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Review: Atlantic Drift: an Anthology of Poetry and Poetics, ed. James Byrne

Turning from British poetry to transatlantic works, Atlantic Drift: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics documents the points of contact in creative and critical thinking that have developed between North American and British and Irish poetries in recent decades. One of the key features of this anthology is that it provides not only a selection of a transatlantic poet's work, but also their statement of poetics, defined in this instance as 'the self-communing of creative artists, in this case poets, about what they do, what they make, and why they do it...'. The editors, James Byrne and Robert Sheppard, astutely note that 'there are writers featured here (Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine) whose selections could perhaps be read entirely as poetics, lyric essay... or, more simply, as a creative text'.

Of the twenty-four poets anthologized, there is an even mix of voices from both the United Kingdom and North America, including younger poets such as Sophie Collins, S J Fowler, Chris McCabe and Valzhyna Mort (a Belarusian poet who resides in the United States). Apart from being inclusive in terms of gender, this book features five prominent poets of colour, which is noteworthy in light of the 'experimental' nature of the anthology - or what might otherwise be termed 'innovative' or 'avant-garde' - a realm of poetry which remained until very recently, by the editors' own admission, 'overly white, middle-class and male'. The inclusion of Language Poets such as Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian, as well as modernist poet-critics such as D S Marriott and Nathaniel Mackey gestures at the editors' proclivities.

The anthology succeeds by virtue of placing poets in dialogue with one another across cultural and national contexts, particularly in instances when several poets offer poignant variations on the same theme - that of the complex legacies of colonialism, racism, and racial injustice. Through her intimate focus on the individual body's response to trauma, and how trauma resides in the body, Claudia Rankine's 'Citizen' echoes and amplifies Bhanu Kapil's 'Ban En Banlieue'; whilst Rankine and Kapil both (in various ways) evoke the poetry of M NourbeSe Philip. In her poetics statement, Kapil writes:


'What are the somatic effects of oppression?' This is a research question that a colleague of mine at Naropa University - Christine Caldwell - a pioneer in the field of Somatic Psychotherapy is working on. Like her, I want to work out the intersection of narrative and non-verbal factors.

[...]

That is why I want a sentence that shakes. A sentence that takes up the cadence of the nervous system as it discharges a fact. To map this sentence, in other words, to the gesture-posture events. That is why writing has become the play where I lie down too. In London, and in the mud rectangle in my back garden, a diasporic garden, I have been lying down - to take the pose of 'Ban.' I want to feel it in my body - the root cause.

('Poetics')

Kapil's creative piece is about a girl called Ban, 'who lay down in the first minutes of a race riot':


What is Ban?

Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas.

Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke.

To summarize, she is the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She's a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.

April 23rd, 1979: by morning, anti-Nazi campaigner, Blair Peach, will be dead.

('Ban En Banlieue')

This inability to solidify into a recognizable being - forever being split asunder by a history and postcolonial reality that will not allow the black (brown) body to simply be - is echoed by Claudia Rankine, as her speakers in 'Citizen: An American Lyric' explore this fracturing of the black body, always deemed to be 'the second person' (`Blackness as the Second Person', Guernica, 2014):


How to care for the injured body,

the kind of body that can't hold
the content it is living?

And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?

[...]

When you lay your body in the body
entered as if skin and bone were public spaces,

when you lay your body in the body
entered as if you're the ground you walk on,

you know no memory should live
in these memories

becoming the body of you.

('Citizen, VII')

Rankine's 'you' is an injured body mourning an ongoing loss: that of erasure, hypervisibility and racial violence. In her sequence 'Testimony Stoops to Mother Tongue', M NourbeSe Philip observes the 'shape and form' of historic trauma:


Stone mourns
haunted
into shape and form
by its loss
upon
loss

honed keen
as the feel of some days
at the very centre of every word,
the as-if of yesterday it happened;
mind and body concentrate

history -
the confusion of centuries that passes
as the word...

I have decided to concentrate here on the poetry and poetics by women of colour, as their crucial work has been given much less attention in experimental (and mainstream) literary culture. In particular, the works of Rankine, Kapil and Philip resonate deeply at a time when white supremacy appears to be on the ascendance across Europe and the United States. Taken together, both anthologies contain vital and compelling poets who deserve to be read and heard by anyone who cares about the past, present and future of transatlantic poetry.