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Self-Portrait as Othello

Jason Allen-Paisant

(Carcanet, 2023)

Review by Shara Atashi


Jason Allen-Paisant has dedicated his poetry collection Self-Portrait as Othello, which has won the T.S.Eliot Prize, to ‘those who live in choreography, in multiplicity, to those always inhabiting the liminal space.’ So, I – as his imagined reader – identify with all of these things as I turn into Othello while reading this slim biography in poems, which contains libraries of knowledge in kaleidoscopic language. 

His Othello resurrects in you and takes you through his life, now in a new body, now bodiless. 

A five-year-old orphan in Jamaica spends his days on a hot tin roof chewing grass. We relive the racing of his heart before he knows the word ‘fear’. He grows to the tune of Jamaican mento music and learns how to turn into a spirit to get over ‘falling and rising’. As an adolescent, wearing tweed and fake Prada lenses, he leaves home for Paris, equipped with a brave heart, a free mind and perfect French: ‘the vowels rolled off my tongue and I was untied … my vowels, how they wrapped their arms around me.’ 

Upon arrival, he faces reality: in his poor lodgings, the patterns made by mould on the ceiling remind him of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). Yet his soul is ‘not bold enough’ to foretell his destiny. Only gradually does he realise that here, ‘Black was a different language.’

He glides into a world which is upside down. His hidden treasure of language gives him words to name his feelings and sensations. The ‘shame fly drones and jabs at his temples’ in his most intimate moments with a French woman. It seems impossible even then to silence the racial abuse in his head. But the force here is not humiliation, it is puzzlement, which Allen-Paisant brilliantly depicts in the tone he uses for his Othello’s inner dialogues. 

The actual, conscious composition and painting of Self-Portrait as Othello begins when puzzlement subdues. On the Rialto bridge in Venice, Allen-Paisant reimagines his boyhood on the hot tin roof in Jamaica, not as himself but as Othello, and from there explores the historical background of Shakespeare’s tragedy. His study includes two Italian paintings which make the obsession with skin colour even more inscrutable: whereas Mare = Ballerina (1914) by Gino Severini depicts the colours of the spectrum in which black and white don’t exist, Veronese’s Feast at the House of Levi (1573) shows meticulously painted pitch-black men as inferior characters: one pickpocket and two pages.

Fragments from Iago’s venomous language, such as ‘an old black ram is tupping your white ewe,’ are woven into the fabric of this book to introduce a mind that knows nothing but darkness. Othello is luminous, the one who continues to shine both inside and outside of his bodies. 

What most resonates with me is Allen-Paisant’s suggestion that ‘Othello is a real structure of feeling taking shape.’ His work shows that this feeling can be taken out of its time and place. The language to express this is timeless and spaceless, too. To quote Pushkin, whose great-grandfather was an African, ‘Othello is not jealous, he is trusting’, to which Dostoevsky added that ‘All that happened to Othello is that his soul had the brains beaten out of it, thereby muddying his whole world outlook.’ Not a jealous man, then, but the embodiment of a feeling of trust.

Shara Atashi is an award-winning, widely published writer and translator based in Wales.