Interrogating the prejudice of race and class, Degna Stone’s spellbinding third pamphlet, Handling Stolen Goods (Peepal Tree Press), reveals a disturbing bond between the body and the world around it, and strives to break this down through bold, determined struggle.
Whilst human interactions stand at the heart of Stone’s poems (‘We spend our time having sex and abortions’ (‘For Love’)), the relationship between people and place is the principal issue beneath the poet’s microscope. Eager to exist independently, the self betrays self-destructive tendencies in its determination to be uprooted from its surroundings. ‘I stand with my back to the sea watching you, willing the wind // to take the feet from under me and hurl me into the air […] freeing myself of the bond that ties me to the landscape’, Stone confesses with characteristic grace in ‘Vörður’, a beautifully surreal piece whose shifting landmarks transport the reader to ethereal realms.
In these poems, the landscape is routinely presented as having a violent disposition, refusing to sit behind the easel and behave in an amiable manner. In ‘In Too Deep’, for instance, water lashes at bare skin until nerve-ends cease to function and the body is stripped back to the raw meat it truly is. In creating such haunting portraits of self-erasure (‘I can’t speak […] I’ve lost my tongue’ (‘For Love’)), these poems redraft expectations surrounding the aesthetically sublime, challenging the notion that nature is a tranquil place of retreat. Rather, place is menacing and cultivates the impulse to escape. This urge is bound up in the image of the human body as a place of dwelling, where racial prejudice and all its reductive assumptions become a prison.
I thought I had made peace
with my skin, learned
to live within it
its tone could make someone
feel sick to their stomach.
We cannot live outside our skin.
We are tied to it, shackled to it,
bound by it.
(‘Ill never protest as well as Nina Simone’)
Despite the defeatist overtones in this poem, the collection as a whole embraces blackness with tenaciously fierce resistance, as in ‘The Crows’. ‘I want to be as black as the crows […] sharpen my beaks on the bones / of the dead – be unafraid’. Slipping out from one skin and into straight another with the admirable power and agency to do so – ‘Find someone who looks like // you used to, let your lives intersect. / What will you do now, in your new skin?” (‘Of Mutuality’) – the self becomes a highly transformative space, fluid and subject to flux. Multilingualism is one such phenomenon that encourages these multitudinous selves to meet and mingle in uncanny ways.
I spoke to you in your mother tongue, you replied in mine.
But I remember that your speech was slightly off,
that even though you told me you were fluent,
in another language you are slightly someone else.
(‘Word of mouth’)
The death of singular identities is rendered all the more sinister by the delightful symphony that plays out in the background of these poems, scored with the mesmerising precision of orchestral phrasing. In ‘Allotment’, for example, another poem exploring the curious intersection of people and natural habitats, a ‘bass line of city traffic underscores / the hum of insects and bird chatter, / creates a song’ whilst parents bicker and bindweed throttles the crops. Elsewhere, the ‘wind makes instruments of half-built tower blocks’ whilst ‘dissonant harmonic carve a path through my brain / destroying its waymarkers until I can’t find my way back’ (‘Vörður’)
This distrust and suspicion is all-encompassing, extending beyond the pleasure of music, which here gains dark and dangerous tones, and beyond place to touch upon the modern technology that increasingly plagues our every waking moment. For example, ‘Perfidia’ is an anxious reflection on Apple Inc.’s voice assistant Siri. ‘How can you trust him? / You want to see the shape of his mouth, // watch the words physically form / on the lips he doesn’t have.’
Disentangling the knot between place and people, with a firm grasp upon the complex issues at stake behind the imprisoned self, these poems transform prejudice and preconception into magical lyric meditations.
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