Book review: Other Ways of Being

Inua Ellams, The Actual, Penned in the Margins, £9.99, ISBN 9781908058782
Wayne Holloway-Smith, Love Minus Love, Bloodaxe, £10.99, ISBN 9781780375083
Joanna Lee on masculinity, anger and love

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 Inua Ellams’ The Actual is a volley of precise furies, taking aim at the ways nuanced ideas of identity and experience are stifled by a culture of hero figures, politicians, history, and corporations alike. The collection is organised around a series of excoriating ‘Fuck’ poems: fierce prose blocks cut through with slashes that confront issues from the climate crisis to conferences, coronavirus to empire, with a breathless momentum that speaks to the silent “fuck” that waits in the collection’s title. Ellams is also a playwright and performer, and these poems spark with charged musicality when inhabited, spoken aloud. The political is deeply personal, and the collection is filled with tenderness that flowers through the rage – dawn “throwing its soft wide fists against the overwhelming darkness” (‘Fuck / Dystopian Loneliness’) or a three-year-old holding “careful constellations blooming / in the brown universe / of her brimming eyes” (‘Fuck / Humanity’). Such details feel like an act of resistance.

Ellams shows disdain for the careful carelessness of a contemporary politics where the words of those in charge are used to justify and fuel racist violence. ‘Fuck / #77’ responds to the culture of hatred fanned by the language of the current UK prime minister, as Johnson’s calling “our men cannibals / our cousins pickaninnies / our smiles watermelon / our aunties letter boxes” stokes the “goons who come along / their knuckles dragging / to hurl your words at people of colour passing / at immigrants / the working class”. Ellams’ care and control over his own language, evidenced in the deliberate pacing here, contrasts starkly with the lazy politics that he criticises. In an interview with Poetry London, Ellams said “I got angry […] I tried not to censor myself, to go towards the ‘angry-black-man’ stereotype and see how much I could undermine, highlight, celebrate and bring nuance to it”. Anger doesn’t have to be destructive, and the discipline in these poems suggests rage as an organised, legitimate response.

Throughout, there is an exploration of the hero trope and its entrapment of men in its toxic masculinity, which Ellams described in the aforementioned interview as “singularly the most destructive expression of the gender constructs that govern our world”. In ‘Fuck / Perseus’, Mount Olympus is “a gleaming symbol / of aspiration / of masculinity / so toxic” that Medusa is blamed for her own rape, turning her from victim to monster, something to be slain by Perseus’ “swashbuckling” bravado. In the crowning of Perseus as hero, Poseidon “stayed silent / his crime forgotten”. As long as women are forced to absorb blame for men’s behaviours – it is Athena, after all, who turns Medusa “scaly-skinned / snaked-headed” – masculinity is trapped, remade, in this cycle wherein “locker room talk by locker room talk / men make other men”.

The role of the hero, it’s clear, is two-dimensional. There is no room for nuance in this imagining of masculinity, and there’s heartbreaking poignancy in a man telling his grandson “We are men / We feel nothing”, passing on a legacy of unfeeling that calcifies into destruction (‘Fuck / Boys’). Vulnerability is replaced by the “gnarled knuckle” of his heart, “shredding the vicissitudes of himself”, and this sense of loss is felt keenly with the imagined “dimmed symphonies / of other ways of being”. These conceptions of manhood are illusory; learned, not ingrained.

Ellams further pulls apart the myths that are presented as fixed in our society in ‘Fuck / Borders’ and ‘Fuck / Border Guards’, where “the armed” “man the borders / of narrative and myth”, fixing the story to “cast the war-torn and hungry / as vermin”. Again it is the “heavy-booted” brute pressure that polices these “thin boundaries”, decorated with tools of violence in the name of officiousness and control. When such force is used to repress the “forestspiritchild” “who saw no borders in the sky”, what ways of seeing are lost?

Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love, too, reckons with loss and the limits of contemporary masculinity. The collection is a long, fragmented sequence that loops across timelines and distorts expectations of trauma, family, grief, pain, love. It unpicks the rituals of the domestic, from Sunday lunch to the unexpected configuration of “armchairs a carpeted living room a TV”. With its distinctly uncanny, elastic logic, it suggests that feelings are not whole or quantifiable, and asks what remains when you subtract love from itself – and what expressions of feeling, what conceptions of the self, can be grasped from within this blurred, airless space.

Midway through the collection, the speaker

can’t entirely get the fuck out of my body today
in the windowless room the man is telling me to stop
writing things down like a victim and be more like a warrior

Here, themes of dissociation, physicality and the uneasy binaries in perceptions of masculinity between “victim” and “warrior” – the cerebral and corporeal – are allowed to surface. Lines run like thoughts to create a haziness where it’s often unclear where the speaker is situated, and from within this ambiguous viewpoint, there is space for endless multiplicity. People are both “crying or about to cry”, things happen both here and “elsewhere”, ephemeral states last “forever”. “When he is dancing in a red field at nighttime / he is not dancing in a red field at nighttime”. Memories and observations overlap: the trauma of the past is in the past, but it is also happening now.

The spectre of the speaker’s father, with his rigid masculinity, haunts the poems. In one sequence, he is frozen in a snapshot “smoking and looking like James Dean”, and the speaker reflects on his possible likeness, noting that “he is my age / or younger”. A sense of threat is palpable as “he is going to do something / shallow soon and very bad”, and the speaker struggles to keep pace: “I’m trying hard to follow his example but I don’t want to die / I can’t seem to lift a heavy thing or get into fights pass the lighter”. Ideas of masculinity and inheritance are pulled apart here, the boundaries blurred further as later, in parentheses, “[the ‘he’ could refer to either the father or the son in other / words the son could be dead and not know it]”. The binaries of he/I, father/son, and participant/spectator are muddled, subject to circular, anxious internal logic.

Meat is accompanied throughout the collection with a sense of dread. A snake is “overwhelming itself with the dead cow”, “walking its unfused jaws all over the thing”; the consumption of meat is fused with narrow, oppressive masculinity, with “my father’s face fastening and / unfastening around mouthfuls / of pheasant the game”, “in his eulogy they said he loved beef always beef in his sandwiches”. These images feel hypnotic, stifling in their casual violence.

Consumption is observed with a kind of disgust: “this is the closest to suicide a cow can get – eating too much / some humans eat cows some mimic them”. The speaker opts instead to consume nothing – “I stuff my empty stomach full of smoke”. Though he rejects these ideas of masculinity, there is nowhere else to turn, and expressions of care become distorted in the tenderness of “two teenaged boys / who loved each other by not eating”, willing themselves “smaller / and smaller”.

The body, then, is endlessly fallible – a slab of meat, prone to diseases and desires outside our control. A certain disassociation becomes necessary, and early in the collection “my body is / thinking itself outside of this moment”. In the National Poetry Competition-winning ‘the posh mums are boxing in the square’, the speaker thinks his mother into a whole new reality, replacing the messiness of disease with “new lungs” and “a best friend with no problems”. Although “there is no beef between them”, they “go at each other […] in a nice way”, the shiny spandex and non-threatening opponent worlds away from the “thing in her stomach” or the “cigarettes with their crotonaldehyde”.

These collections stretch the constraints of masculinity. They fight back against tired, destructive perceptions of these identities, and in their place leave a groundswell of emotion: anger, sadness, tenderness, love. There are “other ways of being”.

The front cover of The Poetry Review winter 2020 issue is a painting by Anna Jensen. It features images taken from poems in the issue: a petrol pump, a fire and a bison, as well as two dogs pulling a sled and a big blue tent.Joanna Lee is a London-based writer and critic. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, White Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:4, winter 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.