Keine Angst, Zayneb Allak

New Walk Editions, 2017  £5.00

Lessons in listening

The title of the very first poem in this collection — ‘Broadcast— introduces an ongoing theme of sound and voice, attention and connection. The word suggests families gathered round a wireless, involved in shared listening. Of course, a broadcast doesn’t always find a listener. In the age of social media, corporate communicators are cautioned against one-way ‘broadcast mode’ and advised to seek ‘engagement’. But a true listener has perhaps become a rarity. Zayneb Allak immediately proves she is one, alert both to languages and accents and to what people are really saying. The woman on the radio in ‘Broadcast’ voices her loneliness, and is heard.

In ‘Aisha’, the poet addresses a young pregnant woman who seems to have been radicalised and drawn into violence:

You’re so far from home
But your vowels are pure south London.

Did no one listen to you there?

Such a compassionate question. So many of these poems explore the importance of listening, and the consequences when people aren’t heard. The dreamlike panic state of ‘Open Water’ — ‘when I was unborn and searching/for parents’ — contains a desperate childlike plea: ‘Listen to me, I yelled.’ The need to communicate and voice an identity is also there in ‘The Prophet’s Daughter’, which poignantly addresses another Zayneb (daughter of the prophet Muhammad) across time and space: ‘I don’t know if she heard me’.

There is more listening in the short poems ‘Ploughing Song’ (referencing Georgian folk singer Hamlet Gonashvili, ‘his voice a cave’) and ‘The Frontierswoman’, where the new world itself speaks to a traveller: ‘the shore called/and I always answered yes’.

Towards the end of the collection I found ‘Last Christmas’ especially moving — another plea for communication amidst the strain of a family gathering, this one answered. ‘I need one person to say one true thing’. A welcome confession ends with the poet ‘listening to you and adoring / your honest mouth’.

Rachel Playforth