter here, as a bulwark against unsettling the nameless dead, artfully combines the individual’s wish to acknowledge and respect their links to colonial history, and to defend those histories from careless attempts to ‘cut the world up / into paper shapes’, to render complex interrelationships into (literary) playthings. They remain a phenomenon that refuses to be ‘displayed’ or ‘arraigned’, but equally refuses to disappear; as Carter has it, if they speak, they do so on their own terms, in ‘tongueless whispering’.

Throughout Capildeo’s work, the world of the spirit goes cheek-by-jowl with the mundane. As early as their first collection, No Traveller Returns (2003), is the poem ‘White as Jasmine’, which plays this dynamic somewhat ironically: the poem wryly indulgences a superstition, that a distant death in the family is accompanied by a ‘sweet smell’, only for the speaker to experience the same phenomenon on the other side of the ocean. You might forget the spirits, but they will not forget you.


*             *             *

II. Mind

If one can conceive of the world not as neatly divided between the living and the dead but on a fluid continuum, Capildeo’s explorations of atypical consciousnesses (whether human, animal or, occasionally, monstrous) should be a breeze. They share with the poems’ spiritual presences an assertive idiosyncrasy that does not require, and often actively refuses, taxonomizing. No Traveller Returns (2003), for example, is organised around a long central sequence, ‘Monster Scrapbook’, a series of texts curated by the mysterious scholar, ‘H.’, with the intention of advising a mysterious ‘Society’ how best to understand, systematize and tame Monstrous beings. ‘H.’, however, cannot quite be dismissed as a misguided patrician:

‘It is a feature of the Monster mind that the most abrupt transitions and the unlikeliest effusions are believed by the Monster to connect […] Monsters want logic, therefore everything they speak is a kind of poem’

These statements form a passable critical reading of Capildeo’s poetry; very few critics leave questions of their ‘difficulty’ undiscussed. A reader inclined to interpret ‘Monster Scrapbook’ as the poet’s perambulation of their own psyche, this introduction suggests, is missing the point: we should be careful not to participate in this (often violent) disconnect between how the Monster understands themselves and how they are understood. ‘The Monstrous Task’, for example, is a precise unpicking of common social responses when confronted by Monsters:

‘Monsters are nervous because they are much fallen in love with. People who work fall in love with them, and explain to the Monsters that they must be fitted in. […] This is not because of low self-esteem or poor self-image. Monsters protest. They repudiate the language of damage and repair.’

This early passage establishes some of the sequence’s fundamental principles, ones that resonate throughout Capildeo’s oeuvre: the language used to name individuals and their ways of being does not always align with their experiences. Moreover, this language often facilitates forms of social alienation or control, in which uncommon modes of consciousness are falsely considered unnatural. The poem implies that ‘being fallen in love with’, for example, has less to do with ‘love’ than with another’s desire to ‘correct’ a not-quite-human they perceive as ‘damaged’. Later, in a poem titled ‘Monster Hunting’, the speaker explains:

‘Attracted by the seeming power and completeness of the Monster, the natural predator of the Monster will be driven by a resentful wish for mastery. […] the true hunter will use himself (herself) as the means of punishment’

The clinical clarity of expression here is truly painful. Among many such accounts, silence and solitude seem infused with a powerful and restorative energy. In ‘Lux Æterna Et Perpetua’, an empty house is ‘alive with that live quietness’ of ‘places which are largely inhabited by a form of active emptiness’, where ‘Poetry is spoken in the silence of the live house at night’, a place where the ‘Monster’ may dream in peace.

