CANNIBAL by Safiya Sinclair

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The Notable Books Council, first established in 1944 by the American Library Association, announced the 2017 selections of the Notable Books List, an annual best-of list comprised of twenty-six titles written for adult readers and published in the U.S. including literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The list was announced in January and I was delighted to see one of the two poetry winners was my favorite poet, Billy Collins. The other was a poet that I was not familiar with, Safiya Sinclair. Seemed like a good time to check out her debut book of poetry, and I’m very glad I did.

The Notable Books Committee described it as, “sharp observations on our off-kilter world will spark your emotions while engaging your mind.” Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it “stunning debut collection.” And Booklist, in another starred review, said “reading (and rereading) Sinclair is an urgently necessary, absolutely unparalleled experience.”

A few other people liked it, too.

From the publisher:

Winner of the 2016 Whiting Award 
Winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (Poetry)
An American Library Association “Notable Book of the Year” 
Longlisted for the 2017 Dylan Thomas Prize 
Longlisted for the 2017 PEN Open Book Award
One of BuzzFeed’s Best Poetry Books of 2016
One of The New Yorker‘s “Books We Loved in 2016”Poets & Writers Top Ten Poetry Debut of 2016
Publishers Weekly “Most Anticipated Book of Fall 2016”

Colliding with and confronting The Tempest and postcolonial identity, the poems in Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal explore Jamaican childhood and history, race relations in America, womanhood, otherness, and exile. She evokes a home no longer accessible and a body at times uninhabitable, often mirrored by a hybrid Eve/Caliban figure. Blooming with intense lyricism and fertile imagery, these full-blooded poems are elegant, mythic, and intricately woven. Here the female body is a dark landscape; the female body is cannibal. Sinclair shocks and delights her readers with her willingness to disorient and provoke, creating a multitextured collage of beautiful and explosive poems.

Lets start at the beginning, where Sinclair explains the title:

The word “cannibal,” the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, comes from the word caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus thought ate human flesh and from whom the word “Caribbean” originated. By virtue of being Caribbean, all “West Indian” people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.”

Talk about being hooked from the beginning of a book! The poetry is exquisite; the language is so vivid and emotional and at times, shocking. I couldn’t read it in one gulp, I took my time and savored every page. I came away feeling like I learned something, which I can’t always say about poetry. The best way to see if you may like a poet is to try reading some – or listening to the poet read her own. Enjoy.

Sinclair reading “Hands”



This is where you leave me.
Filling of old salt and ponderous,

what’s left of your voice in the air.
Blue honeycreeper thrashed out

to a ragged wind, whole months
spent crawling this white beach

raked like a thumb, shucking, swallowing
the sea’s benediction, pearled oxides.

Out here I am the body invented naked,
woman emerging from cold seas, herself

the raw eel-froth met beneath her tangles,
who must believe with all her puckering

holes. What wounds the Poinciana slits
forth, what must turn red eventually.

The talon-mouths undressing. The cling-cling
bird scratching its one message; the arm

you broke reset and broke again. Caribbean.
Sky a wound I am licking, until I am drawn new

as a lamb, helpless in the chicken wire of my sex.
I let every stranger in. Watch men change faces

with the run-down sun, count fires
in the loom-holes of their pickups, lines of rot,

studying their scarred window-plagues,
nightshade my own throat closed tight

against a hard hand. Then all comes mute
in my glittering eye. All is knocked back,

slick hem-suck of the dark surf, ceramic
tiles approaching, the blur of a beard.

The white tusk of his ocean goring me.
This world unforgiving in its boundaries.

The day’s owl and its omen
slipping a bright hook

into my cheek —

Source: Poetry (December 2015)

The Art of Unselfing

The mind’s black kettle hisses its wild
exigencies at every turn: The hour before the coffee
                               and the hour after.
Penscratch of the gone morning, woman
a pitched hysteria watching the mad-ant scramble,
                               her small wants devouring.
Her binge and skin-thrall.
Her old selves being shuffled off into labyrinths,
                               this birdless sky a longing.
Her moth-mouth rabble unfacing
touch-and-go months under winter, torn letters
                               under floorboards,
each fickle moon pecked through with doubt.
And one spoiled onion. Pale Cyclops
                               on her kitchen counter
now sprouting green missives,
some act of contrition; neighbor-god’s vacuum
                               a loud rule thrown down.
Her mother now on the line saying too much.
This island is not a martyr. You tinker too much
                               with each gaunt memory, your youth
and its unweeding. Not everything blooms here
a private history — consider this immutable. Consider
                               our galloping sun, its life.
Your starved homesickness. The paper wasp kingdom
you set fire to, watched for days until it burnt a city in you.
                               Until a family your hands could not save
became the hurricane. How love is still unrooting you.
And how to grow a new body — to let each word be the wild rain
                               swallowed pure like an antidote.
Her mother at the airport saying don’t come back.
Love your landlocked city. Money. Buy a coat.
                               And even exile can be glamorous.
Some nights she calls across the deaf ocean to no one
in particular. No answer. Her heart’s double-vault
                               a muted hydra.
This hour a purge
of its own unselfing.
                               She must make a home of it.

Source: Poetry (December 2015)

3/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

CANNIBAL by Safiya Sinclair. University of Nebraska Press; 1 edition (September 1, 2016). ISBN 978-0803290631. 126p.


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