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Malika Booker, Pepper Seed.

Malika Booker, Pepper Seed. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2013. 84pp. 9 [pounds sterling].

Nick Makoha, Kingdom of Gravity. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2017. 82pp. 9 [pounds sterling].

Malika Booker's and Nick Makoha's poetics embody two African diasporic migrations (from the Caribbean and from the African continent) that together comprise the context for contemporary Black British poetry, and Black British life more broadly. Makoha, born in Uganda, left the country to escape the dictatorship of Idi Amin, and has lived most of his life in the UK. Booker, whose parents are from Guyana and Grenada, was born in London but spent her early life in Guyana before moving back to Britain at age eleven. In their debut collections, Booker and Makoha narrate the multiple crossings--both forced and "voluntary"--that bring the Anglophone African continent and Caribbean into conversation in their former colonial metropole. However, in contrast to previous generations of Black British writers, Booker and Makoha did not experience the era before Britain's colonies gained formal independence, and so their perspectives on the "postcolonial" are different from (though informed by) that of the Caribbean Artists Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Makoha marks his engagement with this previous generation by beginning his collection with an epigraph from Derek Walcott: "How can I turn from Africa and live?" This line takes on a different meaning in the work of a postcolonial African immigrant than it does in that of Walcott, a Caribbean writer born in Saint Lucia under British colonial rule. Walcott looks to the African continent as a descendent of those who were kidnapped and enslaved (as well as the enslavers), while Makoha, who left Uganda as a child, considers Africa not from the standpoint of the postplantation West Indies, but from the experience of a contemporary African immigrant to the Global North. As such, in framing his poetics through Walcott's question, Makoha gestures toward both the linkages and specificities of African diasporic writers across the English language and the British colonial empire that spread its usage across the world.

The conversation between Black writers of African and Caribbean heritage is one that shapes contemporary Black British poetry. Booker and Makoha have been fellow travelers in this regard: both are members of Malika's Poetry Kitchen (founded by Booker), fellows in The Complete Works, a program for British poets of color, and the first two Black British fellows in Cave Canem (founded as a retreat for African American poets). Furthermore, both Kingdom of Gravity and Pepper Seed were published by the Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press, which has been one of the premier homes for Caribbean and Black British writing since 1985. According to founder Jeremy Poynting, the editorial focus of Peepal Tree Press is on "what George Lamming calls the Caribbean nation, wherever it is in the world," a mission which resonates with scholar Rosamond King's concept of the "Caribglobal." As such, Makoha, with his opening epigraph, positions Africa within the political geography of the Black Atlantic, providing a corrective to the lack of attention to the African continent itself in Paul Gilroy's influential theoretical framework (as noted by scholars such as Simon Gikandi and Yogita Goyal).

Kingdom of Gravity, as the title suggests, is a book concerned with the question of sovereignty, of who or what is sovereign to the characters that inhabit the collection's poems. The title gestures towards Lake Victoria, the source from which the River Nile flows, with the Ugandan portion of the lake acting as its headwaters. Layered upon this landscape, the collection reckons with another kind of gravity: the devastation of Idi Amin's rule and his impact on Uganda and its people, including those--like Makoha--who have left the country's borders.

Kingdom of Gravity examines both lived experiences and mediated representations of political violence on the African continent. In this way, Makoha interprets the afterimage of the colonial in the postcolonial traumas of African states. Makoha is deeply concerned with the question of mimesis, or how an image is made, and what that might say about the one doing the making. In the collection's title poem, Makoha writes:
    What makes a man name a city after himself,
   asking bricks to be bones, asking the wind
   to breathe like the lungs of night.


Here, the city's built environment becomes the sovereign's political body. If the "inanimate" city is also a product and extension of its polity's sociopolitical life, then the language ("the wind") of that body becomes a problem for politics. In "Executioner's Song," the speaker asks:
    How do I curse in my father's language
   when the world and all its
   dangers watch me from a bedroom window?


This poem, which opens with a question, contains another question at its end: "Dear body of mine / where are you from?" Here the reader might be reminded of Frantz Fanon's conclusion to Black Skin, White Masks, where he writes, "My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!" Even the executioner yearns for another story, another song to sing, answering his own question of the (corporeal and political) body's origins with these three lines:
    As the dark moves towards a body that is better
   than myself, draw me a map where leaves fall,
   where every song is not a song of war.


