Caleb Femi's Poor vividly navigates life in North Peckham - a concrete mass stretching to fill thousands of homes - where there is "one block connected to another block" (Because of The Times - pg.13). Experimenting with image, fragmentation, dub, hip-hop, and modern lyric, Femi utilises his photographic skill to visually and textually capture all angles of the London that remains in the shadows.
This collection is arguably poetic journalism as much as it is Femi's memoir. The author not only interrogates his own vulnerabilities, but the entire community affected by systematic racism, classism, police brutality and gentrification. These political injustices are best magnified in 'The Painting On The Concrete Wall', 'On Magic/ Violence' and 'Schrödinger's Black.' Femi also offers a more philosophic argument in 'The Moon Gave no Name to Tides'. He states, "Water get no enemy. / If it drowned your child / you still have to drink it...it is better to take up a grudge with the moon" (pg.76). In this poem, Femi understands the social issues affecting his community (i.e. gang violence, drugs, theft) stems from a broader system designed to discriminate and marginalise those of ethnic minority.
Poor's focal subjects are London's young black boys, or so described "boys who stopped waiting for a spirit in a holy place"(Put Them in the Room of Spirit & Slow Time - pg.10). Each chapter shatters the reader's perception, giving voice and humanity to boys rendered both visible and invisible by society (Barter - pg.3). In Femi's work, the subjects are simply humans struggling to survive - possessing their own dreams, fears, passions, angels, demons, names and nicknames. Femi alludes to their softness using images of trees, flowers and water. Consider 'Boys in Hoodies', where "a boy pours himself into a single drop of rain to feed a forest.", this wetness creates an interesting contrast to the brutal hardness found in 'Concrete (I-V)'. Black women also appear in poems like 'Honeytrap & Likkle Bwoi', 'Chirpse' and 'Ode to South Ldn Gyaldem'. As expected from the book's description, the women characters are merely mentioned through the lens of Femi's main subjects. 'Trauma Is a Warm Bath' best depicts how black women are often expected to be the source of support/comfort/sanctuary for black men.
The arrangement of this collection is moving. Femi's pieces are in flux between space, time, events and emotions. As a reader, you are carried along for the ride - and when you think you understand ‘the endz’, new poems illuminate ideas never considered. I enjoy the writer's range to execute both micro and macro-scale topics. In 'A Designer Talks of a Home / A Resident Talks of Home (I)', we question the intentions of architects and public housing systems. We also imagine the alienation that poverty creates once one has the means to move out. In 'On The Other Side of the Street', the poet finds himself caught between both worlds "I crossed over / & now the hood won't take me back." This wavering desire to leave, or to stay, is a question of home that many migrants face when seeking an improved way of life.
Femi occasionally seems to lose faith in his audience’s ability to realise the syncretism of Standard English and Multicultural London English. 'Flowering' is an example of this frequent italicisation of slang words that can detract from the reading experience. I also imagined whether 'Honeytrap & Likkle Bwoi' would have impacted me differently if the question "what do you know" was not frequently posed. I felt more affect with narratives gone unpacked like '& If There Is No Other Way, / Long Live The Jugg', and poems like ‘Community’ where MLE had not be formatted. 'Barter' and '[redacted]phobia' were also pieces that fell through. I felt these poems could have been stronger in expressing the poet's obvious pain with the intended subject.
Nonetheless, Caleb Femi crafted a compelling collection that is worth a second, and third read. Poor is reminiscent of Roger Robinson's award-winning Portable Paradise - as if both writers are speaking from similar tensions but unique in their delivery and generations. Other poems which I enjoyed were 'Hallelujah Money', 'Thirteen', ‘Concrete (IV)’, 'Old New' and 'We Will Not All Fight Like Dogs at Our Death'. As a debut collection, Femi has done well in his commitment to a story that is raw, emotive and electric. It would be great to see Femi's next creations as he continues to grow in his artistic practices.
Tanicia Pratt (she/her) is a Bahamian artist, writer, and editor based in Nassau. Her poetic practice often experiments with sound, film, performance & mixed media. She is currently interested in works that interrogate feminism, politics of space, coral and the inescapable blue. Tanicia is a recent MA graduate of Royal Holloway in Poetic Practice. Her work has also been published by the grace of Palette Poetry, PREE, POUI, Write About Now, National Poetry Library, among others.
Tanicia can be found online at taniciapratt.com or on instagram at @nefernici.
'Poor' by Caleb Fami was published in 2020 by Penguin Press, a part of Penguin Random House.