‘This is the time’: Three Debuts
‘Kumukanda’ by Kayo Chingonyi, ‘My Dark Horses’ by Jodie Hollander, ‘Useful Verses’, By Richard Osmond
Review by Stephen Grace
If, as T. S. Eliot suggested, the ‘best contemporary poetry can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfilment different from any sentiment aroused even by very much greater poetry of a past age’, then there is something thrilling about reading three debut collections. Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda offers a rich and moving account of the strange (and un-Eliotic) transience that has come to inflect our sense of the contemporary. I doubt I’ll be the only reader of a certain age to smile fondly at Chingonyi’s memories of hiding a Walkman in a school blazer, or of pilfering batteries from TV remotes to keep it running, and he uses his witty invocations of lost pre-digital paraphernalia, from TDK cassesttes to Littlewoods catalogues, to pose wider questions about identity and belonging. As the preface tells us, the book’s title means ‘the passing of Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi, and Mbunda boys into adulthood’, and Chingonyi’s poems consider alternatives and surrogates for ‘such rites of passage’. One means of achieving a sense of belonging is music. In ‘The Room’ Chingonyi writes:
it’s not just the drummer’s slack grip, how the hook line
swings in the session singer’s interpretation,
or the engineer’s too-loud approximation
of the MacGyver theme tune, it’s that hiss, the room
fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools.
Music is prized as a sign of the uniqueness of people and places, and the internal half-rhyme of ‘tune’ and ‘room’ forms a type of hiss, the repetition of ‘itself’ a sort of hiccup that inscribes the detail of this scene onto the texture of the poem. This compares favourably with the soulless ‘mp3 player’ in ‘Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly’, but it also carries loss. Chingonyi’s sonic effects in ‘The Room’ are echoic, the words recalling the music which in turn recalls the place where it was first heard. Poem and poet exist at several removes from their origin, and although there are continuities these are only partial: memory bears the trace of the loss it tries to compensate for.
Kumukanda, then, does not advance any easy account of belonging, and is acutely aware of racism and violence. Its central sequence, ‘calling a spade a spade’, offers bleakly travestied moments of initiation, including encountering ‘The N Word’ in plays, poems, and everyday speech, and elsewhere there are moving elegies to Chingonyi’s lost mother. At the same time, there are moments of buoyancy, and even defiance. ‘Kung’anda’, for example, answers Anglo-centric stereotypes of a barren Africa with:
. . . the glistening brown torsos
of children bathed in the promise
of rainclouds, kept at last
where the last three words serve as a reminder of the times when such promises were not kept. Joy tempered, rather than outright joy, is the spirit of these lines, as it is in the last two poems of the collection, which shift locale, moving to Newcastle in ‘Baltic Mill’ and ‘This poem contains gull song’. Newcastle is ‘another world’, a place of ‘blackface minstrels from Gateshead mines and / iron works’, of ‘cabbies sparking / tabs in the cold of a windswept rank’. Here too we have an absent culture, and although the reference to ‘blackface minstrels’ prevents an easy over-identification of Chingonyi’s African heritage with North-East England’s derelict industrial traditions, these concluding poems trace the unexpected vectors that both join and divide disparate communities:
the strains of an old tune hidden
in the genes of a new one – a left-behind
accent fizzing at the back of my tongue
The past also preoccupies Jodie Hollander’s compelling My Dark Horses, which traces the troubled relationship of the poet with her mother. The collection returns, obsessively, to the mother – the trauma she inflicts and the trauma she suffers – and in doing so throws events and objects that seem innocuous into sharp relief. ‘The Red Tricycle’, for example, sparks recollections of Hollander’s mother being sexually abused by her father, and the poem imagines how ‘she held her mother’s big body / in her skinny white arms’. This is a heart-rending example of how Hollander charges even the plainest of lines with violent meanings: in its child-like simplicity, ‘big’ envelopes the poem in the consciousness of the abused child and emphasises the horrific inversion of a traumatised daughter having to comfort her own mother.
