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21ST-CENTURY POETRY Neither here nor there

Two accomplished collections from Grace Nichols and Louisa Adjoa Parker explore what it means to live between two worlds

GRACE NICHOLS’ beautiful new collection Passport to Here and There (Bloodaxe, £9.95) is a kind of autobiography in verse.

The first part is about growing up in Guyana, where Nichols meets the ghost of her childhood, “running/with slipping shoulder-straps/and half-plaited hair/beside a brown expanse/of memorising water/and the mellow faces of wooden houses/half-hidden by a weave/of coconut, mango, guenip trees.”

There are some perfect poems here about adolescence, notably Confirmation, Spirit Rising and Sweet Fifteen: “If the leaves of my memory serve me — /That was the year my hair went beehive/the year of the kiss, touching smugly/in the mirror my bee-stung lips.”

In the second part Nichols recalls the impact of moving to Britain in 1977. London is a “pop-up picture book, the Thames is “open like the fluent/scrolls of Shakespeare’s dog-eared manuscript” and the waves in the English Channel are the sea’s “noisy bridesmaids/making their way behind/her bridal train of lacy foam.”

The book's third part, a series of  “snapshot sonnets” describe a visit to Guyana after many years away. Everything is changed and nothing has changed:

“The Liat plane dipping towards the rim/of Atlantic and the beginning of Georgetown/sends the wings unfurling from my heart... nothing can stop my Demerara-smile/waxing wide as that sweetening estuary.”

The book’s sections include poems in memory of Martin Carter and Derek Walcott and they are connected by feelings of change and loss. Everything is alien and familiar. In Guyana, the weather still alternates between “rioting sun and rain” but the sun “has grown more bare-face,” while the Atlantic beaches are now “deserted except for a lone/wave of rubbish against the old seawall.”

Of mixed-race English-Ghanaian heritage, Louisa Adjoa Parker is also interested in exploring what it means to live between two worlds: “I’m not a half-caste freak/but someone who is more/than just one thing  — /a bit of this, a bit of that.”

Her third collection, How to Wear a Skin (Indigo Dreams, £9.99), moves skilfully between  the local and the international, the public and the private. There are poems for Henrietta Lacks —“the tumours/growing inside her like pearls/on a sea-bed” — and Eric Garner, “splayed out on the sidewalk like a giant fish/beached on grey sand/as a ring of people/watch it flap its tail/watch it drowning in the air.”

She is very good at precise and vivid descriptions, as in Sunflower, His Khaki Hood, Love, Ending and the fabulous One Girl — whose skin is the colour of “butterscotch Angel Delight,” her hair a “nest of spun burnt sugar” and her heart made of “blue blown glass.”

Best of all is an explosive sequence of ironic poems about the ignorance and hatred never far from the surface of British society:

“Do you remember those wild, pre-Brexit days/when immigrants filled our seas with their bodies,/floated death onto our beaches/forced us to see images of dead immigrant children/while we were eating our cereal and drinking our tea?

“Back to a golden age, a glorious time/of Pakistani-bashing, the stampede/of Doctor-Martened feet, shaved heads/and swastikas; of making England great again... Control the borders! Build a wall/so we can keep them out. Control/the hordes, the floods, the swarms...”

 

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