This madly fucking gorgeous boxset is a collection of ten chapbooks from African poets, all of which are new for 2019.
This boxset collection is part of an annual series, now in [at least] its fourth year (there are three more mentioned within the boxset) and, when I saw it on my birthday – spending heavily in bookshops already – it seemed like a great additional purchase for me to commit to.
I’m glad I did, because even though I’m typing this without having read a single poem from the set, I’ve got the chapbooks out of the box and physically they’re fucking beautiful, so even if there’s only one truly gorgeous poem in the ten chapbooks contained within, I think it’ll feel worth the hefty cover price.
Oh, there are ten chapbooks plus an extra chapbook that is an introduction to the collection. It’s all from Akashic Books, fyi.
Fragments in a Closet by Daisy Odey
The first chapbook in this collection is great, which is reassuring for the rest.
Daisy Odey, a Nigerian poet, writes about water, about bodies, about sexuality. There’s lots here about legacy and the significance of family, as well as the ubiquity and necessity of self-knowledge.
There are some gorgeous lines in here, such as:
When I ask my mother, "How do I wear woman?", she replied, "How does water wear wet?"
Pleasure is the cousin of deceit
and, my personal favourite here, from a piece called ‘Body Count’:
We dress in solid silence, add new layers to already thick skin. You have no words for a body that only speaks touch.
Some great poems here, very excited to spend the day (as I have decided to now do) alternating between chores and some cracking new poetry! Nice!
From the Zabbala’s Cart by Dina el Dessouky
This chapbook was ten pages longer than the first and I felt it. Though the poems here aren’t “bad”, they’re much less to my personal taste that the poems of Daisy Odey…
There is more imagery here, and a lot of it is about experiences lived between multiple cultures. Dessouky was born to Egyptian parents in Germany but has lived most of her life, since childhood, in the US.
There were lines and moments in here I enjoyed, but nothing that noticeably excited me.
Here Is Water by ‘Gbenga Adeoba
Water seems to be, already, a recurring theme here, and the introduction to this collection mentions that water has symbolic import in Nigerian folklore, the nation where ‘Gbenga Adeoba, like Odey, is from.
These poems are, so far, the most arresting I’ve found in the box set. These pieces together form more of a set, too, than the previous two chapbooks: all but a couple of these poems are about the same thing, mass migration and the dangers people put themselves in when they attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
There are poems about lost hope, about death, about betrayal. There are poems about fear and optimism, about hope and regret. In a few short lines, using simple, blunt imagery, Adeoba is able to evoke lives and deaths with great emotional heft.
This is the closing line from a poem about the mass funeral of 26 Nigerian women who washed up, drowned, on a Sicilian beach:
these women that would rest in the Italy they never knew.
This is the closing image of a poem about a man who washed up back in Libya, having drowned en route to Europe, and the photograph of himself that he kept within his clothes.
An old photograph, sewn into the inner pocket of his caftan, offers you a reel from the dream he sowed to the sea: he, barefooted on a football field, donning the jersey of an Italian team; the half-smile on his face, like a butterfly with one wing, almost beautiful.
These tragedies, and the blunt horror that causes people to put themselves in such danger, is evoked and explored with care and emotion.
I found it initially striking that Adeoba leaves the vast majority of these documented dead people anonymous, but on reflection I realised that’s because a lot of these people have never, and will never, be identified.
This Is Water is about people who travelled without documents, without proof of themselves or their histories. Not allowing them to be completely forgotten, Abeoba uses the painful and powerful circumstances of these people’s deaths to write harrowing, and worthwhile, poetry.
Very strong words here.
In Half Light by Dalia Elhassan
What this chapbook, the second by a poet raised and living as an adult in the USA, made me realise is that I’m just not interested in America.
Maybe that’s not true, but writings and perspectives from Americans was not what I bought this box set of chapbooks to experience. To he honest, it feels almost dishonest, already having had two chapbooks out of four by Americans, writing about America and American things.
