Book Review

POETRY MONTH: A Warning to the House That Holds Me by Amina Jama

some excellent poetry

cw: refers to child abuse, FGM

In contrast to the poetry collection I posted about yesterday, Produce Poetry Or Die. by Narada Voux Sanders, this 2019 chapbook by Amina Jama provides a huge amount of contextualising and autobiographical detail, including a long author bio on the back cover, and an acknowledgements section at the book’s end that is longer than – I think – every single individual poem in the chapbook. There is also a brief biography of Frida Kahlo at the opening of the book, as this prominent Mexican artist’s life is referred to frequently in the poems as metaphor, reference and counterpoint.

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Amina Jama is a Somali-British writer and – from the author bio – seems to be/have been somewhat of a prodigy, i.e. huge (and deserved, based on this publication) success from a young age.

Jama has had a super illustrious career, and seems very connected in the various page and stage poetry scenes here in the UK, including being part of the acclaimed Octavia Poetry Collective, the group run by my one-time MA classmate (a long long time ago), Rachel Long.

Turning to the text itself, rather than the bio:

As well as poems exploring the professional and personal life (lives?) of Frida Kahlo, the poetry in A Warning to the House That Holds Me also extensively explores Jama’s own life, or at least a life very similar to the life projected by the author bio – i.e. the poetry here describes life as a young Somali-British woman living in East London in the contemporary age .

There are some very weighty poems here about immigrant experience and the distancing from personal cultural histories caused by growing up somewhere different to your parents and grandparents, and there are references, too, to civil unrest in Somalia, to child abuse and FGM, which means that the 40 pages of this book are far from light. Despite this, though, the poems included here are far from in one emotional register; there is joy, pleasure, excitement and fun, which is overwhelmingly present in the closing poem of this collection, ‘ode to east london’, which functions as a celebratory toast to this side of the city, and will almost certainly – if it hasn’t already – become a canonical London poem. 

These are poems by a young writer, but this isn’t something that is apparent in the writing, which is very wise, very confident and-

No, those are the wrong words. “Wise” and “confident” sound fucking patronising, I’m-

what I’m trying to say is that A Warning to the House That Holds Me is written by a young person, but the poems don’t-

I’m going to keep trying to convey what I mean here because I think it’s got to be possible?

The acknowledgements page sounds like it’s written by a young person, but the poems – the writing itself – does not.

Jama’s writing evokes an experience that feels personal and personalised but is also very timeless, and many of the poems open with an acknowledgement of the prior poetic tradition that the pieces are following in the footsteps of, which is a great way for Jama to honour her influences and – because the poems here are fucking brilliant – it feels respectful and, if anything, generous.

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A Warning to the House That Holds Me is about growing up and being young as much as it is about mixing Somali and secular British traditions, as much as it is about Frida Kahlo.

This is a more serious poetic collection than some of those I have read this month, but it’s also positioned at a different point in the career of the writer from the other ones I’ve been looking at – I don’t know if Jama has published any further collections in the 3 years since this pamphlet, but I am going to do that research once I’ve posted this and will definitely read further in her oeuvre if I can.

There’s huge amounts to enjoy here – gentle melancholy about grief and loss, trepidation, fears of the repetition of regrets, but also hope excitement and optimism about the future.

There is a poem called ‘losing to the cycle of being kind’, which beautifully narrates an entire selfless life, but even within that life there are pleasures to be found: it’s easy to forget that life doesn’t have to be awful, especially here in the UK where people seem committed to misery as if it is the only potential state of being. As someone who tries to rail against that debilitating, destructive, North European misery Protestant impulse within myself and often struggles, this poem was a potent reminder that I’m not the only person who thinks that aiming for contentment shouldn’t be treated as bizarre.

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A Warning To The House That Holds Me is a really great text, and certainly worthy of more in-depth exploration than I have offered here, so I definitely wouldn’t hesitate in recommending this collection, especially if you’re (also) a London-dwelling poetry fan.

Further highlights include ‘someday i’ll love amina jama’, a piece about self-acceptance and self-love (yes, v gen z but that’s fine); ‘application for motherhood’, one of the starker pieces about Frida Kahlo’s physicality and miscarriage; ‘frida, lover of womxn’ which is about sexual harassment; ‘moqadishu funk: a history of migration’, a piece about Somalian jazz and cultural expression generally; and ‘days of future’, which is about family, generational change and grief.

Highly recommended.

Order directly from flipped eye publishing by this link.

September 15th, 2022

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