Saturday, 27 April 2019

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Raymond Antrobus’s stunning debut poetry collection, The Perseverance, has been shortlisted for both the 2019 Jhalak Prize and the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize International.

Antrobus is Deaf. (The capital letter distinguishes between those who are born Deaf and who regard Deafness as part of their culture and identity rather than a disability, and those to become deaf later in life, whose relationship with deafness is primarily medical.)

For Antrobus, late diagnosis as a child led to years of low expectations. When he attended a Deaf School in London attached to a hearing school where he had many of his lessons. There, hearing children mocked him for using sign language, while Deaf pupils mocked him for his lack of fluency. In Echo, A Deaf Sequence, as essay he wrote for poetryfoundation.org, Antrobus writes: “This was when I most needed the nurturing of a Deaf identity, one that wasn’t medical, but philosophical, one that embraced my natural of language and valued Deafness as a way of being."

Many of the poems in this collection address the experience of being Deaf. He rails against the othering of the Deaf – writing poems that respond to Ted Hughes’ Deaf School, and to Charles Dickens writing about Laura Bridgman (a Deaf-Blind woman born fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller) or his sentimental tale, Doctor Marigold.

He confronts the murder of three deaf women street vendors in Haiti in 2016, and the fatal shooting by a state trooper in America of a deaf driver trying to use sign language.

In Dear Hearing World (a poem which plays on Dear White America by Danez Smith), Antrobus challenges reluctance of the education system to recognise the validity of sign language as a means, not a barrier to communication – an attitude that goes right back to Alexander Graham Bell.

The Perseverance of the title refers in part to the pub in Broadway Market in London where his alcoholic father drank. Many of these poems were written shortly after the death of his father, who he nursed through the last two of his life as he suffered from dementia, and explore different aspects of their relationship.

There is ambiguity too in his mixed race identity, which he explores in (Jamaican British / Miami Airport / Maybe I Could Love a Man)

Poetry does not take you by the hand and lead you, as fiction does. It demands work from the reader to chisel out meaning. I found myself spending time delving back into Antrobus’s references before reading the poems again. I also sought out YouTube videos of Antrobus performing his poetry, to hear the spaces he left between words and where he placed the stresses. It was effort well worth putting in, as it opened up layers of understanding and appreciation.

This is an exceptionally talented poet at only the start of his career. As he points out, Deaf culture has too often been silenced, patronised, othered and misrepresented. Antrobus’s cuts through that with shining clarity.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Avoid If You Dislike:Having to put a bit of work into your reading 

Perfect Accompaniment: Red snapper, rice and peas, and a few lessons in BSL

Genre: Poetry

Buy the book here.

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