how the first sparks became visible, Simone Atangana Bekono
Translated by David Colmer
The Emma Press, 2021 £6.50
Dutch poet Simone Atangana Bekono’s debut pamphlet is a poem in nine parts, each identified by a Roman numeral. The title of the poem (‘friction’) appears at the top of an otherwise blank page, smooth ink on a smooth page, that single word stranded as if to prevent it brushing against another one, paradoxically frictionless.
Nevertheless, the title does cause friction in the mind of the reader, adding grit to the process of interpreting Atangana Bekono’s bold and vivid lines, in which she explores her experience as a black woman, while addressing race, gender, identity and body politics.
The reader is invited to view life as a constantly painful rubbing up against reality where ‘The city is a strain / the village is a conflict zone’ [‘IV.’] and where ‘you may feel worn and battered’ [‘VIII.’].
In part ‘IV.’, Atangana Bekono meditates on the reductionist phrase ‘all black people’ that wears away at her identity and
makes me unrecognisable […] a bucket full of water
in the middle of a swimming pool.
This friction between Atangana Bekono’s identity and how she is perceived by wider society is central. In ‘III.’ she writes that ‘I only exist as a projection of the brain of a white western male’ and ‘I am a version of Kunta Kinte forced into a mould’.
In ‘VIII.’ she fantasises about her mud-smeared body drying in the sun, crumbling away and becoming ‘unbodied’, perhaps freeing her of the friction caused by racial stereotyping.
Then in a moment of post-modernist self-reference, she writes ‘then I lost the thread’, namely the thread of the poem she was aiming to write, the poem that would state
that I can no longer own my body unless my body owns me
something like that.
The pamphlet ends with equal uncertainty, the author ‘standing on the edge of a cliff / a towering cliff, looking down’.
If you want to know‘what happens next, you won’t find the answer here. But that might just be the whole point of this literary friction where there are no easy solutions for anyone.