The cover of Kayo Chingonyi’s new pamphlet depicts a wall daubed with graffiti and blood, which complements the contents perfectly; poems with a distinctly urban vibe. It leads us into a world of city streets and hospital beds, nightclubs, mixtapes and video games, a ‘citadel of alleyways and corners’ where each scene Chingonyi offers us, also asks us questions.
In ‘Andrew’s Corner’ which was anthologised in Salt’s The Best British Poetry 2011, Chingonyi gives us a vivid close-up of a London street scene ‘where flowers moulder in memory of Tash, / fifteen, her twenty-something boyfriend / too drunk to swerve and miss the tree’ and ‘alleys wake to condom wrappers, / kebab meat, a ballet pump’. Two poems are based on a Tate Modern exhibition by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles; ‘Red Shift’ is largely a descriptive poem in which the narrator fills his apartments with red furnishings – there may be a political subtext to the poem although Meireles denied it in his art – and ‘How to Build Cathedrals’ explores the encounter between indigenous populations and colonial powers. One of my favourites is ‘Guide to proper Mixtape Assembly’ which reflects with nostalgia on the dying art of creating the perfect audio cassette only to lose it ‘so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name’. Chingonyi, who is also a club MC, implies that the instant and perfect accessibility of the mp3 has trivialised and devalued our relationship with music.
The title of the pamphlet is taken from the controversial black American poet Amiri Baraka, and a thread of black consciousness weaves through the work, most strongly in the title poem, which celebrates black dancers, starting with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and notes that the dancers take ‘the swagger in your step from the ochre dust of an African Village’. The final stanza describes small but hurtful experiences of racism, but ends on an upbeat note with dancers who ‘move as if it is only them and the drums talking’.
It is only towards the end of this pamphlet that Chingoyi’s Zambian family step into the spotlight. An affectionate portrait of his mwaice wandi – kid brother – and an ambivalent elegy for his father ‘known in the shebeens, as long John’ are followed by a harrowing depiction of his dying mother, the timeline of her illness and death measured by the size of her growing son’s shoes.
When Chingonyi speaks his poems; he has them all by heart, a relatively rare skill which allows the poet to connect more completely with his audience. The same vibrant personality comes through on the page with language full of internal rhyme and complex rhythms. But it is the subject matter that most enthrals; I’ve heard several poetry grandees bewail the reluctance of British poets to tackle the ‘big issues’, but these poems do exactly that; issues of life, death, race, faith, family and authenticity are raised and meditated on here, in a thoughtful collection.
Some Bright Elegance is published by Salt, a poetry imprint which is coming into its own as a publisher of literary fiction, Alison Moore having gained a place on this year’s Booker longlist with her novel The Lighthouse. Salt says that it plans to use its prose success to support its efforts in poetry, which is a laudable strategy if it continues to allow poets like Chingonyi to reflect back to us what it means to be human.