|Cover design by Daniel Benneworth-Gray|
Penned in the Margins, 1 October 2018
This is my third (of four) reviews as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.
The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).
About the Author
Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as well as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
"An extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet, The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish."
The Perseverance (named, Antrobus explains in a note, after the London pub where his father used to drink) is a collection of twenty nine poems. In form they range from traditional poems to paragraphs of poetic text to scattered, bare words. There is a dense, angry reversal of a Ted Hughes poem written after Hughes had visited a Deaf school, Hughes' words blocked out in a commentary on his thoughts about the Deaf pupils (look to the next poem, After Reading 'Deaf School' by the Mississippi River for specifics: it refers back scathingly to Hughes' poem and makes a connection with the way French settlers usurped and overwrote the language and land of the indigenous people of the Mississippi region).
In places the verse is supplemented by sign, very sparing, but enough to remind those who don't sign of the other side of the language divide. In others, Antrobus seeks to reproduce the experience of hearing, or speaking, as a Deaf person - the first poem, Echo, begins with the whistling of his ear amps 'as if singing/ to Echo, Goddess of noise' and goes on to recount his own attempts as a child to pronounce his family name 'as 'Antrob' (he doesn't hear 'bus'). Echo is a kind of introduction, leading to the moment that Antrobus's Deafness is identified and hinting at some of the themes of this book - for example family.
Family is central here, especially Antrobus's relationship with is father and his father's history. It is, I think ambivalent, as shown in The Perseverance where his father disappears into the pub for a drink (or drinks) eventually popping out to give his sone 50p. This is a particularly beautiful poem, as well as being particularly sad. Other poems explore Antrobus's father's illness and dementia as well as his father's Jamaican heritage and the impact on him: half English, half Jamaican. And family remain back in Jamaica too.
It's a very keenly observed book, a sharpened book in some places, skewering particular injustices such as the killing of a Black Deaf man by US police (Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris: the 'two guns' referring to the ASL sign for 'Alive') or Antrobus's treatment by US border officials (Miami Airport - a poem where the words literally sublime, turning into a cloud of fragments which both conveys how they may come over to a Deaf person and also shows up the unfairness, the fractured logic and weird presuppositions of a basically racist worldview. Sorry, that sounds very pompous. Just read the poem!)
As well as being inspired by contemporary events and themes Antrobus also looks at Deaf people in history - finding stories for example in Dickens. Doctor Marigold Re-evaluated doesn't give Dickens the same treatment as Ted Hughes but it does very elegantly point up the able-ism of the original story. One of the things about this book that is so impressive is the range of material covered, and the amount of information it imparts - for example, The Shame of Mabel Gardiner Hubbards, who was Deaf and married Alexander Graham Bell.
This is a fascinating and enlightening collection of poems with a very strong voice throughout, staking a claim against ensure and marginalisation. It deserves to be widely read.