Katie Mennis

After the formalities

After the Formalities
, Anthony Anaxagorou, Penned in the Margins, 2019, 108 pp, £9.99 (paperback)

& to the burning I say
my worry is a whole country.


            flames lambent

my grandmother died with umbrellas
outstretched in her gut my grandmother

             to be British
is to be everywhere.

            – ‘Cause’

In ‘Cause’, the second poem in Anthony Anaxagorou’s collection After the Formalities, the poet reclaims the phrase ‘flames lambent’ – an image taken from Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and quoted by historian David Starkey in a 2011 interview following the London riots – for poetry.

Countering Powell and Starkey, who used such poetic cadences (intended to recall English translations of Virgil) to elevate their inflammatory, racist ideas with an air of delicacy and prophetic fervour, Anaxagorou turns the words of politicians back to the service of a poetry that expresses, inquires into and accounts for, rather than incites, ‘the burning’ within and around us. This very present and pressing ‘burning’ takes many forms in this collection: in an intimate scene at a mother’s deathbed, ‘A kneeling flame floats on the mercy | of its oil, quietly untying its light’, while in another poem ‘Across the flyover a tower | crammed what hurt it knew | into a flame’. ‘Flames lambent’ becomes an apt figure for Anaxagorou’s poetic temperament, characterised by Akala as ‘A burning rage with a delicate taste’.

Anaxagorou shares an interest in the origins of ideas catching on, as well as alight, with those who wield them more malevolently (Nigel Farage is quoted too, saying, ‘It’s amazing how ideas start out, isn’t it?’). The poems trace these origins with careful and urgent ‘worry’; every slur, every name opens up an account of ‘the whole of history’ that calls for apologies which aren’t forthcoming. In Anaxagorou’s capable hands, it is poetry that can best achieve redress, ‘us[ing] language for closeness. for closure.’ Closeness and closure are at least partially achievable if we make the effort to afford the pronunciation of a name, the inner life of the man driving our Uber, and the history of a small nation their own poetry, proper context and emotional due. Knowing too well the hurt caused by omission, whether the failure to act at a violent crime scene in ‘Testimony as Omission’ (‘and yes / I should have intervened / gazelle-like / between two injured leopards’) or the failure of a school teacher to list Cyprus among Britain’s ex-colonies in ‘Ecumene’, for Anaxagorou every detail is ‘worth noting’ – essential to a more generous understanding of the potentially violent emotional, historical and political fallout from ‘What life will do with us in the name of living’.

After the formalities of course I said London
& of course he asked again.

            – ‘After the Formalities’

The collection is beautifully paced. Three poems on its threshold linger in ‘airport security | who question where I’m headed and why’ and ‘departure lounge[s] … heavy with pilots who no longer trusted the sky’, dwelling on beginnings (for the poet’s young son ‘it’s always the beginning’) and what comes before them (‘before Harvey Weinstein … before Theresa May triggered Article 50 … before oceans reversed slowly into cages | like blue meat in a slaughterhouse’). But the next two poems, ‘Uber’ and ‘A Line of Simple Inquiry’, each differently but explosively push us into the after – after the formalities, both interpersonal and poetic.

In ‘Uber’, a racist incident on the day of the EU referendum recasts the question ‘do you prefer | it | here | ?’ exchanged between two EU nationals as so much more than polite small-talk. ‘A Line of Simple Inquiry’ reveals the true violence of the familiar question ‘where really?’ by pushing a faux-fascinated interrogation to its logical, threatening end: ‘Is that your hand still on my elbow?’ Both poems carve out a space ‘after’ technical formalities (in the sense of ‘following’ as well as ‘moving beyond’) – ‘Uber’ with short, sharp lines (‘go home | home | go home | home’) and ‘A Line of Simple Inquiry’ as a prose-poem, both rhythmically relentless – achieving Anaxagorou’s characteristic aim to ‘bridge the disparity between performance poetry and traditional page poetry’. After the Formalities continues to oscillate between meditation and reportage, lyric introspection and outraged intervention, with impressive control.

America is named after Amerigo Vespucci
a coloniser who would prove Columbus wrong
history is all of our making I wanted to declare
she said enough for one night sometimes
the only way to speak to a person who hurts
is to kiss them enough their mouth learns
how to salvage love from spit on the floor…

            – ‘There Are No Ends, Only Intervals’

Perhaps Anaxagorou’s most important achievement lies in creating a manifesto for a complete, multifaceted masculinity that makes After the Formalities essential reading for our times and should give us hope for the future. This emerges through the great range of voices that the poet adopts to talk to strangers, racists, his partner, his son, his grandmother, the nation, himself and his body. Sometimes he is acerbically funny (‘I’ve had toothbrushes | more complicated than you | you look like a social construct | on the scrap heap of history’), sometimes he yearns in isolation (‘Do I look good in this body? … give me direction,   show me god’), sometimes he relates to the vulnerability of broken birds and children (‘my son couldn’t stop thanking me for buying him | a watch, I love you daddy, at this I cried | becoming another rescued animal in his hands’). If Anaxagorou shows us that he is still learning every day how to live as a man, in this collection his mastery of language leaves no such development to be desired.

Words by Katie Mennis.

To buy
After the Formalities by Anthony Anaxagorou, visit Penned in the Margins’ website.

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