Kayo Chingonyi is a Fellow of the Complete Works programme for diversity and quality in British poetry. He is the author of two pamphlets, Some Bright Elegance (Salt, 2012) and The Colour of James Brown’s Scream (APBF/Akashic, 2016). Kayo has been invited to read from his work around the world and his poems have been translated into Spanish, German and Swedish. He was awarded the 2012 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and served as Associate Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016. His first full-length collection, Kumukanda, is forthcoming from Chatto & Windus.
The Colour of James Browns’s Scream
for Stephen McCarthy and Todd Bracey
I have known you by many names
but today, you are Larry Levan,
your hand on the platter, in the smoky
room of a Garage regular’s memory.
You are keeping When Dove’s Cry
in time, as you swing your hips,
and sweat drips from your hair
the colour of James Brown’s scream.
King of King Street, we are still moving
to the same sound, though some
of us don’t know it is your grave
we dance on, cutting shapes
machismo lost to the beat–
every road man is a sweetboy
if the DJ plays Heartbroken
at just the right time for these jaded feet.
Teach us to shape-shift, Legba,
you must know I’d know your customary
shuffle, that phantom limp, anywhere;
that I see your hand in the abandon
of a couple, middle of the floor,
sliding quick and slick as a skin-fade
by the hand of a Puerto Rican clipper-man
who wields a cutthroat like a paintbrush.
Let us become like them, an ode
to night, ordering beer in a corporeal
language from a barman who replies
by sweeping his arms in an arc,
Willi Ninja style, to fix a drink our lips
will yearn for, a taste we’ve been
trying to recreate ever since.
In light of what my aunt calls
the Arabic texture of my hair,
I’m Abdi outside the only shop
selling tamarind balls, Irish Moss,
Supermalt in decent quantities.
It is not enough to say I miss
the smell of cassava roasted
over open coals, expeditions
in want of Tilapia, Capenta,
assorted meats of questionable
provenance. How much, auntie?
Barter and bluff and rough hands
of stallholders glazed to a deep
blue shameless blackness that is
consigned now to another life
before this one of middle-class
white boys in reggae bands, who
love roots and culture as if their
love is enough to know the code
that some of us live and die by.
At least these boys who call me
Abdi seem to be fond of Abdi.
They ask why I don’t come
round no more, what it’s like
in Leeds and maybe, today,
I can be Abdi and this shop
can be all the home I need.
This poem contains gull song
not song, as such, so much
as guttural injunction; a music
we forgot how to understand, since
it lacks that carefully planned sweetness
sounding instead of black-shod
clockers-on, the splash and clack
of shop fronts, cabbies sparking
tabs in the cold of a windswept rank
flanked by one of Monkchester’s
lesser monuments; a sentry stopped
in his bronze tracks, steps echoing
the strains of an old tune hidden
in the genes of a new one–a left-behind
accent fizzing at the back of my tongue.