Book Review

The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nichols

finally some really bloody good poems

Finally, absolutely fucking finally, I read some fucking poems that are absolutely fucking great.

Time continues to pass and, after reading The Commons, I was beginning to feel my interest in this mad fucking poetry marathon wearing out. I’m desperate to read the Anne Carson I have, but it’s such a lovely fucking edition I don’t want to read it anywhere it might get damaged, so I instead moved past it. I was worried I’d regret it, wandering into the unknown, however Grace Nichols’ gorgeous 1984 collection, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, reminded me of the very importance of this fucking journey, reminded me why I love to read and reminded me why I decided that poetry was, in this post-depression (or, more likely, intra-depressions #sadface) existence, the fucking medium for meeeeeeee. I don’t know why I’m swearing so much. I think I incorrectly believe it’s what poets have to do.

Grace Nichols is a Guyana-born British-based poet, and there were a couple of pieces in here that caused the gentle mental echo that means I almost certainly encountered them in a GCSE compendium or something. Whether encountered there or elsewhere, Nichols’ poems have a cultural resonance and importance, which I take to be a good sign. Poems that read so easily they feel familiar: the best words in the right order, right? Poetry doing EXACTLY what it’s meant to do.

Nichols writes poems mostly in the first person, but always with a similar poetic voice: that of a person who has been – both voluntarily and involuntarily – displaced. It is in the extracts included at the end of this collection from i is a long memoried woman that these themes come to the forefront, and it is these pieces that seemed the most familiar. I suppose – if I’m right in where I recognised the poems from – the examiners who set high school English literature syllabuses (syllabi?) feel that colonialism and the slave trade are topics more appropriate to the teenage brain than pieces on sexuality and physicality and sensuality, which is what most of the poems from the titular sequence are about. Actually, let’s describe the structure of the book so you know what I’m referring to.

The Fat Black Woman’s Poems contains four sections slash poetic sequences, the fourth being extracts from a longer piece. These are:

  1. The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, which are poems on race and identity and sex and body image;
  2. In Spite of Ourselves, a section of pieces on cultural interaction and behaviours of immigrants etc;
  3. Back Home Contemplation, poems on the Caribbean, on ideas of “home” and the English weather, of course;
  4. From i is a long memoried woman, weighty poems about slavery. Here, Nichols very successfully makes universal history personal, physical and emotional. The longer work these poems are from won the 1983 Commonwealth Poetry Prize (which, tbh, I had not previously heard of).

Throughout this collection, there are poems about food, about place, about self, about the different ways in which people self-identify and the ways in which people seek an understanding of their origins, both personal and cultural.

There is an immediacy and a playfulness to the verse here, there is a looseness with form that appeals to me, to my tastes and my interests lol. I read through this collection quickly, three times, as my chaotic, crazy life, bounced around it. Nichols’ short pieces combine into a large whole, and though emotionality and political points are drawn quickly and adeptly, when these pieces coagulate into something longer and more complex, a deeply exciting refraction occurs. I read a poetry collection recently that I described as less than the sum of its parts, whereas this is the opposite of that. This is not one-note poetry, this is not a collection that repeats the same idea, the same mode of expression, even when it repeats the same words, which particularly happens in the opening sequence.

These are poems about bodies, about affection, about thoughts, and about self. These are poems that explore what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be a particular human, and a human who is part of a particular group. Nichols writes about connections as much as about difference, and there are sensuous, sexy, poems here that exhibit joy and excitement and passion and life. This is not a dry collection of formulaic pretty poems, these are visceral, witty, direct but fiercely intelligent, and fiercely successful as individual pieces.

Nichols, as an acclaimed poet, shows me here what so many poets are chasing: this is a collection that grabs a reader, that has a touch of confrontation to it, unapologetically. There is brash discussion of sexuality and proud enjoyment of an overweight body: it’s a great text for those in the anti-bodyshaming movement, where I’d be willing to bet it’s already shared as an important text.

This was fucking great, and there’s not much more I can say about it, other than that it has quite successfully rekindled the excitement I had been feeling about poetry that drove me to try my bloody hand at it.

This is joyful poetry, an expression of life and pleasure as well as a more weighty exploration of colonialism. Engaged, intelligent, disparate, cohesive. Everything I fucking wanted. Top top top stuff.

I’m gonna end with a short poem from Nichols’ collection:

The Fat Black Woman’s Motto on Her Bedroom Door

IT’S BETTER TO DIE IN THE FLESH OF HOPE
THAN TO LIVE IN THE SLIMNESS OF DESPAIR

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1 comment on “The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nichols

  1. Pingback: Being With Me Will Help You Learn by Thomas McColl – Triumph of the Now

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