Jason Allen-Paisant, a poet and professor of decolonial thought and aesthetic theory at Leeds University, released his second collection of poems in March this year. Self-Portrait As Othello (2023) pushes the porous and precarious boundaries of identity and embodiment, refracting a world of meditations and elaborations through the poet’s own experiences as a Jamaican man in the heart of ex-colonial powers. From the cover itself even, with its slippery assemblage of references - the poet’s name, the conjuring of Othello, the painting by Kehinde Wiley (itself in mimetic conversation with an old Dutch master), Allen-Paisant's characteristic interest in coalescing overlapping and intersecting identities is evident. Throughout the collection, he deftly creates such rhizomatic constellations of ideas with no single centre, conjuring webs of relationality that are always in motion. As the Martiniquan scholar Édouard Glissant wrote in his Poetics of Relation, thought does not unfold itself in ‘dimensionless place’ but ‘in reality spaces itself out into the world’.
The collection criss-crosses the poet’s life, tracing his course through space from childhood in Coffee Grove and Porus, Jamaica, to postgraduate studies in Oxford, teaching in Paris, and wanderings through Venice and Prague. From nightclubs to metro-rides and observations of the posh boys in the MCR, he examines experience through the frameworks of embodiment and language, elaborating a struggle between inner and outer worlds, and replicating through form the skewed relation between the racialised body and environment. In Paris, he says, ‘I speak the language but the space / don’t know my body’. The layering of the self with multiple juxtaposing images and associations – ‘my body inside Porus inside Paris’ – is felt all too intensely; embodiment becomes a burden – a drag:
I pull myself through tight spaces through the twists
and turns of the Marais’ dim alleyways.
And yet in the very way that Allen-Paisant's lineation illustrates the constrictive, twisting alleyways of the Marais, it is suggestive of the creative potential of tension between inner and outer worlds. The epistemological break or disconnect created by a space that does not know one’s body is a place from which poetry, a language of twists and turns, can be born. Put another way, the double-consciousness constructed by a hostile environment is attuned, in its hyper-awareness, to liminality and multiplicity, and the form of poetry itself can stand for a redeemed version of the twisting, uncomfortable movement that the poet’s body is forced to make through space.
One line asserts that ‘in this place I am too many things and / life is easier when you singular’, but Allen-Paisant’s fully embodied poetry itself knows that this is not possible. Along with those to whom the first page offers a dedication – those ‘who live in choreography, in multiplicity, to those always inhabiting the liminal space’ – the poetry moves through tight spaces and tricky ideas. It offers a glimpse of the potential that lies in often painful multiplicity, and language becomes a way of transforming the experience of embodiment. Indeed, the opening section ends with the assertion that ‘what I am now stands on its feet’: a kind of calibration has occurred, allowing perhaps for a less burdensome multiplicity. Fluidity is forced upon certain bodies and subjectivities, but is also an opportunity for joy, as evident in the passage that describes the narrator jumping into Prague’s river - ‘a yellowness compelling me’ - and becoming the architecture and the space:
[I] filled the universe as the waters came into me my self emerged
From Prague’s river [...]
The rest of the night I was the ancient king
laughing over the city I was gable and arch
Elsewhere, the narrator conjures the twists and turns of Venice, but rather than constrictive, these spaces of multiplicity and movement are generative of a kind of intellectual or literary pleasure:
the air filled with mosaics
tesserae of dreams how they move! thronging this city
around whose corners the mind turns endlessly never tiring
each lapping of the lagoon’s tongue a page.
Further on in the book, the dancing verse slows to a sequence of prose, clarifying and calibrating in the mind that which has been understood by the body: ‘nothing makes sense until it makes sense in the body, till the body is present at the making-sense’. Just as the body is involved in the making-of-sense, cerebral meditations perform their own kind of choreography. The work of slow thought, noting details, and painstakingly recording the indentations made by history in the minutiae of everyday life is radical work, encased here in the unassuming prose most suited to its intricate modalities. Confronting the contradictions present in a Veronese painting, in which the African figures ‘occupy subservient roles, like pages’ and yet are also ‘comfortably there [...] looking people in the eye, even having conversation’, Allen-Pasaint writes ‘ambiguity is a fucking revolution. It‘s almost overwhelming’. His own language offers itself as a kind of crucible for this ambiguity, harnessing within its cadence the energy produced by the dissonances of details.
