‘My family shares its voices’
Alice Hiller honours Jenny Mitchell’s refusal of silencing and denial.
Her Lost Language Jenny Mitchell
Silences have always been part of the music of language, making sound audible. Sometimes they represent places of resistance and refusal. But silence may also reflect voices and experiences being denied, or excluded – particularly if what they have to say is perceived as challenging.
Because poetry is a guerrilla medium, committed to fighting by its own rules, and shifting according to the terrain, poems have the capacity to speak to, and from, difficult spaces. By the same token, poems are able to avoid reducing complex materials to simplistic acts of meaning or cultural conformity. This is critical for writers who want their work to retain, or reclaim agency.
For those enslaved within the transatlantic trade, suppression of their original African languages and cultures was integral to the forcible appropriations and attempted de-humanisations through which this crime was perpetrated and perpetuated – as Jenny Mitchell’s Her Lost Language reminds us.
Breaking centuries of silencing her forebears, Mitchell begins with twenty-six poems titled ‘My Family Shares its Voices’. They speak for her immediate relatives, and their ancestors – going back beyond ‘My Five Times Great-grandmother was Enslaved’ to free lives in Africa. Imageries calling into play music, song and clothing link the diverse perspectives of a family history framed by gross injustice, and inflicted and inherited trauma – but also by resilience and self-reclamation.
The opening poem, ‘Lessons about Flight’, shares the poet’s Jamaican father’s description of birds whose song ‘so strangely loud, helped fell the sugar cane.’ Existing in a symbiosis with the ‘slaves’, the birds are shot down by men ‘as white as waves’. They nonetheless persist ‘high above a damaged world’, and are ‘cheered on their long, lost way / by those who came before us in the fields.’
The sound echo between ‘world’ and ‘fields’ links past and present, and individual and group. Mitchell’s choice of ‘us’ is also central. Refusing the ‘othering’ which can occur in accounts of traumatic or violent experiences, the poems engage empathetically, and as equals, with enslaved peoples of African heritage and their descendants. ‘Lost Child’ imagines ‘a daughter thrown with all the rest / overboard in chains // black bodies sacrificed as ballast.’ Re-using ‘all’ within ‘ballast’, Mitchell enacts what it means to designate people as things. The poem affirms the child as ‘such treasure lost at sea,’ and has our voices mourn her as they perform the whispering, sibilant consonants that suggest the sound of gentle waves.
‘Emancipating Ancestors’ is dedicated to ‘those who died on slave plantations.’ It unearths the ‘battered bodies’ so that they ‘emerge’ into the light again. The poem makes concrete the haunted soil in which the British empire grew. It also speaks for the born, and unborn, lives which the transatlantic slave trade stole, in a uniquely poignant description of how:
the smell of monthly blood
I’m sure still flows
when women young enough to breed
Long vowel sounds flow towards the future, only to be cut off by the present tense verb which truncates the final line of the stanza – as the lives were cut short. ‘Emancipating Ancestors’ closes by capturing the possibility, as well as the risk, of allowing these lost lives ‘to seep / so deep inside’. The poem suggests that encountering these old deaths is also a new beginning: ‘If I dare to open like a grave / [...] / I’ll be reborn’.
While Mitchell writes redemptively, she refuses to gloss over difficult materials, whether in the Caribbean or the UK. Like Malika Booker and Shivanee Ramlochan, she records the psychological, as well as physiological, traumas of subsistence living within colonised and post-colonial economies, particularly as they impact women and children. A missing grandmother is tenderly reclaimed in ‘Becoming Queen’, and re-sited in Africa, no longer ‘weakened by a dozen births, / back bent from holding up a three room shack / to till Jamaican soil.’ ‘My Family Shares its Voices’ identifies a fallout of domestic violence, and rape within the marital bed, and shows them as giving rise to a ‘family line’ of ‘silenced women and shamed men.’
Mitchell presents her father as a prism refracting experiences he held in common with many fellow Jamaicans of his generation. ‘Retreat, Jamaica ’ describes his rough, breech birth in a ‘corrugated shack’, the fifth of twelve children, which his own drunken father was summoned back to witness. ‘Taking his Leave’ suggests how hard it can be to escape such a difficult beginning. It captures the family environment which shaped the boy into a man, by coalescing Mitchell’s father’s body, his family history, and the village where he grew up, into a single entity:
Each fingernail is curved like my grandmother’s mind.
With every break, she screams,
lies jagged on the floor for days.
The scratches on her skin are not self-made (she hides those well)
but wounds caused by my grandfather.
He forces her upright to make him proud,
like all the village elders
with their brittle wives,
scars hidden under good,
Mitchell is clear about the challenges faced when someone who had experienced this complex start in life migrated to the UK – only to be met with the violence, racism and denigration which was omnipresent in the immediate postwar years. With specific reference to the migrations of the 1950s and 1960s, ‘Caribbean Service’ describes a nurse having to contend with patients ‘daring to spit monkey when I held them / to my breast, just to clean their shit.’ ‘Strange Land’ remembers teddy boys with ‘fists like paving stones’ trapping her father – who had served in WWII – outside a pub on the grounds ‘You’re all a bunch of ugly monkeys.’
Such de-humanising behaviours risk muting those upon whom they are inflicted, and engendering a shame which can leach like poisoned water into the next generations. To articulate these experiences, however, is to recuperate language lost to silencing, denial and repression. ‘Song for a Former Slave’ reveals ‘She’s proud enough to hold / her own applause/ tucked in a pleated waist.’ It closes:
The skirt sways freely
when she walks
to show there are no chains.
Her dress is made of music.
Mitchell finds within the anchoring force of her African cultural heritage a place of healing. ‘Unfurling’ describes a strange man who ‘reached out to pull / my headwrap off.’ What begins as an assault becomes an act of transformation as the wrap turns the landscape into ‘a riot of blue birds on knotted trees / next to a sea of flowers raving pink’. ‘Black Men Should Wear Colour’ recommends ‘an orange coat, / sunlight dripping down the sleeves.’ It is dedicated ‘for my brother.’
‘Her Lost Language’, the final poem, brings together many of the collection’s themes. The subject is a Nigerian woman recently arrived in an unnamed British city, as previous generations of immigrants from the Caribbean did. Opening with an image of alienation, it nonetheless remains un-intimidated. The suggestion is that this woman, who grew up free from the shadowed history of the transatlantic slave trade, has a measure of inner resilience which stands her in good stead:
English mouths are made of cloth,
stitched, pulled apart with every word.
Her life is mispronounced.
She cooks beef jollof rice for one;
braves the dark communal hall:
a giant’s thoat when he is lying down.
The creative transpositions which generate the images of the ‘cloth’ mouths, and ‘giant’s throat’ provide an alternative ‘language’ to that which was ‘lost’ as a result of the attack which caused her to leave Nigeria. Britain’s ‘coffin lid’ sky is compared with ‘her village, days from Lagos’, where ‘hills took on the shape God’. The lift which carries her up to the safety of her room somatically recalls the event which drove her abroad when it ‘vibrates // like an assault or panic rammed / beneath her skin by soldiers taking turns.’
Skyping home, to parents wryly observed ‘aging in their Sunday clothes’, she is told ‘more teachers have been raped’. The poem ends by honouring the subject’s determination to come through – whatever form her salvation may take – the green batik acting as an emblem of resistance, and identified selfhood:
When the connection fails,
she flicks to channel Save Yourself.
A pastor bangs the podium, demands her Hallelujah.
She kneels to pray her papers will be stamped –
passport wrapped in green batik.
Pastor screams Give thanks.