I bought a copy of this poetry collection when it first came out a few months ago, but its recent listing for the Costa Book Awards poetry category finally inspired me to pick it up. Kumukanda means initiation but since Kayo Chingonyi came of age in England rather than Zambia where he was born, he mostly records in these poems the rites of passage he goes through as a young black man in Britain. From cricket games to spending time in a Londis grocery store, these poems express his particular take on common experiences of modern English youth and the tributaries that fed into the creation of his particular identity.
Many of the poems describe Chingonyi’s affinity with music and especially his attachment and affection for cassette tapes. In one poem he writes “You say you love music. Have you suffered the loss of a cassette so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name?” This invokes a real nostalgia not just for the music these tapes contained, but also the process of listening to this antiquated format. He observes how the static these tapes contained was part of the experience. One poem describes the background sounds which are accidentally recorded within tracks and how this can mentally transport the listener to the actual recording studio. These poems build to a sense of how music is a living commentary upon people’s lives and exists within the movement of time so that R&B artists work with “their lyrics written out on the backs of hands.”
There are references to musical influences from James Brown to Prince, but in some poems he also points to more complicated forms of broader song and dance imagery like Bojangles. This made me recall Zadie Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” for the way it describes a black individual in modern Britain contemplating racist imagery from the past and how that affects self-perception. Chingonyi describes in the title poem how he wonders what a version of himself that had been raised in Zambia would have thought of his British self. I admired how he describes in later poems that beyond any internal conflict of national or racial identity he recognizes a more fluid sense of being. In ‘Baltic Mill’ he describes a meeting point where it’s acknowledged “The exact course that brought us here is unimportant. It is that we met like this river, drawn from two sources, offered up our flaws, our sedimental selves.” I felt this worked in two different ways where it could describe two people meeting or someone reconciling different aspects of oneself as adding up to a unique individual.
This collection is a passionate and engaging take on one man’s coming of age.