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Filigree in the writing of Black British poets

The absence of ‘filigree’ from everyday use means there were no obvious or pre-ordained routes to approaching the word, giving the poets free rein to draw from it what they would and play with the subtleties of what they found. The subsequent poetry that fills the pages of this anthology is rich with different styles and forms. Take, for instance, Akila Richards’ first line in ‘Al zhie mer’: ‘Mem orisha ng lik e bird nests’.

The style forces us to read the poem in a halting and confused way, which conveys the frustration connected to the breakdown of language and communication more effectively than words alone. In a similar vein, the employment of non-standard English, such as that included in Keith Jarrett’s ‘(A Black Writer Speaks of a White Writer Speaking of a Black Man Speaking of…)’, incites questions about language and how it structures the way we think and therefore frames the way we perceive with the world around us. 

The range of subjects covered by the anthology is equally as varied as the styles. From sex in Tolu Agbelusi’s ‘Faking Death to Avoid Sex is Not Extreme’ to a commentary on colonialism and romanticising the past in Raymond Antrobus’ ‘My Mother Remembers’, which discusses how 'people always reach back to times/ gone and that’s what I’m saying/ people want to carry the past. Make it/ fit them' to a discussion of Blackness in ‘Ode to my Hair’ to poetry itself in ‘From a Father to a Daughter’ which discusses the constraining nature of literary tradition, ‘Yet I try and try/ to find a box that can hold the sun.’ 

These are only a few of the ideas contended with in this groundbreaking anthology. 

The role of ‘filigree’ itself, that refers to the decorative elements of craftwork, is discussed by Nii Parkes in his introduction. The relationship between the ornamental and the functional are a salient part of this discussion.

'It is easy,' Parkes explains, 'when one thinks of "filigree" to fixate on the ornamental… [B]ut to my mind, patterns detract from the heavier truth of an object.' 

What does this mean when approaching the poetry in this anthology and in general? It means a balance is required. Keep central the 'heavier truth' of the poetry but do not 'focus on the function… and miss the craft', as Parkes notes often happens with 'contemporary literary critics… in the work of Black poets'.  

With that in mind, the anthology affirms and celebrates the filigree elements of Black British poetry. Each poet responded to the theme of filigree independently, and yet at times they fall into step with one another, creating a compelling flow to the anthology. Filigree presents poets who are unapologetic for stepping over the practice of judging poetry based on the values prescribed by British literary circles, which, Parkes says, 'dismiss the work of writers of colour as being unsubtle and verbose', yet whose innovations of style and form breathe life into the literary scene.

Beth Moore, Inscribe intern and undergraduate at the University of Leicester 

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