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Wife by Tiphanie Yanique

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Intimacy and infidelity, warmth and vacuousness, possessed and free. These are all the paradoxes that are found, lost, and found again in Tiphanie Yanique’s debut collection Wife. It is to no surprise that such an effortlessly honest portrayal of the female, as both confined and fierce, has won The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.

The collection is organised in parts that subsequently follow one another, as in most marriages. They reflect the mind of the self and in this case the self assumes the role of wife. The wife, however, can take multiple forms, one such that the wife is possessed, one such that she one with another, and one such that she belongs only to herself. It is these stages that we follow.

In part I, Notes for Couples Therapy, Yanique quickly establishes the capacity of strength of which the woman possesses by comparing her being to an island, below it which resides, ‘beautiful things, also-which can be the most dangerous.’ The island, most certainly a reference to the corporeal woman, is ‘small and vulnerable/ it is a woman, calling. You love her.’ More than that the woman holds all of which we are she, the island, is the portal to our histories which, ‘we will never be beyond.’ In this part, Yanique also offers a brazen but still rather elegant Dictionary which lists different origins of wife, most all of which allude to the woman in sexual servitude.

The woman becomes the mountain atop which the husband calls in part II Altar Calls. References to the sky and the sea and the forces of nature are connected to the wife again. The poems in this part alternate from the ‘I’ perspective to the ‘we,’ the joint unit of a wife and a husband- and the physical joy that comes along with it. Illusions to the natural elements suggest that while often resisted by humankind, these earthly beings will undoubtedly hold the history of our ancestors and turnout triumphant. Thus, it is the wife who will prevail fertile, and continue on, even when, after such degradation or infidelity, the we, ‘cannot believe our failure/is a wave coming/steadily at them/from behind.’ The wave is the wife.

Part III, Abandonment Stations and IV Words (Last, Fighting, True, Etc.) place emphasis on the abundant mother and the intimate nature between an infant and mother similar to the manner in which a wife becomes native to a husband and vice versa, ‘I am/ yours./I claim you.’

Yanique leaves us with the delightful To Capture Ghosts, a letter for Jean-Michel Basquiat and Moses Djeli. It is with this resolution that the narrator, most seemingly also the voice of Yanique, seems to speak directly to somebody who she tells that she, ‘travelled all the way from the Virgin Islands to the find love of my life.’ She speaks again of love, and she speaks that, ‘maybe I should dedicate myself to these people. To people and not the love of people.’ She speaks here also of ghosts, of mothers, and of lovers. She alludes to differences and inequalities regarding race and gender in a way that seems ironic but translates to hope. In the last line of the collection, Yanique gracefully mentions fear and the nature of humankind to be afraid- perhaps of such intimacy, such legacy, such nurturing and such versions of ourselves.

By Victoria Lancaster


wifeWife, Tiphanie Yanique, Peepal Tree Press, 2015, £8.99

 

 

Forward Prizes for Poetry 2016: Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection – Shortlist

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This year’s contenders for the Felix Dennis Prize represent an exciting new generation of poets emerging beyond the bounds of well-trodden publication routes like Faber’s New Poets scheme. From Tiphanie Yanique, an award-winning American fiction writer and poet, to Harry Giles, a familiar name on the Scottish spoken word circuit, and Ron Carey, a former engineer and recent graduate of the University of South Wales’ MPhil in Writing, the prestigious shortlist (rightly) recognizes growing contributions from outside a traditionally London-centred ‘new writing’ scene.

Harry Giles’ Tonguit (Freight Poetry, 2015) is almost certainly the most formally and linguistically inventive on the list. Concrete poems like ‘Alpe d’Huez’ and ‘Piazza dei Miracoli’ sit alongside lists, haiku sequences, pantoums, and modified sonnets, all in a smattering of Scots, carefully pruned English, and textspeak. These varied experiments amplify, rather than limit, Giles’ ability to speak to the literati and the casual reader alike. Some poems (‘Visa Wedding’, ‘Tae a Cooncillor’) address the realities of austerity and public housing, while others (‘In yer haunds thare are nae deid hings’, ‘Hogmanay’) demonstrate a clear finger on the pulse of Scotland’s independence debates and the writer’s place in them. At the same time, Giles steers clear of straightforward nationalism (the broad church of this collection includes, for example, a Scots response to seven numbers from the Tao Te Ching), in favour of the ironic, self-critical stance of his opening poem, ‘Brave’: ‘A sing o a Scotland whit hinks thare’s likely some sort o God, richt?’ We sing and wonder with him.