Knowledge of this abuse contextualises the destructive adult behaviour of Hollander’s mother, such as taking her daughter horse-riding in a storm in the earlier poem ‘The Storm House’, which remembers her with ‘long hair plastered onto her neck, / and her skin glistening in the pouring rain’ as she ‘opened her mouth’ and ‘drank in the storm’. ‘Plastered’ and ‘glistening’ make her seem horse-like, as though she were more at home among them than with her family, scorning her husband as ‘scared of life’. Yet Hollander seems wary of this kind of wild freedom and the violence it can bring. Horses are – as the collection’s title indicates – a recurrent presence for Hollander, but elsewhere they are pictured as more restrained. ‘Wild Horses’, for instance, has them ‘clip-clopping into your thoughts again’, and ends by saying ‘their gallop is the gallop of your heart’. This clip-clop and gallop are somewhat different from the careening ride of ‘The Storm House’, even though that too is described as a ‘gallop[ing] off into the slanting rain’. The repetition of ‘gallop’ in ‘Wild Horses’ dissipates some of its wilder potential, making this a slightly calmer, more tentatively peaceful poem. A similar feeling pervades the title poem, the last in the book, which imagines what it would be like to be a horse during a storm:
I’d make my way calmly to the shed,
and stand close to all the other horses.
Together, we’d let the rain fall round us,
knowing as darkness passes overhead
that above all, this is the time to be still.
It would be wrong to claim this as a moment of healing which washes away the pain of the earlier poems. ‘My Dark Horses’ posits a hypothetical scenario, each stanza beginning with the conditional ‘If only I were more like my dark horses’, and its stillness is represented as an imagined possibility, not an achieved fact. Nevertheless its placement at the end of the collection gives us some grounds for guarded optimism, that tragedy can be, if not healed, then in some measure at least salved and soothed.
Of these three debut collections Richard Osmond’s Useful Verses is the most self-reflexively playful, the one that most explicitly thematises literature itself. ‘Luck and Colour’ spins five stanzas out of the different ways of saying a leprechaun ‘was dressed in green / and wore a four-leaf clover on his belt’. If this wry self-awareness sounds very modern, it is worth noting that, as the blurb to this beautifully made book points out, Osmond is ‘a professional forager’ with ‘a deep knowledge of flora and fauna. . . as they are depicted in folklore’. Examples of such folklore include the translations and adaptations of medieval charms and riddles of Osmond’s book, such as ‘Charm for Clear Skin’, which is ‘translated from inscriptions in a ninth-century commentary on the psalms’, ‘The Nine Herbs Charm’ ‘Translated from the Lacnunga’, and, best of all, ‘The Sky God as Hell’s Angel’, billed as ‘A horse-healing charm, after the second Merseburg incantation’:
Woden, dipped in woad, a rider, rode.
Woad-dipped Woden rode a road bike
down the road. By dipped in woad
I mean tattooed. By road I mean road.
Two things seem to be happening at once here. On the one hand, the density of the verbal patterning suggests language for language’s sake, a purely linguistic realm which, whilst pleasurable, has no practical purpose in the material world. On the other, the incantatory effect of this patterning reminds us, however distantly, that this was a charm, a spell intended to procure a very particular effect (healing a horse, in this case). These two things need not be incompatible. As Osmond puts it in ‘Metrical Charm to Cure Ear and Throat Ache’:
some chants are perfect nonsense,
designed to render meaningless
the cause of pain and injury and return it
from the structured human body
to the unstructured chaos of the wild.
Useful Verses can usefully be thought of as giving us different versions of this transaction between the structured human body and the unstructured chaos of the wild, though often in ways that put pressure on how we might define these terms. Most startlingly, ‘A Game of Golf’ takes the medieval incantatory spell online, recasting it as the ‘profound nonsense’ of blog posts ‘attracting traffic with both the overt and cryptic / repetition’ of certain words, in this case ‘busty London escorts’, a service catering to ‘the executive / classes’ that acts as a wicked satiric comment on some men’s notions of healing. Here, the unstructured chaos of the wild is not natural, but digital, questioning what we mean by ‘nature’ and the extent to which it is shaped by modes of perception, including language and technology. Nor is this a contemporary phenomenon: given the exaggeratedly repetitious, artificial dimensions of chants and spells, it is tempting to say that nature has never been especially natural. Which is not to say that nature does not exist at all, but rather that it is elusive and composite, comprised of a multitude of different structures, and that it might very look and feel like an unstructured chaos, especially if we remain tethered to narrowly ‘human’ modes of perception. As ‘Chant’ puts it:
Earth grows grass feeds deer make dung
engenders Psilocybe semilanceata conjures God
created the heavens and the earth grows grass