The figure of Othello is, of course, a paradigm of ambiguity, and the collection asks ‘five centuries later, why does Othello offer up so easy a template for […] precarity, for this endless negotiation?’. The work of another poet might buckle under the canonical weight of such a figure, however Othello’s contradictory lightness, slipperiness, openness, is precisely what Allen-Paisant is interested in. He is presented as a model of a subject caught in a mesh of multiple identities, lying as an almost prophetic figure at the heart of interlinked historical turning points:
The decree of 1489 distinguished
between white and black slaves
for the first time
And in the midst of that you
as a noble Black in Venice
Othello is a paradox, trapped in the roots of a history yet to unfold; he speaks volumes and yet is strangely mute. Writing from Othello’s perspective, the narrator declares ‘when I spoke, my sound / was white gaze’. What is the status of a black character written by a white man? A kind of cipher? A model for one’s own colonised subjecthood? The passage from Dionne Brand’s book A Map To The Door of No Return, which precedes the poem ‘Self Portrait as Othello II’, feels pertinent. She writes that:
The black body is signed as physically and psychically open space … a space not simply
owned by those who embody it but constructed and occupied by other embodiments. Inhabiting it is a domestic, hemispheric… transatlantic… international pastime. There is a playing around in it.
In response to these elastically inescapable local and global dynamics—captured in the figure of Othello—Allen-Paisant takes up the gauntlet, the charge to ’conjure [him] furiously’, writing that:
I feel sometimes
that our destinies conjoin, that your life,
unfinished, is lived also through mine.
In this way, he enters the ‘open space’ of Othello’s subjecthood and engages in a kind of poetic play. In the precarity of his subject-position, Othello presents a paradigm for a potentially hopeful kind of multiplicity that is both fluid and creative. One of the questions that the collection probes, however, is the status of this model of forced multiplicity – of creativity engendered by necessity. It is an opportunity, but also a constriction that has been forced upon the Black body by a white gaze. As described above, Allen-Paisant yearns for the ease of singularity, and yet just pages later rejoices: ‘I ain’t died I split I divide / & recreate I ain’t one I multiplied’. Indeed, the collection continually shows the entanglement of these realities. There are moments of joy, as when the poet emerges from the metro and is:
hit with images again
of yourself in the space, and yourself
is two beautiful dark-skinned children
just innocently sitting on a bench waiting,
not bothering anyone, just waiting &
you want to weep because they are so beautiful
and nobody should be wrong to be
so beautiful in this world.
Here poetry itself seems to pause just to breathe for a moment; but this joy gained through seeing oneself in another, and seeing their beauty, does not last forever. The poet mourns ‘the future loss of this being, / so full in space, so occupying’ and is re-submerged in a world of difficult negotiations and tight spaces: ‘you small yourself up’. The openness that allows for mutual recognition with other Black men on the street, with beautiful Black children, with family, also means confronting oneself in racist representations of the Black body – in distorted sex-dolls, in Blackamoor brooches, in the suspicious gaze of passers-by. This way in which Allen-Paisant extends himself into negotiations with various hostile spaces and histories is what stays with the reader. Of Europe, he says, ‘this place is no stranger’. The collection asks how to explore this relationship without being trapped in its dismembering dynamics of colonialism and racism. He writes:
I am dismembered
I look for the different parts of myself
in the world’s oceans
in the black blood of Europe’s
monuments, in their sweat stains[…]
My name is in crisis
I am scattered all over
your cities, Europe!
The collection traverses this ever-unravelling omnipresence of the past; weaving webs of interrelation it illuminates flashes of recognition across disparate times and spaces. It asks how to explore histories of loss whilst remaining whole, and, in the multidextruous skill of its poetry, perhaps manages to find a way.
By Miraya McCoy Palmer