Review: Samatar Elmi, ‘Portrait of Colossus’

Samatar Elmi, Portrait of Colossus (flipped eye publishing)
28 January 2021
£4
27 pages of poetry (24 poems)
Review by Anne Gill

I

Before I read a book, I like to flick through the pages, eyes unfocused. I get a quick impression of the text: density, variation, length. In Samatar Elmi’s Portrait of Colossus, the poems are all different. Looking through, I am confronted with poems of different lengths and shapes, different stanzaic forms. I get the sense that the poet has avoided slipping into a comfort zone.

II

A lot of pamphlets are described as being ‘concerned with language’, which is hardly surprising when language is the medium of poetry. As such, all poems must be ‘concerned with language’ as poetry is, by definition, preoccupied with language. In Portrait of Colossus, however, language is continually made the focus. Poems such as ‘N—–‘, ‘The Hope and Anchor’, and ‘Your Mother in a Different Language’ do this most obviously. In other poems, it is the sonic echoes and uses of stress which work to foreground the language and show it to be an ongoing concern.

In the opening poem, ‘Portrait of Colossus as an Immigrant’, Elmi shows a dexterity with language that continues throughout. Vowel sounds take precedence in this poem. The way the vowels open the mouth works alongside the colossal size of Colossus.

Colossus walks with ‘a footing that keeps him sential and sleepless, / knowing a slip in the east is all it takes’ for him to fall. The sibilance enacts the slipping and takes us back to the water which he steps over – this sibilance then echoes throughout the poem.

The repetition of vowel sounds works with the sibilance to create associations between ‘sential’ and ‘sleepless’, so demonstrating that to be sential (to be on guard), one must be sleepless.

Throughout the pamphlet, Elmi shows this attention to detail and awareness of how language works. It is this detail that can be easily missed on a rereading that makes it a joy to reread and to close read.

The best poems feel inevitable, like the words fell into place, like there’s no other way of saying what was said. I keep returning to ‘England’, a poem that deals with belonging. In it, the speaker tells us that he walks,

over Parliament bridge
past Nelson’s column
up to Camden

Elmi uses short lines and enjambment to allow us to envision the journey to Hampstead. The line breaks after each location give us a sense of progress: the speaker has passed one place and is on to the next. The speaker arrives at Hampstead,

where the first impressions of dawn
are the songs of birds

whose names
I never had to learn
for them to sing for me.

The short, clipped lines let the white space tower over the poem like Nelson’s Column does, or Parliament. The white space enacts the size of Hampstead and of the England of the title. In doing so, the speaker is dwarfed. The speaker is also dwarfed as the first person ‘I’ is used sparingly. We see the loneliness of a speaker who never quite feels like he belongs.

Four pages later is the poem ‘N—–‘, which deconstructs the N word and performs a linguistic analysis on it. Elmi notes how ‘The front stress [is] a gut punch, low / block knocking the wind out of you.’ The word is broken into its stresses and the language used in this breaking is violent. It enacts its violent history.

The poem begins:

Taken out of context, six black letters
on a white page, a word with Latin
not African roots.

The many Roman synonyms;
taeter, malificus, piceus.

Because Elmi has used the word ‘Latin’, in the first stanza, we are made aware that his use of ‘Roman’ in the second stanza is significant. Indeed ‘The many Roman synonyms’ is one of the most understated but most effective lines of the poem. The word ‘Roman’ is heavy with associations. The word conjures images of the Romans, themselves builders of empire and owners and traffickers of slaves. These associations work with the title of the poem and take us, once again, to the roots of the N word in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism.

The pamphlet ends on ‘Your Mother in Another Language’, a poem that deals with a cross-generational language barrier. This poem contains both English and Somali. Yet, unlike many poetry pamphlets, the foreign language is not italicised. As such, it is a shock when we come to it – when suddenly we do not understand the words on the page. In doing so, Elmi brings us into this world of ‘broken tongue[s]’. We are no longer bystanders, watching the confusion, but active participants in it. The difficulty of communication is thus made apparent to a reader who is also out of the loop and reliant on a translator.

For a pamphlet whose focus is language, it is fitting that the final poem is one where we cannot escape the difficulty of language and translation (at the bottom of the page, Elmi translates the Somali as ‘roughly equivalent to…’). It is a moving pamphlet – both emotionally and in distance covered. Language and form are used expertly and with a lightness of touch, which makes it a joy to read. The image of Colossus stepping over water hangs over the pamphlet. The size of his strides perhaps an image for how much Elmi was trying, and succeeding, to do.

III

Kayo Chingonyi is quoted on the back of Portrait of Colossus. He describes the pamphlet as ‘the work of a hybrid sensibility’. I think of this work as hybrid – imagine a car that rolls smoothly, one with carefully considered omissions, one that keeps the new car smell. This pamphlet is not a car and has nothing to do with cars, but as a descriptor of how the work functions, I think Chingonyi came to the correct conclusion.

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