Reading Notes: Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

86º feels like 96º ~ in the thick, summer soup of it, 3+ inches of rain yesterday, the whole world muggy, swamp-like

I had to read Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair over two separate days. This is a book packed with highly charged lyric poems taking on the colonization of Jamaica and the realities of something we like to call “post-colonial” times. Heavy material dispersed into poems made of imagery that unsettles and sound that haunts.

While I did not set out to read books in any order this summer, it turns out this is the third book in a row that I’ve picked up that reminds me of the importance of being woke. Sinclair traces, in broad strokes, the colonization of Jamaica, its place in the slave trade, its current cultural being (including the tensions associated with the tourist industry), and the more personal issues of being a Jamaican woman now living in the U.S. That’s a lot to take in, but all of it is necessary and urgent.

Cannibal begins with a crucial epigraph that tracks the origin of the word cannibal to its Spanish origin which comes from the word “caribal,” referring to the aboriginal people of the West Indies. We can thank Columbus for the idea that these people ate human flesh. Sinclair sums up: “By virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.”

At its heart, this book chronicles the very process of Othering and the results. Sinclair often alludes to Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in an attempt to unpack what it means to be labeled “savage.” The poems also revolve around womanhood & ideals of beauty, which are inextricably complicated by a history of racism and white, male rule.

In “Prayer Book for Vanishing,” Sinclair addresses the pressure to attempt skin whitening. Here’s an excerpt.

Approach the angels
to efface this blackness,
another tar-baby, self

I am scorching. In the night
find nothing but a dagger of teeth.
Pitch-black marrow, vile

pigment unwanted,
set fire to my undesirable.

The poem lists common practices such as drinking small amounts of bleach, scrubbing with Epsom salts, baking soda, and peroxide, and using copious amounts of face powder. When I read poems like this, and in fact, all of the poems in this book, I’m struck again by the idea of empathy. Why do I so easily slide into the perspective of a woman of color trying to vanish herself, so easily that I can’t help but see and feel the pain, the harm of racial imbalance the continues to exist today, and yet, so many others can’t see & feel? Was I taught empathy, or is it a part of my nature? (I pray it is the first and not the second, for we are hopeless if it is left to nature.)

Finally, every once in a while Sinclair touches on the fact that she (veiled as the speaker) is a poet writing about her family (especially her flawed, violent father). These poems touch me, in particular, as I’m working through some difficult family material as well. Here’s the opening from “Incorrigible”:

All night I wrestled with it–
the onerous verse, trying to salt the wound;
there are worse things one could fix a gloom upon, I suppose.

But I fight to tack it down,
the indefinite I, I, iamb; to tease this venom out–
its cerasee vine grown thick as my hair,

pulling at my limbs, the fur of my mouth.
Opening my hand in the fissure of my throat,
a gutted fish, I am raking rut out.


You can read a selection of the poems from Cannibal here, but I highly recommend reading the entire book.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn