The sound of arrival can be easy to miss. You may not hear it right away, but at a certain point, you feel it. A shift in energy, however intimate, is explicit—if not shattering. The first poem in Raymond Antrobus’s second collection calls to the arrival of possibility—“Look what that cloud gives”—and thanks it. It goes on to say, “…your soul needs time to arrive.” And the poems that follow ask in return: what are we arriving at?
The collection, titled All The Names Given, comes after the poet’s debut Perseverance, in which he wrote of a life in between the hearing and non-hearing world. This duality, once unacceptable to Antrobus—his parents didn’t even realize he was deaf for the first seven years of his life—became a meditation on language through poetry. Perseverance examined his upbringing against the culture of deaf history. This second collection carries that examination forward—by going back to the beginning.
He starts at his surname—Antrobus. In one poem he visits a pub called The Antrobus Arms and a cemetery where “everyone buried here is of Antrobus.” In the town, a farmer asks if he descended from Sir Edmund Antrobus—a slaver who used to own plantations in Jamaica. The poet shakes his head, avoiding the farmer’s eye. In another poem, he remembers his grandfather, JK Antrobus: “How do I bring / back men who couldn’t speak, men lost in books, drinks, / graves?” He wants to talk to him, but he cannot. “Cut the hedges on your face so I can read your lips,” he writes.
These men—perhaps they won’t talk to him either. Just as Perseverance dug into the poet’s relationship with his father, revealing it to be deeply entwined with his relationship to deafness—in this second book, the memory of his father remains an agent of acceptance. In the poem titled so—“Acceptance”—Antrobus describes, dream-like, interactions with his father. It reads as though the poet is remembering him after his death—indeed his father died some years ago—and there is a familiar distance. “He says / something I don’t hear,” Antrobus writes at first. But then the poem ends with his father embracing Oshun—“my deaf Orisha / of music,” implying a kind of reconciliation the poet might have sought out in younger years.
Where communication is a subject of focus, it is also a slate for formulaic experimentation in the book. Captions, embedded in white space, float across poems. Antrobus writes in the book that these [Caption Poems] were inspired by Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. One—“[sound of mirrors breaking inside mirrors]”—sits in the center of a blank page, following a poem where the poet calls his mother a “bitch” under his breath. “What? you said, holding / the leash on yourself,” he writes, and later, “You said I don’t think / I heard anything...” This is another form of distance—emboldened by the unsaid. By subtly threading poetry through memory, Antrobus bravely probes at a kind of deafness that is led by choice: the choice not to hear.
In that same courageous vein, the poet looks at other binaries of his being. The poem “Plantation Paint” follows these captions:
“[sound of self divided]
[breath on paper]”
The poem begins with Tabitha, an art conservator and the poet’s wife, telling him that the paint depicting the Black men in the painting they are looking at—by an artist called John Antrobus—“will decay before / the cypress trees / surrounding them // will decay.” The men are huddled for a burial. “There are several kinds / of black,” Tabitha says, referring to the paint. But Antrobus, seeing only the trees, writes, “Why am I like this?” Born in London to a Jamaican father and British mother, the poet considers his mixed-race identity—
what kind of black
would mark me?
I am not the paint
made from vine twigs
or burnt shells.
The poet is looking at trees—his family tree—trying to understand, or perhaps even accept his beginnings. He recognizes the power of silence, especially the kind that lies within the unanswerable. And by writing his captions as the “sound of” something else, he introduces a dissociation into the reader’s experience of the text. It is like knowing something but not knowing how you know it.
Another way that the poet introduces distance in the book is through description. Images, described through text, often relay a certain dream—a “what if”—that points to the abstract nature of perception. This is especially the case in a series of poems throughout the book titled “Text and Image.” One such poem begins:
Raymond: in the dream I was in a packed cinema
I had a remote for the screen, I flick channels,
turn on captions and no one seemed to mind.
As dreams often go, a celebrity randomly pops in—in this case, Macaulay Culkin—but the poem turns, and suddenly Antrobus is in the screen himself, speaking without subtitles. What is he trying to say? Then “a woman with a wide chin” appears and says to him:
you know, you really missed an opportunity,
you’re talking about your mother
but you’re not really talking about your mother
Just like in the earlier poem about his mother, the unsaid here draws on subtle understanding for the poet. Of neglect? Or perhaps, of deliberate ignorance. It is hard not to draw a connection to Culkin’s character in the classic Home Alone films, where his character Kevin is famously forgotten by his family—his mother, in particular. When it comes to attention—who pays it and how—this poem invites a sense of preoccupation.
So it is only fitting that the next page includes this caption: “[sound of broken beginnings]”. Coming to terms with familial history, as well as personal history, at some point requires forgiveness. This distance between the thing—and the language used to announce the sound of the thing—is exactly what makes Antrobus’s poems so brave. He knows that somewhere in the distance lies what he is looking for.
In facing the vulnerability of lost communication—both with his ancestors and his own dreams—Antrobus provides the sense of possibility that singes each page of the book. And there is power in naming this possibility as such. To turn again to the question of arrival: as the book goes on, it seems as though the answer is simply to dig into possibility. In that first poem, Antrobus writes, “… the last thing I hear: / Give thanks to your name…” Perhaps the act of being alive is itself an opportunity for understanding. What happens after a name? Through these poems, let Antrobus show you.