In contrast to Giles’ daring innovations are the finely tuned poems of Ruby Robinson’s Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press, 2016). As its title suggests, this volume pays close attention to the sonic architecture of each line and stanza, seen most clearly in poems like ‘My Mother’:

She said the cornflake cake made her day,
she said a man cannot be blamed for being
unfaithful: his heart is not in tune with his
extremities and it’s just the way his body
chemistry is. She said all sorts of things.

Deceptively conversational, Robinson’s poems pay dividends in each repeated reading with their subtle rhymes and ear for meter. As a result, these pieces do not falter on the backs of their somewhat staid titles (‘Love’, ‘Time’, ‘Romance’, ‘Tea’, ‘Boy’, etc.), but excel in their ability to return these words their full breadth and depth. Several ventures into prose and long-narrative confessional poetry punctuate the collection, but the best pieces (such as ‘Ire’ and ‘Tuning Fork’) are pared down to couplets, and are stunning precisely on account of their grace and restraint.

Disko Bay, by Nancy Campbell (Enitharmon, 2015), takes us from the rich interiors of Robinson’s world to the bleak expanses of Iceland and Greenland, where Campbell spent several months as writer-in-residence. These poems’ spare, supple lines serve as indispensable guides in the unfamiliar visual and mythic landscape, a partnership reflected in the dual Greenlandic-English titles of many poems. Some are translations of Inuit verses, included in Enitharmon’s beautiful presentation to provide a sense of the original lyrics’ aural contours. Later pieces return us to an altered England, seen through Campbell’s eyes as lost outpost and distant relative of the deep north. Her coasts are not Brighton’s sunny beaches but ‘brooding towns’ like Bexhill, where ‘the chill sand splintered our feet / and our clothes clung to us like selkie skin’. As the lines between the collection’s geographical and emotional poles begin to blur, we come across the question at the heart of ‘Ulerussivoq / The Debate’: ‘Where does the Arctic circle end?’ Campbell’s answer – another question – is tender and telling: ‘…but why / specify an ambit when the axis, / the Geographic Pole, is in constant flux?’

Similar to Disko Bay in its ability to render a familiar landscape bare and startling is Tiphanie Yanique’s Wife (Peepal Tree Press, 2015). These are hard-hitting poems about our most intimate relationships, at once beautiful and raw with Yanique’s honest handling. Early in the collection, ‘Dictionary’, a prose poem, sets the tone: ‘wife – (European origins) a married woman. As in slave in the house. As in chef, maid, nanny and prostitute. But unpaid for these services.’ The rest of the book, like the rest of this piece, challenges our ideas of what words like ‘home’ and ‘family’ mean. Complex historical and rhetorical traditions underpin each poem, taking us into Christian allusion (‘Therapy for a Messiah Complex’, ‘Altar Call’) or colonial history (‘A Slave in the House’, ‘Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse’), but always with an eye to the daily tragedies of domestic relations in the present. The last section, ‘Words (Last, Fighting, True, Etc.)’, emphasizes especially how Yanique’s burnished diction ultimately lends this tough collection its shine.

Finally, Ron Carey’s debut, Distance (Revival Press, 2015) deals tenderly and directly with memories of growing up in, and coming to terms with, the tribulations of postwar Ireland. The most moving pieces, paced with the gentle regularity of loose pentameter, are brave, heartbreaking recollections – ‘A Christmas Story’, for example, captures a father’s fears through his son’s eyes:

I shut the door but I was too slow; the darkness
Was already inside. Much later, some strange man,
Who sounded like you, cried and threw dishes
On the floor, shouting, Christ is laying-off Brickies.
It was too late when you came to say goodnight.

Like Wife and Disko Bay, this book is divided into sections, and among them ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’ is the longest and most refined. Pivoting away from the personal histories of the book’s first half, this section focuses on Carey’s work, children, and community, drawing the generations close through poems like ‘My Father Built England’, ‘Fixing A Dry Stone Wall’, and ‘Fathers and Sons’. It is these haunting lines from the section’s – and the book’s – shortest poem (‘In A Doorway’), however, that best sum up this searching volume: ‘I don’t know / If I am still worth a question. If I am / Still worth passion or pity or care. / I only know I am becoming more / Human and, in my arm, an exquisite flame’.

Last year, the Prize – previously won by Kate Clanchy, Don Paterson, and Daljit Nagra, among others – went to Small Hands, a wonderfully articulate collection by Mona Arshi. Whichever volume emerges as the winner this year will be a well-deserved addition to the Prize’s distinguished history. All five poets have grasped something that needs to be said, and in their own distinctive, exquisite ways, have made us ‘more human’. This is far more than a prize could recognise.

By Theophilus Kwek

 

Visit the Forward Prizes website here

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