Kayo Chingonyi’s A Blood Condition has a dignity that honours the past without indulging in any overflow of personal feeling. Dignity is an interesting quality in a writer – it cannot be faked without presenting as pomposity. Chingonyi’s authentic, reined-in passions are stirring. His impressive first collection, Kumukanda (2017), showed a poet who already understood that you do not need to be attention-seeking to deserve attention. In this second collection, he takes quietness further. The “blood condition” remains unnamed, although even the most defective of detectives will know it to be HIV. Eastern and southern Africa have been ravaged by the disease and Chingonyi, born in Zambia, lost both parents to HIV-related illnesses. Many of his poems bless the departed (in the affecting Guy’s and St Thomas’s he cannot dissociate the memory of his mother from hospital buildings where she once worked). But the collection is about loss in a far wider sense and its precise devastations will find echos in this time of Covid.
The opening prose poem, Nyaminyami, is dedicated to the Zambezi River god and the whole collection runs like a river that keeps breaking its own banks. Chingonyi compresses Zambia’s troubled history into its flow. He describes the insult of colonial interventions: the building of a dam, the greed for copper, the indifference to the old stories:
and the child would remember the legacy knitted in to the songs they had known all their lives of fisherfolk who swam before they could walk or talk because the river god would never let them sink
Irony is floated in that exposed final line: the river god faces a challenge.
The most technically accomplished offering is Origin Myth, a fine series of seven sonnets that are, in part, about the origin of the “condition in the blood” and describe a carefree time during which:
Men who love men sup on the freedom to love
each other; step together out of clothes
after dancing in clubs that never close.
The last line of each sonnet turns into the first of the one that follows – as if holding hands. I loved the sense that endings can, over and again, turn into beginnings. It is a way, through form, of experimenting with and expressing the idea of survival. Elsewhere, Chingonyi is fascinated by the complexity of survivor’s guilt. And in Umwana he implies it might even amount to an impertinence to recognise the features of a vanished ancestor surviving in an infant’s face.
Not all his memories are homages. His stepfather is rationed to the single adjective “hunched” and, in 13 Napier Street:
from the coffee table
on the Grundig.
“Scooby Do” and “Grundig” lead independent lives as words against which the stepfather’s actions become more intimately cavalier. The collection includes several of these snapshot poems in which less is intended as more than enough.
Chingonyi qualifies almost as an antiromantic. In Arguments in favour of the sea, his salty list includes the lines:
Cold day, one week after we wed,
The woman I love
inching in to swim.
It is a withheld pedestrianism that turns out, against the odds, to be a form of grace. And it seems fitting that the poem in which he eventually lets his guard down, interior w/ ceiling fan, should be about wordlessness.
Chingonyi’s poems grow out of gaps, out of the moments when nothing more can be done. The dead cannot be recovered, time cannot be reclaimed, the damage to the river is likely to be permanent, but a poem can be written and take its quietly powerful stand.
interior w/ ceiling fan
wish that we could lie here
for the rest of our lives
the blades of the fan above us
whirling like a tanguera’s skirt
everything outside this room
a distant country
let me be this unguarded always
speaking without the need of words
because breath is the oldest language
any of us know
• A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi is published by Chatto & Windus (£10). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply