Black Lives Matter, Poems For A New World (Civic Leicester, 2020)
University of Leicester Centre for New Writing put out a call for poems on Black Lives Matter themes. Editor Ambrose Musiyiwa received almost 500 poems, from over 300 writers around the world. 107 are now published in this anthology.
This book is a snapshot of a moment in time. It is not just a freeze-frame of the horrific scenes broadcast from America – the George Floyd murder, the MAGA violence – but of a year of pandemic misery and global malaise. Mark Connors’ poem conflates the ‘can’t breathe’ of George Floyd with the can’t breathe in ICU units all over the world.
When things are bad, those who usually get the harsh end of things get the worst. This anthology also takes in the longer history of black struggle too, and although aptly published in Leicester – one of the most culturally diverse cities in Britain – that perspective is global.
Peter A’s poem takes in Einstein’s comments on race in America in 1946, as a disease of white people, as well as the DNA of Cheddar Man, dark, swarthy. The Oak too, I believe, is actually a migrant to the British Isles. Time and again these poems question the way easy clichés become violently defended identities. They point to a world in which we could all try to live without such futile struggles. Struggles against each other, but also struggles with ourselves. The diseases theme continues into Jim Aitken’s poem on the pandemic and ‘the times’:
And what we really need is a vaccine for Capital;
for the greed that consumes the entire planet
so that none of us can breathe. If applied well
fresh air will surely flow with justice and peace
I’m not so sure about easy cures for that these days, but yeah. Funmi Adewole quotes an unnamed person on Twitter declaring that George Floyd was a drug user and so ‘the black race is the only race that celebrates dysfunction’. This short poem, just hanging in space, contains an explosive tension.
Surely, white culture is the ultimate culture of dysfunction celebration? Just look at ‘rock’n’roll’ culture in the 1970s, not only was the music stolen from black artists, but junkie chic, Keith Richards through to Pete Doherty, is a leering example of dysfunction elevated to status within white culture. It’s not only OK for them to be off their heads, draped in designer fabric, it is celebrated. If you were poor, and black, or both, then you would be a hunted criminal. I mean god, even the Scottish estate junkie has its mythical British Odyssey in Trainspotting – none of them are black.
But the British attitude against racism is tracked just as well in this book. The Colston statue toppling is marked by Rosalie Alston, with a short, dated poem. Richard Byrt’s contribution seems to follow that up, referencing the making of manacles in Bristol in the mid-18th century, alongside the noble 2020 risings against monuments to slavers in the city.
British victims are remembered, Blair Peach and Rashan Charles. We must never forget these people, or the grimy cover-ups.
A poem written from the perspective of a ‘man who wishes to remain anonymous’, and another named poet, leads me to reflect on how there are different stakes involved for different people in simply writing a poem at all. Sometimes, I think, we have come little further, socially, than the 18th century. Then I turn a page and find British actress Sharon Cherry Ballard’s poem Black Queens, and there is a new world in it:
Today I break the cycle for future generations
Smart, creative, fearlessly owning my black excellence
I particularly like the poems that are rooted in everyday life. In some of these, the site of joy and the site of symbolic resistance is one. For an example, I will reproduce in full a piece by Jenny Mitchell. Here, style, safety, and cultural presence in public spaces, come together:
Black Men Should Wear Colour
for my brother
I mean an orange coat,
sunlight dripping down the sleeves.
A yellow shirt to clash with bright blue trousers –
taking inspiration from the most translucent sea.
Pink leather shoes. Fuchsias might be best
to contrast with brown skin.
Red socks should add some warmth,
so long as they’re the only flames to ever touch your feet.
A tie could be mistaken for a noose,
unless you choose a rainbow swirling on your chest.
It will help to show the heart
has all the colours in the world.
Walk down any street with head held high.
I will wave my colours back and we’ll both be safe.
This book should be read by everyone, but especially by white people. It’s a great themed anthology of global poets, but it is already an important time capsule for an historic year as well.