There is a moment midway through Patience Agbabi’s set when I notice that there is total and solemn silence in the room, as though the stomach seems suddenly to have been ripped from it. Leading up to this, the audience have listened politely and acknowledged the poet as she sets up and delivers her material. (Agbabi is comprehensive in her preamble, and she occasionally admonishes herself gently for almost forgetting she has poems to recite.) In Prologue: Grime Mix, the opening poem of Telling Tales (2014), the poet expertly parrots the meter and clipped expression of a rebooted Harry Bailey:
April loves me not; April loves me
with a passion, dear doctor, I’m wordsick
and I got the itch like I’m allergic
but it could be my shirt’s on the cheap side
serenade overnight with my peeps wide
As she embodies the quick-tongued character, shoulder-dropping and hand-chopping in the process, there is something humorously jarring about the contrast between the urban content and the white lights of Southwell Library on a Friday evening.
But then Agbabi concludes the first half with The Refugee’s Tale, the account of a Sudanese woman forced to leave her homeland because of sectarian violence – and the mood shifts. The poet prefaces the poem at length by explaining the 2015 project, which involved storytelling collaborations between professional writers and refugees as they traced the Pilgrims’ Way across the South-East. Farida’s story details the tightening grip of interfaith conflict in Sudan and chronicles a journey from uneasiness to out-and-out terror. At one point, she recounts slipping out the back exit of her workplace to escape baying crowds outside, and finding herself surrounded before she can drive away:
The fist-headed crowd are pounding on my car.
My car is not moving. Each fist has a face
that looks like my own. […]
If my car is my coffin,
their fists are the clods of earth, the rich yellow soil
of my country. I start the engine,
praying, Dear God, let it … let it not stall …
In that pause, waiting for the engine to kick in, I look around to see jaws almost literally agape, minds firmly transported elsewhere. This response is a measure of the ordinary and befitting language Agbabi employs to tell her tale, which succinctly and faithfully frames episodes of her speaker’s plight:
When I met [my husband] at the airport … he was bleeding …
his chest was full of blood … and he had
ulcerative colitis, he is needing
urgent medical … very sick … he bled
In the course of an hour or so, the broadness and variety of Agbabi’s poetry attempts to pull the listener into countless life-worlds – London, West Yorkshire, Nigeria, Sudan. If there are moments when the provincial setting only emphasises the distance between the here and now and the far-off landscapes of Agbabi’s poetry, there are also moments that her performance manages to eviscerate the distance and, just for a moment, Southwell becomes Southwark, Haworth, Lagos, Khartoum.
Patience Agbabi performed at Southwell Library at Inspire Poetry Festival on Friday 27 September 2019