Yes, here and in el Dessouky’s poetry, there is lots about the non-mythical homeland (here Sudan rather than Egypt), but the experience of immigrating to America is far from an unexplored idea in contemporary poetry.
I enjoy reading and engaging with this style of writing, of course, but it feels like a bit of a cop-out here, as these poems feel like American poetry showing the influence of Africa, rather than African poetry showing the influence of America.
But what do I fucking know?
There are some great lines and moments here, but – like with the other chapbook about the USA – I didn’t find it, as a whole, exciting.
even though the flag has failed me i am still raising it.
how many immigrant men come and lose their lives/how many men sink
The Internal Saboteur by Musawenkosi Khanyile
This one was the least inspiring of the chapbooks I’ve read so far, even though in style I kinda liked it.
This is very blunt poetry, none of that metaphor-bullshit: a powerful evocation of lived experience and felt thought.
However, those lived experiences and felt thoughts are all pretty trad macho in, like, the least exciting way.
Khanyile writes about his father being emotionally absent and his mother being physically abusive and psychologically so, too. There are poems about learning the value of domestic labour and there are lots of poems about shagging around and blaming your treatment of women on the poor parenting of your parents.
It’s the kind of poetry that formed a lot of the canon, forty years ago, and we are – thankfully – past that now.
These poems, far from being an analysis or exploration of the toxicities that form traditional masculinities, they instead function as descriptions of them. Yes, to be honest, I am into poetry that feels unanalytical, but only poetry that feels analytical but, on closer inspection, reveals an emotionality that is deeper than “they fuck you up your mum and dad.”
If these were the first poems about masculinity I’d ever read, I’d probably have loved them, but – as they’re not – this chapbook feels tired and pretty old school.
Alack alack alack.
Noon by Nour Kamel
I’ll be honest, with this one I started off unimpressed, but by the end I was deeply moved and in near awe.
I’m not quite certain what led to the growing pleasure I found in Kamel’s writing: perhaps it was an increased comfort in her voice, perhaps it was the tonal clarity that grew from reading a wider range of her work.
Early in this collection, there are two poems with long titles that I loved: as in the titles, I loved the titles, but found the poems themselves less exciting.
The first few poems play with capitalisation in a way I found tired: it’s always “i”, always “You”.
I’ve remembered the actual reason I didn’t enjoy this chapbook from its beginning.
All of these chapbooks have a short preface, and the reason why I haven’t mentioned them before is that until now there wasn’t anything to mention.
All the rest of the prefaces have been pretty standard chapbook prefaces. Some are more, some are less enjoyable. All the rest offer descriptions of the poetry contained in the chapbook and a brief comment on the poet themself.
The preface to this one, though, was gushing, hagiographic, pretentious and smug, and really made me start reading the poems still rolling my eyes and shaking my head in unimpressed disbelief.
However, once I was deep enough into the chapbook to FORGET its embarrassment of a preface, I found myself really falling into the poetry.
Kamel writes about gender, sexuality, about travel and race and abuse and alienation. She writes about family and relationships and language and friendship, about that strange feeling you get when you recognise a stranger from a different time when they were a stranger, too.
These are gorgeous poems, and I regret my inability to get on board with them from the first page, but I firmly blame the preface and I’m fucking thankful the same person wasn’t erroneously given the opportunity to ruin any more of these chapbooks.
Preface for Leaving Homeland by Salawu Olajide
This chapbook, too, has a focus on Lampedusa and the treacherous Mediterranean people-smuggling route, but here the images are more direct, starker.
Olajide’s writing is focused on liquids and their dangers.
He uses repetition throughout these pieces in a manner that clarifies the themes without underselling them.
The words “shark”, “blood”, “father”, “mother”, “wife”, “body”, “Lampedusa”, recur. These poems explore the risk and the danger of the crossing, but also the risks and the dangers and the disappointments of the other side.
In contrast to Adeoba’s poems, the people here are usually given names, given histories, given identities, which somehow achieves the same effect as the anonymity of This Is Water.
These people have had a life, yes, but it stops, it ends, it is overwhelmed in the same way, buried and sodden and destroyed.
