Do you ever wonder what was it like for a Black person to live under the iron regime of Margaret Thatcher? Well wonder no more. Grab Lemn Sissay’s Rebel Without Applause and submerge yourself in his free verse, which bears witness to the lives of Black people in Manchester.
Born and raised in Britain, Sissay was manoeuvred between foster parents and children’s homes, not knowing his real parents. When he reached the age of 18, he started a quest to find his family, which he finally located when at the age of 32. Now he lives and writes in Manchester where in 2015 he was appointed Chancellor at the University of Manchester.
Despite its publication in 2000, Rebel Without Applause, still has purchase. All 44 poems in this very early collection are harshly honest. Sissay talks about politics, hate and race; each poem further develops the hardships Black people faced, withholding very little. The first poem was inspired by James Baldwin, who said that ”black writers should bear witness to the times”, and this is exactly what Sissay does. However, not only does he write about living under Thatcher, his references are historically much wider. In ”Images of Africa” there are allusions to the Atlantic’s notorious middle passage, where thousands died; in ”Pass it on”, he echoes Martin Luther King’s speech, ”I had a dream”.
Sissay’s poems play with shape on the page and the placement of each word is judicious. Consider ”Fingerprints”:
smudge them in
rub them in
Both the sense of these words and their physical layout on the page are changed, rearranged and reshaped. A similar inventive use of whitespace in various degrees is present elsewhere in this collection. ”Flushed” is a particularly potent example of where the nigh-physicality of the poet’s use of space turns almost into shape poetry. A lone word appears in one line creating a vertical line, giving the appearance of being flushed. Sissay uses repetition as stylistic emphasis; in ”Occupations” he repeats that he does not ”need an occupation” for white people to hassle him, in ”Airmail to a Dictionary” he repeats that black is more that just a colour, whilst in ”Boiling up” he repeats that he ”would like to blend in” in a country where people are different from him.
Sissay’s language is acerbic and concise, many of his phrases have the capacity to stick in your mind like glue. Personally it was the phrase ”Tears were sleeping” from ”Introduction in Transit”, which caught me most tightly. There are plenty more such as the surprise of ”misty morning” in the uncompromisingly titled ”Wake Up Niggers II” or the economical yet opulent ”autumn eyes on winter mornings”.
The final poem entitled ”Rage” sums up the whole collection. Using the sea as a metaphor for Black people and their place in the society, he condemns officialdom’s belief that the volume and scale is key, that dangers rise in proportion to volume. The protagonist states ”I am allowed” to be in this country (which refers to the United Kingdom but might as well be any country) and does what he wishes to do, and feels ”triumphant” for the sea to ”trickle through” his fingers; the poem is disarming in that it is meeting rage with joy and song. Perhaps to have a real feel for the full power of Sissay’s words, you should read them yourself. Try googling Lemn Sissay and everything that comes up will be about him – Sissay is just as unique as his poetry. Nonetheless, this book delivers power on the page, and it is surely impossible to leave it without being moved, shocked, disturbed and/or significantly, inspired.