Tuesday 13 November 2018

Review by Katharina Maria Kalinowski of "Persona Non Grata," ed. Isabelle Kenyon

Against the backdrop of Brexit talks, global refugee crises, and an ongoing endangerment of the refuges of our collective home planet earth itself, Fly on the Wall Press have launched their new poetry anthology Persona Non Grata. Following the success of Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, editor Isabelle Kenyon’s second charitable book project brings together 45 poets who explore what it means to feel unwanted. Reasons for this not only include an institutional status of undesirability, but range from social exclusion because of “my deep routed melanin / Dark brown eyes and thick-tongued accent” to mental isolation because “one is of the wrong gender.” 

Arranged into seven thematic sections, each poem offers a glimpse at people who don’t fit in; people to whom the “star-strung door to HSBC” remains forever shut; people whose voices we fail to understand or have learnt to ignore. Issues of marginalisation and injustice are put in dialogue with invisibility at best and humiliation at worst. There’s the husband who “tells you to call / what he’s been wearing diapers”, old Ida who used to “dance on a moonlit beach / With a handsome man from Italy”, Abdul from Libya who is told to “Go home!”, Otto who sings “Latvian / folk songs till some / drunks give him / a good kicking”, the girl who is “tired, dead tired” of “sitting single in a bus seat meant for two.” They all have a story to share – but “it seems you were all deaf.” 

The motif of “home” is reoccurring in all these stories, and it does not just refer to the physical place “where my heart was formed”. Home is a narrative of togetherness, a sheltering body of one’s own, a secure job, a safe country, a family of some kind, a hot meal, a childhood memory of “learning to fly on swings.” Losing the comfort of such a refuge feels like losing one’s breath, especially when taken away by disaster and violence. With homes, lives are left behind in a “land that was once / called cradle but is now a mass grave.”

The poetic voices emerging from the taboo of silence are as varied as the backgrounds of the contributors themselves. They find the intimate thoughts of a poetic I, the perspectives of an outside observer to the outsider, boldly adapt a collective “We”, prose-poetic speech, or a sarcastic distance in order to claim that “There’s nothing wrong anywhere.” While many make use of the space their stories are denied in real life and experiment with free verses on the page, the occasional rhyming scheme is also welcome. This includes one of Kenyon’s poems herself, which chimes in with the grim humour of the last section by suggesting: “Let’s make Britain great white again.”  

Forming a moving mosaic of dissent, the poems begin to echo each other’s concerns and imagine political action. Poetry comes to us “in gun-shapes.” Anger is cultivated, grief segmented. Bodies are exposed, pain is tangible. Guilt creeps into the “comfort of living rooms.” When do we stop noticing? Who decides on a normative skin colour, gender, BMI; who decides who is welcome? Who decides who is not?

These poets use language to challenge the status quo and are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. As lyrical attentiveness is joined by activist ideas, words themselves become uninvited troublemakers, non gratae in an illusion of harmony. It remains up to us then, to accommodate every word and everybody, “uncover the other in ourselves” and learn, as the final poem invites us, to celebrate difference.

About the reviewer
Katharina Maria Kalinowski is a bilingual poet and EUmanities fellow at the Universities of Cologne, Kent, and Dublin. Her practice-based PhD project focuses on ecopoetry and translation. She has most recently published in Magma 72, Epizootics, and The Transnational: A Literary Magazine. 

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