Micro-reviews (4): Two Tongues

Two Tongues, Claudine Toutoungi (Carcanet), £10.99 – NB currently 10% discount on site

Another ‘brief sentence’ that got away from me – perhaps because I’m always very impressed by poets who’ve worked out – as Claudine Toutoungi has in just two collections – what their angle of approach to their subject matter is. Especially when it is, as here, playful and so linguistically and imagistically inventive without surrendering seriousness.

*

Claudine Toutoungi’s previous book, Smoothie, was one of the most imaginatively various and subtly engaging debuts of 2017. The punning title of her latest book, Two Tongues, takes matters to another level by exploring a perennial condition of inbetween-ness suggested by her own name. In the rueful, witty poem ‘Amendment’, through listing all the ways others mispronounce that name, she gains access to a soup of synonyms, a hotchpotch of homonyms and heteronyms, that seems to spill out across these delightedly and delightfully restless poems.

She proceeds to find linguistic interzones and perceptual anomalies everywhere from art galleries and railway platforms in movies, to the 5th Arrondissement, where a benthic snailfish is glimpsed in a bistro named after one of the Malatestas – whether the poet-condottiere or the anarchist we never quite learn.

The two tongues are always more than two – French and Arabic recur, but all the offshoots of identity that diglossia offers are explored here in a poetry of singularly energetic grace. She takes particular pleasure in the listing of many disparate things and in finding them not separate, just differently intimate, revelling in the strange measuring scale of her recurring ‘Acuity Index’ – and indeed in mushroom nomenclature.

As fascinated by what others want us to be (and why) as by what we want to be ourselves, the collection offers a pell mell progression through possible selves that never forgets the assumptions and impositions placed on those whose culture, language, and imagination is not singular. In one poem, where an alien abduction is hallucinated by an ‘endurance artist’, the visitors have ‘seventeen words for race’, and throughout, even when with those we love, we never feel far from another ‘hot coffee baptism’. Things recurrently appear as they are in the Pink Panther movies, where, as Toutoungi apprehensively notes, Herbert Lom’s thumb is never far from that cigar guillotine. 

These are poems full of zugzwangery, suffocating marmots, lost umlauts, invasive and possibly universal Hungarians, and the amazing donkey libraries of Colombia: in short, they evoke and embody what she calls ‘the full twistiness’, but which you might know of instead as ‘reality’.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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