memory in the wake of loss
Shalini Sengupta reviews A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi
Kayo Chingonyi A Blood Condition
Kayo Chingonyi’s second collection, A Blood Condition, opens in the long aftermath of loss to trace a poetics of composite vulnerability. Its locus is a body held in perilous suspension over private longings and public unbelongings: a body that wrestles with the challenges of writing about a place and a political crisis that remains central in his life through memories of deceased family and friends. That crisis remains unnamed, though in the slippery enigma of Chingonyi’s title we hear a powerful and oblique allusion to the catastrophic spread of HIV across Africa (from the 1920s until 1960) and into the wider world. The titular ‘blood condition’ thus mourns bodies who signal and suffer the most from burdens of otherness: bodies of colour who are rendered simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible; irrelevant and monstrous; threatening and ceaselessly under threat. The collection seeks a way to be attentive to these painful contradictions, and emerges – in several ways – as a palimpsest of desire and difference; language and history that taps into the consciousness of contemporary society.
The opening prose-poem, ‘Nyaminyami’, proposes a prismatic contemplation of time and space that is carried out through the entire collection. The collection opens itself to scales of time that are both vast and minute: it shuttles back and forth between 1920 (when ‘a blood condition passed through the populace as flame through forest’); the year 1960 (when the Monckton Commission was established) and present day to draw attention to the untidy temporalities of loss and grief. The scene of narration expands from Zambia – in particular, the Zambezi Valley that hosts the River God, Nyami Nyami – and takes its readers to ‘somewhere in the Congo Basin’; the ‘lobby of a Shoreditch hotel’; London; and Kilcreggan, Scotland. As readers, we are forced to comprehend and live both scales at once: an effect that can be disorienting. However, through such scalar disjunctions Chingonyi proposes ways of reconceptualising time that work against a ground of racial capitalist marginalisation: against the notion of ‘self-same progress’ that undergirds and rehearses destructive power dynamics (12). Chingonyi’s experiments in form thus make evident the variability of time and how it behaves. They exemplify how we can use language to form new relationships to time: relationships that bear the potential to manufacture an active space of improvisational thinking wherein new possibilities of being might emerge.
The seven interlinked sonnets that follow, however, remind us that the opportunity to reimagine a relationship to time is a privilege and condition of being alive. As the cultural critic and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp writes in ‘Mourning and Militancy’: ‘insofar as we identify with those who have died, how can our satisfactions in being alive escape guilt at having survived?’ (9) Chingonyi brings a granular ethics of attention to such complexities of guilt in these sonnets. ‘What to do’, the narrative voice asks in poem, ‘having been granted reprieve, / with what remains of your life?’ (12) In many ways, the structure of this section is parabolic. The arc of the narrative radiates outward before eventually returning the same site of origin: the ‘blood condition’ that bears witness to an unimaginable truth. The pace of crisis escalates as the sonnets progress: bodies, trauma, and language are intertwined so that one becomes a function of another. The poems, in this politically and aesthetically ambitious sequence, refuse to be moored to the limit of a single page. In repurposing the last line of each poem as the first line of the one that follows, Chingonyi creates a densely textured composition. There is an erotics of hold and release, of desire and death in these interlined sonnets. Together, they insist on the urgency of attending to the conditions of our interdependence while living in this era of material mayhem and sweeping racial violence. The Derridean concept of ‘survivance’ or ‘living on’ – articulated deftly in ‘The Beast and the Sovereign’ – seems especially resonant here (8-9). Chingonyi uses the experiments of form to reckon with such an idea of survival: one that is ‘without supremacy or sovereignty’ and is necessarily structured by its relation to the other.
Throughout this section and the entire collection, there is a grappling with the adequacy of available language while talking about intergenerational trauma and historical crisis. In one of the most quietly powerful poems of the collection, Chingonyi writes:
let me be this unguarded always
Speaking without the need of words
Because breath is the oldest language
Any of us know (58)
The poems in A Blood Condition routinely question ideas of order, clarity, and coherence. In tracing the movement away from ‘operative words’, however, Chingonyi reveals the insufficiency – as well as the instabilities – of grief’s narration. This is, as the collection assures us, necessary incomprehensibility: one that makes grief thinkable and even survivable, and opens into a difficult expression of aliveness. Chingonyi writes:
Maybe it is better some things
retain their mist
That all of us might carry a well of myth
Maybe it is by such melodies that we exist (32).
Trenchant politics meets exquisite lyricism in these lines. The use of the second-person plural –whose formation is not valorised without critical attention – makes something vital and communal out of loss. There is a politics of lightweight hope in these lines, which is sustained and pressed against the exploration of the racialized and abject bodies who are destroyed for their difference. As Chingonyi reminds us, it is love – and the ‘impossibility of keeping those we love’ – that informs this newfound sense of relationality at the edge of living and dying (45). It allows us to glimpse an inchoate, collective world of remains in the collection: one that emerges like a fever dream from the throes of desire, illness, violence, and becoming.
The final poem in the collection returns us to the site of origin: the river god ‘Nyaminyami’. Chingonyi draws the figurative language and the motif of circulation into tight focus here, privileging liminality and movement – as ‘constant as the motion of water’ – over fixity and stasis (60). In doing so, Chingonyi’s collection represents an urgent reach for the aliveness of memory in the wake of loss: a critical mode of ethical interjection that carries with it a way of feeling, hearing, and seeing even in the aftermath of death.