Commemorating the ‘Ends’: a review of Poor by Caleb Femi (Penguin Press, November 2020)
By Oisin Harris
Poor is Caleb Femi’s debut poetry collection and includes his original photography wonderfully framing this emotive tableau of Peckham’s often maligned community. Caleb Femi is a poet, a director and a former schoolteacher who was the Young Peoples’ Laureate for London between 2016–2018. Poor depicts life in London’s north Peckham estate and pays tribute to them. Femi’s poems explore how an environment affects, impedes, kills, shapes, and strengthens its inhabitants. His poems relay the emotions connected with growing up in such a place, but also how this belonging impacts how others see and interact with you. In an interview with Robert Kazandjian for Complex UK, Femi spoke on the desire for archiving a whole community of people and on intertextuality to “immortalise a group of people who were extraordinary and who contributed to the history of Black Britain, not even just Black Britain, but Britain in general.”
We witness poetry as incantation and a coping mechanism. Tinged with great sadness, Femi’s words capture the intensity of grief. We see astoundingly moronic police discrimination in Thirteen.
Femi’s words allow the nuances and potentialities of concrete as a grey area to ‘poor’ out of itself and materialise as facets of everyday Peckham life. Potentiality is a recurring motif. Contrasting views of this community and its spirit begins to emerge in ‘A Designer Talks of a Home’ / ‘A Resident Talks of Home’.
Femi’s subtle distinction between a home and home begins a questioning of council estate design. There’s a threading notion of man-made vs natural, of nature vs nurture, of blossoming images and agricultural sowing and reaping. This key metaphor of abundant agriculture reshapes our generally accepted vision of inner-city council estates. Along with metaphors from the natural world Femi questions evolution and whether the ways this world is viewed and depicted by the media as monolithic is the way things are. The poetry in this collection brilliantly dissects such themes as intersections of class, race, violence, pain, grief, policing, gentrification, brotherhood/camaraderie, joy and music. These poems also illustrate Femi’s aim in commemorating Peckham. His poetry loosens these concrete encased narratives out of their solid, set-in stone perimeters. Femi’s own evolution, how children turn into youths, how innocence turns into rage is masterfully explored. Yet, for all that anger and frustration, Femi’s debut is peppered with moments of glistening, pure unfiltered joy that recalibrate how we can view a council estate’s inhabitants. This localised context contrasts with the accepted narrative about poor people in the UK and council estates that, according to mainstream media, exist outside of universal human truths. In poems like how ‘Here Too Spring Comes to Us with Open Arms’ and ‘The Story Of Shirland Massive’, Femi mines the pubescent energy of youth and the wonders of childhood for their tenacity and courage of imagination.
These poems recalibrate our perspective of inner-city areas. This collection is as rugged and tough as the concrete it extrapolates from. Femi’s words are passionate, fiery, full of warmth, incredible tenderness and love for an environment too often vilified and too rarely given a platform to express itself free of bias. These poems are excavations of how poverty scalpels daily reality, how it seeps into the very way you have of viewing events/and of being viewed too. In ‘Coping’, Femi breaks down how certain behaviours are just coping mechanisms in the face of adversity.
Femi’s mythologizing of the estate and its traumas is also a cause for celebrating it as a living space where lives that matter are played out like in any non-demonised environment. Femi’s use of the femur imagery echoes the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s explanation of how the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur that had been broken and then healed. She stated how a broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. In many ways, Femi’s poems are just that, a love letter and evidence of a culture and its myriad facets which this collection rightfully chronicles.