Both Capildeo and Carter render sleep and dream as productive spaces of retreat, the ‘active emptiness’ of a private space that cannot be breached. Also in both poets’ work, however, is a sense of the precarity in such spaces, and their echoes, particularly for Carter, of death and the erasure of selfhood. In Carter’s work in the 1950s, under constant surveillance and repeated incarceration, dream is repeatedly rendered as one side of a coin whose opposite is death:

‘the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.’ (‘I Am No Soldier’)

‘The slave staggers and falls
his face is on the earth
his dream is silent’ (‘Death of a Slave’)

‘Mine was a pattern woven by a slave
Dull as a dream encompassed in a tomb’ (‘Not Hands Like Mine’)

‘It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.’ (‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, all 1954)

There are many other examples. Dreaming is consistently an active, almost practical force, one specifically targeted by ‘the man of death’: to deny a person’s capacity to dream is death by another name. A poem late on in Capildeo’s Utter (2013), ‘In a Dream’, begins with lines in a small typeface, which would normally suggest an epigraph, but if the text originates elsewhere, I could not find it:

‘In what dream did I begin with you? […]
this spit of narrow land is thrown
open between law and access,
the savage deliveries of sea.’

‘Delivery’ may connote commerce or religious salvation, both meanings ghosted by colonial overtones, given how the land is manipulated for the benefit of ‘law and access’ and the heavily pejorative ‘savage’; Carter’s revolutionary Guyana may not be far beneath the surface. The poem proper, meanwhile, begins:

‘One day I’ll sleep            and that will be for a long time
and while I’m in a dream              all will have dream status’

The poem’s initial simplicity allows it to introduce some far-reaching terms of play. One gets the impression that ‘a long time’ is a great deal more than eight hours, and the implications of ‘dream status’ feel as destabilising as freeing. Another ‘you’ is incorporated into its narrative:

‘and while all’s scheduled for dream        it will not matter
on the day of the longest dream         that you are part
in the dreaming                picking up where earlier glimpses
slipped painful perfections into which feet of sleep
walked and as they walked         meadows began outspreading
slides of sleepscape        fourdimensional eyes of sleep’

Though the topography of dream consists of unsettling details like ‘fourdimensional eyes’, the poem’s insistent, lulling rhythms, the soft texture of ‘sleepscape’, feel like a lullaby, ‘the day of the longest dream’ like an element in a fairy-tale. The poem feels forgiving, comforting, perhaps healing, but fixed in the fictional. At the midway point, the poem turns:

‘Spirited away
I’ll recall this sleep: reality. Like no dream
the years’ complicated origami of hurt
in a dream          falling away        a puckered swan’s fell’

Consulting the OED, where Capildeo worked prior to the writing of Utter, shows ‘fell’ to mean, alongside its amendment of ‘falling away’, an archaic term for an animal’s hide, or an ill omen. The logical relationship of the poem’s elements is secondary to its associative possibilities: the poem does not permit recalling a dream as ‘reality’ and assigning it to the ‘falling away’ of pain without complicating its terms. Unusually in Capildeo’s work, ‘In a Dream’ permits what sounds a lot like a hopeful vision or prophecy:

‘One day of sleep the longest sleep and in a dream
so much will be suddenly unnecessary
shoes    when we’re entering an ocean   obvious
for what has been obvious           our long-unseen dream’

Alongside its more obvious meaning, ‘obvious’ derives etymologically from Latin, ob viam, ‘in/on the way’. The lines might assert that what feels familiar need not be inevitable. This closing passage also seems to associate immersing oneself in sleep and immersing oneself in the ocean, ritualised acts which enable cleansing, restoration of clarity, which allow the ‘obvious’, ‘long-unseen’ dream to manifest. Casting off one’s shoes and entering the ocean, of course, has disquieting notes of self-destruction: the poem seems to share Carter’s fear to ‘plunge too far […] lest only bones I resurrect to light’ in ‘Till I Collect’, with its metaphorical network of the sea, the subconscious, and the double-edge of ‘resurrection’.

Visionary narrative and trauma are both to the fore in Measures of Expatriation (2016), a collection keenly aware of how powerful individuals and institutions discredit what does not conform to conventional narratives. ‘Kassandra #memoryandtrauma #livingilionstyle’ is a painful, intimate account, in the voice of the prophet of the Iliad, of how the lived experience of abuse and the demands of the justice system are fundamentally incompatible. In an interview with the Scottish Poetry Library, Capildeo argues that this is both an unwillingness and a learned inability to hear what is being testified:

‘If [survivors of sexual assault] don’t present a sort of linear narrative, they often get punished, because the amount of violence and fragmentation they convey is something that doesn’t fit in people’s idea of a fluent witness’

‘Kassandra’ frames this experience in one of the book’s most frank extended metaphors:

‘As people encouraged by helpful foreigners to cross
a minefield may smile, stretchered, blinded or their legs blown off,
so each of my memories, a living and willing witness,
gets up to walk to you, to tell my story, but doesn’t
make it.’

