Cultures Literature

T.S Eliot prize: Explorations of Testimony

‘No one bears witness for the witness,’ remarked Paul Celan – to bear witness is to bear the utter solitude of absolute responsibility. The burden of the witness-survivor pervades Roger Robinson’s A Parable Paradise, which was most recently awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize: a highly prestigious poetry commendation with a cheque for £25,000. Several reviewers have praised the volume’s ambitious scope, and in particular Robinson’s ability to deconstruct the everyday manifestations of racism and victimhood. A set of threnodic, prosimetric poems dedicated to the victims of Grenfell Tower merges with reflections on slavery, Windrush, and the Brixton riots. Opposing ‘the city of the missing’ with ‘the city of the stayed’, Robinson depicts himself as cast between the testimonial poet and the heritage poet.

Robinson’s achievement is impressive but by no means unique. The shortlist for this year’s prize featured two other writers, Fiona Benson and Anthony Anaxagorou, who likewise lay bare a violent undercurrent in everyday society and language, exploring silenced histories through personal testimony.
 
The violent presence in the first half of Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost is exerted by Zeus, a deranged sexual predator, roaring bull-like in italicised capitals: an archetypal rapist standing in for contemporary cases ranging from Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes to Brock Turner. The frenetic, nauseating poems alternate harrowing victim stories with graphic ‘surveillance footage’: Zeus in a bulging red speedo ogling the nymphs; Zeus in the psychic ward, horrifying the nurses with twisted bestial fantasies; Zeus strapped to the electric chair, with an engorged scarlet phallus and perverted smirk, naturally unharmed: ‘I’VE ALWAYS APPROVED / OF THE ELECTRIC AGE’. On the other side of the bulletproof glass, his victims are metamorphosised, ostracised, confined to sanitoria. Yet amidst this whirling cacophony, their fragmentary testimonies remain, summed up in the proud defiance of Callisto: ‘Her voice when she calls to him / is the voice of her own mother, weeping. / Go ahead, Zeus. Constellate this.’

In the second half the tone is far more personal, arising from the depths of Benson’s own postpartum depression and the anxieties of parenting. Here we find no lyrical praises of motherhood, only the ‘sweet stink / of torn labia / under warm water’. The animality of childbirth and ‘its kingdom / of excrement / and offal’ is likened to the ghastly fate of the termite queen, who is force-fed by thousands of male termites while relentlessly oozing eggs. Depicting the female body as a trench and battlefield, a chimera of foetal cells, the poet breaks down a generally presupposed unity. In much the same way, an innocent game of hide-and-seek with her daughter gives occasion to meditations on the victims of the Holocaust and the Syrian Civil War: ‘but always, in the pockets behind this game / there is this residue, this constriction / families squeezed behind false walls’. Full of visceral transitions, Vertigo & Ghost demonstrates Benson’s remarkable talent in exposing all residues, which become the focal point of testimony.

Although Anaxagorou does not possess Robinson’s hypnotic cadence, he rivals him in historical consciousness and erudition. In Brexit Britainthis poet carries his Cypriot heritage as a duty, as an example of identity resisting clear-cut categories: ‘why bifurcate – Europe / or the Middle East, myth or ganglion.’ Racial violence is shown in all its alienation, its air of unreality: ‘when the knife was put to the other man’s throat / I became elsewhere’. In the poem from which this line is taken, Testimony as Omission, a muddled stream of consciousness reveals the conflict between the witness’ wish to vanish, to assimilate, and the haunting presence of the victim: ‘hands spoilt / and unsteady / reaching to rinse themselves in my promise’.  

At his best, Anaxagorou deftly exposes the violence that underlies every omission. Through the vibrant collages of After the Formalities, he never fails to draw attention to what the poem conspicuously leaves out: ‘there’s violence in forgetting’. In in the acrid satire Following on from Kant, the poet asks, ‘What comes before a fact?’ as he strikes through the names of African-American artists on the page, submerging them under mere categories. Anaxagorou’s poetry is simultaneously subversive and redemptive.

I recommend to read these three volumes as a triad. This year’s T.S Eliot Prize has furthered the revival of a much-needed poetic form: the archeology of forgotten testimony. This exposition of violence, with the family as a focal point, as well as the critique of everyday life in a raw and unapologetic style, is geared towards creating empathy and humanistic feeling. Though there may be an focus on filth, putrefaction, gaping wounds, and virulent hate, we might condescend to learn, in Anaxagorou’s words, ‘to salvage love from spit on the floor’.