In a “Books of the Year” article  published in the New Statesman last month, the poet John Burnside claimed that 2017 was a “thin year” for poetry. While an increase in book sales  and sold out poetry festivals  may not necessarily be signs of a “poetry renaissance”, as The Guardian puts it, the steady publication of poetry that is diverse in form, theme, and voice is certainly an indication of good health. In fact, Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (Faber), Sinéad Morrissey’s On Balance (Carcanet), Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House), and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape), to name a select few, are enough to argue that 2017 has been a “thick year” in poetry, if anything. And this is not to confuse ‘thickness’ with ‘overpopulated’. Vuong’s lyric poems, shaped by his interest in orality and mythology or Morrissey’s use of tight verse-forms to explore the ways in which the structural forces of history brush up against the individual and the familial, not only reveal a trend towards technical exploration and proficiency (which many detractors of contemporary poetry often claim), but also an increasingly sensitive treatment of subject and voice.
Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection lies near the heart of 2017’s course towards a more conscious poetics. Although the collection is his debut, Kumukanda reads more like a culmination than it does a commencement: the end of a first chapter or the final task of an initiation ritual (“Kumukanda”, as the poet explains, is a word meaning “initiation” and refers to a ritual that marks “the passage into adulthood of Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi, and Mbunda boys, from North Western Zambia and its surrounding regions”). Kumukanda, in other words, is ‘learned’ rather than ‘still learning’. Chingonyi’s collection comes after two chapbooks—Some Bright Elegance (Salt, 2012) and The Colour of James Brown’s Scream (Akashic, 2016)—and various features in books like The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt, 2012), The World Record (Bloodaxe, 2012), and Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). Many of these early poems appear in Chingonyi’s debut. Kumukanda also comes after a remarkable number of accolades. In 2012, Chingonyi was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for an extract of the poem “calling a spade a spade”. He went on to hold residencies at Kingston University and Royal Holloway University and become Associate Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2015-2016. The publication of Kumukanda has only increased praise: the collection has received positive reviews from the likes of Warsan Shire, Jackie Kay, and Ben Nicholson and has been featured in “Best Books” lists published by The Telegraph , Financial Times, and The Guardian .
Most recently, Kumukanda has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Prize, described by the judges as “energetic, skilled, tender, and bold”. This tenderness, as well as its energy and skill, is manifest in its care and attentiveness—that is, its love—for the language, form, and subjects of its poems. Chingonyi’s debut, in fact, is largely about ‘love’: love for people, for actions, for memories, and for language. In a poem reminiscent of Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa” , Chingonyi writes:
The English newsreader told me
home was a broken man, holding
a dying child, with flies round his mouth:
a story that didn’t tally with my mother’s
of childhood smiles on grandad’s farm
or the laughing dance across hot soil
to the ice-cream stand.
“Kung’anda” (a Bemba word meaning “home”) gets at one of the primary concerns of the collection. The poem is a linguistic resistance to stereotype and, in its resistance, an embrace of love and connection. In the poem, the speaker weighs a story of Zambia (Chingonyi’s home) as told by a newsreader with that told by his mother. Although his mother’s story is still an account—it is still put into language and shaped by the forms of storytelling—it is founded on an attention to experience, rather than on the expectations of the newspaper “tagline[s]”. The mother’s story complicates and undercuts the newsreader by an act of focusing: “grandad’s farm” and “hot soil” are specific to the voice of the mother and her knowledge of place. And, yet, there is a universality to her story. The mother’s account of her childhood happiness cuts through the distancing mechanisms of stereotype—the newsreader’s (and perhaps the reader’s) ‘othering’ of Africa and Africans based on negative assumptions associated with a certain economic and political status—by its inevitable resonance with memories of journeying to ice-cream stands on hot days or playing at a grandparent’s house, common to many childhoods. In “Kung’anda”, as elsewhere in the collection, happiness is both specific and democratic, focused and connective.
