SHORTLISTED FOR THE T.S ELIOT PRIZE 2010
Read an interview with John Haynes on the Cyprus Well website www.cypruswell.com
You is the new book-length long poem by Costa-Award winning poet, John Haynes. The ‘You’ of the title is the narrator’s partner, wife of many years and the book is not just a celebration of and meditation on,personal love and devotion, but a record of how such love moves out of a family and is refracted out into the community and the wider world. The tensions inherent in this are compounded by the cross-cultural nature of the union. The narrator is a white British man and his wife was born and raised in Nigeria. Exploring a partnership based on culturally quite different – and in some aspects painfully incompatible - conceptions of ‘love’, the poem is knit together by philosophical theme of ‘I’ and ‘you’ seen from many perspectives.
The Nigeria where the couple met is re-created with great sensitivity. Amidst the joy of their early love, we meet a number of characters in the African extended family and village and trace the early mission education of ‘You’, the death of her father, her family’s strongly felt Christianity. The narrator observes and embraces both the harsh facts and the undeniable beauty of the northern Nigerian setting. A ‘new’ life in Britain offers its own contrasts and problems: exposure to racism, unfamiliar customs, homesickness, cold weather. The bringing up of children in a strange culture adds another thread of complexity to the theme of love.
Much love poetry is based in the threat to that love, and in this long poem it is a threat that arises from the potential for misunderstanding posed by two kinds of love, one derived from ‘romantic’ courtly love, the other from communal values of the homestead, the hoe and the cooking fire. Written in an adaptation of a traditional ‘Rhyme Royal’ stanza used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Auden and Yeats, Haynes nevertheless writes in beautifully clear English vernacular and this poem, set out in sections of three stanzas, flows unbroken from beginning to end.
Listen to John Haynes read the beginning of his long poem, ‘You’:
Review from TLS
The brilliant achievement of John Haynes in 'You' is to incorporate a range of challenging systems of thought and maintain an accessible, attractively colloquial style. He explores the most traditional subject of poetry - love - and subjects it to the most modern questions. Should we continue to believe in courtly love as it was promulgated by the troubadours? Or is love a social construct, which means that it must have taken an entirely different form in a society like Dante's? Or is it, even more reductively, a chemical construct, the product of "mirror neurons"? He treats such questions in the context of a book-length love poem to his wife whose Nigerian origins are the premiss for an evocation of otherness - 'You' is especially vivid when it is contrasting Haynes's English landscapes and cultural bric - a - brac with his wife's Nigerian ones. Its is here that Haynes adds a system of thought from his own profession as a university teacher of linguistics quoting as an epigraph, M. A. K. Halliday's 'Functional Grammar'. "The first and second persons I and you naturally retain this deictic sense; their meaning is defined in the act of speaking". That apparently unpromising idea of starting point for a meditation on the way that context defines the nature of the "I and You" interaction, the encounter with alienness, and leads, therefore, to the joyful specificities of love relationship. 'You' employs a baggy 'rime royal stanza', with rhymes that are often nowhere near "half" (especially in the final couplet), to comprehend a melange of registers and references, moving between the unshared pasts of the lovers, and then through their shared memories. So the movement between I and you, the shared and the unshared, becomes also the movement between the cultures of England and Nigeria, which are defined by contrast with each other. This contrast, through, has already been negotiated by the lovers so that their communication shows how "the act of speaking" can define both the love relationship and the attempt of alien cultures to understand each other. Poetry In Brief TLS 29th October 2010
Review from The Guardian
That most persistent of poetic themes, love, lies at the heart of Haynes's new book-length poem and its richly detailed paean to his Nigerian wife. Its complexities are explored from various angles: its charged, often clichéd lexicon; the shape love takes in different cultures; the shifting pronouns of "you" and "I". Haynes nimbly switches between a pared-down tenderness – memories of his lover "in coat and woollen hat under / the duvet" in the bedsit of their youth – to a blunt, reflective honesty: "I say I love you but it's only words. // What difference can words make?" Yet for all these drifts in tone and an occasionally clumsy syntax (given the demands of the adapted rhyme royal stanza form) the poem rarely sounds disjointed. In particular, the stark contrasts between Nigeria and Britain are both vividly and subtly portrayed: from news of political murders in Africa to the poet's wife's shock in witnessing an English child's disrespect for an elderly man. But it is Haynes's unshowy philosophising that makes You such an engaged and engaging work. Ben Wilkinson, The Guardian, January 2011
Review from New Welsh Review
John Haynes has followed his Costa Award winning Letter to Patience with You, a fine biographical and philosophical tribute to his Nigerian-born wife, and what the pronoun that stands for her means to him. As first 'you' is irredeemably the 'other', a black woman as opposed to a white man who appropriates her life history for rich literary pickings. Why does she not write her story herself? However, the depth and tenderness with which he describes her youth and the extent to which her identity is interlaced with his, as partners and parents, dispel any images of hunter and prey.