The poem feels like a direct relative of ‘Monster Scrapbook’ (2003) in its identification of the obstacles between the speaker and their access to safety and understanding. Though it valorises prophetic and fragmentary narratives, ‘Kassandra’ itself is unlike many of the shorter poems in Measures of Expatriation in its formal linearity, its direct, comprehensible argument, and its compact palette of metaphor. The disjuncture between the formal content of the poem and the poetic forms it clearly holds in high regard feels like another source of pain. ‘Kassandra’ ends by stating plainly the cost she must pay to be heard:

‘If you want it
to add up, why give me the gift of prophecy? I split,
spill truth like marrow from bones, gleaming on stone-strewn ground.’

It is perhaps unsurprising to find at the poem’s emotional peak the Carterian image of bones imbued with the power of speech, the capacity for telling truth inextricable from the speaker’s death. A powerful relative to this meditation on language and belonging is ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the collection:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. It is as if language places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage; thrashing, independent, threatening to rive our known world apart.’

It’s hard to miss the tones of hopeful admiration in the vision of Jörmungandr rendering all borders meaningless, of ushering in a world defined by fluidity, a society more faithful to the truth of one’s own witnessing. As in Carter’s work, this moment of dream coming to fruition is marked by a vast broadening of perspective, with an image as apt for chaos and destruction as for renewal, as in the ‘jig [which] shakes the loom’ in ‘You Are Involved’, or the dark, memorial waters of ‘Till I Collect’. The relationship between language and the truth is one of the strongest throughlines in Measures of Expatriation, and it’s striking how the book makes space for both the monstrous optimism of ‘Five Measures’ and the bleakness of ‘Kassandra’. If there is hope in either poem, it is in the dissolution of structures, the idea that, as ‘Five Measures’ suggests: ‘thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound’. If language is home, however, then ‘home’ may be something the wakeful, logical, linear world cannot abide.


*             *             *

III. Body

Capildeo’s most stridently visionary poems remain keenly aware of the ‘man of death […] aiming at your dream’, as in Carter’s ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, not only as a metaphor but as a material condition. In an insightful review of Utter (2013) for the Caribbean Review of Books, Vivek Narayanan considered the collection Capildeo’s most sustained political engagement to date, reading the poem ‘A World’ as a meeting-point of Capildeo’s social critique and Carter’s empowering presence as a forerunner. The poem revolves around an ‘iron-suited man’, who Narayanan interprets as the ‘kind of elected official […] who has so often meant bad news for the postcolonial world’. Narayanan cites Carter here, connecting ‘A World’ to his lines ‘Men murder men, as men must murder men, / to build their shining governments of the damned.’, from ‘After One Year’ (1964), a poem of disillusion at the Guyanese post-revolutionary movement. For such a short poem, ‘A World’ features an unusual number of hands:

‘In which the hands of people changed to things like flowers […]

by which that iron-suited man, foolish and careful,
negotiates crowds, his two wrists bearing red hibiscus […]

How approach the cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts?
How approach the man whose sand crab hands try running askew?

Ah whose iced hands disappear, condense, remade droplets…
instant, lasting blister-silk, should he once touch a heart:’

The poem closes on this last couplet, its ellipsis looking toward a line that will not, or has not yet, come to pass; an unusually lyrical gesture for social commentary, as Narayanan suggests. Where ‘people’s’ hands might turn to ‘things like flowers’, the man’s are sand crabs, cockroach-gripped and iced. If the poem establishes a nature-good/manufacture-bad dichotomy, the man’s hands are not entirely condemned, given that cockroaches and crabs are still living beings, however unpleasant they might appear. Capildeo clearly relishes the chance to turn their linguistic flair to political sketch-work – ‘cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts’ is a delight to vocalise – but keeps their analysis in active tension by refusing a definitive answer: the possibility of constant remaking keeps the poem’s hope alive.

