Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith review – hope in resistance and rebirth

Anger, generosity and dark humour electrify a collection that confronts America racism and speaks urgently for change

In addressing US national identity and collectivism, Danez Smith (who goes by the gender-neutral pronoun “they”) echoes the plural, expanded lyric voices of poets such as Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes. Like Smith’s prize-winning debut collection, [insert] boy, their follow-up Don’t Call Us Dead excoriates America for its violence towards citizens outside a white heterosexual majority. But whereas Ginsberg resolved finally, if reluctantly, in his poem “America” to put his “queer shoulder to the wheel” of the American project, Smith declares it dead. In the apocalyptic age of Trump, a man who “has no words / & hair beyond simile”, Smith prophesies an end from which a new beginning might spring.

Throughout Don’t Call Us Dead, hope appears as a form of resistance and rebirth. ...

House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson review – new literary territory

Slavery, a dub musician as Noah and memories of a Jamaican childhood inform a collection that subverts history’s grand narratives

In an elegiac essay on the late Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, Ishion Hutchinson recounts finding Walcott’s poem “Landfall, Grenada” in his local library at the age of 16. Reading in the half-light of evening, the budding poet is galvanised by Walcott’s forceful image of the “blown canes”. These revelatory, sharp words are loaded with the violent history of plantation slavery. Indeed, a ubiquity of cane, the sugar trade of empire and transatlantic slavery inform the landscapes of Hutchinson’s second collection, House of Lords and Commons. But they do not define his subject.

Like his first, more autobiographical collection, Far District, published by Peepal Tree, Hutchinson’s second book expands on experiences from his Jamaican childhood. In the opening poem, “Station”, an absent “stranger, father” is greeted by his son, ...

Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo

This year’s lineup may be deserving, but with just one collection by a BAME poet in an exceptionally strong year for poets of colour, it also seems naive

Over the past few years, challenges to British poetry’s lack of diversity have made it impossible to return to the status quo – or so we thought. This year’s TS Eliot prize shortlist, announced on Thursday, features just one collection (out of 10, including Michael Symmons Roberts and Leontia Flynn) by a poet of colour, the much-acclaimed Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive.

This year was an exceptionally strong year for British poets of colour, and you would have reasonably expected to see Kayo Chingonyi, Richard Georges, André Naffis-Sahely, Nick Makoha, Nuar Alsadir, or Elizabeth-Jane ...

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong review – migration, America and Vietnam

Borders and identities blur in this hotly tipped collection from a young poet who moved to the US as a childIt is tempting to read Ocean Vuong’s poetry with his life story in mind. Glimpses of it appear throughout his Forward prize-nominated debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds: Vuong was born near Saigon in 1988 and at the age of two, after a year in a refugee camp, he emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut with six members of his family. Several poems resurrect violence from before the poet’s birth, in particular the end of the Vietnam war with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Complex figures, displaced by war, haunt the book: an absent, tormented father and a beloved mother. Vuong’s intimate lyrical voice, his precise, stark imagery and engagement with gay sexuality construct a familiar story of loss, as well as the immigrant’s precarious transnational identity. But ...

Border stories: Brexit Britain as seen by a witness to the scars of India’s partition

As someone whose family fled their homes for England’s Midlands 70 years ago, how do I embrace my own Britishness in a time of imperial nostalgia? On 14 August 1947, my grandparents fell asleep in one country and awoke the following day in another. While they slept, the ground under them, the plains between the Chenab and the Ravi rivers, where they and they families had lived for hundreds of years, became Pakistan. But until that moment, what had their homeland meant to them? Theirs was not a country but a colony. Home was on the rural edge of Lyallpur, a town near Lahore named after a lieutenant governor of Punjab, conquered by a country they had never seen: Britain. Even if they wished to forget their rulers they could not. Lyallpur was modelled on the British union flag. From a central panopticon-like clock tower, eight thoroughfares unfurled, divided and ...

Border stories: Brexit Britain as seen by a witness to the scars of India’s partition

As someone whose family fled their homes for England’s Midlands 70 years ago, how do I embrace my own Britishness in a time of imperial nostalgia? On 14 August 1947, my grandparents fell asleep in one country and awoke the following day in another. While they slept, the ground under them, the plains between the Chenab and the Ravi rivers, where they and they families had lived for hundreds of years, became Pakistan. But until that moment, what had their homeland meant to them? Theirs was not a country but a colony. Home was on the rural edge of Lyallpur, a town near Lahore named after a lieutenant governor of Punjab, conquered by a country they had never seen: Britain. Even if they wished to forget their rulers they could not. Lyallpur was modelled on the British union flag. From a central panopticon-like clock tower, eight thoroughfares unfurled, divided and ...

Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo review – ‘language is my home’

Literary tradition and linguistic play square off in a timely collection about belonging Readers of Vahni Capildeo’s previous poetry collections will not be surprised by the verbal intensity and wide range of allusion in her latest, Measures of Expatriation. It is subdivided into seven sections, each a “measure”. The title poem’s four-word stanza dramatises the book’s central (and timely) question of belonging: “Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee.” Each status is burdened by associations with leaving and distance – from mythical exodus, to bird migration, to recent conflicts in the Middle East and their human consequences. Capildeo suggests that words, like individual identities, exceed definition: they are fluid and cannot be fixed. Identity, too, can be measured across the recorded and unrecorded histories of language. And any attempt to affix a “pure” identity as he or she moves across national borders, facing death or erasure, partakes in grave acts of violence ...

My hero: Claudia Rankine by Sandeep Parmar

The Forward prizewinner’s portrait of racism in the US is not just realistic, it captures a poetic truth beyond facts

Claudia Rankine’s collection of tense lyric essays Citizen this week won the Forward prize for best collection. The book recounts both quotidian racist “microaggressions” and internationally reported police brutality and violence targeting black Americans. I teach a course on women’s writing, and we read Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, and CD Wright’s One With Others, but it is Citizen that sticks with my students.

Related: Claudia Rankine's Citizen wins Forward poetry prize

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