Tony Cross is reading all the books and poems shortlisted for this year's Forward Prizes for Poetry. Here are his thoughts on A Blood Condition, a poetry collection by Kayo Chingonyi...
This is Kayo Chingonyi's second collection and it is a fine read. Poetry, it seems to me, often feels like it is the most personal of writing. Even when the subjects don't appear personal. In the case of A Blood Condition the personal is much more upon the surface.
It starts and ends with two poems about Nyaminyami, a river god of the Zambezi. These four poems are about the implacability of nature and humanities illusions about our control over them, which is temporary. Water, as the Tenth Doctor says in Waters of Mars, always wins. Or as Chingonyi says:
those who know water know
eventually water will pass through
even the smallest gap in what appears
to the human eye to be a solid mass
from Nyaminyami: ‘water can crash and water can flow’ p59
Chingonyi varies the structure and form of his poems too. There is a seven-poem section 'Origin Myth' that consists of seven sonnets each of which begins with the first line of the previous sonnet. This tells the story of the blood condition that gives the collection its title. This blood condition is never named but it doesn't need to be. I am glad that all the poetry reading I have done over the last two years now means I can spot a sonnet without having to be told it is one.
But the blood condition might not just be an illness. It might be the history we carry within us of family and nation. About who we are and where we come from. Perhaps I'm reading too much into things. It is a mistake I often make, but I suppose it is the right of a reader to take from a writer our own understanding - or misunderstandings.
When I did geography (as my minor subject) at University I learned that the shape of a valley could tell you how it was created. A U-shaped valley was created by a glacier. A V-Shaped valley was created by a river. The V-shaped ones always seemed more like cuts in the Earth than the U-Shaped one. This is a V-shaped collection. It cuts deep into you at points. It's never savage, but it makes a mark on you though. They are graceful.
a wayfarer's tune
Written in a shack
on a four track
in the 70s
a voice threaded with regret
each word a promise
that in the end
the singer could not keep
from Chingola Road Cemetery. p28
These poems are not fireworks. They don't need to be. Their power comes from their gentleness. If that makes sense. Sometimes it feels like a long elegy or multi-verse song of loss. The loss of the natural world, of the past, of family, and of youth.
The thing is perhaps it was meant to be none of these things. I can only write what I feel and felt. I really liked this collection. I haven't read his first, Kumukanda, but I will seek it out now. He has a powerful voice, but he never seems to need to raise it to make a point. If he is, indeed, even trying to make one. Perhaps he just wants to bear witness or to give a voice to something. Perhaps he just to write poetry. What do I know?
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About The Forward Prizes
The Forward Prizes are a celebration for those who love contemporary poetry, in association with the Forward Arts Foundation. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced at a ceremony on 24th October. Here are the shortlists:
The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Collection
Kayo Chingonyi – A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
Tishani Doshi – A God at the Door (Bloodaxe Books)
Selima Hill – Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe Books)
Luke Kennard – Notes on the Sonnets (Penned in the Margins)
Stephen Sexton – Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin Poetry)
The 2021 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection
Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin Poetry)
Alice Hiller – bird of winter (Pavillion Poetry)
Cynthia Miller – Honorifics (Nine Arches Press)
Holly Pester – Comic Timing (Granta Poetry)
Ralf Webb – Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin Poetry)
The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem
Fiona Benson – ‘Androgeus’ (Times Literary Supplement)
Natalie Linh Bolderstone – ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ (National Poetry Competition)
John McCullough – ‘Flower of Sulphur’ (Poetry London)
Denise Riley – ‘1948’ (Poetry Ireland Review)
Nicole Sealey – ‘Pages 22-29, an excerpt from The Ferguson Report: An Erasure’ (Poetry London)
Image - Amazon