Trading the Caribbean for the home counties, among the smaller lyric pieces of Measures of Expatriation (2016) is ‘Snake in the Grass’, an exploration of historical violence and contemporary revisionism in the City of Oxford. The poem critiques the ‘diversion and cover’ of the buried past by the official renaming of streets and literal paving over of past atrocities. Its speaking voice is surreal, chaotically energetic, and confronts the City directly with its own historical wrongdoing:

‘Under Christ Church tower,
under kings of new history,
the Jewish town lies in pre-Expulsion sleep;
under that again, nameless bones.

King Edward I signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, compelling all Jewish people in England to migrate, convert, or die. ‘Nameless bones’ have appeared in Capildeo’s work previously, in ‘The Shape of Things’ in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012); here, the phrase appears as a much gentler reminder that it is not only in the Caribbean that British imperial violence has left a deep, repressed scar. Carter’s ‘Till I Collect’ is also quietly present in the sequence that follows, in the repeated ‘till’ that begins successive lines:

‘Do not shun me. I am not sleeping.
Glass is the least security. My kind’s for re-use,
willing to coil cold in the earth
till each deadly resurrection through your changes of nation,
till your kind hand comes and the smith repairs us.’

Carter’s hand dipping into ‘the burnt earth of these years’ in ‘O Human Guide’ (1952) seems woven into the unsettling resurrections of ‘Till I Collect’. The nameless ‘smith’, and the provenance of ‘your kind hand’ feel uncannily familiar to the speaker and unknown to the reader, compounding the helpless feeling ‘Snake in the Grass’ engenders, of being swept away in a nightmare; it’s hard to read that ‘repair’ straight. It’s worth bearing in mind that the poem is dedicated to Alaric Hall, a medievalist whose first monograph concerned Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, when reading the poem’s conclusion:

‘Forget your wife, if you still have one.
The two of us decide who’s for taking.
Bring me to your son, blossoming in his cradle.
Introduce us. I have a name.
Man, join us together. There’s wisdom in my core.’

Hall’s book examines how elves were useful scapegoats for many social and personal ailments, a means of reinforcing group identity in pre-Christian Britain through their mutable other-ness, their capacity for inhabiting several subject positions simultaneously or interchangeably. Perhaps most significantly here, they are not explicitly inclined toward good or evil; the passage above is deftly poised between chaos and renewal, the bringing to light of a painful truth which may still result in the child’s continued ‘blossoming’. Through the ‘nameless bones’ beneath the city, the expelled Jewish people are connected to colonial violence in the Caribbean, as the poem recognises that population control by the English crown has an extremely long history. If the poem’s speaker is one of Hall’s elves, they are a transgressive figure who very literally brings the nation’s buried history home to roost. As Sandeep Parmar argues in her review in The Guardian, Measures of Expatriation challenges not only the violence inherent to borders, governments and social control, but demonstrates the fragility of their ontological foundations.

After a collection so preoccupied with the structures that organise and control human society, it’s perhaps not surprising to find ourselves, in Venus as a Bear (2018), with our ears to the ground. Venus as a Bear is nature writing that disrupts the generic convention of human subjectivity as the central organising force, and invests the animate and inanimate alike with agency. This produces what might be described as Capildeo’s homeliest book: though poems of historical anger and existential loneliness are still present, there is an unusual density of pieces that provide a place for comfort or rest. Given the poet’s sensitivity to the repetition and evolution of images, compare the imaginary sheep that populate ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’ in Measures of Expatriation:

‘friend sheep, if i stretched wide enough
i could give birth to a child like you:
a round-eyed barrier against normality’

‘everywhere I carry a sheep across my shoulders, wide peasant stride’

‘‘Sainte mouton’?
‘Sureté mouton’?
‘Secrèt mouton’?’

