I watched a man, chunks of his arm
lost to needles, as he tried
to make a tiny house with the leaflets
left on the windowsill.
– From “A Paper Shrine”
Raymond Antrobus’ All The Names Given comes just months after his award-winning debut, The Perseverance, was released. This speaks to Antrobus’ tenacity with language, his willingness to embrace and celebrate the smallest moments. The collection begins, appropriately, with an untitled poem that argues for patience and gratitude.
My sister says stop living in your head.
Look what that cloud gives. I dream in the back seat…
This determination to ground oneself in the moment, to allow “time to arrive,” as Antrobus closes the poem, governs the pace of the collection. The poems themselves are not simple musings. They do not avoid scrutiny. Antrobus frequently engages his Blackness and the ways in which various communities doubt one part of his existence or another. He speaks directly to navigating a world that caters to the hearing and how his deafness affects his experience. But Antrobus never sits inside darkness. It’s not so much that he is overly sentimental or naively optimistic. Rather, Antrobus is able to juxtapose the most troubling moments with vignettes of wonder and wisdom.
Antrobus includes several poems that recall experiences with incarcerated people, and alludes to his own arrest. These poems speak to the terrible relationship between disability and incarceration by humanizing their subjects. In “At Every Edge,” Antrobus recalls interacting with a man who is incarcerated for killing his wife, yet even here Antrobus masterfully characterizes the man. He is not sympathetic or excused of his violence; it’s just that he isn’t wholly embodied as violence. “For Tyrone Givans,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, addresses the lack of access to support technologies like hearing aids inside corrections facilities and what it means to isolate someone with a disability.
There are no hymns
for deaf boys. But who can tell
we’re deaf without speaking to us?
Here, Antrobus reminds the reader that one of the most vital elements in advocacy is visibility. Those who experience injustice must be afforded space in the conversation, their voices must be centered and heard. The continued erasure of people with disabilities, as Antrobus emphasizes in “Captions & A Dream For John T. Williams of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe,” perpetuates a justice system that disproportionately targets and harms people.
All The Names Given is not a political manifesto, though. Antrobus also centers his relationship with his father and his mother. These relationships are, in many ways, dichotomous. Though neither relationship is idealized, Antrobus is again effective at characterizing them as wholly human. This is, to me, his greatest strength throughout the collection. Where many poets are able to create dynamic speakers in their work, Antrobus is decidedly ahead of the curve in developing the others in his poems. They are not reduced to function, but innately connected to Antrobus’ own experiences.
Fans of Ilya Kaminsky are sure to appreciate Antrobus and see parallels in their approach to celebrating life. Both authors are expert at capturing the human condition through a lens of generosity and patience. Antrobus burst onto the scene with two incredible collections this year. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of both The Perseverance and All The Names Given. This is a poet you’re going to want to follow.