Chimène Suleyman, Outside Looking On, (Influx Press, 2014), £8.99, 53pp, ISBN 978-0-9927655-5-2
Reviewed by Zozi
[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]
Canary Wharf, glittering in the background of London: powerful, spookily disconnected, an icon of wealth and power in a city where many are struggling to get through the day. “This part of London they promised to us when they were creating it,” as Chimène Suleyman puts it. The wharf lurks in the background of every poem in her debut collection, which explores a series of small moments unfolding within its radius.
London poet, journalist and essayist Suleyman, who grew up in the shadow of Canary Wharf, writes easily and unselfconsciously; her writing also has a craft that shows a precise eye for moments and small details. As the title reflects, this is poetry that peeks out through bus windows, looks down from balconies, stares at the sky between the rooftops, and reflects the multiple angles from which London’s residents see their surroundings. “Do not look up at the view,” Suleyman writes; “you will only lose your appetite.” This is poetry that takes a magnifying glass to the details of a large mosaic.
Suleyman filters larger themes of boredom, heartbreak and loneliness through a series of small, glass-bright images: “the crane outside the window licks its lips… swings big dig,” “the back of a shoe / sinking in soft ground”.
In particular, the black lentils breaking “through windows to tell us they were here, / stomachs bulging at belts so we would know,” is a pin-sharp image that has resonances beyond itself. In Suleyman’s vision, even the smallest fragments of the city are vibrant, desperate to live and to announce their presence.
She touches on greater displacements. The outstanding poem ‘Dear Boss from “Smollensky’s”’ evokes the ghost of the narrator’s Turkish grandmother, a storyteller who “would rather stand still than be made to walk behind any man”; the ghost of her scent follows the narrator through the streets, following her home until it is (in the poet’s intimate phrasing) stirred into tea. The poem evokes a lost world and a tender grief, and reminds us there is no time limit to feelings of displacement and loss; that these feelings resonate through generations. “It was her land they were busy fighting for, and no one noticed the old thinning headscarves in her cupboard, cared for, or wanted.”
Some of the brightest images are anarchic and joyous, like the couple glimpsed dancing in the street, the lentils, and the gorgeous poem ‘Mevlevi’: “her veil reaching / into brickwork, these flattened shoulders / commanded the streets”. But I particularly adored ‘Pancakes in Bartlett Park’, a lovely energetic ode to anger.
In ‘Pancakes’, a woman leaning from a balcony throws flour and eggs at a man we assume is her ex-boyfriend; a crowd below applauds. And the reader is caught in an unexpected moment, thrown into the joyous energy of London nights – when the unexpected happens, emotions bubble to the surface, and lost people find themselves again. The words “Fuck you” are repeated like a magic spell: “Rubbing eggs, / hair, assault clouded by flour. Fuck you. / White rain… middle finger to the sky.”
But my own favourite in the collection (‘Cultivating’) is a quieter poem which carries emotional weight, and has resonances beyond itself. It is a quiet affirmation for people who feel lost, displaced, used, or thrown to one side, and it is ultimately hopeful. The brilliant metaphor of urban foxes – wild, unafraid, walking “lost when others were asleep” – is one that stayed with me for a long time after reading.
Suleyman’s work is subtle, ever prescient, and cognizant of the kind of contradictions that spring up in a city where skyscrapers rub shoulders with council estates. A handful of the poems are small glimpses of other lives, zooming in on the seemingly irrelevant details that tell us everything: we meet Brian the government official, Brian the relationship counsellor, and Bendigo the sniffer dog. These poems are frustrating only because the glimpses we get are so tiny, reminding us how little we know about most of the people who share this giant city. As Suleyman puts it, “Aren’t we all lost and missing?”
This is a very welcome collection from an extremely skilful voice. I hope to read much more from Suleyman in the future.