A review sometimes says as much, if not more, about the reviewer as the reviewed*. So I shall begin by fessing up that I still do not feel comfortable commentating on others’ work; I am all too aware of my own limitations (non-literary/classical education; lack of depth, coming to poetry relatively recently in my life – a decade is not long enough to begin to scratch the surface). However, How to Euthanise a Cactus, published by Cinnamon Press, is one of those collections that gets me deep in the gut or under my skin or any other clichéd term for Wow! so here goes.
In the opening poem, ‘Nightmares’, “There are truths we cannot write/ … / We know their names,/ we know their faces.” One strand of the collection is of dark, often caustically humorous, disgust with corrupt socio-political life; the other strand is of tender love for those close to us. They are part of the same whole, honed by sharp intelligence and unflinching observation, mainly of Kenya, Derwent Partington’s chosen homeland.
From ‘Narration’, the poems move deftly into the political. ‘Lethe’ considers how “In 4-by-4s, Big Men from each and every province” wish to erase historic violence even from memory – harking back to ‘Nightmares’ (“It was all a dream”), ending, “You don’t remember? I have a cutting. Take a peek.”
Nothing is wasted. “Cutting” might be the obvious newspaper clip or it might be a physical scar or a burial. Some poems meld classical references with sharp currency, highlighting that there is nothing new in atrocities or greed. They bear witness to human frailty or abuse guised as “refined Armani politics”. Brief notes at the back clarify Kenyan references and double meanings (for example, someone requesting “soda” might be soliciting a bribe).
Many of the poems highlight unbalance in humanity but there is uplifting celebration, too. ‘Praise Poem’ begins:
We praise the man who,
though he held the match between
his finger and his thumb,
beheld the terror of its tiny drop of phosphorus,
its brown and globoid smoothness
like a charred and tiny skull
and so returned it to its box.
Each stanza honours a man who didn’t do something – violence, rape, oppression – but stepped back from hate, from any footnote in a history text, and walked away unknown. It ends:
And to the rest of us,
may you never have to be that man,
but if you have to,
If poetry’s the new rock and roll, that one’s an anthem that should raise the rafters at any gig.
All is written with a clarity of vision on whatever stage or scale and a complete, precise control of language. Details are observed – and used – exactly: “Did you notice? Did you frown, or did you grin?” The ideas move far beyond their immediate groundings, as does the narration.
The last section of Cactus includes some intensely personal poems on childbirth, love and belonging. “Oxford: I forget which college” has become part of the narrator’s Kenya: “chapel: small and darkwood/ like a shrine carved in the belly/ of a baobab tree…”
Towards the end (where we do learn how to euthanise a cactus but you’ll have to read it yourself to find out) local drought brings us back to the political as “The dam is gaping …/ … the wildlife …/ turn their backs, like politicians/ saunter on.”
There’s so much to applaud I’ve not even touched on in this review; absolutely recommended.
*Edit: This was written before the #derangedpoetess Twitterstorm.
Good review. And that “Praise” poem gives me the shivers. Thanks.