All that was before is over, lost, but Olajide writes too about the realities of the other side of the water: precarious employment, poverty of a different style, poverty in a place where one is a stranger, an outsider, poverty in wetter climates, but poverty just the same.
We see a man writing lies home, encouraging those behind to see him as they imagine him, not how he is.
With the loss of ones history comes a [sort of] loss of self: a little death (not in the traditional sense) that is as likely and risky as the ones that happen in the water.
The risky migration is a lonely act, with the happiest outcomes the least likely.
Just because you survive and gets to live on the other side, doesn’t mean you get to live well or happily or amongst other people.
Really fucking gorgeous stuff here, and honestly a pleasure to read.
Prodigal Daughter by Hiwot Adilow
Yes yes yes yes yes.
This is exactly my kinda thing, though it is again writing from an American, though that comes across less aggressively than elsewhere, though perhaps that’s just because this is the kinda poetry I ordinarily read.
This is poetry about sex and shame, about sex and joy, about physicality and strained familial relationships and about regret and about desire.
The preface to this one is again conspicuous because it’s a) horny as fuck and b) refers to Adilow as a “poetess”, which is really something the editors should have cut three letters from.
Visceral, witty, intelligent, emotive writing. It told me on the back cover that Adilow has another chapbook available and I’m going to order it right now.
Ordered, done. Onwards.
Undressing Under The Noon Sun by Charity Hutete
This chapbook, the penultimate in the collection, is powerful, political and very serious.
Though there is, yes, some playfulness in Hutete’s imagery and metaphor, there is a directness (or maybe an indirect directness: allegory that is rich though simple; that is evocative yet uncomplex). There is lots about bodies and oppression, and here a more direct discussion of political oppression than we have seen so far in the collection.
In the previous chapbooks, I’ve read a lot about the repercussions of corruption and poor infrastructure (the desperation that drives someone to risk their life by handing themself to people smugglers), and here we see the originator.
We see the soldier, crushing protesters like snails, we see the same authorities issuing water shortage warnings and then spraying protesters with water cannons…
I’m reading this one late on the night before Christmas Eve, and maybe something this serious was poorly timed for me. Because this is stunning poetry, containing wisdom and brevity, two concepts that we often forget work best together.
I will quote some of Hutete’s verse I found particularly emotive:
Some things simply cannot be shared like dental floss or ear buds, things that reach deep intimate places jammed with filth foul even to the owner.
You Too Will Know Me by Ama Asantewa Diaka
A fucking gorgeous place to end the box set on, a chapbook by a Ghanaian poet that offers a perceptive, emotive, exploration of love and sexuality.
It’s now very late on the same night that it was when I wrote the above paragraphs, and tho the seriousness of that chapbook was out of synch with my pre Christmas/post work excitement (I’m only off work for three days but I have WILD end of term vibes), the optimism and beauty of this last one was bang on target.
These are poems about the joy of love, but the pain of it, too: of being let down and disappointed, both sexually and romantically. There are simple, direct, lyrics here. This is poetry of exactly my kinda jam, I loved it, I wish I was less tired and more articulate so I could explain in more detail. Instead, I’ll quote some lines and then go to sleep for four hours before waking up to get a train to chriiiiiiistmas.
I could write a poem about the way people soften up when their lovers kiss the small of their back.
you kissed the tremble out of my lower lip
I remember when I told you I loved you, you kissed the words off my tongue and acted like it was a treasure.
There is gorgeous poetry, and there’s also a lot of wit here. I could type more, but I want to finish my glass of wine and listen to ten minutes of a podcast about the collapse of the Aztec Civilisation.
This boxset, as a whole, was an incredible treat. I’ve already ordered more work by one of these poets, and there are many more whose work here I thought was truly incredible.
This boxset is produced annually, and tho I don’t know the month when that happens, I will most certainly be following Akashic Books on the socials and will look out for the 2020 edition of this project.
Fucking worthwhile. A great birthday present to myself.
Send free money to Scott Manley Hadley.