Poor — Caleb Femi

A book that blew me away. I thought I’d read it in dribs and drabs over a few weeks but once I started I didn’t want to stop.

Poor is a collection of poems about Femi’s experience as a Black boy growing up on the North Peckham estate. His writing is captivating: “a long syllable I lose to the tax of waking”; “this concrete is a field of soluble petals / purple to the stem.”

The collection is devastatingly sad — Femi returns at various points to the guilt of surviving when many of his friends have died. (It was on the estate that Damilola Taylor, a contemporary of Femi’s, was killed.) He also recounts experiences of gun and knife crime, as well as encounters with the police; notably, being stopped aged 13 by a police officer who had given a talk on being “little stars” to his class at primary school.

But joy, love and life run through it, too. Like the men walking along a pavement “like young dolphins slicing coastal waves”, or the inside of a hoodie being “a veiled nook where a boy pours himself / into a single drop of rain to feed a forest.” It is a celebration of a community in its entirety. To this end, I loved the choice to include photos of Femi’s — happy and sad — from estate life throughout the book.

Thanks to Hackney’s wonderful Burley Fisher Books for such a fantastic recommendation. I can see why it was their book of the year in 2020 — and I already know it will be one of my favourites this year.

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