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Oluwaseun Olayiwola Reviews John Challis, Shara McCallum, and an anthology of poems from Malika’s Poetry Kitchen

The Resurrectionists
John Challis
Bloodaxe £10.99

No Ruined Stone
Shara McCallum
Peepal Tree Press £9.99

Too Young, Too Loud, Too Different
ed. Rishi Dastidar & Maisie Lawrence
Corsair Poetry £12.99

Time has its effects, especially on the dead. If detached from a branch, the leaf wilts; if detached from life, the body decays. John Challis, in his debut collection The Resurrectionists, is digging: into a paternal familial past (and future), into haunted areas of Southeast England, and most compellingly, though sparingly, into himself.  Speakers drift from mechanical power stations to the Thames River to graveyards to meat-markets; subjects drift between the speakers’ acknowledgement of their own strange –– at least to them –– privilege to delicate meditations on fatherhood, the most charged poems in the collection.

The digging isn’t exactly archaeological, which would infer there has been wear on the object. Challis’ verse excavations have transportive effects, as if he were exhuming his subjects seconds after disappearance or death. Yet, this is precisely what a Resurrectionist was: a body-snatcher who would dig bodies out of graves for medical research and experimentation. As the title poem has it, “I interview the catalogue,/ I note and name the battlefield: preserving/ with my rituals of bog, clay and peat…”. This explains the preservative quality to Challis’ verse, a things-as-they-are-ness. Challis’ strength, as often evident within the first couple of lines in his poems, lies in world-building. The opening poem The Love begins “Where does it go? Depots mainly, on the edge/ of Kent and Essex. Try the Dartford Crossing –/ sewage plants, substations, heavy traffic”. (I don’t know if the first question is meant to chime the 1954 Supremes hit Where Did Our Love Go.) Further along, the poem deploys a splurge of litany-style dependent clauses and lists that will recur to continually decreasing effect through the collection.

Challis is most compelling when he invokes his own body. In Advertising, the speaker features a diametric between the meat workers at Smithfield market who have “All night… been touching meat” whilst the speaker, “[watching] them from [his] office vantage point..”, presents a creative brief “for clients to dissect.” It’s an exciting sonnet; Challis manages to compress a homoerotic voyeurism in the diction (“touching”, “stripping”, “button up”, “swing”) that is at once perplexing for its out-of-place-ness (nowhere, at least to my eye, does this playing with sexuality lurk in the rest of the collection) and, simultaneously, fitting for the way it links an erotic tension within social and economic difference. Challis questions himself and the role class has to play in the distinct vocations depicted in the poem; in fact, they are all playing roles as Challis suggests in what is the best simile in the whole book: “The past is lowered like a theatre set.” In one sentiment, Challis masterfully compresses the enduring effects the past has on the present, destabilizing the idea of choice and freedom in the contemporary epoch.

I couldn’t help but think of Frank Bidart’s three-pronged assertion at the beginning of “Borges and I”: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.” For all the pre-existing forms Challis engages with (either poetically or geographically), I was left wanting to know how Challis changed the forms he entered and further, how Challis was changed by them. Put another way, Challis’ photographic idiosyncrasies of the mind’s movement shine through sometimes; at others times, they feel overrun by control, detail, and a lyric lens that keeps seeing the same thing.

The yoking of ‘the past’ and theatre is apt for contextualizing what Shara McCallum explores in the sequence of dramatic monologues that comprise No Ruined Stone. In as far as Challis’s pre-existing forms are places, Shara McCallum’s pre-existing forms could be history and, perhaps, people; most notably, celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns.

McCallum complicates Burns’ legacy and the legacy he could have had. Or, as No Ruined Stone’s animating question has it: “What would have happened had he gone?” This question refers to a hinging moment in Burns’ life where he contemplated sacking poetry (for lack of its financial stability) and migrating to take up work on a plantation as a bookkeeper in Jamaica. McCallum constructs a fabulation, a polyvocal chorus of dramatic monologues answering, complicating and, at times, arguing with one another. McCallum vitalises the personas of Robert Burns and Charles Douglas, a plantation Master at Springbank in Jamaica. In one scathing refute, Douglas scolds Burns for his “womanish sentimentality” for falling in love with Nancy, an enslaved African woman. “You think/ you are the first to be pricked by regret,/ standing here, idiotically spouting of love?” (Douglas’ Reply). McCallum skillfully gradates between the rage, grief, and ecstasy of her speakers.

