After the Formalities
In 1481 the word 'race' first appears in Jacques de Bréze’s poem ‘The Hunt’. De Bréze uses the word to distinguish between different groups of dogs.
In that hard year grandparents arrived on a boat
with a war behind them and a set of dog leads.
Bullet holes in the sofa. Burst pillows. Split rabbits.
Passports bound in fresh newspapers. Bomber planes.
A dissenting priest. A moneybag sucking worry.
On the boat grandmother anticipated England’s
winters with the others. Slick snow on gold streets.
Grandfather grieved two dogs he’d left. Pedigrees.
Bluebottles decaying at the base of their bowls. The dogs of
England were different. The water though. Fine to drink.
In 1606 French diplomat Jean Nicot added the word 'race' to the dictionary to denote distinctions between different groups of people. Nicotine is named after him.
In London grandparents lived with only a radio.
A lamp favouring the wall’s best side. Curtains drawn.
Byzantine icons placed on paraffin heaters.
Arguing through whispers. Not wanting to expose tongues.
Stories circulating. What neighbours do if they catch you saying ‘I’m
afraid’ in a language that sounds like charred furniture being
dragged across a copper floor. Grandfather. Always. Blew
smoke out the lip of his window. So too did his neighbour.
Colourless plumes merging. How it’s impossible to discern the
brand of cigarette a single pile of ash derives from.
In his 1684 essay ‘A New Division of the Earth’ , French physician François Bernier became the first popular classifier to separate humans into races using phenotypic characteristics.
Mother’s skin is the colour of vacations.
Her hair bare-foot black. An island’s only runway.
Reports of racist attacks. Father turns up the volume.
Turns us down. Chews his pork. Stings the taste with beer.
Tells mother to pass the pepper. There is never a please.
He asks if she remembers the attack. The hospital. His nose.
A Coca-Cola bottle picked from his skull. Yes. She mutters.
The chase. Dirty bitch. How we’ll make you white.
Aphrodite hard. Dirty dog trembling with the street light.
Please god. Not tonight. The kids.
In his essay of 1775, ‘On the Natural Variety of Mankind’,
J.F. Blumenbach claimed that it was environment which
caused variety in humans.
In the bathroom mirror I spat blood from my
mouth. Quaver breath. Suburban. My brother desperate
to piss. Pulled the door open. Asking. What
I tried to fight & lost. Why? Because the island
we come from is smaller than this. Their names are shorter.
Pronounceable so they exist. Even after their noses break they
still don’t hook like ours. Their sun is only half-peeled.
He lifted his top to show me two bruises. To remind me
of something. How history found its own way of surviving. A
dark wash mixed with the whites spinning around & around.
In the bathroom mirror my brother spat blood
from his mouth. Souvla breath & home. Me.
Desperate to piss. Pulling the door open. Asking.
What happened? He tried to fight & lost. Why?
Because the island we come from is larger than this.
Here. We chew up too much of their language.
Leave behind an alphabet of bones. We will never exist
in their love songs. How many bruises does it take
to make a single body? I left him. Surviving history.
A dark wash mixed with the whites spinning around & around.
In 1859 British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
If the house phone rings after midnight
someone you know is dying. Breathing in ten black moons
under a siren or belfry. From the wound in my uncle’s back
leaked the first atlas. Blood escaping him
like a phantom vaulting over the spiked gates of heaven. The
knife. Half steel half drunk. The motive. Skin or prayer. We
went to visit. In the window’s condensation his daughter
wrote, daddy don’t die. On the water of her breath.
That evening my father came home. One hand trumpet.
The other wreath. All his fists the law.
In his seminal book of 1911, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, eugenicist Charles Davenport wrote, ‘Two imbecile parents, whether related or not, have only imbecile offspring.’
She had the same colour hair as Jesus. Most boys smile
after. When we were done I moved a blonde streak
from my arm. Wondering how much of my body
was still mine. I smelt of rain on an old umbrella.
My fingers a burnt factory. She asked if she was my first
& when I said yes she smiled. Pulling the covers up
whispering not to get too comfortable. How her father
would be back. The bed a wet flag. The duvet
breaking news. On the shelf a gollywog
above her family portrait. Poised like a saint.
The Bengal famine of 1943 killed four million people. Churchill ordered food to be sent directly to British soldiers in Europe. On hearing the number of Bengalis who had perished, he asked, "why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?"
Outside the KFC racists have always looked
so sure to me. Like weathermen.
Driving his skull into mine like a belief. I saw
how even evil can feel warm & smell good
when close enough. A crowbar. Wedged against
my throat. Slowly the lights began to wave. Chips
by my feet. Black iron warming my skin so silently
I could hear how suffering learns to soothe the jaws
of antiquity. These men. Irrational as any god. & me.
