(Penguin Poetry, 2020); pbk £9.99
The North Peckham Estate, where Caleb Femi’s Forward shortlisted debut collection is set, is infamous for containing the stairwell in which Damilola Taylor died. And yes, death stalks these pages, those streets, as do rage and despair… but so too do love, imagination, defiance. Here is a voice as clear as glass telling stories of the living that many of us don’t think to listen for once the upsetting headlines slip from the news cycle. In its powerful vulnerability, this is poetry that does something:
The inside of a hoodie is a veiled nook where a boy pours himself into a single drop of rain to feed a forest. Each tree grateful for the wet boy, unaware that the outside world sees this boy as a
Close to its publication date, Guardian interviewer Claire Armistead remarked she found the collection ‘dark’. Femi’s reaction dislodges the narrative in the same way his poems do:
The conditions of the estate – poor public housing, poor design – did have the knock-on effect of being quite dark. But the young people within it are joyous and full of imagination. They embrace fantasy.
Femi’s words challenge our idea of what racialised poverty and the poetry emerging from it does. The short 3 stanza poem ‘Magic/ Violence’ speaks to this directly, where ‘us poor kids from the block’ are ‘able to point out magic in our bruises/ violence in a rose garden.’ Its final lines have clung to me, their truth so precise that the final full stop feels audible, as solid as the concrete kerb it reverberates against.
When hipsters take selfies
on the corners where our
friends died, the rent goes up.
These poems are mostly a page or two in length but vary in style, rhythm and shape. They are peppered with slang and the cadence of Peckham, with a multitude of other influences showing through. ‘A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home’ is a found poem of reworked phrases from a Netflix design documentary. The powerfully intimate series of poems ‘The Book of the Generation of Peckham Boys’ is after the New Testament Book of Mathew. Within it, ‘The Story of Shirland Massive’ is a bitter-sweet tribute to the children of the estate, a description which could be used to describe the entirety of Poor:
At Shurland Gardens their faces
were smooth like weeping pebbles,
skin smelling of distant shorelines,
theatrical in their play.
I swear you could watch them for hours[.]
Femi uses his seemingly endless creativity and insight to create photographic accompaniments to his poetry collection. Some are black and white, some full colour, all of them composed with a poet’s eye; two pre-teen black boys posing in front of an arcade game titled Gunmen Wars; two women, one leaning in to the other whispering something into her laughing friend’s ear; three white police officers warily scanning the entrance to a block of flats.
The images aren’t directly paired with individual poems but they certainly illustrate the collection’s underlying themes. If his poetic imagery isn’t enough to transport you to the Peckham Estate, the visuals add further presence to the embodied, complex cast of characters from Femi’s community. They bring themselves face to face with the reader, challenging her to respond to the message, rather than sidestepping the narrative to focus on the virtuosity and courage of the messenger.
As Max Porter writes in his advanced praise of the book, this is exquisite love poetry (whether or not Guardian interviewers see it as such). It should come as no surprise that Caleb Femi says it best in the penultimate poem of his debut collection, ‘We Will Not All Fight like Dogs at Our Death’:
Isn’t that the ethos of love in all tragedies?
Toxic, ritualistic, taxing of
at least one of every two lives?
Yet I dance the terrible dance of love,
surrendering myself to the pulse of street lamps[.]