“A Blood Condition” Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto Poetry) – book review

Kayo Chingonyi explores inheritance, legacy and relationships in poems that move from Zambia to the UK. He starts with the Zambezi River the prose poem, “Nyaminyami”,

“where people and the river lived in accord for generations, woven as hair in a braid is woven, in such a place our story begins, half a lifetime ago before the Monckton Commission when people burned their chitupas in front of the offices of district commissioners, before a blood condition passed through the populace as flame through forest, before load shedding, hours of power cuts; the national grid sold off to the highest bidder, before Zed was booming from copper, its roads full of American cars and salesmen plied their trade”

The river was accorded respect by the local people who understood its importance and appeased its god. Then the colonialists in their search for copper and use of the original populace move in and exploit or displace them. The blood condition is not named but surfaces, like the river, throughout. In a crown of sonnets, “Origin Myth”, “Results” from a blood test give

“All clear. Sat in bed you cry until
streetlights glance the lattice of the blinds,
your heart a boulder rolling down a hill
your optimism toughened to a rind
effective, if a little unrefined.
And though, for now, you’re spared the hereafter
there are depths of fear no words can capture.”

The tears are a release of emotions, not just relief at the all clear. The narrator’s dodged the bullet of the blood condition which could have been inherited from either or both of his parents. The tears acknowledge survivor’s guilt. The condition took his parents. In a visit to “Chingola Road Cemetery”

“I came to pay my respects
As did my mother before me
kneeling at the exact spot
all she carried, like a bag of shopping,
dropped; its contents rolling.

On the tape she made
of his favourite songs
her voice cracks
in the act of speaking
as if the act is what loosed him
from this plane.

Let us pause to play him ‘Hotel California'”

The son is following his mother’s footsteps, paying respects as she did. Ensuring her son wouldn’t forget, a tape of songs is a memento. The irony of the song mentioned is that among ghostly voices, is the observation that a visitor can check out but not leave. A person can pass on but the memory is still alive. Legacies continue. The “Genealogy” sequence of brief poems further develops this idea. In “[Shieldfield]”, “you” is the narrator’s mother,

“They let you hold them before taking them away.
You were enraptured by their bow-leggedness,
those legs that never ran down these stairs and along the road
I always say: I was supposed to have three siblings.”

There’s a tenderness despite the tragedy. The mother is allowed to see her late children who are acknowledged as family members. Unfortunately the narrator loses both parents to the blood condition before embarking on some of the rites of passage that the transition to adulthood brings. Here, he brings his wife to his mother’s grave, “[Incantation]”,

“The woman I came to your grave
to tell you about
wore your wedding ring
the day we married. And if, as I sometimes believe,
objects transmit energy,
this wearing brought you back.”

“A Blood Condition” is remarkably unsentimental and there are moments of love and joy, e.g. in “interior w/ ceiling fan”,

“let me be this unguarded always
speaking without need of words
because breath is the oldest language
any of us know”

There’s still space for love, which seeps in like the river that the poems return to, “Nyaminyami: ‘water can crash and water can flow'”,

“those………. who know water…….. know
eventually water will pass through
even…… the smallest gap…… in what appears
to the human eye…… to be…….. a solid mass”

Kayo Chingonyi’s “A Blood Condition” demonstrates the power of poignant quietness and acceptance of both love and loss and how the personal speaks to the universal. Like the river, the poems know their destination and flow towards it, subtlely shaping their thoughtful strands into an intelligent, intricate reflection.

“A Blood Condition” is available from Chatto Poetry.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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