In 1765, at the age of eight, William Blake had a vision while walking on Peckham Rye. He saw ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough’. If Blake had kept going, he would have crossed the site which in 1969 became the North Peckham Estate. In postwar Britain, this forty-acre ‘mega-estate’, comprising 1444 homes in 65 multi-storey blocks, offered another kind of vision. It was ‘a paradise of affordable bricks, tucked under/a blanket, shielded from the world’, Caleb Femi writes. Here, ‘angels get hit, & fall like loose feathers’; ‘an angel is anyone who visits the desperate with news.’
North Peckham Estate forms the backdrop for Femi’s first collection of poems, Poor (Penguin, £9.99). He grew up on the thirteenth floor – ‘one bedroom and seven bodies making do’ – and throughout the book he contrasts the architectural utopia dreamed up by the estate’s planners with the experiences of its residents. ‘A Designer Talks of a Home/A Resident Talks of Home (I)’ is structured as two transcripts spliced together:
00:03:46 empathy is the cornerstone of design
00:18:50 y’know the architect that designed this estate killed himself
00:03:53 it’s all about showmanship and theatricality
00:19:20 Mum reckons that’s why they covered the rot with cladding
00:04:01 it’s about how things feel & smell as much as how they look
00:20:15 ’cause concrete smells like a siege … when it rains I like to
00:04:23 imbue people with a sense of wellbeing, empowerment, gentle joyfulness
00:21:09 pretend I live
‘Because of the Times’ tackles the Brutalist vision of ‘streets in the sky’ head on. What ‘the architect had in mind’, Femi writes, ‘all that hopeful good on powder-blue paper/measured lines defining angles/of respite for the poor’, didn’t quite pan out. The designer
put shops and launderettes on the estate
so mothers could send their children on errands
knowing that even if they walked a mile
their fawny ankles wouldn’t ever set foot
on open ground, to be lost to the city’s
clutches, or feel the affliction of rain.
But the poem ends in ‘the widening gyre’, a geometric stairwell where ten-year-old Damilola Taylor bled to death in 2000 after being stabbed in the leg with a broken bottle on his way home from the library: ‘It is true on paper there were no designs for a tomb/yet the East Wing stairs were where Damilola was found:/blue dawn, blue body, blue lights, blue tapes.’
Taylor’s is one of many lost lives elegised in Poor. In ‘Survivor ’s Guilt, or Anikulapo’, Femi writes about his own close calls with death. Having cheated it four times, his ‘presence at funerals felt like bragging …//I am a museum of all/the ghosts I could have been.’ When he was seventeen a gun was pressed to the back of his head:
The weapon jams God laughs
Just kidding just kidding
He didn’t get away unscathed: he was shot in the leg.
Femi’s former selves turn up like ghosts: here he is as a ‘likkle bwoi, blue with running,/with shiny rubber limbs, playing likkle bwoi games’; here he is as a 13-year-old stopped by a policeman because he fits the description of a man.’ Here he is in a hospital bed, unable to tell the police what he saw without sliding into metaphor: ‘The sky a locked gate/I could not ascend/reeking of gravity.’ Finally we meet Femi in gentrified Hackney, where he now lives: ‘My skin has lost its tinge of blue from police lights/but the mandem are kind to me for old times’ sake.’
The form of the book is elastic: everything from ballads to essay fragments and journal entries. Femi’s range of reference is similarly eclectic: he incorporates lyrics from Dizzee Rascal, K-Trap and Frank Ocean, as well as quotations from John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (2018), an essay published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a Netflix show about the interior designer Ilse Crawford. His own photographs are interspersed throughout the book. A young guy in dreads drinks from a china teacup on a stairwell; Femi stands proudly in front of a Manchester United cake at his eighth birthday party; a group of friends in a box room crack up at some long-forgotten joke. He has said that these images are meant as a riposte to the ‘mugshots’ of Black people that circulate in the media.
‘Schrödinger’s Black’ satirises the television coverage of the London riots in 2011. ‘What are you looting for? asked the evening news.’ The protests that followed the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police are reduced to a set of sensational images: ‘a bus set on fire,/hooded boys with overgrown nails’; ‘a police helmet with a broken visor,/horses clumsy-trotting through piles of debris’.
A correspondent in the riot zone asked an
old man about the situation & he said
they demanded payment for death
& so they shook the city down for change
Unsatisfied, she asked a woman, but couldn’t make out the words through her accent.
de man ded
The stanza breaks capture the comprehension gap between interviewer and interviewee. Femi describes what was missing from the reporting: ‘Nothing was said about loss & how people take and take to fill the void of who’s no longer there.’ Later in the book, he includes a series of journal entries written after the Grenfell fire in 2017: ‘I am learning the map of spite like I am learning the map of a lover … Is it the Government, or is it the News channels, sipping on the ripe mourning of the poor?’
