Alice Hiller celebrates new work by Belinda Zhawi, Mary Jean Chan, Nina Mingya Powles, Lila Matsumoto and Raymond Antrobus.
small inheritances Belinda Zhawi
a hurry of english Mary Jean Chan
field notes on a downpour Nina Mingya Powles
Urn & Drum Lila Matsumoto
The Perseverance Raymond Antrobus
For harana poetry’s first review, I have chosen five UK-based poets who were born respectively in Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Japan and London. Belinda Zhawi, Mary Jean Chan, Nina Mingya Powles, Lila Matsumoto and Raymond Antrobus all create work which shifts and slides, to speak from multiple orientations, heritages and cultures. Whether claiming first-person voices of witness, or operating from more oblique or playful positions, each poet also invites us to notice the languages through which they realise their poems.
Belinda Zhawi settled in south London after coming to the UK from Zimbabwe aged 12. Her debut pamphlet, small inheritances, responds to the layered and multi-generational dimensions of migration, and illuminates what it can mean to realise your identity and agency, as a woman of colour, in contemporary London. Zhawi shades between a collective “we”, and a single “you” or “I” in different poems, sometimes creating a space of sympathetic adjacency, rather than directly self-identified reportage. She also embeds her political and philosophical inquiries within everyday life, writing about being dislocated from her Shona heritage in ‘bantuland (dear whinchat)’:
My first language’s started to wilt on my tongue.
When I speak to cousins back home my mouth feels
like it’s full of the water that dead leaves flail in.
I feel like home has forgotten me
I feel like home has forgotten me
I feel like home has forgotten me
The physicality of this language-loss, which enters via her mouth, and threatens to initiate an internalised disintegration, but then shifts into song-like repetition, is central to Zhawi’s creative process. Time and again, her poems enact what is forfeited – and what regrows in its place. The pamphlet’s first poem, ‘thamesmead estate (dregs of south east London)’, opens with an epigraph-cum-injunction from Master P, the African American rapper, record company owner, entrepreneur and philanthropist – “Black kids [...] You gotta rehab yourself”. The poem then begins:
We know this city wouldn’t spit on us
were we flagrant,
red & ablaze, top deck of a bus.
We learn to hear our screams walk
thru walls before they’re cast into concrete silence.
This city wouldn’t even spit on us.
“Red & ablaze” will be repeated, with variations, four more times within the poem, which finally ends “ablaze & red, top deck of a bus”. Imagery that remembers Grenfell, and enacts anger, becomes a statement of the pain of living in a society that disregards you. But knitted together by its refrain, the poem also constitutes a burning act of sonic beauty and becomes the launch pad for Zhawi’s inquiry into how to “rehab” and reclaim yourself, in a city which turns away from your needs.
From the off, the tone of ‘rye lane (foul ecstasy)’ is witty and defiant. It investigates to what extent “illegal” drugs are portals through which the world can appear more possible, when everything seems shut down. The poem recalls “the taste/ of the foul/ ecstasy/ curdled in our/ gums” but also the “drooped eyes/ sharpened towards/ blue lights/ which flood the wet/ dance floor” after taking MDMA. The beauty of being where “our skins/ stay open,” shows the reader how a new understanding of yourself may arrive, without underplaying its risk.
The challenges of going beyond the actions of external agents, to encounter oneself with plain kindness, and begin to form a relationship of inward love, occupies ‘holstein way (reclamation song)’. Chemically generated ecstasy is replaced with the homelier injunction “learn to touch yourself again & yet again” until you are able “to no longer erase yourself”. Speaking specifically to black lives, but also extending beyond them to anyone who has felt themselves to be unseen, or denied, this is a political, as well as personal, remedy, arising from the realisation articulated in ‘evenlode house (self care)’ that “no one was going to heal for you/ so you figured it best to start small.”
The second section of small inheritances questions how identity is realised through sexuality and orientation, and refracts this into three alternately erotic, and politicised, poems. The speaker in ‘deptford (of masculinity)’ feels “the deep purple of the bruises” left by police hands on her lover’s body and leaves the reader to ask how they may impact the relationship.
