On these papers will be written, in a script only you can decipher, your original name.
I first saw Kayo Chingonyi read some of his poems when I went to the London Book Fair, and I immediately decided to request a review copy of his collection, Kumukanda. His poetry deals with race, identity, and masculinity, and his language is beautiful.
According to the Luvale tribe, kumukanda means initiation: the rites that young boys pass through to become men. Kayo Chingonyi’s collection is built around this tradition, discussing ideas of masculinity, race, and identity, as well as ‘what it means to be British and not British, all at once’.
The poems in this collection vary in themes, some dealing with one thing more than the other, but they all have a certain pride in common. There is love in the way he writes of his home and his culture, and when he discusses his roots, his natural hair, his words become filled with longing. When he discusses how his home is portrayed in the media, its name constantly surrounded by poverty, the grief seeps through the page, followed by nostalgia for a different kind of story.
The English newsreader told me
home was a broken man, holding
a dying child, with flies round its mouth
The main aspect of the collection that stood out to me is the musical one. Music is a recurring theme in his poetry, and it goes hand in hand with race and cultural appropriation. This is where he delivers some of the most impressive lines, throwing a punch in the right places, and letting the theme of song and beat flow through all of his poems, sometimes making it the main attraction, sometimes hinting at it more subtly.
In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line,
though no amount of practise could conjure the pale skin
and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me
just another brother who could rhyme.
However, as much as I enjoyed the discussion of music, the reason I requested a review copy of this collection is Kayo Chingonyi’s ideas surrounding language. At the London Book Fair he discussed the concept of having a ‘mother tongue’ and how that relates to your own identity and the place you come from. As someone born in Germany with Italian parents, I have always been really confused as to what my mother tongue is. I spoke Italian first, but never learned it properly growing up in Germany, and English is what I speak best. So which one is it? The way he laid out his own confusion made me fall in love and desperately want to get my hands on his collection. Of course, his poems tackle the issue of racism on top of language, which is something that, while not relatable to me, I really appreciated reading about. My only complaint regarding this collection is that I wish there had been more poems discussing language in general.
Picture a cricket match, first week at upper
school, blacks versus whites, that slight hesitation
on choosing a side, and you’re close to knowing
why I’ve been trying to master this language.
Raised as I was, some words in this argot catch
in the throat, seemingly made for someone else.
My favourite poem in the entire collection is one that deals with colonialism, something I’m really interested in. He managed to point to so many little aspects of it in just a few lines, with brilliant language, choosing the perfect words to express his thoughts on the matter.
the ‘trick was to use a magnifying
glass to light a cigar, “after which
the white man explained his intimate
relation to the sun, and declared
that if he were to request [the sun]
to burn up his black brother’s
village it would be done”‘ –
and so it was the land changed hands
as a cigar, given light, becomes a stub
and its smoke that stays with you
is the smoke from a burning village.
Finally, there were a few poems that, while not as politically obvious as the others, were simply beautiful and a joy to read. I personally love poetry that is a little more ambiguous, left open for interpretation. Each person will find their own message buried in the words, and make it their own.
Where the ends of the earth
are the view from a cabin window
and the past is an old song
nobody knows how to sing anymore
and this moment is sudden rain
soaking you through to the skin
I’ll meet you.
Have you guys read Kumukanda? Do you intend to? I’d love to have a little chat about it in the comments below.
‘Till next time and happy reading!