Inspired by my experience of Being a Man Festival, I attended an evening in appreciation of poet and educator, Jacob Sam-La Rose. The night consisted of speeches and moving poetry in tribute to his teachings. The energy was reminiscent of the Burn After Reading nights, and despite this occasion being a one-off, it captured what I love about live literature events. Often, it can seem that poetry is such a niche medium, that outsiders can struggle to find their place. However, these spaces provide a place where people can share both pain and joy, and connect with others through words. Sam-La Rose is mostly known for the incredible work he does with young people. He has tremendous influence on poetry today, and on the opportunities that many young people have to be exposed to, and enveloped by, this art form. It comes as no surprise then to read on the back cover of Breaking Silence, that his work ‘is grounded in a belief that poetry can be a powerful force within a community’.
It felt right to return to the well-thumbed pages of my copy of Sam-La Rose’s debut book-length collection from Bloodaxe, one of the most reputable poetry publishers in the UK. Breaking Silence was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, but many feel it has not had the recognition it deserves. Linking with themes from Being a Man Festival, the collection explores issues of manhood and masculinity, and how these intersect with race and dual heritage, as well as broader issues of identity.
In the poem Faith, I relate to the classroom scenery that has unexpectedly become part of my adult life, as well as to the perhaps unlikely protagonist of the poem; the girl in class [who] opts out of speech’. There is warmth towards this quiet character: ‘Praise her fierce and stubborn silence’. There is also the awareness that she will take ownership of the return of her voice and this moment is beautifully described: ‘rain will fall on dry land for the first time in months’, as though it must come when nature dictates , rather than by the force of classmates and teachers. This idea is revisited in the second section of the book with Talk This Way. In it, Sam-La Rose addresses the multitude of voices we encounter that make us up, before we then find our own, beyond imitation.
As the title suggests, there are continued references to noise and silence. In Conversations with Adamh, ‘the silence / worries him most’. In Drummer, an attempt to silence is compared with the protagonist sticking fingers in his ears, and the absent father, who would drum on surfaces ‘to silence anything he didn’t want to hear’. The beat of the drum is contrasted with beating as punishment, revealing what children are taught, even ‘between each beat’. There is a simplicity in Never, in which Sam-La Rose lists imagined paternal scenes, which become particularly bittersweet at the line: ‘He never once raised / his voice at me.’ Of his mother, in Speechless, he recounts her father, the patriarch who banned her from playing guitar and singing, surmising his reasoning:
that his word is law, that a proper young
Guyanese woman belongs to the home
behind curtains, not music…
The concepts of voice, music and silence are strong in this piece. She follows orders ‘to fold her voice down into a small, / pocketable silence’. This is until she destroys the guitar, that has been taunting her, breaking the silence in a certain way.
Other possible male role models are explored in Keeping Up, and Alpha. In the former, a group of friends admire another man’s play on a basketball court, ‘kissing the ball with his fingers, feeding it through / the hoop’. There is something nurturing about the verbs used here, as though through these actions, he has become a surrogate father figure. In the latter poem, envy of another man’s physicality is described as an emblem of masculinity. Yet, in Whatever You Can Afford we see the human side to those we perceive to be superheroes – that everyone has ‘those days when you want to give in, /or give up, however it’s said.’
How, for some, music can take the place of religion is shown in The Star, in which death, both man-made and of natural causes, sees us carrying out: ‘a search / used for filling in blanks’. Instead of religion in the traditional sense, it evokes spirituality through the celestial. This theme is threaded through other poems, where its inhabitants are ‘baptised’ by music. Written to also be performed, the poems carry their own musicality when spoken aloud. In connection with live literature events such as those mentioned at the start, it is in these artistic spaces that people congregate and can feel a sense of belonging through these shared experiences and words.
In Currency, Sam-La Rose explores the concept of how, when visiting the homeland of ancestors, one is ‘foreign’, despite sometimes being seen as such in your own home country. He always manages to strike to the heart on the final line, and this one is no different, as he is shown his family’s land, full of things ‘I didn’t know how to name.’
This relationship with land is conjured again in Ymir. In this retelling of Old Norse mythology, we are told: ‘When you sigh, your breath makes leaves and branches sing’. Yet there is a later a disconnect between language and the mind. In The Negro Entrepreneur Recounts His First Enterprise, Sam-La Rose draws upon this notion of being seen as other, an ‘alien’, in one’s own country. The final line lands with a punch that speaks of intelligence, humour, and a sombreness: ‘If you can’t beat them, make them pay.’ This seems to stem from the second part of Speechless, where at a young age he is taught
how to turn on a smile for an audience,
each bright rictus like an artificial flower.
The third part of this poem is filled with lines that hit straight for the gut, recounting school days, filled with a rage that is repressed. We see how experiences shape the individual, as well as the Shakespearean notion of the world itself as a stage, where one learns to hide negative emotions such as sadness and anger, in order to appease others. This lengthy poem continues, each part more hard-hitting than the last, including the devotion: ‘Grant me a tongue / worthy of the weight / of everything I’ll come to know.’ This book was a joy to revisit and Sam-La Rose has certainly been granted a way with words worthy of every read.
Breaking Silence by Jacob Sam-La Rose is available from Bloodaxe Books (2011).
Featured image – from the cover of Breaking Silence, published by Bloodaxe Books
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