In ‘stockwell (other women)’ the politics are those of arousal, and self-reconciliation. The “I” daydreams “my lover’s girlfriend/ her red hair cut like a boy’s” and sees from the perspective of a woman whose “insides shift when/ around women with blazing eyes and dewy mouths.” Finally, in ‘catford (borrowed)’ the non-gender-specific body becomes a landscape “when I kiss the three tones of your skin/ patched like an atlas of half a continent.”
The final section of small inheritances is the first to use Zhawi’s Shona mother tongue. Looking back to village life in Zimbabwe and southern Africa prior to colonisation, the poems reclaim their spiritual and creative lineages, and “foremothers’ voices.” ‘chitsa growth point (maternal stock)’ honours, but also considers the resonances of originating from a place where once “women masqueraded/ as birthing chambers in the dry seasons &/ in the rainy season as ploughmen.”
Zhawi’s final poem, ‘mazowe (1990)’, suggests that trauma may sometimes travel across continents, asking what it means to be nurtured by a mother who has been formed within a climate of adversity. The second person narration suggests that resolving this legacy is another facet of the self-healing and emotional “rehab” which small inheritances seeks to address, remembering with sorrow:
The times she used belts,
switches, extension cords
for broken cups, curfew slips
& other small things.
You cried for her, mostly for yourself,
could never tell from those red welts
if it was that you looked like your father
or because birthing you almost killed her.
The disproportion of the beatings – relative to the misdoings – prompts the reader to feel the weight of the pressures under which this mother-daughter relationship operates. As a writer, Mary Jean Chan is no less alert to the ways in which society can damage women, and women can unwittingly damage each other across generations, albeit that the multiple perspectives of her pamphlet, a hurry of English, open out from a different axis. Born in Hong Kong, but educated in English like Zhawi, and identifying as queer, Chan’s pamphlet holds multiplicities without homogenising or diminishing their separate parts. Unlike Zhawi’s sometimes oblique perspectives, Chan positions herself directly as the speaking “I”.
The first poem, ‘Always’, unfolds a series of answers to the question posed by Chan’s mother, “Do you ever write about me?”. Chan progresses from “the child who wanted to be/ a boy” to the “pen” dreaming of redeeming her mother’s “Red-Guarded days” and is finally “lips wishing/ they could kiss those mouths/ you would approve of.” This energy of claiming identity, and queerness, drives the narrative, but also registers what it must work against to arrive at its goal.
Key to Chan’s power and complexity as a poet is her empathy for the historical trauma visited upon her mother’s generation within the Chinese diaspora. In ‘what my mother (a poet) might say’ a series of autobiographical details and statements – “she had scurvy as a child”, “I would be ci sin to love another woman” – are presented with black lines ruled through them, leaving only the refrain “that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy”.
Later, ‘There is No Memorial for This in China’ understands how “My mother tries to mourn a war/ whose face is her own.” The metaphor realises the internalisation of trauma to the point where it becomes inseparable from the self – but the poem also shows how Chan is likewise held prisoner to silence. When visiting Mao’s home in Qingdao, she finds herself unable to voice any of the planned criticisms of him in her report to her mother, to avoid hurting her.
Like Zhawi, Chan also reclaims the body as a site of earned joy, whether shucking off her postcolonial white school uniform in ‘Dress’ or surrendering to a symphony of reaching hands and tongues in ‘The Castro’, dedicated “for Orlando.” Poems of love realised within the tenderness and safety of a home made by two women for each other introduce a further doubling of doubleness as separate cultures and languages meet within “two clasped bodies holding the heart’s ache at bay” (‘They Would Have All That’).
‘/ /’ offers an explosion of hetero-normative chopstick-driven linguistic and culinary brutality – over dinner during a visit home to Hong Kong. Nominally speaking to her lover afterwards, Chan remembers and glosses the evening:
To the Chinese,
you and I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies.
