When I first sat down to write a review of Kevin Simmondsâ€™ poetry collection â€˜Mad For Meatâ€™ I had the uneasy feeling that I would end up using sentences like â€œSimmonds serves up prime cuts of juicy sirloinâ€ or, if I thought the poems were bad (which I donâ€™t), to make some kind of unflattering comparison to stewing steak or beef gristle. Thank God I dodged those bullets.
Meat does play a significant role in this collection, however. As well as the sexual connotations â€“ and there are many sex scenes â€“ Â it ultimately serves as a reminder that, once our superficial differences are stripped away, we are all made of the same stuff.
Simmonds tackles racism in the US, past and present, with the help of case and character studies. There are poems devoted to the murdered African-American teen Emmett Till, civil activist Bayard Rustin and slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey. He thanks the stenographer whose racist comments caused Paul Robeson to quit the law firm in disgust and seek a new profession. Thereâ€™s even a notable appearance from Aunt Jemima, the original â€˜happy slaveâ€™ mascot of Quaker Oats breakfast foods who presented post-civil war America with a romanticised vision of plantation life (â€œUncle Ben know what Iâ€™m talking â€˜bout. We comfortâ€).
His righteous anger bubbles over in â€˜a sentenceâ€™, which deals with Johannes Mehserleâ€™s shooting of Oscar Grant III in the style of a grammar lesson. â€œsubject: Johannes Mehserle / verb: shot / object: Oscar Grant IIIâ€, concluding with: â€œA white police officer shot a black man faced down on the ground and will spend less than two years in jail for his criminal conviction. / What is the object / of that sentence?â€
Elsewhere Simmonds focuses on attitudes towards his sexuality. In the poem â€˜Sermonâ€™ he makes his feelings clear on religious intolerance:
â€œBefore he had hair on his balls, heâ€™d pled for deliverance. Some clapboard apostle shouted the demon names of what afflicts while that boy coughed into brown paper bags to expel his homosexuality. He retched until his stomach and sides ached.â€
In â€˜bouquet of scalpelsâ€™ he refers to his father as: â€œ…unforgivably christian / & jamaican / fine without my call / on fatherâ€™s dayâ€ and in â€˜Inheritenceâ€™ he tells how his stepfather â€œ…bit/ his tongue / before he called me / faggotâ€. Â Indeed the absence of a loving father figure is another recurring theme: from the baby-faced singer in â€˜Tenorâ€™ who tries to fill the psychological void with the men he seduces in public toilets, to the young Eartha Kitt, who was sent away from her South Carolina home after her foster motherâ€™s new partner refused to accept her â€“ in this case for not being black enough.
This confrontational style is extremely effective, but â€˜Mad For Meatâ€™ also shines in its quieter moments. In the heartbreaking â€˜After Katrinaâ€™ he surveys the hurricane devastation in New Orleans from outside his auntâ€™s house as she â€œ…wades through the wreckageÂ Â Â failing / no matter how hard she tries / at letting goâ€. â€˜salt (a suicide meditation)â€™ is both haunting and sad, and I love the nostalgic glow of â€˜Summer, 1982â€™ in which Simmonds recalls evenings in New Orleans when he was young.
It says much for the craftsmanship of his poetry that he can bring his scenes so vividly to life with so few words, whether describing the heat and strangeness of the Japanese â€œbar slash novelty store slash coffee houseâ€ in â€˜Geographyâ€™ orÂ the tension in the air as the different cultures and subcultures jostle for space in â€˜San Francisco (op.11)â€™.
Simmondsâ€™ willingness to take his poetry to uncomfortable places may be too much for some readers, but though often graphic, it is never for empty shock value. He explores the various issues he raises with intelligence and wit, baring his soul in the process. At the risk of torturing the meat metaphor again, this collection is raw, often bloody, sometimes tender and with a warm vein of humour running through its centre. Highly recommended.
Follow Ally Nicholl on Twitter @coulterscandy.