Raymond Antrobus’ collection ‘All The Names Given’ offers poems of quiet power, beauty and raw frankness


John O’Donoghue discusses the themes of colonialism, identity, deafness and spirituality in Raymond Antrobus’s powerful collection All The Names Given.

book cover illustration of a raised hand

Front cover of Raymond Antrobus’ All The Names Given

Raymond Antrobus comes garlanded with accolades. His collection The Perseverance was awarded The Guardian Poetry Book of the Year; The Ted Hughes Award; the Rathbones Folio Prize (the first time a poetry collection had won this award); a Somerset Maugham Award; and a Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. He has also won a number of other awards, been given an MBE for services to literature, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. This is practically unheard of, especially when you factor in Antrobus’s background. He comes from a mixed heritage family in Hackney and has been deaf since birth. So, I came to All The Names Given wondering what to expect.

The book’s epigraph is from the Spanish poet and Nobel Laureate Juan Ramón Jimenez’s poem ‘Night Piece’:

The body as it daydreams goes
towards the earth that belongs to it, from the other earth
that does not.

This mysterious aphorism introduces a collection of poems that explores identity, relationships troubled and intimate, racism, deafness, love and loss, and draws on a variety of approaches to language, from texting to found texts, sign language to lip reading, Standard English to patois, and a heritage that takes in his Antrobus surname, which he shares with the plantation owner and slaver, Sir Edmund Antrobus, and the village in Cheshire called Antrobus where his forebears came from; and his Jamaican father, Seymour, itself a very English-sounding name of a certain vintage, in which can also be traced the legacy of Empire.

All The Names Given also includes a number of ‘captions’, inspired by the work of deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. In a note about these captions, Antrobus quotes Sun Kim:

“Does sound itself have to be a sound? Could it be a feeling, emotion or an object? Could time itself become a sound?”

The book then opens with the first of these ‘Closer Captions: [sound of mouth and arms opening]’. This gesture will recur in the book, most notably in Her Taste, which recounts in large part how the poet’s mother and father got together:

Her own father was quiet,
Detached and serious all his life,
Reaching out his arms for God
While his children crawled at his feet.

But the gesture is also in Plantation Paint, and In Law, and perhaps in the poet’s memory of being handcuffed in the powerful poem, For Tyrone Givans, which starts:

The paper said putting him in jail
without his hearing aids was like
putting him in a hole in the ground.

It’s this sinuosity in the collection’s construction, of recurring motifs of dreams, rivers, names, gestures, that binds the poems into something more than the sum of their parts. This is a book that has been thought about deeply, its imagery and language as diverse and as coherent as the poet himself.

The first poem in the collection is untitled, and starts with the poet escaping from England and all that it’s come to represent:

Give thanks to the wheels touching tarmac at JFK …
give thanks to the hand returning the passport …
Give thanks to your name, Antrobus, to landings
and beginnings, your soul needs time to arrive.

The Acceptance then combines all of these themes and acts as a development of the paradoxical idea evoked in Jimenez’s epigraph. Antrobus dreams he meets his dead father, first in Dad’s House, then in Antrobus’ hotel room, which is flooded, ‘all the taps/running’, so that ultimately the poet is by a river, where he follows ‘the song’ and meets ‘my deaf/Orisha/of music, Oshun.’ An Orisha is a Yoruba deity, and Oshun is the river goddess of divinity, femininity, fertility, beauty and love. Oshun ‘bathes my father in a white dress.’ The poem ends:

They embrace. My father beats his drum.
With shining hands, she signs: Welcome.

This poem continues the sense of invocation at the start of the collection, Orisha a figure that is at once an African embodiment of the Muse, that last line of the poem: ‘With shining hands, she signs: Welcome’ a moment of inspiration, reconciliation, and affirmation that is very moving. It led me to think, who would other disabled poets invoke as their Muse? What hinterland have we to draw on for inspiration? Who forms our canon? And note that Orisha does not speak – she signs ‘With shining hands.’

A slim black male stands facing the camera with his hands clasped together at his waist.

Raymond Antrobus: credit Adam Docker

In several poems Antrobus brings poem and captions together, rather than the captions being interspersed between poems. Take The Royal Opera House (with Stage Captions):

A play. An all-black cast in a South African Township: we see them sing their songs and play their instruments. We follow a boy through the townships we see his mother killed by rebel soldiers, a new shore of blood pools the floor, the boy sleeps next to her corpse.
[sound of speechless poverty]

This technique is also used to powerful effect in Captions & A Dream From John T Williams of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe. Antrobus notes: ‘The details of this case were gathered from ‘The Ruderman White Paper on Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability’. The piece tells of the shooting of John T Williams and the press questions aimed at his brother in the aftermath of the killing:

The reporters pushed microphones
into his face. My brother was deaf
[sound of no season]
He spoke each word
for the trembling broadcast as
his brother could still read his lips
[sound stolen]

This is a collection, then, that draws on essential aspects of the poet’s identity – his deafness, his mixed heritage, his growing up in Hackney, in London, in England – and makes out of his experiences poems of quiet power, with moments of beauty and raw frankness to knock down the barriers that have been placed in front of him.

And lest we think he may have grown grandiose with the great list of awards that been bestowed on him, Antrobus lists his own reckoning of these, and what has also been bestowed on him:

“… Most Self-Centred Fear during the Global Pandemic, Lifetime Achievement Award For Most Convincing Head Nod In A Crowded Pub, Most Triggered Person In An Empty House (I Ran Away From Home To See How Long It’d Take My Mother To Notice)”

All The Names Given is a powerful collection. I recommend it to all readers of Disability Arts Online.

You can discover more about Raymond Antrobus by visiting his web site.

All The Names Given, Raymond Antrobus, Picador, £10.99