My mother tells you that chopsticks in Cantonese sounds
like the swift of sons. My mother-tongue rejoices
in its dumbness before you as expletives detonate: [two
women] [two men] [disgrace]. Tonight, I forget that I am
bilingual. I lose my voice in your mouth, kiss till blood
comes so sorry does not slip on an avalanche of syllables
Rather than surrender faith, however, Chan looks to “tomorrow” at the end of ‘//’ as “another chance to eat at the feast of the living.” She prefers the transitional violence of this open living to the closeted queer woman – whose unsaid words burn “like the lines she etches carefully into skin.” Acknowledging that there are also innumerable other unheard stories, ‘Wet Nurse (Shanghai, 1953)’ is dedicated “for the woman who raised my mother” – but also remembers the infant daughter she abandoned at birth on a train in order to get work.
Giving the baby’s “phantom lips”, and other silenced peoples, a form of voicing, clears the way for a hurry of english to close with healing. The penultimate poem, ‘The Translator’, is set in the liminal space of new year’s eve and reflects the movement across languages and continents, but also into open queerness, that Chan’s poems have achieved through their acts of witness. Chan defines her role as becoming “one who is fully/ bilingual, refusing soil and other forms of burial.”
Zhawi and Chan claim their creative identities within the language which once colonised their birthplaces. For her pamphlet, field notes on a downpour, self-proclaimed “mudblood” Nina Mingya Powles travels out of English back towards her mother’s Chinese mother-tongue. Powles previously wrote about this process in prose about living in Shanghai. Neither the narrator, nor the city, of this eight-page pamphlet are directly named, however. Instead, their identities accrete over time within the pages, like the Chinese characters whose processes of formation and signifying Powles explores. She begins:
The first character of my mother’s name, 雯 wen, is made of rain 雨 and language 文. According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.”
Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark. To stop them from slipping I write them down.
By hearing, and seeing, the sound “wen” transliterated into English, followed by its Chinese character, and then the two characters from which this is made up – rain and language – the process of signing simultaneously enacts and undoes itself. We recognise the dashes which mark the rain within the ‘rain’ character. We then experience the “mouthfuls of rain” which the words become as they enter mouths that speak them, and minds that think them, before mutating through the cloud imagery into “her hydrangeas in the dark”.
This could be Katherine Mansfield territory, about whom Powles has previously written – except that everything is taking place in a city where “old/ buildings are crushed to pieces” and “the subway map rewrites/ itself each night”. The second page introduces a second unnamed character, whom the speaker connects with a modern form of illumination – and also something rooted in the past: “Not long after we met I learnt the word 霓虹 neon, which is both a type of light, and a/ type of memory.” Attempting to come closer to each other through language on the third page, the pair find it multiplying and sliding away from them, towards the bodies in which we imagine they may also meet:
One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with a path between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels.
The fourth page opens itself onto watermelons and rain, and the complexities of a tonal language where “More than a hundred characters share the same sound. // ‘zong.’” Their meanings include a variety of mark-makings – “footprint, trace” and “the uneven flight of a bird”.
总 assemble, put together / always
踪 footprint, trace
翪 the uneven flight of a bird
The fifth page uses the gaze of the “the lady at the fruit shop” to let us see the poet’s “half Chinese” face – “(She points to my hair). We come up against a word I don’t know. She draws a character in/ the air with one finger and it hangs there between us.”
The sixth page runs into cracks in the ceiling – not unlike the strokes for characters – through which rain water drops onto the “you” and the “I”. Afterwards the poet notes that “two hundred white tundra swans were found dead beside a lake in Inner/ Mongolia.” Doubling the hundred-plus meanings of “zong” – the rupture which this collective swan death entails also visits itself on a jar of honey which “shattered softly, the/ pieces melting apart in my hands.”
On the seventh page, the differences between animate and inanimate dissolve, within “ming”’s refractions of meaning and sound, all rhyming with “the first part of my Chinese name”. Powles, who has through this part-named herself, discovers “I am a tooth-/like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus/ leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.”
