Jake Morris-Campbell reviews Eve Ewing and Caleb Femi and Jay Bernard

1919 is published by Haymarket (2019)
Poor is published by Penguin (2020)
Surge is published by Chatto (2019)

Sitting behind Eve Ewing’s 1919 and working as an informing text is a 1922 report, The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. Positioning herself in proximity to this material, a document whose ‘purpose was to dissect the 1919 race riot that had happened in Chicago three years earlier’, Ewing tells us that ‘many of its passages immediately made me think about poetry […] The report was like an old tapestry with loose threads sticking out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave.’ The result of her endeavour is a remarkable polyvocal exploration of racial tensions in the so-called Red Summer of 1919. Narrated by a cast of actors, human and other-than-human, Ewing’s panoply of voices are marshalled in such a way that the reader is forced to look beyond the immediate injustices of the catalyst event: the drowning of seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams, who had supposedly drifted into the white-only section of a segregated beach while out swimming in July heat ‘so hot/our dreams laid out on the sidewalk/and said ‘never mind, we good’. (‘or does it explode’)

As much of 1919 is told obliquely – Ewing going as far as to give us, ‘retrospectively’, the point-of-view of the great fire of Chicago in 1871, which bigoted, wealthy white Chicagoans had used as a grotesque metaphor for what they saw as the unwanted incursion of black families from the South – it comes as something of a jar to read the opening of ‘sightseers’, which implores: ‘just this once I hope you’ll forgive me/for writing a somewhat didactic poem’. Ewing’s purpose here is one of sudden confrontation, and it works for being at once direct but simultaneously capable of the wider symbolic potential found elsewhere in the book. Where earlier poems deployed imaginative tangents to chart the mounting pressures that led to the riots, ‘sightseers’ unequivocally calls time on those who would continue to allow dubious interpretation or appropriation to render voiceless the African-American experience, especially those who consider themselves to not be culpable. We are told bluntly:

[…] there are devils in the house
and the house has been wicked for so long
and the sightseers still worship it
they stand in front and take pictures
they marvel at the white pillars
they send postcards of the hose
that has the devils in it

Catapulting us into the present and utilising formal traditions ranging from the Haibun to the politically-charged erasure poem, 1919 sides with Suzan Lori-Parks, who said that ‘history is not “was”, history is “is.”’ While there are instances where ‘there is no poem for this’, the violence being so stark, Ewing also knows that it is the poet’s responsibility to not let these stories fall by the wayside. Thus, in taking the raw materials of the riots and their aftermath as documented in witness testimony, and by reconfiguring the most potent, curious or downright harrowing elements of that testimony, Ewing has constructed an important meta-text which bridges a century, revealing the still-great gulfs that connect Eugene Williams to George Floyd.

Taking us through the ‘Before’, ‘What Happened’ and ‘After’, the narrative draw of 1919 works in part as an allegoric retelling of the transatlantic slave trade and its mass movement of African bodies to the New World, and later within North America itself. Several ‘Exodus’ poems illustrate the ways in which segregation became tacitly entrenched within Chicago. Appealing to the idea of the poet as arbiter, these poems trouble the notion of the so-called American Dream and its exploitation of Christian conservative values in entrenching lines of division. In ‘Exodus 5’ this plays out as a judgment invoked on the leaders of local athletics clubs, whose youth members, under protection from ‘powerful political sponsors’ (‘What Happened’) were often actively involved in racially-motivated violence:

The Lord came unto Pharaoh in a dream, and spoke to him, saying:
“Pharaoh, you have been wicked and denied my will.
My people came to you as strangers in a strange land, and you denied them
the land of their pilgrimage, and you have kept them in bondage. 
Now you will be punished for your cruelty, and for casting upon them anguish of spirit.”

Ewing’s skill in discharging the Chicago race riots into their much broader social and political contexts ensures that when 1919 does make bold requisitions, such as the one proclaimed at the beginning of ‘The Day of Undoing’ – ‘“Every boundary is imaginary”’ – we feel that her reach has been earned. Exploring ‘walkfly time’, a sermon used ‘as such words often are—funny baby words—it was perhaps the most truthful’, to reveal the ultimate arbitrariness of dividing communities, the story Ewing documents here is loyally rooted within the particular communities of Chicago, but her achievement is such that these poems speak to the wider Afro-American experience, past and present, while also invoking that child-prophet’s desire to look beyond ‘lines in the dirt and the desert and/the lake that no one could see but which for some reason they had treated as gospel all their lives’.

Just as Eve Ewing’s book was inspired by archival research, Jay Bernard’s Surge grew out of a residency the author undertook in 2016 at the George Padmore Institute, a centre for radical black British history. Placing their experience of examining artefacts in the Padmore, Bernard foregrounds the act of salvage, seeing themselves debating ‘which words to file’ (‘Ark’) before then wondering whether a ‘January morning’ should be filed ‘under London, England, Britain, British, Black-British’. In the following poem, ‘Patois’, they then offer a rebuttal: ‘We do not speak with one voice about one thing/below the yellow, black and green flag of England’.

