Steven Lovatt reviews Amnion by Stephanie Sy-Quia (Granta, 2021)
It’s been a long time — Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic may have been the prior one — since I finished a book-length poem and immediately read it again, but Amnion has an imperative vigour flowing from Stephanie Sy-Quia’s self-defined critical purpose “to be my lone line self and look the monumental questions in the eye”. These are serious ambitions, and hardly unwarranted; after all, the world is in an absolute state (“too hot, and unjust”) and there is work to be done, beginning sensibly with the work of self-knowledge. Not in the post-sixties Western narcissistic / therapeutic sense, but more in the Socratic one: self-knowledge as a prerequisite for becoming the sort of autonomous, sceptical, impassioned moral agent that ruling authorities have always tried to silence.
Sy-Quia is 27 years old. She lives in England but has roots in many countries and, not unrelatedly, a complicated relationship with where she’s ended up. Amnion is in part an attempt to make sense of this inheritance, but although it draws heavily on aspects of her genealogy, this is no gentle, hobbyist’s interest — “Blood is so contrived” she writes, “Texts are so porous”.
I am walking
to the other.
I am clothed in romance.
I am casting it off.
Note the verbs. Note her activity. Sy-Quia figures herself as walking from her biological representation to her literary one, mightily suspicious of both. She is clothed in the romance of her “exotic” heredity (“Shall I entertain you with the fetishism of a foreign name?”), but she is forever shedding it also, for how can you become an autonomous moral agent if you’re no more than the sum of gametes or cultural stories, if the self is entirely soluble in “discourse”? Amnion is both a personal poem and a political one, but it confirms — very valuably just now — that these aspects aren’t finally identical, any more than dolphins are identical with the ocean. We emerge from the political and with every leap we re-immerse in it, but the fact is we are the thing emergent, we are the thing that can leap. Hence Amnion itself isn’t really an object but an action. (Perhaps all good poems are, and it’s just that the self-making achievement of Amnion makes it especially clear). More specifically, it is an action of synthesis applying equally to the biographical ‘content’ and the poem’s language and form.
Sy-Quia knows how difficult it is to make a coherent picture from the past, but it’s a challenge she accepts:
[…] dealing in shards is what I wanted;
these being my inheritance
Beautiful but unsentimental images, collected from recent and remoter history, assemble into broken lines of life-story intersecting with world events. This is another face of the poem’s dynamism: all its people and objects are depicted as acting or acted upon, and every occurrence is ethically embodied. We take in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Second Vatican Council (there’s a lot of church history in here) and, with acid understatement, “the underdiscussed Massacre of Manilla” — eurocentrism and colonial myopia are recurrent themes.
Amnion has an imperative vigour flowing from Stephanie Sy-Quia’s self-defined critical purpose “to be my lone line self and look the monumental questions in the eye”. These are serious ambitions …
There’s history and then there’s Time. We swim in both, but whereas the former is narratable, the latter can only be shown. Sy-Quia reaches down into them for images that shine. This, from the first page:
My father was born on an island brushed by the hem of the monsoon.
My mother was born on the Sahara’s edge:
blonde, with blue eyes in the dark hands
of the doctor
who slapped her
From the lives of her grandparents there’s a gradual, shuttling movement throughout the poem to Sy-Quia’s own maturity and her efforts to understand her inheritance in relation to a frequently cold and dismissive host culture and the well-meaning people who betray the characteristic English need to define her in a fixed identity they find unthreatening. Adopting her irony, we might ask where better to learn your place than at Oxford University? Not all her student contemporaries were unpleasant or deluded, of course, but as a body they don’t come out well. Institutionalised arrogance is one cause, but Sy-Quia also blames the parents:
[…] they were loud.
They came two by two in pairs of Sunday-lunching racists.
The fathers wore trousers the colour of rare meat.
Sy-Quia’s political education had begun even earlier:
At the school I learned:
to twist praise and to deflect it always
that boys were growing men with needs
that I was disgusting and, at best, allegorical.
Female strength and female struggle are celebrated across the generations, and beauty and brutality combine in potent motifs such as the pearls and black eyes given by the poet’s grandfather to her grandmother. ‘Motifs’ is not even the right word for images apparently borne to the surface of the poem on involuntary heaves of anger, rather than placed as structural-decorative garnish. Whether informative, ironic or straightforwardly furious, the voices of the poem are always questioning, asking much more of history than facts and much more of language than prettiness. This ardour is both intimidating and inspiring in its demand that we not be disengaged, and perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer Amnion is that it has made me glance furtively inward at some of my own complacencies.
The voices of the poem are always questioning, asking much more of history than facts and much more of language than prettiness. This ardour is both intimidating and inspiring in its demand that we not be disengaged …
Does Amnion finally present an integrated whole? Not all of it. Not obviously. It’s a little too disorderly for that. But the line about dealing in shards is only the plain truth, and any poem of such ambitious historical, cultural and psychological reference would struggle to make the centre hold, to tuck all the loose yarns neatly into one coherent story. Ultimately, what unites the poem across its variations is its emotional intensity, the feeling that everything matters to the poet and is in this sense not passively ‘integrated’ but actively, transitively integral to Sy-Quia.
This foregrounding of self places a heavy burden on the narrative voice, particularly as regards tone. A slight slip and the personal could easily sound pompous, and the political hectoring or pious. And then there’s the basic challenge of maintaining the reader’s interest across a hundred-page poem about its author’s life, which calls for a well-judged variety of rhetoric and form.
For the most part the challenge is answered with aplomb. Line-length, assonance and a fine instinct for syntactical stress patterns are more prominent than full rhyme, and Sy-Quia’s deft bending, pleating and snipping of lines inspires confidence and delight, especially in the passages of blank verse. Line length and emotional intensity often seem co-dependent, shorter and choppier lines seemingly corresponding to sites of vulnerability, intimacy or fury. And there is a great range of voices in Amnion, from the exegetical to the comic, the explanatory to the most tenderly lyrical.
There was English, in the clerestory of my mouth. There was French,
stowed in the front of my lower jaw. My father spoke Spanish, which was
slippery on the tongue and the teeth like a series of smooth stones. And
then there was German, that language my parents peddled between them
like a secret. It was hairy, like a wild pig, and came lumbering from
the back of the throat.
We lie like brackets
enclosing a pause:
our children as yet unsummoned
from the blue hiatus.
Sometimes, though, the distance between registers seems unbridgeable, as is apparent in drastically different treatments of the same theme:
Of my parents early loving, I rightfully know little
They met in Rome. He was a priest. They must have fucked
because he was defrocked.
Here in the second extract, the profanity, as they always do, enervates not only the line itself but also those around it. Elsewhere, I felt a little alienated by the occasional snarling direct address and / or rhetorical question, techniques that can so easily dispirit readers by seeming to deny in advance the freedom of interpretation that should always be their due. Yet, in the epithalamion that closes the poem, the ‘you’ directed to the beloved is warm and generous, inviting the readers as witnesses to share the speaker’s joy.
Amnion is an emotionally and intellectually fearless record of the birth of a mature self, enacted in verse of erudition, wit and passion. It feels utterly contemporary and I haven’t read anything else quite like it.
Steven Lovatt is a writer based in Swansea. He is a member of the International Literature Showcase, run by the British Council and the UK National Writing Centre, and his book Birdsong in a Time of Silence has been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize.