D.A. Prince reviews Colours & Tea (Human) by Tomi Adegbayibi (Muscaliet Press, 2022)
The title is intriguing and immediately poses a question: why attach (Human) to what is already a respectably good title? What is it adding to the poems in this pamphlet?
There’s no Contents page. Instead, the collection starts with a Foreword – just a page and a half, in two sections and a short coda, and almost a prose poem in itself. I wonder why more poets don’t do this? It guides the reader towards something of what’s to come, opening out the themes in the generosity of a shared space. The first paragraph places us “in the middle of a forest grove”. Adegbayibi uses an inclusive ‘we’; she’s writing, I think, about two people but in some way I’m also a part of this. The different greens overhead, already presaged in the seductively-textured endpapers, set the theme of colour balanced with personal response:
[…] the jades, and the emeralds in the leaves. I too am sure of my version of seeing. I cannot be sure of yours, but we agree to the wonder, to the infinity of wavelengths, to their depth, to this feeling that the forest could swallow us whole and we too would be green with delight.
How do we talk about colours when we can never be certain of another person’s quality of vision? This questioning of personal experience and how it can be verbalised hooks me in. Adegbayibi expands it in paragraph two. Here she has turned to tea-making and the quieter comforts of shared ritual:
[…] it creates space on your tongue. You try to fill it with description, try to translate the warmth in your mouth to words. You know that it is madness to say you taste red or yesterday or woman, you know that none of these things exist on your palate. […] I fill it with things my tongue feels, unsure if what I taste is true as I am unsure of what you taste.
‘Translate’: it’s what all poets do, trying to put the world of the senses into words. Even I, a non-tea drinker, can understand the companionship Adegbayibi is showing. Words, and the handling of them, are the poet’s medium and there is something timeless and universal in these rites of hospitality.
How do we talk about colours when we can never be certain of another person’s quality of vision? This questioning of personal experience and how it can be verbalised hooks me in
The Foreword could have ended here but there is a coda, just two sentences: “We are born and we die. Everything else in between is hazy, human, and hazy.” Hazy: this seems a contradiction of the vividly sharp greens Adegbayibi has given us, and of some of the sharply-drawn descriptions in, for example, ‘From the Belly of Beasts comes Saffron’. It seems to undercut the promise of that delicate exploration of uncertainty. Perhaps this coda is something to come back to, along with (Human).
Adegbayibi’s prose poems explore the worlds of colours, while more conventionally-presented poems (in tercets, offset in a way that lets space enter the poems) explore different types of tea. The two forms alternate, more or less, and this works well; try reading them separately and the pamphlet becomes less integrated, as though diminished in its ambition. She has taken care with the ordering of these poems. Some titles contain immediately-identifiable colours – ‘A Beige too Quiet’, ‘On Cobalt Roads the Trees are Ultramarine’, ‘Orange Music Room’; in others the colours are absorbed into a possible narrative – ‘For the Drillers on Obsidian Streets’, or ‘From the Belly of Beasts comes Saffron’.
There’s a lyrical impressionism at work here, with a sense that the words are finding each other rather than following a pre-determined agenda. The four sections of ‘From the Belly of Beasts comes Saffron’ are marked Nigeria, Syria, Yemen and London, each with its bus, taxi, options for walking, the tube. It’s a loose connection, held together by the colour of saffron threads, travel and the undercurrent of danger. Is it a performance piece? On the page the first three locations are right-justified while London is at the left margin. There must surely be some significance in this: is London the base, the home place, the one returned to?
There’s a lyrical impressionism at work here, with a sense that the words are finding each other rather than following a pre-determined agenda
Perhaps any search for significance is misplaced in the prose poems; perhaps their role is synaesthetic, where the sense of colour opens up related ideas which the poet has to translate. ‘Payne’s Grey (The inside of a removal centre)’ opens “This cell is a piece of paper folded in half. The night is the death of a hundred stars, where the floors they are buried in are black holes hemmed with blue quills and lake water.” I can hold the idea of paperwork and identity papers but this slips away with her second sentence. Yet something is going on here, within the build-up of impressionistic images. ‘Types One to Four’ is, however, unambiguous: it focuses on the rust colours of dried blood – “[…] the butcher to vulva, to she, the labia browns its rubies to fleshed powder.”
The seven poems about types of tea with their more formal structure and absence of first-person pronouns are more readily accessible. Masala chai, sencha, chamomile, peppermint, pu-erh, lemon and ginger, oolong: a list of the familiar and the exotic. These poems maintain the boundary-crossing themes already established, as ‘Masala Chai’ shows:
Hindustani for “chai” is Chinese for “chá” is English for “tea”.
Cup warm. There is a price for
language walking across borders.
Tea has its own rituals and ceremony as well as its own season. In ‘Sencha’,
The first flush of leaves is picked.
They ask to fill this space with April and May,
to wet the words with the smell of seaweed, to exist.
When soaked, the water abandons its body
to the sencha, sighs jade and bronze.
Human soaks its speech in noise, the world yet to shift.
The Glossary – closer to notes than to a dictionary – doesn’t explain the types of tea; for any unfamiliar teas you will you need Google and a journey into a fascinating world. Pu-erh, made by a process of microbial fermentation, was new to me though not, as I discovered, to the usual UK supermarkets. The range of tea-growing areas, maps, types, culture: it’s a subject to get lost in, to explore.
I wonder now if these poems about ways of exploring the synaesthetic web of connections between our senses and the natural world?
Is this where (Human) comes in? I wonder now if these poems about ways of exploring the synaesthetic web of connections between our senses and the natural world? Returning to the final section of the Foreword, however, I’m still not convinced that Adegbayibi needs to tell us that this is a ‘human’ connection. We are all a part of the ongoing and unending struggle to make ourselves understood to each other. Perhaps we can take that for granted.
Colours & Tea (Human) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award 2022, as was the publisher, Muscaliet. It’s a pamphlet with texture (both in the feel of the cover and within the poems) and an online image can’t come near to doing it justice. The densely-black cover is silky-soft; the dark emerald end-papers have a satisfying crackle. I wish the publisher had given the names for these; they deserve a credit in their own right. The first printing is a limited run of eighty copies so by now it might be sold out. For a poet that can be a serious note of approval. If you want your own copy you’ll have to hurry.
D.A. Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second collection, Common Ground (HappenStance, 2014), won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A further collection, The Bigger Picture, also from HappenStance, has just been published.