Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
University of Nebraska Press, 2016; 126 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal chronicles the strangeness that comes with being made to perform for others, or more precisely, the ones who’ve made her speaker(s) feel “othered.”
No wonder then that Caliban plays such a significant role in the collection, from the book’s first epigraph through its last poem. Just as Caliban is able/forced to learn Prospero’s language, so too do these poems become a sign of the oppressor’s legacy. These voices become strange unto themselves as more of their identity is stripped away for the convenience of the colonizer.
It’s a battle fought throughout the collection. We see it in “White Apocrypha” as the speaker waits for a friend and hears “a choir of male voices” so sure of their place in the world that “every vibrato / is measured and paid for” and for whom “[e]ven looking at the fall / leaves has its own upstate / vacation.” That world is so different, so removed from anything she or her sister “whose impossible voice / made the splintered / rafters tremble, and had women / fainting and bawling” knows that it’s not just insulting; it’s demoralizing. Even with that gift, her sister would never know the same kind of ease as those male voices experience:
My sister, whose song
made me believe the soul
could bloom and flourish,
that God could swear
and wail here in the mud with us,
still calls me weekly to say
there is no version of
herself that she can believe in.
Not even the singing.
Not even the song.
But luckily, there are moments of reprieve, if not revenge. In “How to be an Interesting Woman: A Polite Guide for the Poetess,” we’re at first invited to
Call me Mary. Call me Sophie.
Call me what you like.
I’ll answer to any man who looks
at me right.
Over the course of the next several stanzas, though, her power is revealed. She’s willing to play this role—“I have learnt how to smile, how to / talk with my hips, how to swallow / my words”—in service of the long game. After pacifying us with her seeming acquiescence, she is quick to remind us that she is in control:
I will strip you right down
to the bone. I will take your name.
I will take your home
and wake dark with a song
on which you finally choke;
my black hair furring thick
in the gawk of your throat.
Cannibal never lets us become too comfortable with our own modern, “progressive” racial attitudes, not in the “Notes on the State of Virginia” poems titled after the Thomas Jefferson text of the same name, the three “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof” ones, or “Crania Americana,” which responds to Samuel George Morton’s 1839 contention that the intellectual capacity (or lack thereof) in different races is based on the size of their skulls by repurposing lines about and by Caliban.
Too much has been done that cannot be ignored; too much needs to be said. And though we may not always like what we hear about our part in perpetuating this false supremacy, Sinclair reminds us remaining a stranger to the truth has never been a path to progress.