With the real, flesh and bone sheep in the opening poem of Venus as a Bear, ‘Welcome’:

‘Early lambs    born some hours ago […]
succeed in standing
funny fuzzy     valuable wedges
cave painting      hand-smoothed treasures […]
a hybrid flock    individual faces
strength in the legs     warmth in the shed’

Where the lines of ‘Insomnia Drawings’ are surreal, dream-logical and unpredictable, the caesurae of ‘Welcome’ create an inhale-exhale rhythm that feels lulling and reassuring, narrowing the poem’s field of vision. The terms on which the poem welcomes the lambs into the world, and the reader into the book, are remarkably uncomplicated: it’s good when newborns are strong and warm! Even with Capildeo’s more characteristic breaks into sound-sense (‘funny fuzzy’) and associative leaps (‘cave painting      hand-smoothed treasures’), the connections are lucid, as the speaker’s presence among new life connects them to cycles as old as animal husbandry and the first works of art.

In their review of Carter’s University of Hunger (2006), Capildeo takes time to investigate the editor Gemma Robinson’s extensive footnoting, particularly the explanation of Carter’s image of freedom, ‘a white road with green grass like love’ (‘The Kind Eagle’). An ostensible lyric flourish is elucidated by the editor’s note that the roads of Georgetown were literally white, paved with marl; Capildeo describes this as ‘a reverse poetic effect’, as metaphor becomes reality:

‘[Carter] travelled particular roads time and again and made poetry that could be felt by readers who had travelled other, very different roads […] we stand for a moment in the ghost of Carter’s footprints and feel that the roads of Guyana, whatever they are paved with now, have been — are — worthy of poetry, worthy of attention.’

In the short sequence, ‘Inishbofin’, the speaker also walks a white road ‘with stone and clover edges’, which the poem describes as:

‘A looked-for line between wet sky and water […]
How have I been so stupid and not known this?
Heaven most probably is underwater,
Sounding with ease, increasing pressure on us.’

The poem’s third section, meanwhile, begins:

‘The road goes two ways: right and left,
obvious, the bright white dust;
sure as last year and yesterday,
the harbour where friends disembark
without confusion for the climb
towards the hall on the small hill.
Nothing is interchangeable’

The relative lack of either grammatical artfulness or physical drama is rare in Capildeo’s work, and a poem like the first section, in which all lines begin with capital letters and a concept as huge as ‘Heaven’ is handled so lightly, might be unique. The poem holds its subjects with reverence, as much for the place that gathers people together as for the people who gather – three of the four sections are dedicated to writers at the 2015 Inish Festival: Rebecca Barr, Deirdre Ní Chonghaile and Bernard O’Donoghue – set specifically on a road with ‘bright white dust’ lined by green clover. The visual echo of Carter’s Georgetown, and the blending of time in ‘last year and yesterday’ (cf ‘one minute and one hour and one year’ from Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’), allows the west of Ireland and the capital of Guyana to share an imaginative space; the poem carries Carter’s understanding of home as un-interchangeable, and Capildeo’s more complex patterning of homes and homeliness. The fourth and final section is tiny, and binds together some very powerful symbols in Capildeo’s oeuvre. The section in its entirety:

‘sea for a bit
lovingly lifting it off
this felted skin
this roof needing resurfaced’

Not only time but human subjectivity shucks off its boundaries: the poet is the building is the human touch is the sea.

In an interview with Sarala Estruch, Capildeo argues that Venus as a Bear is more ‘being’ than ‘doing’, less interested in argument than their previous collection. Measures of Expatriation is an extraordinary achievement, in its ambition, its complication and its refusal to make itself smaller, more easily digested. Here, the poet seems to be recalibrating, finding new ways of challenging imaginative boundaries where Measures confronted the physical.


*             *             *

IV: Astronomer of Freedom

Capildeo’s most recent collection, Skin Can Hold (2019), is prefaced by Martin Carter’s poem ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’:

‘Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.’

Remembering the singular white roads of Georgetown and Inishbofin, what might initially strike a reader as metaphorical was altogether more real for Carter; University of Hunger cites Phyllis Carter’s belief that it was one of the poems smuggled out of her husband’s prison cell in 1953. Earlier in the same poem are the lines:

‘It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.’

