What’s in a name? That’s certainly one question poet Raymond Antrobus looks to answer in the opening to All The Names Given, his follow-up to his Ted Hughes award-winning debut collection, The Perseverance.
When I look up ‘Antrobus’ on Google, one of All The Names Given most powerful motifs makes even more sense. In addition to being a village in Cheshire, I’m told it comes from the old Norse name Andridi and the word ‘buscr’, meaning ‘bush’. I probably should have paid more attention to the mention of this in one of his earlier poems, but it’s fitting, considering the author carries out an honest exploration of nature – both the literal and the human kind.
The Perseverance was more of an investigation and introduction to Antrobus’ intersectionality, of his deafness and his Jamaican ancestry. There’s no denying that this second collection – while leaning further into his heritage than his deafness – is a continuation of that. After all, we once again see his playful, witty takedown of historical figures, with the ironic two-parter ‘Outside the marriage registry in Jefferson Parish there’s a 10-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson’ and ‘Article III’.
Now, however, there is more of a focus on acceptance, beginning with the loss of his father – a grief processed through an ocean-themed dream in The Acceptance.
The title is fitting, given acceptance is the main theme of the book, and ‘process’ is a rather excellent word to describe Antrobus’ introspection – in the sense that his understanding and processing of grief, love, family, the self and more follows a clear narrative. If one was to borrow from the motif of trees in this book, then one could say All The Names Given takes a sense of loss, and soon branches outwards – this progression bookmarked by a series of [Caption Poems], inspired by Deaf artist Christine Sun Kim.
“For example, if music starts to play, the captions may go like: [music]. One. Word,” explains Kim, in a video for Pop-Up Magazine. “If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get: [violin music], which is better, but still not enough.
“It doesn’t tell me anything about what that sound is made of. How it moves. Its personality.
“So for instance … [mournful violin music that sounds like crying alone in an empty bar],” she says.
It’s employed with tragic effect in ‘Captions & A Dream For John T Williams of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribe’, the captions carrying a heavy sense of knowing in the provision of context for a police shooting. The idea of Black people being like trees, first explored in ‘Plantation Paint’, is referenced here, as “a block of cedar trees”. The subtext we all think when we read of these circumstances, laid bare, unfiltered and striking.
It gets trickier in some poems, however – two of the three ‘Text and Image’ poems, hurried in their anecdotal tone, lack little explanation nor leave much to the imagination in terms of meaning. The earliest one, on page 14, will no doubt connect with those in long-distance relationships, such as myself.
“How can I show you/my love is unfolding if my words/can’t reach you glowing and wild,” Antrobus writes, and I connect with the feeling that compliments to my partner are getting repetitive and stale – the same words said over and over without the intonation which makes them fresh, or rather, “glowing and wild”. In his self-reflection, some questions asked come with answers, others are open-ended and allow for more creative imagination.
When the poet’s grandmother explains their ancestry in ‘Death of Sir E. Antrobus’, a fire is lit in the enlightenment, and later, he wishes that this is passed on to his cousin John. In one of the bleakest themes of their book, Antrobus almost presents himself as an object to be influenced – “an object and all the names it is given”, he writes in ‘On Vanity’. It’s no wonder, then, that there are aspects of the writer which feel… empty given the lack of involvement from father figures – not least his father, for whom he gets his “heartless sense of humour” and many other things.
His mother, in contrast, offers up a much closer, healthy connection. We see this in ‘My Mother Skimming Her Scrapbook’, though it appears to serve little purpose other than a transitional poem in the wider development of this narrative. In a reference to its main ‘tree’ theme – of which ‘family tree’ is certainly one of them – it’s revealed his mother was referred to by the nickname ‘Rose’. When he visits Sutton Road Cemetery, it’s an elderberry tree which is nearby. Like a tree, Antrobus branches out in All The Names Given, and is swayed. Swayed by family members, but also with feelings: of love, of loss, of desperation and finally, acceptance. An acceptance found in the liberty silence brings.
“It’s silence that stills the noise in my eyes,” he explains in the final poem, ‘Closer Captions’. “Reader, this is the place/I try to take you/when I close them” – and the journey there is magnificent.
All The Names Given is published on 2 September.
Photo of Raymond courtesy of Suki Dhanda.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of All The Names Given 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.