Breaking all my rules here, which is always a liberating thing to do, and writing about poetry on a Saturday…
The Cheltenham Festival of Literature is still on and today I attended a poetry event: Anthony Anaxagorou… absolutely brilliant.
There is a really good article about his latest collection ‘After the Formalities’ here.
He read beautifully from it, his experience in the ‘spoken word’ world clear from his ‘performance’, and yet he was intimate and fragile and strong and real, genuine, honest.
This is the long poem that gives the collection its title… Stick with it, it’s worth it:
AFTER THE FORMALITIES, Anthony Anaxagorou
In 1481 the word ‘race’ first appears in Jacques de Brézé’s
poem ‘The Hunt’. De Brézé uses the word to distinguish
between different groups of dogs.
In that hard year grandparents arrived on a boat
with a war behind them and a set of dog leads.
Bullet holes in the sofa. Burst pillows. Split rabbits.
Passports bound in fresh newspapers. Bomber planes.
A dissenting priest. A moneybag sucking worry.
On the boat grandmother anticipated England’s
winters with the others. Black snow on gold streets.
Grandfather grieved two dogs he’d left. Pedigrees.
Bluebottles decaying at the base of their bowls. The dogs
of England were different. The water though. Fine to drink.
In 1606 French diplomat Jean Nicot added the word ‘race’
to the dictionary drawing distinctions between different
groups of people. Nicotine is named after him.
In London grandparents lived with only a radio.
A lamp favouring the wall’s best side. Curtains drawn
round. Byzantine icons placed on paraffin heaters.
Arguing through whispers. Not wanting to expose tongues.
Stories circulating. What neighbours do if they catch you saying
“I’m afraid” in a language that sounds like charred furniture
being dragged across a copper floor. Grandfather. Always.
Blew smoke out the lip of his window. So too did his neighbour.
Colourless plumes merging amorphous. The way it’s impossible
to discern the brand of cigarette a single pile of ash derives from.
In his 1684 essay ‘A New Division of the Earth’ French physician
François Bernier became the first popular classifier to put
all humans into races using phenotypic characteristics.
Mother’s skin is the colour of vacations.
Her hair bare-foot black. An island’s only runway.
Reports of racist attacks. Father turns up the volume.
Turns us down. Chews his pork. Stings the taste with beer.
Tells mother to pass the pepper. There is never a please.
He asks if she remembers the attack. The hospital. His nose.
A Coca-Cola bottle picked from his skull. Yes. She mutters.
The chase. Dirty bitch. How we’ll make you White.
Aphrodite hard. Dirty dog trembling with the street light.
Please God. Not tonight. The kids.
In 1775 J.F. Blumenbach claimed in his seminal essay
‘On the Natural Variety of Mankind’ that it was environment,
not separate creations, which caused the variety in humans.
In the bathroom mirror I spat blood from my mouth.
Quaver breath and suburban. My brother desperate to piss.
Pulled the door open. Asking. What happened?
I tried to fight and lost? Why? Because the island
we come from is smaller than this. Their names are shorter.
Pronounceable so they exist. Even after their noses break
they still don’t hook like ours. Their sun is only half peeled.
He lifted his top to show me two bruises. To remind me
of something. How history found its own way of surviving.
A dark wash mixed with the whites spinning round and around.
In the bathroom mirror my brother spat blood
from his mouth. Souvla breath and home. Me.
Desperate to piss. Pulling the door open. Asking.
What happened? He tried to fight and lost? Why?
Because the island we come from is larger than this.
Here. We chew up too much of their language.
Leave behind an alphabet of bones. We will never exist
in their love songs. How many bruises does it take
to make a single body? I left him. Surviving history.
A dark wash mixed with the whites spinning round and around.
In 1859 British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
If the house phone rings after midnight someone
you know is dying. Breathing in ten black moons
under a siren or belfry. From the wound in my uncle’s
back leaked the first atlas. Blood escaping him
like a phantom vaulting over the spiked gates of heaven.
The knife. Half steel half drunk. The motive. Skin or prayer.
We went to visit. In the window’s condensation his daughter
wrote Daddy Don’t Die. On the water of her breath.
That evening my father came home. One hand trumpet.
The other wreath. All his fists the law.
In 1911 eugenicist Charles Davenport wrote in his seminal book,
Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, “Two imbecile parents,
whether related or not, have only imbecile offspring”.
She had the same colour hair as Jesus. Most boys smile
after. When we were done I moved a blonde streak
from my arm wondering how much of my body
was still mine. I smelt of rain atop an old umbrella.
My fingers a burnt factory. She asked if I was her first
and when I said yes she smiled. Pulling the covers up
whispering not to get too comfortable. How her father
would be back. The bed now a continent. The duvet
locking me to its borders. On the shelf a gollywog
above her family portrait. Poised like a saint.
The 1943 famine of Bengal killed 4 million people. Churchill
ordered food to be sent directly to British soldiers in Europe. On hearing
the number of Bengalis who’d perished he asked, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
Outside the KFC racists have always looked
so sure to me. Like weathermen. Like fact.
Driving his skull into mine like a belief. I saw
how even evil can feel warm and smell good
when close enough. A crowbar. Wedged against
my throat. Slowly the lights began to wave. Chips
by my feet. Black iron warming my skin so silently
I could hear how suffering learns to soothe the jaws
of antiquity. These men. Irrational as any God. And me.
Emptying inside the promise of my oxygen tank.
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting
the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are
for the most part the material of the future growth
of the immigrant-descended population.” – Enoch Powell, 1968.
After the formalities of course I said London
and of course he asked again. When I said Cyprus
he leaned into his chair recalling a family holiday.
The weather sublime. The people accommodating.
Particularly towards the English. How it was a shame
about the Turkish thing. And your parents. When did they enter
here? In the late ’50s I replied. So before the Immigrants Act?
Yes I said. Before. Well good for them. He said.
Putting the lid on his pen. Closing his pad.
Asking me to talk a bit more about my previous roles.
In 2001 philosopher Robert Bernasconi wrote
“The construct of race was a way for white people to define
those who they regarded as other.”
In those days I was required to fill out forms
with multiple boxes. Some I left blank. My father
would notice my omission. Filling in the white
option with his black biro. I crossed it out.
Telling him I’m going with ‘other’. My mother
wearing the same sad skin as before said we are not
White. The look he gave her was. Snatching the form
from me. The same X dominating so much White.
Let me tell you. Nobody in their right mind need
make themselves such an obvious target. He affirmed.
“It’s amazing how ideas start out, isn’t it?” – Nigel Farage, 2016.
My grandmother will die. Somewhere in her skeleton.
White sheeted. Iodoform thick. Her mouth all beetle.
My family will gather round her body. All fig. My mother
will look for coins. Despite there being nothing for money
to save. Another lady. Dying the same. Will goad our kind.
Through thick tubes she’ll scorn. Her voice. A bluebottle’s
hot wings. You’re all dogs. Foreigners. And dirty. Outnumber us
even in dying. The nurse will apologise for the whole of history.
Drawing the curtain. Mud is always the last thing to be thrown.
A prayer reaching for the pride of an olive. Like a hint. To hold.