If Skin Can Hold can be summarised in a single opposition, it’s the festival in the guns, the carnival in the misery; the phrase ‘strange invader’ recurs in ‘Midnight Robber Monologue’, a speech for the eponymous Carnival character, an agent of chaos, death, and poetry. Skin Can Hold is unusual in Capildeo’s work for the ways in which it explicitly reaches beyond the printed page, into dramatic monologues, public performances, political activism and, perhaps most pertinently for their oeuvre, collaboration with other artists. Carter has been an active presence in their work from the outset, as an exemplar of how the fantastic blends with the mundane, how a profound dreamlife may remain rooted in its political responsibilities. In Skin Can Hold, it feels like Carter is as much a model for the artist-in-community as for a private creative practice.

At the heart of the collection is ‘Astronomer of Freedom’, a lyric-dramatic exploration of Martin Carter’s iconic revolutionary poem, ‘I Am No Soldier’. What makes the Syntax Poems difficult to critique is that they are bookended by the poet’s own critical prose, offering the reader a way into and out of the text, including a reproduction of Carter’s original. Capildeo states their intentions clearly:

‘We [Capildeo and their collaborators] hoped to make the text inhabit areas of life and styles of being human and verbal that make sense in the world of ‘I Am No Soldier’, but which would be invisibilized in a lectern reading to the seated bodies of listeners.


Their intended effect arrives if words jump and jumble on the page in a way that informs the performance, and if the audience does not feel they have listened to ‘readers of poetry’, but rather participated in a sense of call and response, cry and chorus, intimate camaraderie.’

The text itself feels like an explosion in progress, as if the potentialities already seeded in Carter’s work, particularly its conflations of time and space, are being played out to their fullest, as the poem’s own grammatical references blur and overlap:

‘there are galaxies of happiness
(in darkness)
(in my hand’s revolving wheel)
(in my breast)
(in my breast and in my head)
(and in my head and in my dream)
(and in my dream and in my furious blood)

wherever            (wherever he may fall)’

What is implicit in Carter’s poem, in a line like ‘one minute and one hour and one year’, or in the grammatical fluidity of ‘Cold rain is mist! is air, is all my breath!’, is taken as permission for further play, to create a discrete world within the materials Carter offers. Here are the final lines of Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’:

‘The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness
And the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.
Let me rise up wherever he may fall
I am no soldier hunting in a jungle
I am this poem like a sacrifice.’

And those of the syntax poems:

‘I had seen / the glittering
darkness / And the planet
wheel / and the planet
head / and in
blood. / Let
fall / I am
a jungle / I am
sacrifice. //’

The syntax poems are explicitly collaborative, and there are notes in this short passage which don’t harmonise with much of Capildeo’s work; it’s possible to feel how the process of close reading that informed the syntax poems makes space within the source text for new aesthetics. The essay after these lines is explicitly presented as a ‘how-to’ guide, examining the salient rhetorical constructions in ‘I Am No Soldier’ that provide a grounding for the syntax poems. In Capildeo’s own words:

‘These materials are primarily an encouragement to readers to prepare their own kinetic, immersive, or collaborative responses (should they so wish) to any text of their choice.’

It feels appropriate that Carter’s work should be the case study for such a generous, many-minded attitude towards the assumed boundaries of poetic composition. Capildeo describes Carter’s work as ‘still carrying out its own propulsive transformation’, a beautifully apt description of an oeuvre that has so bare a presence in publication in these islands, but so rich an afterlife in the bodyminds of his readers. Where so much of Skin Can Hold looks with frustration and fury at the past and present, ‘Astronomer of Freedom’ reaches toward Carter’s own ecstatic invocation of a better world, his ‘secular hymn to the glittering potentiality seeded in ourselves’, his visionary belief in, Capildeo’s words again, the ‘I that can be we’.


