Review: My life and your life

Eve L. Ewing, Electric Arches, Haymarket, $16, ISBN 9781608468560
Raymond Antrobus, The Perseverance, Penned in the Margins, £9.99, ISBN 9781908058522
Fiona Moore, The Distal Point, HappenStance, £10, ISBN 9781910131442
Sarala Estruch encounters true stories, dramatic monologues and medicine for grief

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In the note of introduction to her debut collection, Electric Arches, writer, scholar, artist and sociologist Eve L. Ewing writes, “This book is about my life and maybe also your life. And it is about the places we invent. Every story in it is absolutely true.” Hence we are immediately introduced to the work’s preoccupations with the transformative and unifying powers of language and the imagination, as well as its probing exploration of what constitutes ‘truth’, ‘story’ and, above all, ‘history’. “Everybody has a history, every institution has a history, every neighborhood, every rock, tree and car,” said Ewing in a recent interview with the New York Times. But in mainstream society, certain histories are privileged while many more are silenced. Electric Arches is concerned with giving voice to the personal and collective stories of black girlhood and womanhood, and the challenges and possibilities of growing up as a black girl in contemporary America, specifically Chicago.

The work is framed by two poems which are dedicated to Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted (many believe wrongly) of the murder of a white police officer in 1977 but who escaped from prison in 1979 and was granted political asylum in Cuba where she lives to this day. The opening poem, ‘Arrival Day’, is a speculative poem which describes, in energetic and original verse, black revolutionaries as aliens who “under cover of night or early morning” “drop from the moon” and arrive in modern-day Chicago. It is a highly imaginative, innovative and vibrant poem delivered with a lightness of tone and humour which make the underlying racial tensions all the more resonant and painful, particularly when the poem returns, abruptly, from its imaginative heights back to everyday reality:

[…] the boy down the street, who in smaller days I walked
to school when his mother worked early, who loved lime
popsicles the best […]
[…] who the police had recently declared a man, stopping
him mid-two-step to ask questions he could not answer because the query beneath
them was “why are you alive”

The closing poem, ‘Affirmation’, is dedicated to “youth living in prison” and is one of Ewing’s more hopeful and life-affirming poems: “Put a finger to my wrist or my temple / and feel it: I am magic”. Ewing’s poems are frequently celebratory, often taking commonplace items and eulogising them as emblematic of the black female experience (such as ‘Shea Butter Manifesto’ and ‘Ode to Luster’s Pink Oil’) although, as in ‘Arrival Day’, the darkness of racial prejudice always lurks just beyond the page.

Her use of form is as innovative as her ideas and images are original. The collection includes visual art, speculative poems, short stories, retellings of personal encounters with racism (reminiscent of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, but which progress into wildly imaginative – and often hilarious – speculative endings that have been added in Ewing’s handwriting), even a sonnet consisting of a single line repeated fourteen times which reveals the tenderness behind the simple but thoughtful action “I saved some cornbread for you in the skillet on the oven” (‘sonnet’).

Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance is also both highly personal and political. Like Ewing, Antrobus is adept at conveying the current climate of racial and class tensions, although the primary settings here are England and Jamaica. If Ewing’s collection can be described as a paean to black girlhood and womanhood in Chicago, The Perseverance can be described as a moving account of a D/deaf, mixed-race boy’s journey to manhood. However, the collection is far more than a straightforward work of autobiography; it is a tightly wrought body of poetry, which poignantly probes the challenges and possibilities of D/deaf identity, mixed-race identity and modern-day masculinity.

In his pamphlet, To Sweeten Bitter, Antrobus wrote movingly about negotiating his Jamaican British heritage and his relationship with his late father. In this full collection, the poet continues to explore questions of identity and belonging in a postcolonial world. In ‘Aunt Beryl Meets Castro’, the speaker declares that “Castro, / him understan’ the history / of dem who harm us, who / make the Caribbean a / kind of mix up mix up / pain”, and in ‘Miami Airport’, racist prejudices combine with stereotypes of D/deafness when the security guard refuses to believe that the poet is either British (“why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you / when I was in England?”) or deaf (“you don’t look deaf?)”. Where the collection goes further, however, is in its broader and deeper exploration of the D/deaf experience. The opening poem, ‘Echo’ is a tour de force in which plosives and sibilant sounds abound, conveying the experience of using hearing aids:

My ear amps whistle as if singing
to Echo, Goddess of Noise,
the ravelled knot of tongues,
of blaring birds, consonant crumbs
of dull doorbells, sounds swamped
in my misty hearing aid tubes.

Many of the poems are dramatic monologues through which D/deaf individuals are given space to share their stories, from the artist in ‘Conversation with the Art Teacher (A Translation Attempt)’ to the historical figure of Mabel Bell, wife of Alexander Graham Bell, in ‘The Shame of Mable Gardiner Hubbards’.

The Perseverance also reads as an elegy to the poet’s late father, exploring as it does their relationship, as well as the father’s relationship to the poet’s deafness. The final poem, ‘Happy Birthday Moon’, is a deeply moving pantoum in which the young poet and his father are reading together from a children’s book and, through their various attempts, they learn to laugh at their struggles and in so doing begin to “hear each other, really hear each other”.

Fiona Moore’s The Distal Point is another collection concerned with language’s ability – or, at times, inability – to appease human suffering. In ‘The Only Reason For Time Is So That Everything Doesn’t Happen At Once’, the speaker states “I will get language where I can” as if it is a medicine for grief but one that is hard to procure.

The title itself comprises an anatomical and geographical term which means “situated away from the centre of the body or an area or from the point of attachment” (OED). In the opening section of the book, the title appears to relate to the poet who has lost her “point of attachment” in the form of her spouse/life partner who, we infer, died of cancer. The poems in this section are tightly controlled, acting both as vessel for and release of the grief that so completely suffuses them. These are meditations on the nature of time, which grief transforms into something “that is not linear as it seemed” (‘The Only Reason For Time Is So That Everything Doesn’t Happen At Once’), as well as the nature of change “that’s slow, and slow, and one day total” (‘Island’).

In the second section of the book, we are offered a more literal definition of “the distal point” in a poem titled ‘Exclave’, in which Moore uses Kaliningrad as a metaphor for something approaching a state of transition, and which seems to be applicable to experiences as wide-ranging as death or leaving the European Union:

We drove to the frontier once, or as far as we could:
[…] We looked
into silence: the trees and fields empty of
barbed wire, a mine strip, high guard towers
with a gate, if any, only to be opened
at the end of the world as we knew it.

The second section engages most directly with politics and history, and includes a poem which describes how prisoners were hung from meat-hooks in Plötzensee Prison, another which evokes the anti-austerity riots in Greece and another that details a discussion of Wall’s Neapolitan ice cream, and which poses timely questions about how differences can be preserved within a unified whole.

In the third and final section, Moore returns to poems of love and loss, but with a voice that is less grief-stricken, more assured. Here, the poems are less constrained by form. It is as if the grief, having quieted to a gentle ache rather than an all-engulfing wound, can now be given more space, more freedom, and, as a result, vestiges of hope begin to appear. In the final poem, ‘To the Moon’, it is as if the poet can now take pleasure in striving for the unknown and the unattainable – she can joyfully inhabit the distal point:

Moon, here’s a heart
in the sand, and over there a lantern launched

straight for you, a circle of orange flame
soaring towards
destruction: the higher, the more complete.

The Poetry Review 1084 Winter 2018Sarala Estruch a London-based writer, poet and Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic. This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:4, Winter 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.