Last Sunday I took my place within a half-full tent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, to hear from two wildly different poets whose debut collections arrived in the last year.
First up is Joe Dunthorne, widely known for his novels, The Adulterants, Wild Abandon and Submarine, which was memorably made into a film by Richard Ayoade back in 2010.
Dunthorne’s poetry, like his fiction, is keen to make you laugh, and stick the knife in, ideally simultaneously. His humour constantly prods at that thin membrane that separates delight and discomfort; this is evidenced in the punny title for his debut collection: O Positive acts as both a sunny exclamation (perhaps gently mocking the latent pomposity of lyric poetry) and introduces the collection’s interest in surgical, clinical physicality. As a body of work it’s divided into four different sections, each named after a different blood group (A, B, AB, O). That interest in the physical often exists in its capacity for pain, but threat and violence occur at one degree of remove. The parents examining their child’s ransom video: ‘It feels wrong to say / the production values reassure us.’
The allusive, subtle quality of this humorous pain / painful humour is amplified by the economy of the poetry itself. O Positive took 7 years to whittle down, and none of the poems last for more than a page; Dunthorne returns more than once to a loose series of 5 liners scattered throughout the collection.
The poems lean into the endless awkwardness of existing among other people; choosing to frame the majority of them within the first person allows for both solidarity and self-deception. The most obvious, and delicious example of the latter comes in I decided to stop therapy, which could as easily be delivered by Ray, the slowly collapsing man-child from The Adulterants, or for that matter, Bojack Horseman.
I decided to stop therapy
because I was perfect.
And how might your perfection
Appear to others?
Classic my therapist
missing the point completely.
Side-eyed and self-effacing, this is poetry that thrives on indirectness whilst wringing its hands. By contrast, Raymond Antrobus’s work is direct, personal and full of urgency. He begins with Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris. Daniel Harris was an unarmed deaf man who was shot and killed by a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina in August 2016, whilst attempting to communicate using ASL. Within this work, the violence is real, the anger is real, the pain is real. Employing both languages (sign and speech) with the help of BSL interpreter Anna, Antrobus probes the differences between them and forces us (audience and spectators) to examine the un-interrogated power dynamics at play when two worlds are forced to exist side by side.
Sign has no future or past; it is a present language.
You are never more present than when a gun
is pointed at you. What language says this
if not sign? But the police officer saw hands
waving in the air, fired, and Daniel dropped
his hands, his chest bleeding out onto concrete.
Now what could we sign or say out loud
when the last word I learned in ASL was alive?
Alive – both fingers pointing at your lower abdominal,
index fingers pointing up, like two guns in the sky.
Live, he demonstrates the physical movement, but within his debut collection, The Perseverance it is illustrated beneath the poem. Throughout the collection illustrations are used in an attempt to bridge, or reiterate, the linguistic gap.
Antrobus’s practice is informed by Homer’s twin imperative that the poet should aim ‘to delight and to instruct.’ He graciously acknowledges the delight to be found in Dunthorne’s work, which serves to emphasise again the differences between the two writers, one expansive, one economical, one allusive, the other direct. This Homeric instruction means that he sees no distinction between his practice as a teacher, working in prisons and deaf schools, and as a writer. The systemic prejudice that he encountered when growing up as a deaf boy continues; 70% of profoundly deaf people born in the UK to this day grow up illiterate. The disdain of those revelling in their position of ‘audio-supremacy’ resurfaces repeatedly throughout The Perseverance, most emphatically in Dear Hearing World:
I want the fate of Lazarus for every deaf school
you’ve closed, every deaf child whose confidence
has gone to a silent grave, every BSL user
who has seen the annihilation of their language,
I want these ghosts to haunt your tongue-tied hands.
You erased what could have always been poetry.
You taught me I was inferior to standard English expression –
I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter –
taught me my speech was dry for someone who should sound
like they’re underwater. It took years to talk with a straight spine
and mute red marks on the coursework you assigned.
Deaf voices go missing like sound in space
and I have left earth to find them.
Poetry exists as a haven, a world between the worlds, where expression is possible, connection is real, rage can find its range. There is so much going on here – deafness, and the exclusionary music of the hearing world is just one aspect of a collection that deftly navigates class, race, family, addiction and more. Antrobus is suspicious of reductive simplicity – if it resolves too easily, reject it, if it sits too comfortably, complicate it. Language is riven with biases, but we recognise the power of listening, of attending. He speaks of the privilege of the stage, ‘what it is to be heard’, to be acknowledged, and his spellbound audience know that it’s a privilege shared.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.