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Manorism by Yomi Sode: A Review

By Oisin Harris


Published by Penguin, 6 October 2022


Yomi Sode is an award-winning Nigerian British writer. He is a recipient of the 2019 Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship and was shortlisted for The Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2021. Sode uses chiaroscuro and parts of Italian painter Caravaggio’s life in this debut. He places under a microscope the contemporary experiences of living as Black boys and men in Britain today, but also dissects the contrasts in impunity afforded to Black and white artists and Black and white people more generally.


The collection opens with an atrociously emotive imagined rendering of the mental, physical, and spiritual states inhabited by those men and women captured during the slave trade. He paints a highly charged and moving frieze of their agonising wait in the island of Goree island, off Senegal’s coast, before they passed through the infamous door of no return. Sode begins the poem by pondering if these millions (an estimated twenty million in Goree alone) of souls might have been escaped their fate if: “The angel could have warned the slaves, the same / way it warned Joseph before King Herod’s attempt to kill baby Jesus.”


This poem manifests echoes of the famed Martinican poet, Édouard Glissant’s Open Boat, an introductory theory of his philosophical investigations in Poetics of Relation. Both poems are compass readings of how the middle passage becomes this lodestone anchoring future traumas. What’s remarkable is how Sode injects this opening poem with biblical imagery to paint a tableau of a mass genocide and to contrast this, supposedly received Old Testament scene with, let’s call it “dark,” the unknown and alien notions of, for example, “Aneephya.” Sode later in the book, defines Aneephya as: “Aneephytis: the release of the annephya toxin into the bloodstream. [...] It is known to occur in heightened levels in Black people as a result of inherited trauma and ‘weathering’ carried down the generations.”


He deploys this assumedly created condition (or a clever riff on the known condition of anaphia, the inability to feel touch) as a sort of invisible yet taut mental umbilical cord connecting the original trauma of those early captives whose echoes cadence throughout this collection. From the murdered of Grenfell in L’Appel du vide: “How many buried names approved the cladding?”


To Remnants, where Sode dissects the heroism of Patrick Hutchinson who carried a white counter protestor to safety during 2020’s BLM protests: “I’ll hail him up, this Black man & his friends, spiriting a white man away like firewood from a furnace of protesters that had waited to set him ablaze…Is this how it works? How trauma folds itself in ocean waves, letting its remnants wash up on the shore for us to collect, time and time and time and…”


All the way to Sode’s personal grief over his cousin’s mother’s death from cancer in December 3rd 11:10 and December 3rd 12:30: “Pushing my breath in O’s from my mouth, trying to calm myself the f*ck down. I was not calm. I was O’s, a welter of O’s, as though I was giving birth to my grief.”


This collection also investigates cultural appropriation, and the cultural (mis-)representation of “Black Britain.” It homes in on the liberties taken by certain figures like Piers Morgan who’ve “borrowed” what they see as urban terms when commenting on incidents like that of Alex Mann, a white fifteen-year-old, who at Glastonbury was invited on stage by grime artist Dave to rap the verse of another absent grime artist, AJ Tracey. Sode brilliantly switches between how Alex is viewed after the fact and how the media view AJ Tracey. It’s also a book that performs an autopsy of our justice system and its involvement in the consistently unequal treatment of Black vs white defendants. As evinced in Fugitives: “because white skin is white skin everywhere; because privilege, irrespective of time, allows a grace period.”


One intensely moving poem is The Martyrdom of Michael, From The Block, in which Sode parallels Caravaggio’s painting, The Martyrdom of St Matthew, with the fictional murder of young teenager Michael, from the TV series Top Boy. Watching Caravaggio’s painting alongside Michael’s death, (he gets thrown off a high-rise balcony by Albanian gangsters just after trying to warn off the person who caught him selling drugs) is uncomfortable but conveys powerfully the cowardice, violence and indelible pain caused by such events in affected communities: “Michael calls down to the man he made his God / And is thrown from the tenth-floor balcony / To an untimely death. [...] / His God bears witness to the sacrifice – / And runs to safety… / Tonight, when Michael’s mother gets the door, / It will not be because her son has forgotten his keys.”

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