Caleb Femi gives voice to the unheard in “Poor”

Poet and film-maker Caleb Femi, Young People’s Laureate for London from 2016 to 2018, grew up in Peckham, moved away then back. His debut collection, “Poor”, published by Penguin in 2020, has won deserved accolades.

I am keenly aware that in commenting on this book I am entering a world with which I am totally unfamiliar. With the best of intentions, the liberal-minded white middle class to which I belong brings an inherent and unconscious mindset that can lead to an unconscious racism. We all need educating. But let me say at the outset that I am conscious of, and unhappy about, the lack of diversity in many of the poetry events I have attended, where a person of colour is rarely to be seen. I am conscious too of the fact that the fault lies as much with myself as with the organisers, in that I have not hunted out readings by poets from minority ethnic groups. Considering my admiration for Kei Miller and Roger Robinson in particular, I freely confess that the solution lies partly in my own hands.

Meanwhile the divide continues, making large areas of the poetry world, in spite of its well-meaning liberalism, a microcosm of our divided society.

The dispossessed black youth in that divided society are keenly portrayed in “Poor”, where Caleb Femi becomes their mouthpiece: “You will be four minutes from home / when you are cornered by an officer / who will tell you of a robbery, / forty minutes ago in the area. You fit / the description of a man? ­­—You’ll laugh. / Thirteen,you’ll tell him: you’re thirteen”.

In the title poem, ingrained deprivation is vividly portrayed in youths joyriding at 14, driving through streets to “blazing music” at 16, and then:

"18, we figured it out; in our marrow
knew no bowl would be passed our way.
We eat only by the suppleness of iron
whatever held us before now oxidised
cruising, we mouthed a frenzy to pedestrians…"

The voice and language of the poems vary – even when the subject is a boy, victim of a crime incident that “had nearly destroyed” him, the language can be beautifully poetic:

"that time I was in a hospital bed & death drifted
through the ward like a gardener
checking on the ripeness of his plants
inspecting each body attached to vines
& two detectives stood 
like cherubs
on either side of me".

At other times the demotic takes over with full force:

“fuckinnnn who’s chatting shit? / I’ll bang you in the throat if you’re chatting shit / fucking bounce your head off the concrete / you know what? what endz you from? / this is my block /my fucking endz…”

Death is never far away, usually the result of violent conflict:

"Just ask the boy who carries anger on his
shoulders like two canons; blastoise bold,
hardened like old eyes that know
how wasteful it is to cry in a drought.
Who took another boy's life at a funeral."

The closeness of death can result in survivor’s guilt : “Each dawn I wake/& scroll myself for new scars, / confess that I want to live for good times: / picnic with a peng ting, lips her on the grass. / But every day, on the endz, there is a procession/my breathing body mocks.”

The background to this life is the North Peckham Estate, consisting of 65 multi-storey blocks on a 40-acre site, comprising 1444 homes, with raised walkways linking the accommodation to shops and other facilities. In “A Designer Talks of a Home/ A Resident Talks of Home”, the poet alternates the words of an architect explaining the theory of design (“a tool to enhance our humanity…a frame for life”) with the words of a person who has lived on the Estate all their life (“on the 19th floor you can see everything but the future”). The contrast between intention and reality is tackled again in “Because of the Times”, where the poet asks whether the architect had in mind “A paradise of affordable bricks, tucked under / a blanket, shielded from the world”:

"It is true on paper there were no designs for a tomb
yet the East wing stairs were where Damilola was found:
blue dawn, blue body, blue lights, blue tapes."

It is not all doom and gloom. In “The Story of Fullness”, Dominic’s mother feeds the boys on Sunday afternoons, serving out jollof, curry goat, plantain and all “& we would leave full in body and in spirit”. But the impression given is that this is rare: conflict and violence appear to be the norm, against a background of drug-dealing and gang warfare. The situation is encapsulated in a prose poem entitled “16 October 2017”, which refers to the Grenfell Tower fire:

“My people, my poor people, my browner people, my other people who are not seen as people, they do not inspire moral shame in those who govern this place…If those in the higher seats of the high places don’t note Grenfell as a mass murder, as gross incompetence, as a final warning…then they should at the very least take note…of the nature of a spreading fire: if the bottom burns then surely with time the top will, too. Surely it will succumb to the flames.”

This is a rare instance of Caleb Femi making an explicit political point, and I found it both deeply moving and totally convincing.

As you might expect in a debut collection, there is a wide variety of poetic forms and techniques, as if the poet is in the process of finding his voice. Some worked better than others, and if I have a criticism it is that old one: that less may have been more. The book is some 130 pages long, and some of the themes are weakened, rather than strengthened, by repetition. There are some stunning photographs, also by the poet, of some of those appearing in the poems, which make for a powerful accompaniment. But it is impossible to come away from this book without the desire to make life better for those whose voices are rarely heard.

Caleb Femi, I salute you. Give us more, and help us to listen more closely to those you rightly champion.

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“Poor” by Caleb Femi is published by Penguin

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2 Comments

  1. Fantastic review thank you Antony. I was lucky enough to attend the Forward Prize ceremony at the South Bank last year to see Caleb Femi win with his collection. Not usually one to venture far, I was curious to see him read at such an occasion, especially as I went to secondary school in Peckham and lived as an adult in a similar estate to the North Peckham one, called Stockwell Park. There is something wonderful in Caleb Femi’s skillful mix of poetic lyricism with colloquial language. And it is a fitting breakthrough for a young black poet, which is perhaps a sign of some changes afoot in the previous lack of diversity around the poetry industry and networks.

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