The Secrets I Let Slip by Selina Nwulu, Review #8
-Reviewed by Claire Trévien–
I don’t think I’m saying anything surprising here, when I say that there are still some ‘page’ poets who look down on ‘stage’ poetry. This is despite a long history of the two mingling, in spite of prestigious awards like the Ted Hughes which have been known to reward work that floats in between. This, in spite of their being numerous examples of poets that flit from one to the other depending on their project. It is quite an artificial divide considering that it is essentially a question of format, some works perform better out loud and have been designed for that purpose, others have been created to function on the page. Sometimes they can do both.
Having said that, the slam competition format, which is in many towns the only experience a crowd will get of spoken word, can breed a certain type of poetry.
It’s not to everyone’s taste, and that’s fine! There’s more than enough poetry to go around, and again, let’s remember the format it’s in before saying all spoken word is slam. It really isn’t.
Anyway, this is a longwinded way to say that Selina Nwulu, like most poets, doesn’t fit neatly into either box of ‘page’ or ‘stage’. She has performed her work widely, including at Glastonbury Festival, but has also been published in a number of anthologies.
This pamphlet to me, very much has a mixture of both kinds. On the one hand, Nwulu makes the most of the pamphlet form to experiment with various shapes, from prose poems to lists to looser fitting pieces. On the other, there are poems like ‘Curriculum Vitae’ which I can imagine enjoying in person, but where the narrative feels a bit stilted on the page:
Later I would escape to a dot in the Indian Ocean.
I’d rediscover my skin in rich mahogony,
sleep on mountain tops and never see so many stars.
For a second I would taste freedom.
You travelled where?
sneers the First Suit, headbutting my thoughts.
Ok, sure, fine – but what did you actually do?
It’s a bit simplistic this battle between the idealist poet and the corporate world, and it’s been done enough times already. If I squint and get rid of the suits though, there’s actually plenty in this poem that I like, Nwulu has a fantastic turn of phrase, and the poem ends like a riot, with a list of all the things she is beyond the CV (‘I make a mean chickpea stew’), hilarious and heartbreaking.
Now that I got the nitpicking out of the way, here’s one of the things I love about this pamphlet: that a strong thread revolves around language (and not just in a ‘I’m a poet I like books’ way). Nwulu is a Yorkshire poet of Nigerian descent, and many of the poems deal with what that means in terms of voice: which accent is authentic? which identity belongs to you? In ‘Two Sides of a Coin’, Nwulu imagines what an alternative version of herself in Lagos would be like:
Each act has a home in this moving composition,
you can see her belonging in the sway of her hips
While you might think this would be a ‘grass is greener on the other side’ type of poem, Nwulu is realistic about her alter ego, ‘We both laugh with the weight and depth of a church bell […] I wonder which version would have laughed the most’.
There are several stand-out poems in this pamphlet, ‘Homecoming’ parts 1 and 2, and ‘Friends, You Are Ageing Beautifully’, in particular. Politics are never far away, impinging on the tea making rituals in ‘Cuppa’, forcing a self-hating examination of the body in the midst of worldwide tragedies in ‘Be Silent’. The ambition of The Secrets I Let Slip is impressive, building into an ode of unbelonging.
This is a pamphlet that anyone with multiple nationalities, languages or identities, will feel at home in, and for everyone else, there’s a cuppa brewing, settle in.
This December, I have given myself the task of reviewing one pamphlet a day to raise money for next year’s Saboteur Awards. You can help by donating, or sharing the link using the hashtag #pamphletparty. I am not sure how this month is going to go, some pamphlets will be easier than others. I have given myself the aim of writing at least 300 words for each, a lower word-count than the usual reviews on Sabotage, in the hopes of making it more manageable! Here’s a link to the previously published reviews in this project!