On the luckiest eighth and final page the word “honey” migrates into a “honey pomelo” being sliced by a man with “a faded tattoo of a knife on the back of his hand,/ the blade adjacent to his thumb” – as if he were the human equivalent of a written character, with his meaning marked onto him. Building and collapsing houses of word cards, field notes on a downpour reaches through language towards the images which it evokes in our minds to ask how we exist to ourselves and others, within and beyond the ways in which we communicate.
Lila Matsumoto’s Urn and Drum is also a dual language work, with the difference that her parallel language system is voiced through visual images and objects, some of which are reproduced alongside the poems written “with them” to enact a non-dominant, ekphrastic feminist poetic practice. Matsumoto additionally ‘collects’ and ‘constellates’ words and phrases from everyday life and uses space with particular care so it becomes a form of visual orchestration.
From the start, Matsumoto’s work is clear about its political and conceptual intentions. The first, a “manifesto” poem titled ‘born in flames’, speaks across to a facing medieval drawing of a woman with a halo, holding a wooden paddle. She seems about to beat either a stream or an unravelling bundle of fabric. ‘born in flames’ starts:
This upbeat, glitzy sleight of hand
is what I call stump work
or a battle cry
What I want to do – my desire of desires –
is to make a show about a stubborn individual
with an acute awareness of price and passion
dissatisfied with the pabulum of her lot
I would like it to be seen by the widest possible cross-section
those who sing, those who don’t, etc.,
“Pabulum”, meaning insipidity or blandness, is the opposite of Matsumoto’s punning “upbeat, glitzy sleight of hand.” Gesturing reflexively towards its own linguistic pyrotechnics, the phrase also defines the language structures through which the poem is enacted as a form of political campaigning – or “stump work” – possibly arising from injury or amputation. It also suggests that the poems which follow will be works of resistance and articulation.
‘noise dirge’ offers suggestions as to what their process might entail. The facing photograph shows rows of standing women, wearing gowns, masks, and caps. They are apparently plugging things in, possibly within a telephone exchange or research facility, to enable some form of transmission. As if voicing their thoughts, the text reads:
I’m trying to listen with big ears
to the light that’s shining to itself
Signs are transmitted to me
I take notice of them
Then I add and omit notes
and it sounds better to me this way
A dirge is traditionally a funeral or mourning song, but here it enacts a mission of realising beauty, into a world to which it may not be apparent, through a process of selective, close attention. The subsequent poems in ‘Allegories from my Kitchen’ suggest these “signs” shine also from the smallest mundane, domestic objects, seen and heard from close-up. In ‘Morning’ “the kettle is in a huff and the eggs griddle griddle”, while the washing up water later “undulates with fresh promise”. ‘Peaches’ notices the “fleshy foam sleeves” which are unable to answer the question “What do you want to do?” because “now peachless, they/ lie there numb and insignificant”. Their complex melancholy translates itself into the two line poem ‘Fondant Cake,’ which describes both how it works, and by extension, what a poem may be:
This fondant cake is here for you. A crisp, almost brittle
crust, and a rich and dark crumb. Also this grief bacon.
The language could be advertising copy, were it not for the destabilising sequencing of the phrases, which run into the final sentence: “Also this grief bacon.” For those who do not eat meat, bacon is in itself a form of grief, but ‘Fondant Cake’ additionally offers the phrase as an image of how raw – or indeed “baked” – experience may be “cured” into something more lasting through the ambiguous agency of language.
This task of reconfiguring continues in ‘oikos, the household.’ A sequence of two- and three-line prose poems, titled for household objects, foreground the organic and the disobedient. ‘Jar II’ records how “A thought jostles for attention, fronds alarmingly when/ poked.” Aligned along the bottom of each page like stepping stones towards possibility, the poems create a feeling of low-lying grounded-ness and creeping below the sight-lines of more conventionally positioned work.
The closing section sites each text below its visual image. The first of these shows a statue by a river of a Viking clenching his sword in the air, with two partial figures either side. The text describes the different ways in which life may be lived:
Wherever there are hands, on peace-splayed cloth or on two
blue bands holding strong, holding snake-side. Attenuated
fingers follow skirt’s striation, raiding the leaf-shaped hem.
