Winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Prize 2021
Angola, America, winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Prize 2021, takes its name from a prison in Louisiana in the southern United Sates. In these strikingly original, thoroughly contemporary, and deeply moving poems by poet Sammy Weaver, we are immersed in the world the inmates must endure. From the first poem, when we witness a home-made tattoo and understand that this scarring and incision is a “map in the connective tissue of pain and loss”, we are drawn into this world in a way that is carefully observed and beautifully empathetic.
What is particularly convincing about these poems is the moral fervor that accompanies an ear that delights in the complexities of language and the music of syntax. It is an emphatic voice, observant to the smallest details and yet steps back from an intrusive ‘authorial’ presence to let these prisoners and landscapes breathe and be. We observe with the author the society that builds these institutions in which the protagonists survive under extraordinary pressures. We come to acknowledge that we are responsible for the contemporary establishment and continuance of these places.
The ‘Prison Industrial Complex’ is excoriated through artful conceits. There are poems about handcuffs, the Louisiana State Flag, the electric chair. Throughout, the fate of the body is aligned with the fate of the landscape, we see Louisiana’s famously endangered coastline, prone to hurricanes and oil-spills. Formally, the work is adept, with many 14-line proto-sonnets and then longer-lined free verse poems that are nevertheless, wonderfully compact. it conveys anger without hysteria, empathy without condescension, and pulls us through its compelling narratives with style and flair.
‘Sammy Weaver takes us into the USA’s prison system and its structured cruelties, racialised politics, and precious moments of humanity. There is a brutal, beautiful physicality to the language used here, creating alluring poems of reportage that have a tensile strength to them, to bear the pain witnessed. Angola, America is a sharp and startling debut.’ – Rishi Dastidar
“Sammy Weaver’s Angola, America is an incredibly courageous and sustained highwire act of empathy. This powerful sequence interrogates the death row prison system as a manifestation of institutional racism, the prisoners ‘perishing under felony / which is just another word for lonely, or colony.’
These unnerving, courageous poems explore the manifold inhumanities of prison – its strange histories – of guard wolf-dogs, of rodeos, and its tragedies – and examine the frightening apparatus of imprisonment and execution. There are poems I flinch from, but Weaver’s imagination is powerfully transformative, and her musical skills as a poet are unsurpassable. A poem about an electric chair becomes an elegy for the “manydead” flown from it, the knots in the wood left like “empty nests”. These are acutely sensitive, wounded poems that speak into the heart of suffering. I find myself transformed by them.” – Fiona Benson
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