The trick with any work of this kind is to balance the honouring of past lives and times by seeing them through a double lens: the optics of the present must not falsely distort history, but similarly the past must be honestly rendered. Eve Ewing framed this challenge in 1919 in terms of using her poems ‘as what-if machines and as time-travelling devices’ (‘This book is a story.’) Bernard employs a similar methodology in Surge—crafting both what-if, but perhaps as vitally, what-if-not machines. Exploring how the more they ‘read and discussed, the more vexed the relationship between public narration and private truths appeared’ (‘Author’s Note’), Bernard, like Ewing, sets Surge up to stake a claim: to write back-in to history, to fully and complicatedly render collective trauma. Bernard is aware of the burden involved in taking on such a responsibility, and as such their approach is dynamic, self-aware and multivocal. A range of formal and less formal voices and idiolects are deployed, from the archivist-come-poet, aware of the moral and ethical implications involved when asking ‘shall we consult the life of a stranger?’ (‘Ark’), to the melodious, almost shamanic call-to-arms repartee of the conjurer in ‘Songbook’:

An di gyal dem ah dance an di man dem ah rock
Drink six rum an black an di beat dem ah drop
Darkness descend and di room gone black
Voices ah call seh dem haffi get out

Voices ah call seh dem haffi get out
Screamin begin an di people ah shout
Me seh screamin begin an di people ah shout
Dem ah covah dem head an ah covah dem mouth

It is difficult without quoting the full two and a half pages of this poem to show how the metrical pattern and use of repetition builds, but its effect in totality is powerful: we feel like ghosts suspended on the ceiling, witness to a tragic loss of innocence.

In an extraordinary ekphrastic poem ‘Apple’, whose resonances only expand the more the poem is read and dwelled upon, Bernard celebrates John La Rose, founder of New Beacon Books (a specialist Caribbean publisher who first took on early versions of Surge) and one-time chairman of the Padmore Institute. Describing a photograph depicting La Rose’s birthday, Bernard writes:

Don’t you love how they decided mid-meal
to lean into each other, peer into the photo,
don’t you love that there is chicken grease
from the early part of this century,
that it was cooked at the revolutionary’s house
on Albert Road, that someone living
might recall the smell of the lentils,
the pop of the grilled tomatoes

Bernard then goes on to use the photograph as metonym, lamenting a wider struggle, culminating in a devastatingly earned ending:

don’t you love that there is nothing
remarkable here, nothing that would
startle a state, but that is has been kept
anyway, noted, dated, numbered, placed
in acid-free Japanese boxes and lovingly
(as is tradition) laid without a casket.

Just as Ewing, ‘a lifelong Chicagoan […] didn’t often hear people discuss the race riot that had occurred in our city a century ago’, Bernard realises ‘I had grown up as a black British Londoner with a piecemeal understanding of the event and the consequences that followed’.

Thus, Surge enacts Rob Jackaman’s view that ‘vital new pidgins and kriols asserting equal rights (writes) from the cultural margin, partly dismantling received monopolisitic English in favour of a multiplicity of different but equally valid voices’ (Broken English/Breaking English) are essential for thriving and representative acts of literary kinship. Like 1919Surge has a similar mission: to expose systemic injustices by singing boldly as a person ‘specific to this place […] haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.’ (Author’s Note).

While it is the New Cross Fire of 1981 (in which thirteen young people lost their lives and twenty-seven others were injured) that forms the central cataclysm of Surge, the book speaks vividly to the present moment: ongoing problems of racial intolerance, class inequality and prejudice towards gender transition are all folded in, presenting us with a collage of the last four decades of life in Britain quite different to that which we might read about in mainstream media. Indeed, the failings of that media and its complicity in colluding with other establishments organisations to further negate the black experience, sits squarely within Bernard’s cross-hairs. That is not to say that the book reads furiously; if anything, the opposite is true: the poems solidifying like cooling lava flow after an eruption, with warning tremors being measured out. One of the ways in which Bernard achieves this is a startling use of repetition, often coupled judiciously with en dashes, to resuscitate otherwise-forgotten lives. ‘I feel – I feel like I have to hold on – and say – and say – / I don’t want to die in this country – let me die with my grandmother –’ (‘Proof’). Careful to always allow the particularity of intimate human connections to shine through, Bernard avoids ventriloquism. Forced to look again, but not with pity, Surge, like 1919 and Poor, appeals so convincingly for ‘That other way of saying it, that other way to understand.’ (‘Ha-my-ca’)

Where Ewing’s and Bernard’s work draws on historic documentary evidence and fills in the blanks, Caleb Femi’s Poor builds primarily on the author’s lived experience of having grown up on the North Peckham estate in South London, where ‘the grey of/the concrete is louder than your outfit.’ (‘Concrete (I)’). Just as 1919 and Surge intersperse visual materials among the poems to further situate the historical contexts of struggle and resistance, Poor uses many of Femi’s own photographs to illustrate his subject: an autoethnographic portrait of ‘Boys in Hoodies’:

The inside of a hoodie is a veiled nook where a boy pours himself
into a single drop of rain to feed a forest. Each tree grateful for the
wet boy, unaware that the outside word sees this boy as a chainsaw.

