Split by Amani Saeed. Review by Rhys Lawrence

Amani Saeed, the self-described “London-born American-British-Indian-Middle-Eastern-etc. spoken word artist” is rapidly establishing herself as a vital voice in the modern poetic landscape.  Founder of the Golden Tongue poetry events, Split, Amani’s most recent collection is empowering, fiercely political and incredibly exciting. We are delighted to welcome Amani to the Burning Eye Small Press Showcase at the SO:To Speak Festival.

Split by Amani Saeed. Review by Rhys Lawrence

Split can seem at first glance to be a collection centred on notions of division. The poems are separated into two volumes, the cover is graphically frictional with a grainy cut-and-paste of the Statue of Liberty sliced clean down the middle. The opening poem is heavy with narration of ‘beheadings’, ‘bombs’ and ‘sinners, but Saeed’s work  is as much about being pulled apart as it is about putting oneself together. In Split the poet is examining the many facets of her own being and exploring the space between cultural ideals and memories; taking ownership of the self through presentation, remix.

‘AL-FATIHAH’ is a blunt and stark introduction to the dissonance which is explored and resolved in the collection of poems that follow. It navigates feelings of guilt in response to the actions of both the Islamic State and the US military, and the feeling of itinerancy that stems from the perceived conflict between Saeed’s cultural heritage and progressive ideals. The incredible pace of this poem is stirred up by dense internal rhyme structures and alliteration; ‘I read the news and I feel sick, pathetic, a heretic’ – the frequency of this syllabic repetition and its irregularity lend this poem a fury and a staccato pace that brings to mind the sounds of conflict familiar to us from news coverage of the war on terror. At the close of the poem Saeed pushes back against ‘every person – believer or not’ who tells her that she can’t ‘be a Muslim and a feminist’, and pleads ‘My god, tell me I can be bigger than that.’ These themes will become prevalent throughout the first volume of Split; Saeed is taking ownership of her own personal relationship with God and religion, refusing to be told that she ‘can’t get to the bottom of a wine glass and still press my head to a prayer mat.’

Saeed taking ownership of her subjectivity in response to expectant cultures is doubtlessly the most salient feature of Split’s first volume. In ‘Eponymous’ she demands the correct pronunciation of her name – she celebrates it, ‘the crisp fizziness of champagne,’ ‘aniseed, a china cup of afternoon tea.’ Immediately following this comes ‘Burkini Queens,’ in which Saeed refuses to be constrained by traditional Islamic customs which ‘make us pay for being women’ to ‘feel like a stranger’ in her own place of worship. The poet is demanding the opportunity to form herself and have respect from the various communities within which she exists – which despite frequently demonstrating themselves to be oppositional – often make parallel strides to erase her identity.

Continuing to build upon the theme of strength being found in ownership, Split’s second section deals with intense personal trauma. This volume is brutal, difficult at times but vitally so; it demonstrates the power and steadiness of acknowledgment and acceptance, and the strength to be found in defiant self-respect. Saeed is reclaiming her sense of self in the second volume of Split, in ‘For Alex’ she laments that the individual named stole her ‘separateness’ and ‘sucked away’ her ‘vitality.’ ‘A Rationale for Living’ is a turning point in the narrative of the text; this poem is a life-affirming jab in the face of the tones of violence and suppression which precede it, with a deeply resonant handful of lines that form a pivot in the narrative of the collection. With these lines Saeed breaches the walls of trauma and brings her poetry into a new realm of hope and independence.

Whilst impactful, the aforementioned lines have been deliberately omitted from this review in the hope that they may retain their emotional impact for any readers inspired to pick up a copy of Split from Burning Eye Books or attend Amani Saeed’s performance at SO: To Speak Festival’s Small Press Showcase.