Cannibal opens with the words, “Have I forgotten it— / wild conch-shell dialect, / black apostrophe curled / tight on my tongue?” and the answer is a resounding— no, Sinclair is in full possession of all the muscle memory of her tongue. She uses this powerful muscle to create a lavish feast of language that crosses the ocean from her native Jamaica to Virginia and back again in one the most impressive debut collections I have ever read.
I began following Sinclair’s work after I read the group of her poems which won the 2015 Boston Review Poetry Contest, all of which are included in Cannibal. I was excited when Cannibal was chosen as winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in 2016 by Kwame Dawes, and even more excited to hear Sinclair read from her collection at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I remember she read “Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda,” a ravishing poem that allows Eve’s desires to pour forth in such a torrent Adam and God are rendered irrelevant in comparison. By pointing out the way women have been demonized for their sexuality for millennia, Sinclair manages to reclaim Eve’s image:
Let me have it. This maiden-head primeaval
schemes what ovule of cruel invention;
the Venus-trap, the meses.
And how many ways to announce this guilt: whore’s nest
of ague, supernova, wild stigmata.
There again is the word “wild,” and yet though Sinclair’s poems achieve that jouissance that Hélène Cixous wrote about, writing that is born from the hot blood and feverish womb of the woman who is unafraid to speak through her body thus threatening the patriarchy, Sinclair’s poems are also constructed with a marvelously deft hand. Going back to the opening line in the poem “Home:” “Have I forgotten it,” the poet uses iambic trimeter to alert us to her formal tendencies. This poem also uses the double “ll” to great effect, with words like shell, wall, full, skull, small, still, call cascading down the poem, a detail that might have been lost if we weren’t already alerted to the prosodic elements of the poem. The sound of the "l" here is in full effect, lulling us back to our own memories of home.
This attention to language is admirably present throughout Cannibal. Sinclair’s language luxuriates in its own vowel clusters and in the ticking of tongue against teeth; she locates all the complex sensuality hiding within the mouth, and brings it to light. Her rhymes, when she uses them are remarkable: “the arm / you broke reset and broke again. Caribbean;” “No field guide to advise you to dress for fire, / to bring a thicker whip. / That what you thought was simple sparrow / was Jamaican grassquit.”
Sinclair divides Cannibal into five sections: the first looks back at her upbringing in Jamaica, the second confronts a racist south in Virginia, the third section deals directly with female embodiment, the forth with the way home never quite leaves the body, and the fifth is a single poem that reinvents Shakespeare’s character Caliban. Sinclair opens each section with a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and closes the collection with a poem that creatively incorporates phrases in reference to or spoken by Caliban, resulting in not only a haunting conclusion but a cohesive collection. Caliban’s name is almost an anagram of the word “cannibal” which is ultimately where the word “Caribbean” originated. Sinclair interrogates this colonial branding of her homeland, while exposing and exploring her own complex relationship with Jamaica, and her family. And though the entirety of Cannibal is a wonder, Safiya Sinclair is at her most dazzling when returning to her archipelago of memories and evoking the landscape her youth.
University of Nebraska Press
Brunch: I’m brunching out this week at Reno in Logan Square. This is one of my favorite brunch spots in Chicago, it’s both reasonable and delicious. Plus, unlike most brunch spots you can usually find a seat though it might be at a communal table or at the bar. I love ordering their Hook sandwich, here on an everything bagel with chive cream cheese, lightly smoked salmon, cucumber, onions and avocado, and paired with one of their amazing Italian sodas.