Small Inheritances, Belinda Zhawi
Ignition Press, 2018 £5.00
Interweaving major themes
This pamphlet contains only fourteen poems, but what poems! They encompass powerful, formally varied depictions of the life of a young woman of colour who has migrated from Zimbabwe to Britain. The opener, ‘thamesmead estate (dregs of south east London)’, evokes racial injustice, post-Grenfell:
This city wouldn’t even spit on us.
We burn in fury & hunger; spines constricted
into question marks inside blazing tower blocks.
It continues to the subject, considered in other poems too, of escapist drug-taking: ‘We smoke up parks & the forests too / to say fuck you too, we need pretty days, / ablaze & red, top deck of a bus.’ That last line is repeated four times, like an incantatory feeling of controlled anger. The squalor of urban existence is skilfully documented: in ‘stockwell (other women)’, we read of young women ‘[who] want their bodies split / into fourteen lines till they transform / into non-leaking sonnets of white powder.’
The theme in the pamphlet’s title is addressed superbly in poignant poems such as (the author’s mother’s) ‘reasons for leaving home’:
the sun had become so hot;
like the soil, she felt herself dry up
three kids without a man around
is like walking around
with a dead fish in your purse
The home Zhawi has left behind remains vital, prompting her anxiety that she might forget her Shona language and culture, as in ‘bantuland (dear whinchat)’:
When I speak to cousins back home my mouth feels
like it’s full of the water that dead leaves flail in.
The brilliant prose-poem ‘gatawa village (routines & rituals)’ is especially evocative:
The room grows heavy as the chant that rings to our dead floats up to the bare black rafters, pulsates with spirits wandering the deserts of a fleshless realm.
I admire Belinda Zhawi’s poems for their intelligent, poetic explorations of major themes: migration, racism, gender, religion, relationships, sex, and, naturally, heritage — above all from mother to daughter. When they need to be, her words are direct, rich, political, multi-layered and highly moving.