McCallum’s monologues do what the best dramatic monologues do: create investment in the seemingly arbitrary actions and psychological shifts of the human soul. As in a play, action leads to more action; in McCallum’s fabulations, Burns’ decision to “ask love to dwell/ in a place not meant/ for love’s habitation”, leads to Isabella, a fictitious granddaughter whose lamentable and searching voice dominates the second half of the collection. In one of the most affective and longest poems in the book, Passing, Isabella meditates on being a white-skinned black woman after immigrating to Glasgow with Nancy. “I grew aware/ people see what they want, content/ to make my body a map”, Isabella begins, detailing how schoolgirls wanted her to “say words the odd way to their ears” and to comb her hair “so tightly coiled compared to theirs.” Elsewhere, in poems bifurcated into two columns, McCallum intensifies Isabella’s predicament of being mixed with Jamaican and Scottish heritage: “in the carrion of history/ I am dismantled reassembled/ dismantled.” Most of the speakers in this collection carry the same metaphysical propensity, which at times can make the tones and their subsequent conclusions feel repetitious. What redeems though is McCallum’s impeccable ear, peppering Old Scots with a dramatic tone that makes the language as symphonic as it is historically situated.

If history is one type of form, McCallum achieves with this book an entering into it, recharging it with an imagination and urgency that speak to contemporary realities and the effects of colonialism and slavery. McCallum delivers compelling characters whose language may be of an older time, but whose motives staggeringly mimic modern minds. But, what of when there isn’t exactly a charted history, a charted form to enter into? Too Young, Too Loud, Too Different, then, is more than an anthology. It’s a mapping, an ever increasing demarcation of sustained and emerging voices in the contemporary British landscape. The title does two types of work. On the one hand, being ‘young’, ‘loud’, and ‘different’ are dog-whistles used to keep marginalized poets on the periphery. On the other hand, it could be anthemic, the poets in the anthology finding power and assuredness in their youth, their volume, their eccentricities. Where have these poets honed their voices? Malika’s Poetry Kitchen (MPK).

The anthology begins with a forward from Malika Booker, a British poet of Guyanese and Grenadian heritage. Booker adumbrates the principles that govern the collective, most of which come from American poet June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint. The anthology continues with a detailed narrative history of MPK written by member Daniel Kramb. Beginning in Booker’s Brixton flat in 2001 with Booker and Roger Robinson, Kramb’s prose takes readers through the exponential growth of the collective and subsequent acquisitions over the years of notable British presences, including Jacob Sam La-Rose, Inua Ellums, Jill Abrams, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Dean Atta, Warsan Shire, and countless others. The story leaves us with Roger Robinson winning the T.S. Eliot Prize with A Portable Paradise.

One would think that, as with other types of literary movements or collectives, a particular style or aesthetic would anchor the poems. This is not the case, although certain themes recur such as family, ancestors, spirits, bodies, watery landscapes, the effects of colonialism–– but also more traditional poetic themes: desire, death, love, and celebration. In a book of eighty-seven different poets and poems it is hard to quote lines that might offer summations of the book at-large; I will try anyway: “Dear Uncle, is everything you love foreign/ or are you foreign to everything you love?” (Midnight in the Foreign Food Isle by Warsan Shire). “One day, you will die./ But not today. And perhaps/ you have already tasted it,/ whatever endings taste of –” (For the Young Men Popping Wheelies on Southwark Street in Late Afternoon Traffic by Jacob Sam-La Rose). “I am starting to know what it might feel like to live without children, although they’ll be home by a quarter to five.” (This unexpected longing for what I’ve always wished away by Jocelyn Page).

The ethic of ‘paying it forward’, continuing to propagate spaces for people traditionally underrepresented in poetry, governs the collective: “You can’t just keep receiving, and not giving.” Robinson soberingly espouses one night. At the end of the anthology you’ll find Eighteen steps to starting your own poetry collective with tips like: “Think about what isn’t there’’, “Do things together outside poetry”, and “Don’t forget the snacks” which ends with the koan: the family that eats together, stays together. 

The anthology encourages me to seek out individual collections, to discover where these poems come from and how they might fit into other, longer sequences. Yet its compactness,  its breadth of poetic styles, generations, subjects, and vernaculars demonstrates a ‘collective’ power. Put another way, the anthology reveals the power of community. More politically, it uncovers possibilities for growth, expansion, and success when Black women lead the way. My copy of Too Young, Too Loud, Too Different is signed by Malika Booker herself. I’m glad to have this thick anthology on my shelf.


Oluwaseun Olayiwola is a Nigerian-American poet, critic, choreographer, and performer living in London. In 2021, he became a Ledbury Poetry Critic.

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