Or raiding for the purposes of urn and drum.
“Raiding the leaf-shaped hem” seems to be a refracted image of rape, which leads into the despoliation by the “urn and drum” for which the collection is named. Domestic items, repurposed for war, these containers of sound may be used to direct humanity towards extinction – or away from it, towards life, which is the “stump work” of Matsumoto’s project and collection.
Raymond Antrobus is also a poet whose work asks us to question the role of language within society, and additionally the relationships of speaking, and hearing, to members of the d/Deaf communities globally. The epigraph to The Perseverance, “There is no telling what language is/ inside the body”, from the African American poet Robin Coste Lewis – is given concrete and specific meaning by the seven page sequence ‘Echo’, which opens Antrobus’s first collection:
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.
Interleaving the text poems with Sign images, and writing from a place where the audible world presents differently, to enable to us to “hear” d/Deaf spaces, Antrobus enacts their autonomous existences, the rhythms and beauties which shape them – and their right to be honoured. He shows us that to “understand” them we have to reframe our thinking.
‘Echo’ also introduces the reader to Antrobus’s late, Jamaican British father, as his bereaved son clears his flat. The poet finds an old cassette which plays back to him his own original “space of deafness.” Aged 2, he was unable to hear “bus”, and on the recording repeats his name as “Antrob Antrob Antrob.” ‘Echo’ also shares the first formal diagnosis of different hearing abilities. Antrobus was told as a small child to “put a brick on a table/ every time I heard a sound”, but discovered:
After the test I still held enough bricks
in my hand to build a house
and call it my sanctuary,
call it the reason I sat in saintly silence.
Other poems call out the paucity of resources available to the d/Deaf communities, and question to what extent conscription into written and spoken language is a form of violence towards those operating within different parameters, and inhabiting their own individual “sanctuaries”. ‘Conversation with the Art Teacher/ (a translation attempt)’ takes the form of a transcribed interview with a woman who contracted meningitis at the age of two. She survived but lost her hearing. She states, “I am costume designer, teacher, artist” – but then challenges the possibility of Antrobus reducing her visually realised wholeness into a word-based language system:
Wait, you write down what
I say, how? You know BSL has no grammar structure? How you
write me when I am visual? Me, into fashion, expression in
colour. How will someone reading this see my feeling?
The failure of the ‘hearing’ world to allow for, and “see my feeling” can also be a matter of life and death. In two other poems, Antrobus commemorates Daniel Harris, Jesula Gelin, Vanessa Previl and Monique Vincent, all of whom were killed in circumstances arising from their being differently-able. Gelin, Previl and Vincent were from Haiti, and Antrobus reveals that he read of their being “found murdered, / their tongues cut out/ for speaking sign” during a visit to his father’s Jamaican birthplace. Elsewhere in the collection, these regular visits become central to Antrobus realising his combined identity, as are his connections to the African American community across the Atlantic.
Like Zhawi and Chan, Antrobus records the ways in which parents can unwittingly visit their own traumas on their children’s lives. Notwithstanding the more sorrowful aspects of his paternal legacy, however, Antrobus shows his father’s chief gift to him to have been that of creating a loving male space in which Antrobus could feel himself valued, and his forms of language accepted. The final poem ‘Happy Birthday Moon,’ remembers the poet’s father reading aloud to his little son. Using echoing repetitions to play back his repeated readings of their favourite story, and Antobus’s recurring mispronunciations of his own name, the poem weaves a deeply joyous celebration of the relationships achieved through our attempts to communicate, whether or not we fully realise them in language:
Tonight he gives the Moon my name, but I can’t say it.
I say Rain-nan Akabok. He laughs.
Dad taps the page, says, try again,
but I like making him laugh. I say my mistake again.
I say Rain-nan Akabok. He laughs,
says Raymond you’re something else.
I like making him laugh. I say my mistake again.
Rain-nan Akabok. What else will help us.
He says, Raymond you’re something else.
I’d like to be the Moon, the bear, even the rain.
Rain-nan Akabok, what else will help us
hear each other, really hear each other?