Book review: A forest you’ll never see

Rebecca Perry, Stone Fruit, Bloodaxe, £10.99, ISBN 9781780375687
Kayo Chingonyi, A Blood Condition, Chatto, £10, ISBN 9781784743901
Alycia Pirmohamed on memory, inheritance and embodiment

. . .

Rebecca Perry’s Stone Fruit is a deceptively quiet collection that unravels in three parts. Part one opens with the study of a girl in a miniature portrait titled ‘beaches (1)’, a poem wherein “a wolf’s eyes will glow / violet in a forest you’ll never see / in a place you can’t know”. All eleven lines of this poem suggest a kind of loss in an almost dark, elegiac tone. “what’s wrong, my little peach?” the speaker asks, an unnerving knowingness underlying the poem’s imagery. The portrait and what we understand of the literal world is still, but there is the strange sensation of activity as the poem’s images flicker into an unrealised future tense. The result is an emerging futility, an inability to make present the absence that is felt throughout this and subsequent poems –

and, somewhere, is a whole beach
made of glass pebbles you will never
lie down on, nor will your skin reflect
its blue, green, white, and burn.

I say deceptively quiet because Stone Fruit is an accumulation. Perry’s clean, sometimes conversational lines build into a mesmerising intensity. This accumulation, often imperceptible on the level of the line, is felt materially when encountering a sharp, unexpected image, or amidst a thrilling turn. Part one consists of fourteen poems titled ‘beaches’, which are denoted by a number in parentheses. What emerged in ‘beaches (1)’, then, lingers at the mouth of the cave in ‘beaches (2)’ and trickles down the sand timer in ‘beaches (3)’. Reading these poems, I consider them from 1 to 14 and attempt to unfold the narrative in chronological order. Other times, I think of the entire sequence as a single portrait, where Perry adroitly directs my gaze to various details, or even new iterations, of the same whole. How, for instance, the empty cave in the lines “you know a cave had another form / before the water came” (‘beaches (2)’) echoes, near seamlessly, ‘beaches (4)’, where the speaker’s heart “dropped into the river” leaving a hole:

only then did I see my chest
open & dark
as if a tooth had been pulled from it
i walked to the water
to wash
the water sealed up the hole
in my chest

This second interpretation allows a more flexible reading, so when the few middle poems meditate on simple, slightly too succinct moments, I more readily accept them as tendrils off the surrounding pieces, united by repetition and tonal resonance. But the sequence regains momentum toward its end. In these exciting poems, we are given a new liveliness amongst the reflections of the speaker, like when the speaker becomes animal, breaking out of the precisely crafted stillness of earlier poems –

you know how it goes
i love to fuck
my hands are my concern
i’ll admit this much
in the correct light
and at a specific time
my head becomes the head
of a yet to be identified
woodland creature
most likely a muntjac
their eyes are green at night
and they bark like dogs
                          (‘beaches (9)’)

Part two contains a selection of enthralling poems with long lines that seem to reach into the interior/exterior at the same time. These act as a bridge, guiding readers to the more internal, seemingly more personal, anecdotes of the book’s third and final section.

What is perhaps most innovative about Stone Fruit is the inclusion of Perry’s poem-essay about professional trampolining. ‘On Trampolining’ observes several years of Perry’s life, and spans moments outlining competitive trampolining, familial relationships, grief, and healing. As an extended metaphor, it is rich with energy; we lift, suspend, and land throughout the various segments.

I landed in the vast
safe space between total failure
and absolute perfection.

This cross-genre piece asks us to meditate on the physicality of our bodies through sometimes violent and harrowing imagery. To reflect on how our bodies are simultaneously fragile – easily injured – but resilient, with a deep capacity for memory.

