(SPAM Cuts) ‘After the Formalities’ by Anthony Anaxagorou
In this SPAM Cut, Patricia Ferguson explores the language of loss, violence, distance and converging histories in Anthony Anaxagorou’s poem ‘After the Formalities’, which you can read here, or listen to on the Faber Poetry Podcast.
> Tracing the development of the concept of race over 500 years, interwoven through the narrative of three generations of one family, Anaxagorou addresses questions of language and loss, dominance and the distances between us.
> The contrapuntal form ties history into personal immediacy. Under words are people; the bodies and violence, poem as witness. Dogs track dehumanisation: from de Brézé’s literal canines and the grandfather’s foreshadowing that ‘the dogs of England are different’, the mother’s attack, to, in the end, its flattest statement, ‘You’re all dogs. Foreigners.’
> Nicot’s legacy is a cancerous one where exhaled smoke forms ‘Colourless plumes merging amorphous. The way it’s impossible / to discern the brand of cigarette a single pile of ash derives from.’ The men smoking the same are as indistinguishable in death. Attention to breath — through the controlled physicality of reading the poem aloud and in its recurrence, bearing history, language and hope “on the water of her breath” — underscores a permeable boundary between individual and history. Breath is where internal and external, the body and language, meet.
> Darwin’s presence questions what we know of heroes and faith in the primacy of purportedly objective reason. Perhaps, as some argue, he meant something else in his lesser-known subtitle (or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life), but we can’t pretend we don’t know he said it. The struggle for life in Anaxagorou’s poem is the dying uncle’s, the father’s whose rage and grief begets violence, and that of his family who suffer the consequences. It’s a compassionate questioning — what are the premises, what are the ends.
> Through the lens of Blumenbach’s environmental differences we see the brothers caught between. In their mirrored bruises is the double bind of being both and neither in a system built on taxonomies.
Here. We chew up too much of their language. Leave behind an alphabet of bones. We will never exist in their love songs.
The poem attends the distances between us and how the places we might look for connection —language, the body— are instead sites of separation.
> Language makes things ‘Pronounceable so they exist’. It carries history
Arguing through whispers. Not wanting to expose tongues. Stories circulating. What neighbours do if they catch you saying “I’m afraid” in a language that sounds like charred furniture being dragged across a copper floor.
It also dissembles, granting a veneer of legitimacy and evasion of responsibility felt in the interviewer’s middle class inflection of ‘sublime’ and ‘accommodating’, the smoothly laminated surface of bureaucracy. The repeated question (but where really), is predicated on exclusion. The recent history of Cyprus is complex. Divisions deliberately sown by the British for their own political ends: an island torn apart, reduced to ‘the Turkish thing’. To destroy then conspire to forget. There’s a violence to forgetting. Who gets to walk away when history is a knife and a wound; ‘how many bruises does it take to make a single body.’
> A teenage Englishness of fooling around, smoking in empty houses on wet afternoons is captured bleakly
…wondering how much of my body was still mine. I smelt of rain atop an old umbrella My fingers a burnt factory
There’s no warmth here; proximity without intimacy. The girl’s smile is one of conquest, watched over by the racist gollywog and threat of her father. The dual inversion of the traditional sexual dynamic and reinforcement of it through the father interrelates racism and patriarchal masculinity; bodies that don’t belong to themselves, bodies made subject.
> The syntactically confused questioning ‘She asked if I was her first’ and contrasts between mother/girl and father/speaker reveal dominance as systemic pathology that infiltrates the personal. The father asserts his over his family. Excited, almost aroused, by the memory of the attack, forcing the mother to relive it. And when it comes to whiteness
The same X dominating so much White. Let me tell you. Nobody in their right mind need make themselves such an obvious target. He affirmed.
The timelines converge in the present. Farage’s smug words echo as abuse is hurled, even in death. This is where we are and it didn’t come from nowhere. How inextricable are words from blood and ideas embedded in culture, in the lives and bodies of individuals, like shards of glass in bone.
Text: PN Ferguson
Image: Arièle Bonte