*             *             *


Perhaps focusing too strongly on Carter’s presence, influence, or example in Capildeo’s work is to risk misrepresenting a vastly multifarious and complex oeuvre; yet he does occupy a status enjoyed by no other artist, as ancestor or model literary citizen. For both poets, the act of refusal, the denial of simplistic boundaries, is a source of imaginative power, something which on many occasions in Carter’s writing flows directly into his moral and political belief in a fairer society, in which life in its complexity is celebrated, in which the voices of the dead are revered, and the voices of the oppressed are raised up. In an interview with The Wolf in 2016, Capildeo outlines Carter’s significance not only to their own oeuvre, but within innovative poetry at large:

‘Carter’s ‘I’ is interesting because it feels communal and collective without being representative or coercive. […] The struggle to create this kind of plural ‘I’ has perhaps been overlooked by some British avant-garde poets’ surface reading of, and turning away from, ‘postcolonial’ literature: the ‘I’ that cries or sings as if in one voice and yet is astir with the voices of many.’

In Capildeo’s work, the poem’s attempt to navigate or circumscribe the experiences of the singular, socially imposed self resolves into ‘singing… with the voices of many’. If Skin Can Hold is any indication, Capildeo’s oeuvre is still wholly open to radical change and formal evolution, and I count myself fortunate to witness how their work carries out its own ‘propulsive transformation’. Thanks for reading.



Further Reading:


Capildeo, Vahni – No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003); Undraining Sea (Eggbox, 2009, rights reverted to author); Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Eggbox, 2012, rights reverted to author); Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013); Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016); Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018); Skin Can Hold (Carcanet 2019).

Carter, Martin – University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Gemma Robinson (Bloodaxe, 2006).

Philip, M. NourbeSe – Zong! (Wesleyan, 2008).



Capildeo, Vahni – One Scattered Skeleton, African Writing (4), 2006.

All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, ed Stewart Brown, (1999, Peepal Tree).

Hall, Alaric, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, (2007, Boydell Press)



Capildeo, Vahni – “And did those feet…” Review of University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Gemma Robinson, Caribbean Review of Books, 2006.

– “Everywhere and Nowhere”, The White Review, 2017.

– “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review (228), 2016.

– Review of Seasonal Disturbances by Karen McCarthy Woolf, Hello, Your promise has been extracted by Ahren Warner, and Kingdom of Gravity by Nick Makoha, Compass Poetry Magazine, 2019.

– Review of In nearby bushes by Kei Miller, Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, September 2019.


Baugh, Edward – Review of Undraining Sea, Caribbean Review of Books, 2011.

Chingonyi, Kayo – Review of Measures of Expatriation, Poetry London (85), 2016.

Hussain, Nasser – Review of Venus as a Bear, The Poetry School, 2019.

Laughlin, Nicholas – Review of No Traveller Returns, Caribbean Review of Books, 2004.

– Review of No Traveller Returns, Caribbean Beat, 2004.

Moore, Kim – Review of Venus as a Bear, Poetry London (91) 2018.

Narayanan, Vivek – Review of Utter, Caribbean Review of Books, 2015.

Parmar, Sandeep – Review of Measures of Expatriation, The Guardian, 2016.

Paul, Cris – Review of Measures of Expatriation, Poetry Wales (52:2), 2016.

Wheatley, David – Review of Venus as a Bear, The Guardian, 2018.



with Jack Belloli, Stride, August 2019.

with Sarala Estruch,, 2018.

with Nicholas Laughlin, MaComère (13) 2011-2.

with Sandeep Parmar, The Wolf Magazine, 2016.

with the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast, 2017 [transcription courtesy of Amy Key, via Twitter.]


The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.


Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.




A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.




A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.




I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.


Works Cited:


Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours



Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Kayombo Chingonyi – The Color of James Brown’s Scream

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.

3 PF

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
white writing
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

Buy The Color of James Brown’s Scream direct from the poet

Chingonyi on Daljit Nagra, Kei Miller, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe and Helen Mort

Interview with Cadaverine Magazine

Khavita Bhanot: Decolonise, not Diversify in Media Diversified

Sandeep Parmar: Not a British Subject in The LA Review of Books

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.