Kayo Chingonyi’s A Blood Condition also navigates memories that are somatically felt and carried through the body. Both its title and its longest poem, ‘Genealogy’, suggest lineage as one of the book’s thematic centres. Described as a story of inheritance, the poems develop under a film of memory and, unavoidably, uncertain narrativisations. Skilful in his approach, Chingonyi explores those nebulous threads between generations, sometimes as taut as a mother’s plaited hair, and other times loosened into a mist. He examines familial nostalgia, communal loss, and legacy with tenderness, and with an anti-colonial, and at times anti-capitalist, ferocity. Remarkably successful in these veins, the collection first poises itself as both tribute and warning.

                                                       though the strangers
who came with their ideas of     order     their instruments
and blueprints     those strangers brought with them a plan
to build a dam     harness the river’s power to bolster
the power of man     and what did it matter to them
dishonouring     a god     in whom they didn’t believe

for those who believed     the dam     was no boon
they knew     no human hand could bend the landscape
to the ends of capital     without consequence
                          (‘Nyaminyami: …the river god’)

The collection is bookended by retellings of the story of Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River god, which are mythical in tone: the beginning and end of the collection both cast outward – geographically to Zambia, temporally to the 1950s, and beyond any sense of individual speaker – to observe a reimagined collective history. This is a history that, as much as it is his own “blood condition”, Chingonyi, at least in part, fictionalises. The result is a satisfying tension between formal restraint and free verse. Gaps of blank space symbolise what is ungraspable in inherited memory and its reconstruction of time and place, what remains unsaid, which syllables are uncounted. Yet the rhythmic nature curtails the poem’s possibility of infinite reaching, reminding us that at the periphery lingers the heartbeat of the poet’s experience.

This tension is heightened as Chingonyi innovates traditional forms, such as the sonnet crown ‘Origin Myth’, a piece reflecting on the HIV epidemic. The sequence is precisely episodic; each sonnet feels captured and framed – contained, almost. However, because each sonnet begins with the final line of the preceding sonnet, a kind of ligament propels us forward through time, only to loop us back again, caught in the sequence’s cyclic structure. In an interview with Five Dials, Chingonyi writes that the virus is part of Zambia’s legacy, and that writing ‘Origin Myth’ was “a way of tapping into that personal and more widespread resonance”. Here, form augments content; the sonnet’s persistent coiling mimics inheritance, and readers glimpse this legacy as interlaced with those sharp, personal griefs of the speaker.

The nucleus of an infected cell
is a pathogen’s ultimate gateway –
after the breach, the sounding of a knell,
the ending of a life, or so they say.
I believed it, too, to my great shame,
as did my mother who refused the pills
that would have her here among us still.

I am reminded of this kind of looping in a later image: “a man I look like / who looks like me”. In this sequence poem, ‘Arguments in favour of the sea’, Chingonyi once again attempts restraint through a technique of numbering each section. While these numbers suggest a single line of flight, the poem’s images snap the poem back so that we are reminded again of inheritance, even as the numbered verses carry us forward. Outwardly, Chingonyi shapes and pins down remembrance and legacy through manipulations of form; while it is disorienting at times to calibrate between them, to regain footing between long sequences and short, powerful lyrics, the multiple echoes eventually bring the whole together.

Yet even the concept of inheritance is complicated by the edges of alternate possibilities and elsewheres – those instances where Chingonyi’s approaches disrupt the ever-present sense of passing down. In a poem that leans into ars poetica, ‘Guy’s and St Thomas’s’, Chingonyi asks what I consider an essential question: “How can I set down / the passage of time?” Here, he articulates a troubling impossibility: how do we set down in art, that which still ripples through? That which we embody, that divides as our cells divide; that likeness that only the years bring out? In A Blood Condition, one of the answers seems to be to reify ghosts; to give them life, even if the context is that which is fictionalised, reimagined and thus, limitless in its alternatives. Ultimately, Chingonyi manifests the figurative as a kind of truth in itself –

9. The tall ships
Their figures so prominent
in remembrance
it doesn’t matter
whether I saw them or not
                          (‘Arguments in favour of the sea’)

Alycia Pirmohamed’s debut collection Another Way to Split Water is forthcoming from Polygon in 2022. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 111:2, Summer 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.