These chapbooks are substantial beyond their size. Both debuts, they consider the domestic and explore women’s place in it from very different starting-points and with unique voices.
Rehema Njambi is a Kenyan-born, British-raised performance poet who celebrates the Black, mostly African women around her and from whom she is descended. She is acutely aware of home’s patriarchal context: ‘My mother’s joy is tied to the ground…Our fathers handed belonging to their sons,/gave away their daughters’ (‘A Piece of Land’).
The opening poem, ‘All These Truths You Never Set Free’, speaks to the guilt a writer/survivor feels towards her female ancestors: ‘I reach for the pen and I remember/that you wanted this for yourself./This selfishness of pen and paper and solitude’. Yet poem after poem evokes how precarious a woman’s position has always been at the heart of home and family:
Every haven you have ever found
was only lent to you.
Even now you abide in your body
like a stranger house-sitting for the friend of a friend
‘A Lending Not a Giving’
Though there is anger and resistance in these poems, and a sense that the ‘I’ must escape in order to survive (‘I grab what I can and run’, from ‘Our Marriage Dies in a Dream’) there is also great tenderness and strong religious faith, even if that faith may not be recognisable to her grandmothers, changed as it is through time and language. The collection ends:
I pray and search for roots
and earth, and soil, and tree.
For truth, for God in all I see.
‘The Language of Grief’
Though it may not be possible to mend the damage caused through betrayal and the imbalance in male/female relationships which can cause ‘home’ to be less than safe for women, Njambi’s work still places faith in the future, and in the continuing struggle: ‘I wrestle and fight for the tongue my mother taught to me’. This is a powerful and moving collection. It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of Njambi’s development in her subsequent books.
Anne Bailey’s imaginative world is surreal, wry and strange. Outwardly amiable in its quotidian references to such things as ‘Songs of Praise’, ‘polyester,/ chiffon scarves, lipstick, men with shining shoes’ and in the wonderfully-titled ‘Uses and abuses of the tea towel’, still nothing is quite as it seems. A lake appears in the living room. ‘How to get the most out of baking’ begins: ‘Put butter in a baking bowl,/set it in front of the fire, then/call up the dead’.
I liked this collection very much for the apparently deadpan way it deconstructs domesticity and women’s roles in maintaining it. Houses which ‘should’ be sparkling and perfect are always in danger of decay and spectacular damage: the poems enjoy exploring themes of mould, disintegration, spoilage. The domestic is a dangerous, twilight zone where budgies meet sticky ends under a scalding tap, where ‘letting go’ happens and where ‘Something will have to be done’ (‘A film of dust is how it starts’) – but what? Even darker, a woman are kept psychologically imprisoned by an obsessive man who has taken domesticity to perverse levels: ‘For him it is an act of love’ (in ‘The Curator is married to the rain’).
The poems weigh the sinister and the surreal very carefully together with a lovely sense of the absurd, so that the effect is always unpredictable and engaging. There is loss and grief here, and a range of very dark emotions indeed, but Anne Bailey celebrates the odd and uncanny with relish so her poems fizz with wonderful images : the ‘wooded’ Felicity, ‘her open spaces …full of damp washing’, the ‘tarmacked’ Nigel ‘with a central reservation but no hard shoulder’ (‘The sum of the parts’). Home may throw a long shadow over women’s lives, its rigidity always encroached upon by the wild, the unruly, by wild birds coming inside, becoming trapped – but the women in Anne Bailey’s poems are more than resilient: they are magical shape-shifters in ordinary disguises. This book is wise and funny and rewards re-reading.
Pippa Little 18th September 2022