Review: Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair (University of Nebraska Press, 2016)

 University of Nebraska Press & Safiya Sinclair. 
University of Nebraska Press & Safiya Sinclair.

I was born with one ankle
dangling in the sea, body grasping
for another horizon.


Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal, winner and long-listed for more awards than can be briefly delineated[i], refers to the West Indies and Carib people who were, in a “purely linguistic sense, born savage,” according to Sinclair’s preface. The collection has five sections and is loosely threaded through Caliban’s journey through The Tempest. Appearances by the biblical Eve link sections, and the book’s central themes include: the sea, the daughter, the student, the immigrant, the woman, and the untameable master of language. Sinclair’s relationship to language is unique and brilliant. Few contemporary poets can capture the universal through the personal with such detail, allure, and wit.

Out here the surf rewrites our silences.
This smell of ocean may never leave me:
our humble life or the sea a dark page

In “Hands” the speaker’s mother’s survival skills “shucking whatever the sea/ could offer, each day orphaned in the tide” present themselves as the “filth of sailors whose bed she made” come to pillage her and the island. Not only is maternal endurance in each phrase, but also is Jamaica’s struggle against colonial desecration. An easy point to make but not swallow—and Sinclair, as in many of her poems, ends with a flicker of hope.

our bloodline of what once lived
and will live and live again.
In the sea’s one voice she hears her name.

Beneath her gravid
belly my gliding hull
a conger eel.

Act one, or the first section, is grounded in family. A daughter matures and goes to school. The sea breezes. Conch shells sparkle. The “neon” city begins to appear. Section two, begins with a prose poem “Notes of The State of Virginia 1:”

Where Thomas Jefferson learnt how to belittle a thing. How to own it. He
created the word and wanted my mouth to know it. He wanted the whole
world pulled through me on a fishing string. Where I will find my fingers in
the muscle of my throat, where I will marvel at the body asking to live.

Experiencing America, there is a subtle shift in theme—familiar territory for most readers—but told through a crystalline-newcomers lens. The prose blocks are as strong as institutional pillars, bringing America’s racial history and the everyday divides to the forefront. The poem “Elocution Lessons with Ms. Silverstone” masterfully tells the story of a girl becoming a woman as she is drilled to fit into her new world. Her “d”s become “t”s.

In full maturity, Sinclair’s Act III speaker fills the roles of woman and poetess. Literary references appear more often, as does the awareness of her strength. “The Center of The World” opens with, “The meek shall inherit nothing.” Sinclair attacks the myths and religions we have all been force-fed:

in my hems. I have milked
the stout beast of what you call America;
and wear your men across my chest

like fur. Stick-pin and snow-
blue chinchilla: They too came
to nibble at my door.

Themes turn bitter, and the musicality of each stanza swells. In Section IV, perhaps the strongest, Sinclair’s awareness grows, “…giving birth to my old selves.” In “Spectre,” the omnipresent sea anchors the immigrant experience. Sinclair offers a glimpse of the reason:

I was born with one ankle
dangled in the sea, body grasping
for another horizon.

Hungry infant searching for salty night,
I ate leaves of scripture left open
to avert the spirits of the dead—

but already I was unruly and invited them in,
imbibed them in my fevering dreaming
until my skin was no longer my skin.

Act V is comprised of one poem. “Crania Americana”—a coda, with the final line dripping in blood; Sinclair ends with the question, “Master, Dare I / unjungle it?”

In our post-factual, gas-lit current political climate, where divisive lines are easily drawn and it is easier to threaten to build walls rather than discourse, where daily language is dumbed-down into spite and ignorance, Sinclair’s Cannibal is a breeze of fresh sea air which comforts and challenges. If Sinclair’s next collection is even one tenth as good as this one, it will still be better than most. Cannibal has already carved a chunk off the literary canon. What’s next, other than to revisit Sinclair’s “Home”:

Have I forgotten it—
wild conch dialect,

black apostrophe curled
tight on my tongue?

[i] Winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award
Longlisted for the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize
An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year
Longlisted for the 2017 OCM Bocas Prize
Longlisted for the 2017 PEN Open Book Award
One of BuzzFeed’s Best Poetry Books of 2016
One of The New Yorker’s “Books We Loved in 2016”
A Publishers Weekly “Poetry Top 10” for Fall 2016
One of BuzzFeed Books’ Best Literary Debuts of 2016
A Poets & Writers Top Ten Poetry Debut of 2016
One of The Roots Best Books of 2016 By Black Authors
A Publishers Weekly “Most Anticipated Book of Fall 2016”
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry
(and growing…)

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