This plays to a well-trodden and effective strategy of three-dimensionalising the documentary poem; the reader becoming alert to a sort of multi-dimensional ekphrasis. For Femi, whose orthography is sounded as ‘the tongue leans on the roof of the mouth/like winter on the shoulder of these blocks trying/to catch its breath’ (‘How to Pronounce: Peckham’), ‘pek narm’ becomes at once a supernova of strife and a canvas on to which he can proclaim joy, despite living with the ‘knowing that even if they walked a mile/their fawny ankles wouldn’t ever set foot/on open ground’ (‘Because Of The Times’).

It would be remiss of me to enjoy Poor (or, for that matter, 1919 or Surge)as books ‘for the titilation of white liberals’ (a phrase of Vanessa Kisuule’s, who reminds us that the pain and trauma of black communities have often been fetishised by publishers and readers alike), and I think that Femi is aware that his book could end up being read in that way. I hope it does not fall prey to such facile categorisation because, for me, not only is Poor an exultant rendering of a community, it is a book of poetry which pushes the lyric mode harder than most others I have read in some time. Just as seeds eventually sprout greenery from even the densest areas of concrete, I feel that the gestation of these poems was long-earned, attesting to perseverance and hard graft.

Both in its commitment to and celebration of vernacular and in its foregrounding of shared experience, Poor’s litany of names, dialects and sub-cultural references coalesce to form a work that is profoundly rooted. The sense I had reading many of these poems was that this upholding of small miracles necessarily bordered on the beatific: if Femi did not praise and scrutinise Peckham, others would only do so in the most brazen and derogatory of ways. At times, of course, the melancholic becomes unavoidable. In ‘Because Of The Times’, whose epigraph comes from Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing, the inevitability of seeing ‘Residents on the brink’ leads to us being confronted with ‘the East wing stairs […] where Damilola [Taylor] was found’. Like other poems in the book, the fall from grace of well-meaning municipal housing projects and community integration schemes shows us that ‘Nothing the estate raised was a monster, yet/the devil found good ground to plough his seeds.’ Certainly Femi does not shy away from the brutality of life in North Peckham; ‘Trauma Is a Warm Bath’ being one of the most harrowing examples of bearing witness:

Just ask the paramedic at the scene:
he knew the body was shoebox empty
but all his training didn’t tell him what to do
when a boy gets shot at a funeral, and the crowd
are unwilling to ration bowed heads
between the two dead bodies.

At risk of pandering to the titillation of the privileged white liberal by block-quoting the above, I wish to point out that what really makes Poor an incredible work of art that should be read widely is the ease with which the poems counter the moribund with the romantic and tongue-in-cheek. Wry digs at gentrification – ‘You can’t say CRACK here/you’ll fuck the house prices/what you say is craquè’ (‘Old New’) – intersperse the narrative, the sending-up of the architectural imaginary reaching its most beguiling apogee, with ‘A Designer Talks of Home/A Resident Talks of Home’, two very cleverly worked found-poems which so expertly ironise the notion that we have reached anything like parity or equity that, having read about boys described as ‘dying stars/on the verge of becoming black holes’ (‘Thirteen’), it is hard not to laugh reading ‘design that encourages people to be close together is a/good thing’ (Designer/Resident (II)). Indeed, it is these dips and swerves in register that dumbfound the reader’s expectations, shaking up any prejudices they might bring to the door. In ‘Ode to South Ldn Gyaldem’, a moving love poem made all the better for its self-awareness, the narrator opens:

What I would give to see you every night
in my dreams coiling your lower back
like stems slicking around slips of rays,
stopping traffic – traffic-stopping. 

By the time we reach the poem’s conclusion, the narrator exclaiming ‘I say, That’s it, that’s everything I have,/build me a looping dream of/October’s quenching tongue, & you –/you who can’t be made again/in the best work of the night’, we realise that, while Poor certainly stocks an arsenal and fortifies its grounds, its main work is hymnal: sanctifying the common experience and asking that it be judged on its own terms.

As a reader encountering these writers for the first time, I feel privileged to have been challenged by the materials they present, troubling as it frequently is. However, united by the same mission if not the same continent, the books also show unremitting affection towards their subject, capturing their communities’ troubled histories, for sure, but also pointing the way towards genuine and sustained integration by way of praising difference and seizing on wonder. I’ll leave it to Caleb Femi for the final, apposite word from ‘Concrete (V): Second Anniversary’:

Breathe in
chaos, & breathe out my soft limbs
& if you wish me to speak
I will.

Jake Morris-Campbell was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, in 1988. He recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University and is the author of two pamphlets of poetry: The Coast Will Wait Behind You (Art Editions North, 2015) and Definitions of Distance (Red Squirrel Press, 2012). A recipient of New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse award, his poems have appeared in the Bloodaxe anthology ‘Land of Three Rivers’ (2017) and recently in journals including Stand and Under the Radar.

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