Emptying inside the promise of my oxygen tank.
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population.” — Enoch Powell, 1968.
After the formalities of course I said London
& of course he asked again. When I said Cyprus
he leaned into his chair recalling a family holiday.
The weather sublime. The people accommodating.
Particularly towards the English. How it was a shame
about the Turkish thing. & your parents. When did they enter
here? In the late ‘50s I replied. So before the Immigrants Act?
Yes I said. Before. Well good for them. He said.
Putting the lid on his pen. Closing his pad.
Asking me to talk a bit more about my previous roles.
In 2001 philosopher Robert Bernasconi wrote, ‘The construct of race was a way for white people to define those who they regarded as other.’
In those days I was required to fill out forms
with multiple boxes. Some I left blank. My father
would notice my omission. Filling in the white
option with his black biro. I crossed it out.
Telling him I’m going with ‘other’. My mother
wearing the same sad skin as before said we are not
white. The look he gave her was. Snatching the form
from me. The same X dominating so much white.
Let me tell you. Nobody in their right mind need
make themselves such an obvious target. He affirmed.
“It’s amazing how ideas start out, isn’t it?”— Nigel Farage, 2016.
My grandmother will die. Somewhere in her skeleton.
White sheeted. Iodoform thick. Her mouth all beetle.
My family will gather around her body. All fig. My mother will
look for coins. Despite there being nothing for money to
save. Another lady. Dying the same. Will goad our kind.
Through thick tubes she’ll scorn. Her voice. A bluebottle’s hot
wings. You’re all dogs. Foreigners. & dirty. Outnumber us even in
dying. The nurse will apologise for the whole of history. Drawing
the curtain. Mud is always the last thing to be thrown. A prayer
reaching for the pride of an olive. Like a hint. To hold.
Separation Has Its Own Economy
having fallen through the mirror in my chest, having become my tardiest wound, I decided to invent a new me although some things are practically impossible like trying to hurry haze, or forcing colour onto blue; I press my cheeks onto hot bulbs, move furniture into who cares, knock on doors with my gums, finger phone boxes for forgotten change.
My habits consist of dialling the wrong number just to hear myself say I’m sorry, crushing the stems of daffodils into Ikea mugs we bought in a Dalston charity shop; each night when the emails stop, I go on eBay to bid £306 on a key shaped bottle opener, three MDF penguins and a soft toy with cigarette burns. Nobody outbids me.
Things I keep because I must: a court summons for two unpaid parking tickets a tattoo of your PIN on my wrist.
For the past month I’ve been ripping the heads off fishes giving each a sobriquet before French-kissing their dead eyes. All that remains: a Jamie Oliver cook book, a date circled in red for a beginner’s salsa class, organic wine I was sent after a talk on gentrification in east London. Up for grabs is a discounted meal for two and tweezers too small for my hands: On better days I envisage myself a man who owns a house in Zone 4 with a garden, casually mowing the lawn in early spring the way a secular thinker might. For the occasion I’d wear tight white shorts combined with a salmon pink sweater my Chihuahua named Nico will keep tangling himself up in the lead.
On the patio will be an Aperol Spritz half savoured while through the double glazing my wife will be reading Capital to our children, all eight of them, at exactly the same time. This is what I envision as I saunter to Dan’s flat unfurnished and smelling of attempt. There I ask to borrow his saw, a hammer, a rope. He tells me to behave. I say some things are in need of fixing. He sits me down. Says his girlfriend only got with him because she didn’t want her kids to come out too pasty. Said she told him that in a text. Said racism is its own logic. Said he told her to go find a white guy and a two-bed above a sunbed parlour. Said orange is the new black, anyway. There’s only so many ways you can remember a person. My friend Dan. Who lent me a saw, a hammer but kept back the rope, along with his sense of humour.
Anthony Anaxagorou is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. His poetry has been published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, New Statesman, Granta, and elsewhere. His work has also appeared on BBC Newsnight, BBC Radio 4, ITV, Vice UK, Channel 4 and Sky Arts. His second collection After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S Eliot Prize. It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year. In 2020 he published How To Write Itwith Merky Books; a practical guide fused with tips and memoir looking at the politics of writing as well as the craft of poetry and fiction along with the wider publishing industry. He was awarded the 2019 H-100 Award for writing and publishing, and the 2015 Groucho Maverick Award for his poetry and fiction. In 2019 he was made an honorary fellow of the University of Roehampton. Anthony is artistic director of Out-Spoken, a monthly poetry and music night held at London’s Southbank Centre, and publisher of Out-Spoken Press.