Poor is an indictment of structural racism in the UK, but it is more than that. Femi repeatedly sets injustice and tragedy alongside moments of boyish wonder. The same poem that records Taylor’s death includes the following line: ‘On Mondays the detergent they used to clean/the stairs smelled of bubblegum.’ He finds ‘magic in our bruises,/violence in a rose garden’. In ‘Here Too Spring Comes to Us with Open Arms’ we see a group of ‘youngers sprawled like a deck of trick cards on the back stairs’; ‘two men bouncing along the pavement/through another eye they look like young dolphins slicing coastal waves.’ (The italics mark the spoken, quoted or collective voice, which sometimes usurps the narrator’s for a single word.) Sometimes he is just playing: ‘I have nothing to offer you/but my only pair of Air Max 90s.’
Femi’s dexterity with spacing, slang and syntax is evidence of his acute aural vigilance. His poems conjure or capture everyday sounds: ‘boys whose names sound like the rip of duct tape’; ‘sweet nonsense chatting’; ‘sliced plantain stuttering in oil’. After a bad day at the bookies, an uncle whistles ‘O When the Saints’. This is urban pastoral, every bit as compelling as Frank O’Hara’s: ‘Confess that I want to live for good times:/picnic with a peng ting, lips her on the grass.’
Poor is a vibrant archive, an inventory of seemingly trivial moments and objects in danger of being forgotten. A mural appears overnight; people leave Pokémon cards, yo-yos and small silver coins as offerings at the ‘hood sanctum’. Femi is the North Peckham oversoul. He dabbles in folklore, myth and fables. (On the estate there were rumours of women who could run through walls.) The membrane between the imaginary and the real is porous: ‘Maybe an estate, tall as it is,/is the half-buried femur of a dead god.’ Or, here is the ‘debris of a false wall through which black rabbits once vanished’.
Max Porter has spoken of Femi’s ‘shamanistic refusal to trap the soul in the body’. In Poor the line between life and death is repeatedly redrawn: ‘He thinks the paper is a Ouija board;/he thinks a poetry reading is a séance.’ The speaker of the poems is a shape-shifter, a trickster. In ‘Barter’ he pulls one of his tonsils out of his mouth, between thumb and index finger, searching for his voice box. Exchange is central. There is always a transaction or transformation underway: objects and people swap places or morph into something else in order to survive. ‘One thing must be given for one thing:/that is the nature of bartering.’ That is the nature of metaphor too.
The architecture of the estate and the anatomy of the human body are contiguous. We ‘walk through the corridors that connected/one block to another block, one joy/to another joy: a system of nerves’. People are made by places, they carry their ‘endz’ inside them. ‘Yard’ begins:
all the [houses]
I have lived in sit in my ribcage
with faces like beggars
I dream my postmortem
unzip my skin & ask each [house], what are you: a mother, a sculptor, a motionless meadow?
Things have a ‘propensity to terraform when in contact with a boy’s imagination’. Femi’s ‘Ingredients & Properties of Concrete’ include ‘Grime music’, ‘blubber-rich bubblegum’, ‘courageousness’, ‘batter of a Morley’s chicken’, ‘three boys’ pact to never forget’, ‘yellow police tape’ and ‘dust of vibranium’ – a fictional metal from Marvel’s Black Panther that absorbs, stores and releases kinetic energy.
Several poems nod to Tupac Shakur’s ‘The Rose that Grew from Concrete’. In ‘Mandem’, Femi sees a group of older boys ‘over there against the faux limestone looking like a barcode/entangled roses’. Another poem, ‘Flowering’, begins like this:
dem nights when
an oblong of pavement holds
20 closed-petal boys uniformed
in the purpose of riding out
on an opp’s block, 20 boys
moving to the march of all the
meals they missed to save enough
to buy 110s, new kicks that are
claypots to the stems of 20 boys
on their way to do dirt with thorns
It ends with ‘20 open-petal boys,/beautiful as fear, sleep in an/estate, green, everlasting green’. But this is a dream vision: his urban idyll doesn’t promise permanence. What endures is the persistent fear that life might be cut short at any moment. ‘That’s what it feels like to be Black here,’ Femi writes in ‘Schrödinger’s Black’, ‘like you’re dead & alive at the same time.’ In the final poem, there are no roses; the North Peckham ‘concrete is a field of soluble petals’. When Femi compares poetry to a séance, it’s a life insurance policy. If one of the twenty doesn’t make it home, he can be raised again. The last lines are spoken from beyond the grave:
Breathe in & tell the mandem I remain
flourishing & sublunary
just like the stories promised ghosts would be.
Tell them I smell like that day we hid
from feds for 6 hours in the bakery.
There is no flash flood coming.
chaos, & breathe out my soft limbs –
& if you wish me to speak