“Kung’anda” encourages the reader to engage in a similar process of connection. Chingonyi never demands the reader’s attention; rather, his language draws reader by a subtler manner than the jarring linguistic experimentations of a J.H. Prynne or Derek Beaulieu, for example. Rather, “Kung’anda” quietly asks for the reader’s focus. Although reading through the poem for the first time may seem deceptively easy (as if the words had been written without any formal constraints in mind), a second or third will start to reveal the workings of its materials. The reader picks up the slant rhymes of “told me” and “holding” or the visual rhymes of “told me” and “home”, for example. The echoing vowels of “tally”, “dad,” “laugh,” and “dance” or the kinetic mimicking of the poem’s content (the “o” shape of the mouth during the pronunciation of “round his mouth”) begin to reward the critical reader’s propensity for poetic patterns. In “Kung’anda”, the reader not only discovers a language that has the ability to ‘connect’—a kind of linguistic corollary to interpersonal love—but also begins to ‘act out’ that connection as well: the reader’s vocal, oral, visual, and even kinetic involvement in the poem is a dedication of their entire sensory system to the act of reading.
“In Defence of Darkness” literalizes the theme of love and connectivity. Here, love-making culminates in a focusing of the senses. At the point when the “bodies” of the two characters in the poem begin to “speak”, as Chingonyi writes, when these bodies are “chest to chest”, the poem enters a catalogue of scents and textures:
Coconut oil, laundry detergent, sweat,
dry shampoo, Burberry Weekend.
Garam masala tang in the troublesome
hair inherited by our possible daughter.
I kneel, the better to drown in your scent.
Here, love not only atomizes or splits into various sensations, but, equally, these sensations take on the inflated sentiments associated with love. Such moments of linguistic expansion are frequent in Kumukanda. Chingonyi often pushes language beyond its denotative meaning in order to include a certain connotative value. In “Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly”, for example, Chingonyi not only describes the details of making a mixtape, but also manages to capture the inflated emotions so often given to the mixtape by its creator. “Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly” hinges on the words “your masterwork”:
You have to sit and wait, time the release of the pause button to the last tenth of a second so that the gap between each track is a smooth purr, a TDK or Memorex your masterwork. Don’t talk to me about your MP3 player, how, given the limitless choice, you hardly ever listen to one song for more than two minutes.
At the words “your masterwork”, Chingonyi’s prose-poem—a medium more suited to the thrust of its second half—becomes an impassioned apologia for the mixtape from the perspective of the mixtape-lover. “Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly” ends in a near-interrogation (“Do you know about stealing double As from the TV remote so you can listen to last night’s clandestine effort on the walk to school?”) that is only fitting to the exaggerations of the amateur (in the Latin sense of “lover”, amator) defending his love for the artefacts of his hobby.
A similar inflation of language and meaning occurs in “The Colour of James Brown’s Scream”. Here, a night of dancing at a club involves a series of connection-makings that leave word, place, and body expanding beyond their regular values. By a series of imaginative leaps (some synaesthetic) caused by a heightened emotionality, the club’s DJ becomes the American DJ Larry Levan, a London nightclub becomes New York’s Paradise Garage, the speaker’s sweat becomes “the colour of James Brown’s scream”, and the barman becomes the American dancer Willi Ninja. In his state of ecstasy (in the mystical sense of a state of rapture that stupefies the body while the soul is contemplating divine things), the speaker calls out to the Haitian loa, Legba (a loa who, being a relative of the Yoruba Esu, walks with a limp as a result of having one leg in heaven and the other on earth): “teach us to shape-shift Legba / you must know I’d know your customary / shuffle, that phantom limp, anywhere.” The statement pushes ‘sign’ to its furthest: the ‘value’ of the dance extends far enough to connect to the gods and, from Legba, to the entire pantheon.
