Map of Blue Book Balloon

2 September 2021

#Review - All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus

Artwork and design by
Phoebe Boswell

All the Names Given 
Raymond Antrobus
Picador, 2 September 2021
Available as: PB, 96pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy 
ISBN(PB): 9781529059502

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of All the Names Given to consider for review.

Raymond Antrobus's new collection of poems follows up on The Perseverance, which I reviewed a couple of years ago when it was nominated for The Times Young Writer of the Year award (I was one of the judges for the award's Shadow Panel).

Some of the themes explored in All the Names Given - identity, (dis)ability, family - are similar, but there are also big differences. I felt that in reading All the Names Given, I wasn't actually experiencing a collection so much as a single whole work. A structural feature here underlies that - the separate poems are integrated by their own [Caption Poems], material which serves to comment on and support the transitions between the poems and sometimes even to invade them, introducing another voice alongside the poem itself. This idea, which Antrobus explains is inspired by the work of Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim, both adds to the effect of the poems and calls attention to aspects of the collection, either setting up the reader for what is to come ('[sound of mirrors breaking inside mirrors]') or providing some formal space to absorb and reflect on what has just gone ('[             ]'). 

For me, it made reading the collection resemble the experience of a piece of classical music, with various themes and emotions evolving on different levels and different timescales both within single poems and through the book as a whole.

More important, perhaps, is that the themes and the form of the poems maps a sort of journey. The book opens with a welcome in the form of a caption '[sound of mouth and arms opening]' setting us up for a beginning, a thankful beginning 

'Give thanks to the wheels touching tarmac at JFK
Give thanks to the latches, handles, what we squeeze...

Give thanks to your name, Antrobus, to landings
and beginnings, your soul needs time to arrive.'

This untitled opening poem is one of several touching on the poet's name (from his English mother, referring to a village in Cheshire, actually not far from where I grew up). It's immediately paired in the book with respects paid to his Jamaican father in a dream conversation, 'The Acceptance', which calls to mind the title of the earlier collection 'The Perseverance'). There follows an account of visiting Antrobus itself - the pub, the Big House - in 'Antrobus or Land of Angels', a poem with so many gloriously quotable lines from it opening

'I can be fiendish, I can't be English, say ghosts'

to the wary response of the landlord in the pub

'The barman's eyes in the Antrobus Arms
become sharp gates when I claim to to be English'

To a defiant assertion of belonging - or at least origin

'My mother, born here
My grandfather, the local preacher'

to an immediate confusion

'Oh, well then, welcome, he says, or land your angels
(There are enigmas in my deafness).'

continuing to a joining-up of the two sides of Antrobus's heritage (the poet and the place

'Sir Edmund Antrobus, (3rd baronet)
slaver, beloved father
over-seer, owner of plantations

in Jamaica, British Guiana and St Kitts.'

(In a later poem we learn that the 4th baronet literally owned Stonehenge, this in a poem about Antrobus's grandmother ending with the moving lines

'how lasting their voices
inside us. How deeply known.')

I think that to get the best effect (or perhaps I should say the complete effect) from this book, you should read it through in one sitting, experiencing the poems as set out with their commentary, rather than dipping into it, the poems are still, read singly, starkly moving experiences and 'Antrobus or Land of Angels' is a gorgeous example, balancing or at least presenting so many contradictions. It's followed immediately by 'Language Signs' with further thoughts on that grandfather, that father ('How do I bring back men who couldn't speak, men lost in books, drinks, graves?') 

The closeness of these two poems is emphasised by another caption '[sound of connection across time]' leading into another praise poem 'On Touch'

'Salute the touches of teachers
dentists and therapists who untangle us...'

followed in succession by 'Her taste' (a nice association!) pondering Antrobus's mother's preference in men and then, in 'Text and image' the first introduction of Tabitha, who plays a greater and greater part in these poems. 'Text and Image' (the first one, on p14) is a sweet (in a good way) and slightly desperate love poem

'Tabitha; y haven't u told me u luv me
Raymond; I'm literally writing you love poems...'

(There is another 'Text and Image' (p33) which picks up the theme of being in a cinema - this time, in a dream, Raymond speaking - possibly answered by Tabitha ('Text and Image', p53) the visual element not being the painting she's working on.)

The story (is it a story? I think it's a story) then has a kind of back and to between thoughts own Antrobus's mother and his grandmother, his mother's comments on her scrapbook giving scenes form what sounds like a very full life, the thoughts on his grandmother taking a darker turn as it seems she and his father didn't get on: Tabitha's horrified reaction while 'sitting by the Mississippi', Antrobus's wondering where the story really starts - with which of the ancestors or trains of circumstance leading to now?

I am, I think, in danger of giving a running commentary on All the Names Given, or displaying a collection of bits and pieces, either of which would do a read disservice to this remarkable book and the lucid, taut language in which Antrobus expresses himself. Partly that's because having read, and re-read it, and reading it again as I write this review, I keep discovering marvellous new things and wanting to say "look!" 

Tabitha, art conservator, viewing with Antrobus an 1860 painting (by another Antrobus) 'Plantation Burial' and explaining the 'several kinds of black' used in it. His father's 'heartless sense of humour' which he believes he has inherited. Very personal episodes, when Antrobus comments on the risky and marginal lives of other Black and Deaf people, and a close escape with the police (he couldn't hear what they wanted).

The book is full of gems, moments of realisation, moments when Antrobus so skilfully makes us see (hear) - those captions used so subtly to set the mood or, in a couple of places, defiantly seize the page like protesters storming a stage ('The Royal Opera House (with Stage Captions)' is a wonderful poem whether as a standalone or as part of the wider story, as is the poem that follows it 'Horror Scenes as Black English Royal (Captioned)')

More, behind this, there is so much life here. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, explorations of what it is to be a son, courtship, a wedding, all seen with clarity, the book's captioning and story-ness allowing the same things to be on view from many different directions, complementing the complicated, contested and wonderfully human identities being examined and experienced. 

I think All the Names Given is even better than The Perseverance (which is itself very, very good) and I'd strongly recommend it.

For more information about All the Names Given, see the publisher's website here.

About Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus was born in London, Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father, he is the author of To Sweeten Bitter and The Perseverance. In 2019 he became the first ever poet to be awarded the Rathbone Folio Prize for best work of literature in any genre.

He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, The Complete Works 3 and Jerwood
Compton. He is also one of the world's first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word education from Goldsmiths University. 

Other accolades include the Ted Hughes award, PBS Winter Choice, A Sunday Times Young Writer of the year award, The Guardian Poetry Book Of The Year 2018, as well as a shortlist for the Griffin Prize and Forward Prize. In 2018 he was awarded The Geoffrey Dearmer Prize (Judged by Ocean Vuong) for his poem 'Sound Machine'. Also in 2019, his poem ‘Jamaican British’ was added to the GCSE syllabus.

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