Makoha's poetics utilizes a strategy of repetition and reversal. In "Comrade," he writes: "Take our sleep as it narrows and what it drinks, / ourselves losing ourselves and now repeat." In "Resurrection Man," Makoha claims, "A man must have two faces: one he can live with / and one he will die with. The second face is mine." In "MBA," the collection's opening poem, Makoha describes two men being watched by a cameraman: "They are moving by memory / of a stolen blueprint tattooed on their minds. /1 have the same tattoo." Here Makoha interrupts the chiasmic loop of memory. His attempts to reach the past are frayed, because that past no longer exists. He is uncertain whether or not he can lay claim to memory's "stolen blueprint," though he continues to try. "MBA" is the acronym for the Moi International Airport in Mombasa, Kenya, the country Makoha and his mother fled to from Uganda. The poem (one of six throughout the book that is titled with the name of an airport) begins: "Minutes after the airbus took off, a German girl in 1st class / starts talking about the afterlife and things that belong to the dead." This poem implies the question: Does Makoha's former life still belong to him? Is he, indeed, living a kind of afterlife (the airplane a portal to another world)? Later in the poem Makoha writes, "the world is connected by a circle. / The same circle a man might make folding his arms around / another man's shoulder." Through this series of concentric circles (a world, an embrace), Makoha suggests that the past is remembered in order to be reckoned with, but it is--by definition--an altered memory, shrunken by temporal and geographic distance. Makoha's uses of repetition both reflect and trouble the monolithic narratives of violence and/on the African continent, and instead--in their reversals--convey nuance, uncertainty, and complexity: precisely the forms of interiority which African people are denied under the Western gaze.

Cameramen and reporters are a leitmotif throughout Kingdom of Gravity. Their function in the text reflects Achille Mbembe's claim in On the Postcolony that, "discourse on Africa is almost always deployed in the framework (or on the fringes) of a meta-text about the animal--to be exact, about the beast: its experience, its world, and its spectacle." In "Black Death," Makoha writes of
    A note whispered in earshot of a New York Times
 news crew
   as man sets fire to himself. The body now an animal bent double,
   a shadow of vague form promising to raise itself from the earth.


With "The body now an animal bent double" in the news crew's lens, Makoha aptly illustrates Mbembe's claim that the two signs governing narratives of African life are "the sign of the strange and the monstrous," and the sign of intimacy, where the monstrous is brought into proximity through the act of domestication and experimentation: the gaze of the voyeur. It is in this way that Makoha writes of the images taken by war reporters:
    Tonight they will make
   the weekend edition of People.
 Tomorrow
   our city, or some version of it, will be as
   familiar as the dark side of the moon.


Like Makoha, Malika Booker, in her collection Pepper Seed, interrogates the ways in which violence is remembered and repeated. Namely, many of her poems confront racial-gendered patriarchy in its hydra-headed forms. The poem "Warning" interrogates the histories of domestic violence that cause a great-grandmother to advise:
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
 pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use a knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.


Elsewhere, Booker explicates how patriarchy is so pervasive as to manifest even between Black women, even between a grandmother and granddaughter. In "Red Ants Bite," the speaker recounts her grandmother's use of language to wound:
You will be a whore just like your mother
 
   Granny told me all the time,
   like saying good morning.
   I tried to make her love me,
   But her mouth was brutal,
   Like hard-wire brush.


However, after the speaker's lament of her grandmother's bitterness and cruelty towards her and her mother (while she heaped adoration and praises on the speaker's father and brothers, her son and grandsons), the poem's final section is written in the voice of the grandmother (now deceased). Speaking in Guyanese Creole, the grandmother tells of what she endured:
    I lived till me turn one hundred and one,
   live through back-break in backra sun.
   I was a slave baby mixed with plantation white.
   [...]
   I was the lone woman every man want to advantage,
   I had was to sharpen meh mouth like razor blade,
   turn red in seconds till bad word spill blood.
   Scunt-hole child, you want sorry?
   [...]
   I toughen you soffie-ness, mek man can't fuck you
   easy so. So fuck off, leave the dead some peace.


The poem that follows, "Pepper Sauce," is one of the most powerful, disturbing, and unwavering poems in the collection. In it Booker depicts the relationship between another grandmother and granddaughter with an outcome far worse. The poem includes a series of lines beginning with "I hear," describing how the grandmother responded to her granddaughter's theft of small change from her purse with methodical and violent sexual torture. Significantly, the poem begins with the words, "I pray for that grandmother," which leads the reader to question what traumas the grandmother might have experienced that would cause her to harm her granddaughter in this way. The collection answers this unspoken question with the following two poems: "Death of an Overseer" and "Minetta Speaks," which depict the barbaric conditions, including the rampant sexual violence, of Caribbean plantation slavery. Booker describes the rejoicing that follows the overseer's death:
    The overseer dead and he whip sprout
   scarlet lilies. Whole cane fields bowed
   and weeds run riot,
   mosquitoes stop suck blood
   and fireflies lose their light.


In the ending lines of "Minetta Speaks," Booker conjures the myth of enslaved Africans flying home across the Atlantic, famously invoked by Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, as well as Robert Hayden's poem, "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home." Booker writes:
    Singing, I'll fly away home,
 them elders took flight,
   gone just so. Flocks of runaway slaves flew back
   to Africa, dressed in calico like angels.


The poems in Pepper Seed trace African diasporic movement, not only in their themes, but also through their order, moving from Guyana to Grenada to Britain to the United States and back. Connecting the legacy of Britain's Anglophone empire to its successor, the collection examines the impact of US imperialism in a series of poems that includes "Sauteurs" (about the 1983 US invasion of Grenada), "Sestina for Grenada," "Lament for the Assassination of Comrade Walter Rodney," and "Guyana." In Booker's writing, the political devastation of US racial capitalism and empire--as well as the legacy of British plantation slavery and colonialism--is paired with the environmental devastation of Caribbean hurricanes. In "Island Grief After Hurricane Ivan," Booker imagines the hurricane bringing to life the plants, animals, and elemental forces of the island, which she anthropomorphizes, giving human agency to their actions and capitalizing their names:
               Bay Leaf
   and Cinnamon stop making joke
       and start to pray hard until Breeze drag
   off her clothes and bawl for Moonlight
       to sing a lullaby, sing on and on
   till her voice grows hoarse. ThenBitter Aloes
       start fighting with Black Sage bush,
   throwing hard cuff as dropping coconuts
       thump voop vap, and it is madness.


Booker aptly captures the devastating figure of the hurricane as embodying the Caribbean's social and environmental forces. Strikingly, the hurricane as sign of political-ecological catastrophe is taken up in Sonya Posmentier's recent monograph, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature. Posmentier theorizes ecology as a mode of reading the environmental, geographic, and economic histories shaped by the legacies and afterlives of plantation slavery. In particular, Posmentier describes "the shared path of the hurricane and the Atlantic slave trade." This "shared path" allows us to understand the depth of violence that the island mourns when Booker writes:
             Meanwhile Manicou
   and Jack Fish lament Nutmeg's demise
       as bazoodee island parrots stand numb
   like statues, their claws curled
       around branches of pommerac trees.
   Moonlight is paged to cradle the moaning
       wounded. Oh Spice Isle, let it not die here.
   Oh Lord, there is pepper in the deads'
      mouths and coffins fly overhead.


Both Pepper Seed and Kingdom of Gravity offer prayers of mourning for the catastrophes of a de jure postcolonial era that repeats and redoubles many of the de facto conditions of colonialism. Though the "shared path" of a hurricane following the route of the Middle Passage is not the same path followed by African immigrants fleeing to Europe in an attempt to escape political violence and economic immiseration, the works of Booker and Makoha bring these geographies into urgent dialogue, and inquire into their common origins. Among the most pressing concerns raised by these collections are the themes of movement, migration, and displacement: experiences that have enduringly shaped global Black life. As such, Booker's and Makoha's work enacts the question of what is shared, and what is incommensurable, across diaspora. In these signal texts of contemporary Black British poetry, the lingua franca of the British Empire is also the language of that empire's subversion--a bridge between the authors of these poems' searching and ceaseless journeys.
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Title Annotation:Nick Makoha, Kingdom of Gravity
Author:Miller, Isaac Ginsberg
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
Words:2775
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