Review by Eve Grubin
The range of forms in Yomi Ṣode’s book of poems Manorism is vast and disrupts any settled expectations: over the course of the book, the reader experiences lyric essays, playlets, prose poems, narrative poems and short lyric verse. This range suggests that Ṣode is reaching for ways to express the unreachable and this is captured in the opening poem of the book, ‘Adura Mama Mi’, written mostly in the Yoruba language. It is a bold and daring choice to open a primarily English-language book with a poem in Yoruba. This poem is a microcosm of the book, distilling the book’s themes: an exploration of the human predicament and, in this case, the predicament of Black British men having to alter the way they present themselves in order to suit drastically dissimilar cultural contexts.
The two Yoruba stanzas at the beginning of ‘Adura Mama Mi’ use mostly end-stopped lines, suggesting a slow and meditative chant or prayer. These are followed by a couplet in English:
‘God, that makes way for the Israelites on the red sea,
will make way for you where there’s no way.’
These two lines read like a benediction or a prophecy – it is not clear who the ‘you’ is meant to be but, at the very least, the reader absorbs the blessing. The lines are welcoming, comforting, uplifting. They call to mind the often-quoted words used by American poet Lucille Clifton, ‘I comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ While no hardship is mentioned, these words seem meant to comfort the afflicted – suffering is pulsing in the spaces between the words. The lines refer to the Israelites who ran from slavery but found themselves trapped between the Egyptian enslavers and the sea. There is ‘no way’ for them to escape. The paradox here is that although there is simply no way, there is a way – God ‘makes way’. Ṣode chooses the present tense (‘makes’) because the poem is speaking to the present, to us now, to the ongoing suffering that the book explores.
But the poem does not stop there. It ends with ‘Amin’, Yoruba for ‘Amen’. This switching back and forth between languages reflects the larger purpose of Manorism: to explore the lives of people who are compelled to ‘code-switch’ – obliged to change the way they present themselves and communicate – as they move back and forth between different worlds. The fact that the book includes such a wide variety of forms and linguistic shifts further brings home the dilemma of code-switching: God may have parted the ocean for the afflicted, but the afflicted will have to manage for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come, living as strangers in strange lands. The ‘you’ that Ṣode addresses in ‘make way for you’ might be a universal you, but it may also more specifically refer to these code-switchers: the Black British men, through their boyhoods and their generational triumphs and traumas. The nature of this experience is so complex, so ineffable, that it calls for a book of poems written in more than one language and in numerous poetic forms.
For example, in the poem ‘A Sestina, for the Curious Òyìnbó’, Ṣode describes what happens when someone at a writing retreat asks, ‘Do you want to be white?’ The poem continues with his response:
‘I can’t believe you asked me that. To which she says: I know I’m white.
Slavery ended years ago. It shouldn’t be my burden.’
The poem captures the tension in which the narrator lives, his sense of being seen but not seen. In this setting, he is noticed but only viewed from the outside,
objectified. The narrator thinks to himself, ‘I just want to write, / not explain myself to every òyìnbó in sight.’ This internal monologue describes the narrator living under the pressure of having to ‘explain’ his identity to others who can be unsympathetic, even cruel; however, the use of the word ‘òyìnbó’ (non-African ‘white’ person) implies that, at least internally, he has recourse to another culture, another world. At the same time, the narrator’s connection to the world that objectifies him also runs deep, and the poem is written in one of ‘white men’s’ received forms, the sestina.
As if reaching for other forms to express the distress around the kind of scene depicted in ‘A Sestina’, similar material is explored in the poem, ‘A Plate of Artichokes’, but this time in a two-stanza prose poem. The narrator relates the intense humiliation of being asked to pay in a restaurant before eating (unlike the couple sitting near him): ‘Did you ask them to pay when they ordered their meal as well?’ he asks the waiter, as he becomes aware of an inner rage and begins to imagine responding violently. This scene recalls the famous moment in James Baldwin’s title essay in Notes of a Native Son (1955) when a waiter tells Baldwin that he is not allowed to dine in the restaurant, and Baldwin throws a glass of water. In Ṣode’s poem, the violence is only internal and does not refer to Baldwin, but rather introduces an important recurring presence in Manorism, the Italian Renaissance painter, Caravaggio. The poem relates that once, when the Italian artist felt disrespected by a waiter, he ‘threw his plate in his waiter’s face.’ Ṣode seems to be interested in Caravaggio as both a rebel and a figure held by society in high esteem, a code-switcher. However, the poems also analyse the violence of Caravaggio, using quotations from modern-day commentators, such as the historian and conservative radio presenter David Starkey, to consider different exemptions given to white and black people.
Contemporary pundits, Renaissance painters, Yoruba, English, plays, prose, gentle quiet lyrics, and invented language such as the terms ‘manorism’ (your original self, your ‘manor’) and ‘aneephya’ (inherited trauma) fill the poems, giving this reader entry into a brave world, old and new. The breadth of poems in this book is wide and deep and feels almost infinite. Violence beside vulnerability, intellectual rage beside apologetic sensitivity, these poems ask: how does one escape the suffering in the history of a generation when the wrongs and offences of everyday life only fortify the suffering? The book’s answer is to ‘make way for you where there’s no way’. The reader will part the book’s pages which make a way with the miracle of language.