This is an ambitious, book-length poem and Haynes uses the rhyme royal stanza, used by Chaucer and Shakespeare, but he spices up the recipe of traditional form with Nigerian scenes, such as 'Kakka' (grandmother) and 'Gizo-gizo' (spider). The rhythm and rhyme maintain the pace of the poem, which darts back and forth between heat and lizards and a Southsea bedsit, a West African market and thatch and clay homes and 'mums at school, / recycling days, the music scene, the times / of soaps'.
His wife contributes to the British economy as a nurse, but endures stangers' racist slurs and when she goes to church, meets Anglican:
tensely friendly smiles. Hello I'm Jack
or Joan and haven't noticed that you're black.
For her, Jesus and religion are a way of life. He remembers her enthusiasm telling him 'I'm born again', and how in Nigeria Jesus is present as a third party at marriage.
For the poet himself, Jesus is more elusive, the memory of his father telling him bedtime Jesus tales, or an imaginary friend through lonely spells at preparatory school. His faith is personal, solitary, where as hers is collective, celebratory.
Sarah Wardle, NWR Spring 2011
Review from the Warwick Review
What makes Haynes such an absorbing poet is not only his rich subject matter, not only his capacity to express love without sounding phoney; it is his love affair with the language itself..[.] .He catches to perfection the contemporary interrogative note. Haynes is instinctively intellectual, philosophical, probing and questioning, dwelling on particular phrases, never hesitating to make allusions, making no concessions or apologies, but using the verse form to carry him deeper into his speculations on the nature of love, which is the nature of identity too - hence the book's title. Indeed, You and Letter to Patience have helped to revive the Long Poem for our time, to remind us of its importance as the 'Polar Star' of poetry.
John Greening, Warwick Review
Review from Poetry Review
John Haynes's Letter to Patience (2006) was a book-length poem in terza rima reflecting on his residence in Nigeria and return to the UK in 1993. Its melding of idiomatic speech pattern with disciplined form is repeated here, through the overt focus of You is his Nigerian-born wife, addressed in rhyme royal. As in Abani's poetry (Feed The Sun), vivid descriptions of African scenes - "the bush, / a dark tomato of a sun, the spokes / of big slow bikes along the paths" - contrast with his wife's uneasy welcome in the UK.
The gulf between worlds is one of Haynes's subjects, conveyed through authentic details: "your toes splayed like bush -woman's for all / the Clarks you walk the supermarkets in". Like Kusar and Abani, it is identity, the nature of love, that is Haynes's real concern.
He critiques the atomised Western conception, which he traces back back to the troubadours who "found it a way of being alone". You suggests an alternative understanding of love as a community of selves across extended families, even across time: his wife talks to a dead friend "because now you're her after life [...] / it's I, and you, and you now only". The pom enacts such refreshing perspectives in a long, winding syntax, looping and absorbing almost anything , anybody, any place that springs to mind.
..You is another achievement from a writer reviving the fortunes of the long poem.
Martyn Crucefix, Poetry Review Spring 2011