(Chatto & Windus, 2021)
Review by Latifa Akay
With his second collection A Blood Condition, Kayo Chingonyi reasserts his place as one of the most compelling and gifted poets writing in the UK today.
A Blood Condition charts what it is to reckon with loss, with survivor’s guilt and the legacies of trauma and colonialism. Chingonyi never names the ‘blood condition’ of his title, but it can be understood as HIV, an infection that affects up to 11% of adults in his birthplace, Zambia. Chingonyi’s poetry is tender and incisive, all at once. He captures fear and fragility with an accuracy that always cuts through. In the poem ‘Results’ he writes, ‘All clear. Sat in bed you cry until / streetlights glance the lattice of the blinds, / your heart a boulder rolling down a hill.’
A Blood Condition begins and ends in the dominion of the river god Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River. The musicality and motion of the river is constant throughout the collection and Chingonyi’s writing holds a lyrical magic that allows us to feel deeply the momentum of where the collection is taking us. In ‘landscape w/ motorway’, ‘the wind spits the sickest bars’; in ‘16 Bars for the Bits’, ‘you can find angels behaving like demons /in ends where the rents seem to change with the seasons’.
While Chingonyi never turns away from what has been lost, his latest collection is characterised by an orientation to the future, an enquiry into the places that grappling with and honouring loss can lead us – and how to find healing and perspective in remnants, even if those aren’t physical. Throughout the collection Chingonyi simultaneously challenges and gives permission to reflect on what it might mean to be commemorated, to live, or to be lost.
In the achingly beautiful ‘Blues for Albert “Prodigy” Johnson & Carl “Haystee” Samuel’, Chingonyi questions whether Haystee, ‘Another scribe of black trauma’, has actually passed away if he ‘can still hear him / going back to back / with Kaystar and Rapsz.’ In ‘Forgive’, he asks a lost loved one, ‘And how do you like your digs are you somewhere now bumping dark riddims / cut with a thread of light?’
Returning to ‘Landscape w/motorway’, a piece in which Chingonyi uses physical space to breathtaking effect, he writes:
‘a monument unmarked for all but those
who hold this place suspended
in the mind who walk in the ruins
of a bygone ends that exists
in the tense of potential but nonetheless exists’
Here, suspension in the mind counts as remembrance. Existing in the ‘tense of potential’ still amounts to existence. In ‘Origin Myth’, a series of sonnets that plot ‘the story of mutation’, each sonnet begins with the last line of the previous one. A chain of passage reminiscent of the passing of a baton, of the inevitability of inherited trauma, of infection, and a reminder too, that an ending in one place will often be a beginning elsewhere.
Chingonyi also reminds us how history can, and should be, instructive. In ‘[No Ball Games]’, reflecting on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he writes, ‘This country’s elementary lesson / in harm taught me to fight.’ This poem sits in a series of twenty short poems, ‘Genealogy’, that comes in the second half of the book and focuses on deaths – of Chingonyi’s mother, father and siblings. Each poem title is in brackets, and with the contained form of the poems it feels like Chingonyi is walking us through headstones. The choice to contain these poems so tightly suggests something of the pain of returning to those losses, a revisiting that requires compact parameters.
Throughout the collection, too, we are reminded of the many ways of being watched over. In the opening poem ‘Nyaminyami’, ‘the river god would never let them sink’; and conversely, in the beautiful ‘interior w/ ceiling fan’ Chingonyi writes, ‘let me be this unguarded always / speaking without need of words / because breath is the oldest language any of us know.’
In a country that gives so much curriculum space to the poetry of remembrance, my hope is that this is the remembrance poetry that reaches young people. In this gift-like collection there are tools for letting go, for honouring, and importantly, for living. At a time when the pandemic has shifted what many of us know of endings, A Blood Condition offers new definition and dimension to what it means to write, and live, in remembrance.