Cannibal – Safiya Sinclair Review

by Morgan Cormack, Deputy Reviews Editor

Right, before you read on, I want you to throw away everything you thought you knew about poetry. Go on: your ideas of idyllic surroundings, poetic stanzas, dainty imagery, rhyming couplets and soft descriptions – get rid of it all. Safiya Sinclair sure has and in Cannibal, turns everything we thought we knew about poetry on its head in the most magnificent way possible.

I begin with such a disclaimer because viewing Cannibal as any other ordinary book of poetry only does it a disservice. Cannibal is the latest poetry collection from Safiya Sinclair and has just been published here in the UK. It’s been lauded as one of The Guardian’s most anticipated books of 2020 and honestly, for good reason too.

It’s fair to state that this collection of poetry is unlike anything you’ll have likely read before. On first inspection of the opening pages you get the sense that things are generally poetic. I use the term ‘poetic’ here loosely as when reading this work, I’ve come to realise the often useless connotations we ascribe to such a phrase but more on that later. In ‘Home’ we’re introduced to Sinclair’s rhythmic way with words; her ease of describing her Jamaican beach surroundings with such vivacity almost makes you feel as if you’re wading through the sands of Montego Bay too. Throughout section I, we’re given a deep dive into Sinclair’s upbringing. We’re introduced to her father, the recurring motifs of water and the ocean, alongside visceral religious imagery of Eve. Whilst this poetry is sophisticated and poised in its approach, there are also slivers of humour for any fellow Jamaican readers out there. In ‘Mermaid’, you can only smile at the mention of Caribbean thyme being much stronger than the English variety and references to the Dutch Pot. Whilst this is one piece that lacked any clear poetical format, it’s one that stuck with me the most purely due to its effortless sense of familiarity and homeliness.

As the book progresses, we’re greeted with a growing sense of unease. There are no longer passages about convivial settings and the smell of the salt water but instead, the surroundings become stark and bleaker as the protagonist (Sinclair herself) grows up. Sinclair has opened each of the five sections within this book with a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the lasting impact of such a play is clear in her work. The sense of enchantment and savagery depicted in The Tempest is also echoed in Cannibal. As Section II opens with ‘Notes On The State Of Virginia, I’ you’re immediately thrust into the harsh reality of being a Black Jamaican woman moving to America. Most of the poems going forward from this section include a sub-heading that aids in your understanding of the piece as a whole. In ‘One Hundred Amazing Facts About The Negro, With Complete Proof, I’, you’re first introduced to a 1670 law prohibiting Black people from buying white people as slaves at the time. It acts as a stark reminder of difference and sets the scene for a deeply descriptive tale of Black stereotypes. This poem in particular is an interesting mix of satire – it ultimately pokes fun at the ideas many have had and still do have about Black people – whilst illustrating these notions of Blackness with harshness: mentions of “rigid animal violence”, “starved black-eyed Susans” and “astonishingly white” teeth.

As both a woman and someone of Jamaican descent, ‘Good Hair’ and ‘How To Be A More Interesting Woman: A Polite Guide For The Poetess’ are pieces that stood out to me in particular. These poems clearly navigate the politics of afro hair, gender and are some of the works in this collection that force you to stop and note the powerful personal feelings emanating from the page. The idea of “combing”, “taming”, “tangled in the violence of our hair” and the sense of being “unwanted” are all common feelings regarding hair in the Black community. It’s refreshing to see a poet convey this in a way which isn’t tied up in proclamations of self-love but instead, recognises that the way society has ridiculed Black hair over time presents its own internal battle for many.

Cannibal opens with an explanation about the word itself: that it was originally a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies “who Columbus thought ate human flesh and from whom the word ‘Caribbean’ originated”. Sinclair goes onto explain that by virtue of thus being Caribbean, “West Indian people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage”. Such a description sets the tone for the book and it’s easy to see the impact of such thinking on Sinclair’s poetry. This is poetry that is made to make you feel uncomfortable and that’s what’s so invigorating about it. There’s something about reading something so brutal that wakes you up and Sinclair has done so with the aid of animalistic imagery, blood and violence. For many, being “poetic” revolves around rhyme, rhythm and flowery motifs but Sinclair’s work is the exact opposite. You’re hit with images of darkness and mythology, but it’s all wrapped up in a natural lyricism that beautifully strings it all together. This is poetry that has been made to bring certain matters to the forefront of an audience’s thinking; matters such as racism, exile, womanhood and politics. Similar to the way that these matters shouldn’t be danced around in general is the same way Sinclair presents her poetry: sharp, in your face, unashamed. The poems in this book are not to be read with quiet incredulity but rather, to be consumed with the same intent they’ve been written about.

Knowing I’m already a lover of poetry, would I recommend this book to others? Of course. Whether you’re the most seasoned of poetry readers or have never bought a collection, get this book and allow your senses to be awakened. You will be confused, yes. You will question what you’re reading, yes. But that’s the great thing about literature, right? As often as you get bandied around with Sinclair’s dramatic symbols, uncomforting descriptions and boldness, you will find energy in her words and endless poeticism throughout.

Cannibal is available now in paperback. Thank you to Picador for the review copy.

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.