Review by Anna Hollingsworth
”your 2am text / lit / like a dog panting / on her screen / hot rattling engine / pile / of oily pity / sticky bathroom / lonely grease // air no one wants to suck /”
The dirtiness of this image stuck to me, not least because it makes so concrete the all-too recognizable urge to get a reaction out of someone — when you know you probably shouldn’t. In the particular poem’s context, it is a description of coming across an ex-girlfriend at a train station and then giving into the temptation to get in touch.
Raymond Antrobus’s collection All The Names Given is packed with these kinds of mundane details that grow out of the often understated writing into meditations on much bigger themes. A “big” theme here really means that: the poems flow through communication — or miscommunication — racial and cultural identities and love and marriage.
Much of the roots of the poems lie in family: Antrobus explores the relationship of his English mother and Jamaican father, his own relationship with his now wife Tabitha as well as the historical connections with his ancestry. Delving into the name Antrobus — from his mother’s side — is particularly interesting in all its richness. Deriving from the village of Antrobus in Cheshire, anyone with the surname can be linked back to it; however, it’s often assumed to be non-English, when in fact its history goes back to Norse, or as Antrobus writes, it is “so anciently English [–] that it has become foreign to itself.”
The poems add layers to this dichotomy of what is seen as foreign versus native. In Antrobus or Land of Angels, Antrobus travels to the village with his mother where they discover an ancestor in “Sir Edmund Antrobus, (3rd baronet)/ slaver/ beloved father/ over-seer, owner of plantations// in Jamaica, British Guiana and St Kitts.” The dark import of that litany strikes a blow in the following succinct line: “I shake my head, avoid the farmer’s eye.” Antrobus is a master of leaving a lingering aftertaste, and he does so with full impact in the final lines here too: “I take a photo of our shadows, flung/ over the red berry bushes// like black coats.”
The same theme of foreignness and names repeats later in the collection, this time in a US marriage registry office boasting a10-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson. The sparse lines of this poem are loaded with irony as the speaker writes “Black/ White” as an answer to a question about race on a form, handing it to a man “who points at my words,// says I cannot be two races.” The final punch lands with a contrast of the man’s “short wool hair” with “his name badge says his name is Jeff.”
With family come poems about love, or the disillusionment with it, scattered throughout the collection. Antrobus’s parents’ troubled relationship is encapsulated in the opening lines of Her Taste: “Funny that my mother was a clown/ a college dropout who joined the circus/ with another clown who made inflatable giants.” The repercussions of that relationship are then echoed throughout the work. Heartless Humour Blues is a masterpiece in the middle, a rhythmic retelling of all the occasions when the mother has had to describe the father as having a “heartless sense of humour”, from bruises to drinks. However, Antrobus also deflects the misery and lets his own love grow unashamedly: by the end of the collection, he is serenading, in his understated way, his marriage to Tabitha and the long-distance relationship that they survived. In doing so, he manages to capture the whole spectrum of relationships and the vast grey valleys between the uphills and downhills.
Perhaps the most fascinating poems are, however, those that tackle communication and its failures. Antrobus is Deaf, a fact that never takes centre-stage but filters through in the background. He does that brilliantly in Antrobus or Land of Angles, the very name of which refers to miscommunication. The poem opens as a pub scene, where “fiendish” and “English” become tangled as a powerful allegory for belonging or not belonging: “I can be fiendish, I can’t be English, say ghosts./ Some with shaved heads, some with cane-rows/ muttering themselves into notebooks.”
The theme of hearing is also explored in what Antrobus calls [Caption Poems] — inspired by the Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim — through which he captions emotions and atmospheres in the silences between poems. Some of them seem superfluous in failing to surprise the reader; [sound of connection across time] offers nothing new after Language Signs, a poem on the difficulty of communicating with his grandfather. Others, though, are almost aphorisms in themselves: [sound of mirrors breaking inside mirrors] propels the reader into the kind of endless stream of concepts that you achieve when two mirrors face each other.
All The Names Given is a sharp collection of encounters across cultures and times and family history. Among all the names I want to give it are brilliant, timely and thought-provoking.
Anna is a journalist and linguist
Raymond Antrobus, All the Names Given (Picador, 2021) ISBN 978-1529059502, 96pp., paperback original.
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