While Chingonyi is attentive to the way language expands and connects by acts of care and excitement, he is also aware of the ways language can sever or pull apart. Kumukanda is loosely divided into three sections, with its central section, “calling a spade a spade”, taking a more direct approach to the subject of racial politics. “[C]alling a spade a spade” is a single poem in nine parts, each made up of eleven hendecasyllable (eleven-syllable) lines: a form uncommon in English versification, the added syllable extending and complicating the even and self-resolving pentameter that is expected. As such, this form seems to possess a dual nature: the consistent line lengths stabilizing, the limping hendecasyllables destabilizing. In “Casting”, Chingonyi uses the pressures of his form to describe his experience of receiving casting calls to play the “type” of the “lean dark [man] who may have guns” in various acting gigs. The imbalance of Chingonyi’s form is, here, heightened by repeated enjambments, the presence of a full stop only one syllable into line 7, and a play of italic and regular fonts. Balance is only restored in the closing lines of the poem. Again, Chingonyi creates this sense of balance by recourse to the connective capacity of the catalogue: “I have a book of poems in my rucksack, / blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones / that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul”. The balance of the final lines of “Casting” is not a neat resolve, nor an acceptance of the constraints of convention: the headphones that know Prokofiev and Prince Paul are, rather, a symbol of that same elasticity of meaning precipitated by an act of democratic love.
Where “Casting” has an ability to hold the opposing pressures of balance and imbalance together, many of the other parts of “calling a spade a spade” emphasize the latter. In “calling a spade a spade”, Chingonyi describes language’s ability to split and break apart. “The N Word”, for example, personifies the racial slur as a “you” who haunts literary and colloquial discourse. The speaker finds the word “lounging in a Pinter script”, “pitched from a transit van’s rolled down window”, or “poised” on the lips of “a friend of a friend”. In the poem’s final line, the slur appears in its violent capacity to sever and kill: “These days I can’t watch a music video / online without you trolling in the comments, / dressed to kill in your new age binary clothes”. Where Chingonyi tends towards the elasticity of love, the “n word” and its “binary clothes” depend upon strict division. Although Chingonyi resists such language, he never simplifies or attempts to resolve its associated problems. In “The N Word,” for example, even though the speaker’s “friend of a friend” is “signifyin(g)” when he uses the slur—playing with the word in a way that exploits the gap between its denotative meaning and its associative meaning—it does not stop the word from being like “leaves strewn as I had never seen them strewn, / knocking me about the head with your dark hands.”
Chingonyi’s debut collection uses poetry and language as a space—a “home” of sorts—to consider, build, and maintain love, particularly in resistance to experiences and language that often deny its full value. In the central stanza of the collection’s title poem, the poem’s speaker and his stepfather meet beside the grave of their mother and partner. The two engage in a kind of anti-climax of emotional reciprocity, presumably as a result of the restrictive demands of masculinity:
when I bathed my mother the days she was too weak,
when auntie broke the news and I chose a yellow suit
and white shoes to dress my mother’s body,
at the grave-side when the man I almost grew to call
dad, though we both needed a hug, shook my hand.
Chingonyi uses poetry, here, as a means of revisiting a moment of emotional constraint. In his poetic revision, he imbues the moment with the full extent of love by revealing what the two men “needed”: the weaknesses that the standards of masculinity have cause to suppress into a handshake. Kumukanda values these exchanges of kindness and love, often in the most minute of signs. Like concentric circles, Chingonyi manages to make these moments expand outwards: from sign to body, body to body, and beyond, to the community.
The year in poetry has been marked by a recalibration of poetry and community. Chingonyi, among others, have engaged in a poetical and political practice that has amounted to a redressal of a previously unbalanced field. For the past few years, Chingonyi has been a fellow of The Complete Works  programme, aimed at diversity and equality in British poetry. In 2005, the “Free Verse” report found that only 1% of the poetry published by major UK presses was by black and Asian poets. In response, Bernadine Evaristo and Arts Council England set up The Complete Works. The programme selected three rounds of ten black and Asian poets and offered them mentoring, seminars, literature retreats, and publication in a Bloodaxe anthology. The Complete Works is at the centre of this increased attention to the politics of poetry (on and off the page), mirrored in the “decolonize the curriculum” initiatives happening at various universities as well as Sarah Howe and Sandeep Parmar’s “Emerging Critics” programme, all of which are encouraging a diversity of critical voices. Chingonyi’s collection is testament to the growing sense, within contemporary UK poetry, of the politics of language and the place of community.
Alex Assaly  is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge.