published by Penned in the Margins.
Reviewed by Richard Lance Keeble
In this remarkable debut collection, the recent winner of the prestigious Ted Hughes Prize, Raymond Antrobus, actually dares to ‘silence’ Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ in quite a shocking way. Over two pages, he simply erases it with 34 thick black lines – and then comes his own poem (of just 17 lines) titled ‘After Reading “Deaf School” by the Mississippi River’. Here, Antrobus cleverly appropriates some of Hughes’ demeaning phrases (such as ‘lacks a dimension’, ‘removed from the vibration of air’), critiques ‘Ted’ (who ‘lacked a subtle wavering aura of sound/and responses to Sound’) and goes on to celebrate Black history (‘Mississippi means Big River, named by French colonisers./The natives laughed at their arrogant maps,/conquering wind and marking mist.)
Throughout this collection, Antrobus draws from his experiences as a 33-year-old British Jamaican deaf spoken-word poet in compelling ways – capturing the rhythms and spirit of so many different voices. In ‘Aunt Beryl Meets Castro’, he plays with the sounds of Jamaican argot (‘listen listen, you know I/met Castro in Jamaica in/’77 mi work with/government under/Manley yessir you’); in ‘My Mother Remembers’ there’s raw, conversational vernacular (‘serving Robert, cheeky bugger/tried to haggle my prices down./I didn’t care about velvet nothing.); in the poem that gives the collection its title, the mood is sadly nostalgic (‘There is no such thing as too much laughter/my father says, drinking in THE PERSEVERANCE/until everything disappears) or in ‘To Sweeten Bitter’, there’s the rural and strangely urban lyrical (‘past the flaked white wall/of plantation houses/past canefield and coconut trees/past the new crystal sugar factories).
The soundworld of the deaf person is explored deftly. In ‘Echo’, ‘Gaudi believed in holy sound/and built a cathedral to contain it’. Yet Antrobus responds with this celebration: ‘Even though I have not heard/the golden decibel of angels,/I have been living in a noiseless/place where the doorbell is pulsating/light and I am able to answer.’ In ‘What Samantha Said’ he writes bluntly: ‘I know the deaf are not lost/but they are certainly abandoned.’ And in ‘Miami Airport’, he imagines the sharp, staccato, aggressive questions of a customs official: ‘you don’t look deaf?/can you prove it? … how much dope will I find in your bag?/why isn’t there dope in your bag?’
Elsewhere, Antrobus faces up to the double discrimination he has suffered – as both a British Jamaican and deaf person. For instance, in ‘After Being Called a Fucking Foreigner in London Fields’, he writes: ‘I keep my father’s words, violence/is always a failure, so I don’t/swing into the man’s pale/bag-face when he throws/his arms up to fight me.’ In contrast, there is anger in the profoundly personal ‘Dear Hearing World’ where he returns to the discrimination faced at school before his diagnosis: ‘You taught me I was inferior to standard English expression … It took years to talk with a straight spine/and mute red marks on the coursework you assigned.’
Some of the most moving, tender, lyrical and revelatory poems are about his father. In ‘Happy Birthday Moon’, he remembers his childhood: ‘Dad reads aloud. I follow his finger across the page./Sometimes his finger moves past words, tracing white space./He makes the moon say something new every night/to his deaf son who slurs his speech.’ He even dares to write with surprising intimacy and openness about his father’s penis. ‘Thinking of Dad’s Dick’ opens on: ‘The way it slipped out his trousers/like a horse’s tongue, the way he’d shake it/after pissing, how wide/and long it was.’
At the end, a series of notes illuminates the background to the poems – or directs us to other information sources to expand our appreciation of them. For instance, on ‘Echo’, we are told there is an essay about it on poetryfoundation.org; parts of ‘Dear Hearing World’ are ‘riffs and remixes’ of lines from Dear White America by Danez Smith (Chatto/Greywolf, 2012). In ‘Dementia’, he writes: ‘When his sleeping face/was a scrunched tissue,/wet with babbling’ and explains in the notes: ‘I cared for my father for two years while he was dying. Seriously, big up the carers of the world. Thanks also to the NHS nurses and to Halima; I couldn’t have pushed through without you.’
There is even a ‘Further Reading’ section right at the end – including When The Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, by Harlan Lane (1994). Indeed, one of the most wonderful and original aspects of this collection is the way in which Antrobus invites us to explore both his poems – and his world beyond the poems.