The Barber Shop Chronicles playwright delivers a transcendental takedown of socio-political issues in his first poetry collection.
In The Actual, Inua Ellams makes 2020’s rage poetic. Toxic masculinity, Western heads of state and racism – which, amongst other issues, have reared their heads in the dumpster fire of this year – are some topics targeted by the poet over the course of 55 pieces.
Jotted down on his phone “in transit, between meetings, before falling asleep and just after waking”, there is a sense of urgency in some of the works – not least in the way the poems are stylised and organised. A piece on Border Guards follows Borders, while Batman comes after a poem about his arch nemesis. There is a connectivity in Ellams’ ideas which should not be unfamiliar to those who have seen the multi-narrative Barber Shop Chronicles.
On the page, they are split up with forward slashes as if to denote a stream of consciousness. Their driving pace may be sparked by the urge to write the idea down before it is forgotten, all-consuming anger, or both.
Yet haste does not hinder the hatred, which is measured and considered. Some are pensive, such as Aneurysms, while others – like Kipling – are piercing and confrontational. The historical poems are informative, but it’s the more visionary, ethereal and metaphorical works which are the most impactful.
In The Mandela Effect, the phenomenon in which a large group believe an event occurred when it didn’t, is used as a striking springboard for racial prejudice. “Black men are killed so often / it’s assumed we’ve already passed“, Ellams writes, in what is arguably his most powerful poem in the collection. “No wonder police have skittish fingers / How else would you react to a corpse / walking.” Painting racial prejudice as a kind of Mandela Effect, Ellams takes aim at white complacency and prompts an urgent, proactive response.
Most start small, and conclude big, with space and planetary objects being a strong lexical field across The Actual. Weak hugs mean “a whole solar system gone“, Ellams’ father’s attempt to walk again after an aneurysm is trying to “jumpstart a galaxy“, and a “scrunched-up tissue [is] like a second-hand cloud“. As well as exploring imaginative boundaries (such as in Borders, where physical barriers go beyond the geographical), Ellams’ work is experimental in terms of narrative boundaries too, with Boko Haram detailing the vicious cycle of child soldiers with a haunting and continuous arc.
Anger is often described as a personal and unproductive emotion, but in The Actual, Ellams turns it into the profound, the otherworldly and the thought-provoking. The introspective becomes the extrospective, with startling results.
The Actual is due to published on 5 October. More information can be found on Penned in the Margins’ website.
Photo of Inua credit: Andy Lo Po.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of The Actual for free in exchange for a review of the book. I did not receive payment for this post and all opinions stated are honest and my own.